Of all the countries to pick in the Eating Eurovision competition, France is probably the most difficult. At first glance it's easy. But the more we thought about it the more cliched and expected our ideas were. I work for a French company and asked a French colleauge about French food. We circled around subjects such as truffles, sauscisse Lyonnaise and qunelles which were all fascinating. They all revolved around the cooking of Lyon and Dijon. We started talking about the fact that French people are so bonkers about food that they often take things too far. And that's when I remembered Ortolan.
The Ortolan is a small songbird that is nearing extinction thanks to being so tasty. French President, Mitterand ate two as his final meal before he died which you can read about on the Telegraph. It is thoroughly protected with poachers, chefs and greedy people all in line for a hefty fine or a long stretch in the clink if they fall prey to this "barbaric pleasure". The process of catching, preparing and eating Ortolan is very disturbing. First the songbird is caught using a net. Then the birds are placed in a dark box and force fed millet until they have quadruppled in size. Because they feed in the dark, they can't help themselves from gorging. Then they are drowned in a barrel of armagnac, plucked, trimmed a bit and then roasted in a ramekin for 8 minutes. If things weren't distrubing enough already, look away now.
The "ritual" of eating Ortolan is well documented. It involves covering your head in a towel (often emboidered especially) and eating the bird whole, sometimes inside a baked potato. As you bit through the bird the small bones lacerate your gums causing your blood to mix with the flesh of the bird. Apparently the flesh is moist and fatty whilst the innards are very gamey. The towel serves 4 purposes. From a practical point of view it hides the mess from everyone. From a "gourmet" point of view it keeps all the aromas close and provides a more sensual experience. From a pious approach it hides one's greed from God. And lastly, it allows for secrecy and protects such greedy gastronomes from being identified.
If you want to see what it's like, watch Clarkson on YouTube. Apparently, this programme received record complaints to the BBC. So don't watch it if you think you'll find it upsetting.
So we decided to recreate the Ortolan experience in London, to see what it feels like, without doing anything wrong. Sadly there are no Ortolan in London. But what we do have are Garden Warblers, who are very closely related.
Image from Mike Baird on Flickr.
We caught one in Regents Park, plucked it and then mascerated it in cognac before roasting it and serving it up in a baked potato. With a distinct absence of towels to cover me up, I used a Waitrose carrier bag instead.
Here's a step by step photographic re-enactment.
The overall experience was of deep shame and guilt, coupled with sore gums and a fear that I was going to suffocate.
Eating Ortolan is clearly very wrong indeed. But it does go a long way to capturing the essence of French food. Like the Chinese, if something has 2 wings and isn't a plane, it's going to get eaten. But will probably be more showy and have a few rituals thrown in as well.