Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Mmmm... Ortolans... (Mmmm!?)

In the previous post, I made a rather rash comment to the effect that I'd be willing to eat just about anything, if I thought it might taste good. Let me qualify that, please: I do firmly draw the line at chowing down on endangered species, in case you were wondering, or getting ready to picket me, or something.

I mention this because while I was rifling through some old cookbooks full of (mostly) icky food while writing that last post, I came across a real gem. This recipe comes from an old, fussy 1972 cookbook of mine, "Great Classic Recipes of Europe", which combines two of this blog's continuing fixations: Weird food, and cute wildlife. I am referring, of course, to "Ballotine de Faisan Villeneuvoise Flanquee d'Ortolans" (the book omitted any vowel accent marks in the name -- it's not my fault!) , which the book translates as "Pheasant Presented in Sausage Form, Flanked with Game Birds", proving again that everything sounds tastier in French. But the English translation is inaccurate, in that not just any old "game birds" will suffice. No, this recipe calls for ortolans, small birds which are both a legendary French delicacy, and a highly endangered species. A footnote in the recipe explains that ortolans are "Tiny birds (buntings) much prized as delicacies in Europe. Gourmet stores sometimes carry the small birds canned, or halves of very small Cornish game hens could be used as a substitute". So I think the authors were sort of aware the birds were scarce even in 1972, but failed to grasp the environmental implications of that fact. I'm not going to reproduce the recipe in full here, because it's exceedingly complex, and 95% of it concerns the tedious preparation of the pheasant ballotine, which doesn't really concern us right now. Among the 36(!) ingredients, we require 6 ortolans, and 6 pastry shells. The relevant instructions are simply: "Braise ortolans 5 minutes in fat. Salt and arrange them in individual flaky pastry tart shells".

That cookbook isn't the only book I've got that mentions ortolans. They also appear in a fascinating 1834 natural history volume titled System of Natural History (although later editions are known as The Naturalist's Library, and the book's more commonly known by that name), compiled by one Augustus Addison Gould. The University of Michigan has a searchable online version of the book here, with images of the original text's pages. Here's what the book has to say about ortolans:

Is somewhat less than the yellow-hammer. The plumage on the upper parts is brownish chestnut, mixed with black; the under parts are pale rufous. These birds are common in France and Italy, but are not found in England. They are caught in numbers to fatten for the table. This is done by including them in a dark room, and feeding them with oats and millet. By this process they become so fat that they would die from that cause alone, were they not killed for sale. In this state they will sometimes weigh three ounces, and are accounted the most luxurious repast of the epicure, being, as it were, one lump of exquisite fat.

2 Emberiza hortulana, LIN.

A few more E. hortulana items:

  • In case you missed it in the Wikipedia article I linked to above, ortolans were served in the traditional style as part of Francois Mitterand's last meal.
  • Photos of ortolans in the wild, taken by a birder in the UK.
  • A page (in French) with instructions on how to capture ortolans in the wild and fatten them up for the table.
  • An allegedly Italian recipe in Japanese for "risotto dell ortolan". If the photo is correct, I don't see an actual bird in the dish, but maybe it's under the rice or something.
  • A project on ortolan conservation in Norway.
  • And a paper by Finnish researchers noting a crash in the ortolan population [PDF] in southern Finland, due to agricultural development and the resulting loss of habitat. You'd think you'd see the habitat loss argument being advanced as an excuse by militant ortolan devotees, but they just don't even bother trying to explain themselves.
  • Recipe-For.com has several recipes for ortolans, beginning with Broiled Ortolans in Papers. Click the "Fried Ortolans" link to go on to the next one, a tasty sounding concoction with bacon and a white wine sauce. And so on.

Like I said, I'm not actually in favor of eating these poor little creatures, even if I'm providing recipes. They're strictly for you to marvel at, ok? Eating ortolans is one of those things people indulge in when they have far too much money and not a clue about how to enjoy life. Sort of like caviar, Havana cigars, and luxury SUVs. Blech. But the ortolan phenomenon is still fascinating to me. It's a mystery how, of all the species of tiny birds out there, this one gets singled out as an ultra-high-end delicacy. And it's amazing how, once something like this gets going, it feeds on itself, and continues unchanged for centuries. It doesn't translate into afficionados switching to other tiny helpless songbirds when the ortolan becomes scarce. Passing laws against the practice has no effect, since ortolanophagy is typically restricted to the rich and powerful, people who can and regularly do ignore the law with impunity (which is why the bird's probably doomed in the long term). No doubt that's the real thrill for a lot of ortolan-munchers. And even if the birds weren't being captured from the wild, and they weren't endangered, the traditional force-feeding process would still be unbearably cruel. And on top of everything else, the Mitterand link (above) notes that many first time ortolan diners are overcome with nausea, which suggests people don't eat the birds for the taste. It's just one fresh horror after another here. This is true decadence in the Roman style, and not in a good way. No, this is 5-minutes-before-the-fall-of-the-Empire, profoundly pessimistic, joyless decadence. The nihilist's last meal, sucking the last bitter juice out of the world, leaving nothing behind but an empty husk, and not caring a whit about it. A cullinary "Après moi, le déluge".

Compared to that, grinding up rhino horns as an aphrodisiac seems almost civilized. Almost.

Linkage: "Ortolan Buntings, Qatar" at 10,000 Birds


1 comment :

Anonymous said...

eating ortolans is illegal anyway...