Saturday 16 May 2009

Eating Eurovision, France - Illicit Ortolan in London

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.

Baked potato prep

Cognac dousing

Ortolan drowning

Scoffing light

Remainder light

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.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant! I particularly love the use of a Waitrose carrier bag in place of a tea-towel!

Su-Lin said...

Like the Chinese, if something has 2 wings and isn't a plane, it's going to get eaten.:D So true.

Probably the most crazy thing I'll read all week...well done!

foodrambler said...


Have you seen the film Gigi?

There's a great ortolan scene in that between Gigi & her great aunt Alicia, who is trying to made her into a lady. It's not nearly as exciting as the tea-towel/plastic bag over the head method though:

- What are we having for lunch?
- Ortolans.
- Oh, dear! Are they difficult?
- Slowly, Gigi. Slowly. The racing season is over. Good day, Aunt Alicia. Now let's go into luncheon.
- Yes, Aunt Alicia.
- Today you will learn to eat ortolans.
- What are ortolans, Aunt?
- Exquisite little birds. Most people attack them like cannibals. You must learn to eat them properly. Bad table manners have broken up more households than infidelity. Ortolans should be cut in two with a quick stroke of the knife. There must be no grating of the blade on the plate. Now bite up each piece. The bones don't matter. Go on eating while you answer my questions. But don't talk with your mouth full.
- Mmmmm?!
- Well, you can do it. If I can do it, you can.

Anonymous said...

I'd never heard of Ortolan until reading this! You've got to wonder who worked out that they tasted best bones 'n' all in a jacket potato?

Wine Splodge said...

Superb stuff, and my, don't your London warblers reach some size!
ginger@dinnerdiary I agree, Aldi bags just wouldn't have cut it.

Food Urchin said...

Finally! Maybe this article will get the shift the powers that be at Waitrose and encourage them to get ortolan back on the shelves!

Helen said...

Ha ha, excellent post Jonathan. I'm sure it took you ages to catch one running around Regent's Park with your net...

meemalee said...

Oh. my. god.

Best food post EVER!

Um, is it legal to catch and eat a garden warbler???

Kavey said...

Definitely the weirdest of the Eat Eurovision entries I've read so far, and who'd have expected it from France?!


goodshoeday said...

Excellent. Very very clever. Suspiciously large thigh bones though.

Browners said...

@dinnerdiaries - For some reason the Waitrose carier bag just seemed right. Tesco or Sainsbury wouldn't have fitted the bill at all.

@Su-Lin - glad you liked it! It was certainly a bit crazier than I had planned when we drew France out of the hat. Things seemed to spiral out of control pretty fast!

@Foodrambler - I wish I had seen that film before writing this. Great stuff.

@canevlr - I've got no idea who first thought eating ortolan in this way was. But what's certain is that they had a pretty twisted brain.

@Winesplodge - it's amazing how big these Garden Warblers get these days! Maybe a Fortnum's bag would have been even better.

@Food Urchin - I imagine hell is going to freeze over before Waitrose stocks Ortolan! Can you imagine!

@Helen - you should have seen me running around Regents Park with my bird catching net! Quite a sight.

@memalee - that's very kind of you and thoroughly undeserved. But I guess it was slightly out of left field.

@Kavey - never underestimate just how weird the French can be.

@goodshoeday - these Garden Warblers are pretty heavy boned. Can you imagine what it was like to eat them!

Le laquet said...

Good lord! *speechless - a previously unknown state*

Helen Yuet Ling Pang said...

OMG, brilliant post! Thanks for educating me and for recreating it...And I love the use of a Waitrose bag. Shame France didn't do as well as you did!

Ollie said...

Amazing, Browners. How did you catch it?

Hollow Legs said...

Excellent! This made me chuckle a lot.

Anonymous said...

Crikey... That's intense!
Fergus Henderson tried something similar in that 'could you eat and elephant'series. They put songbirds in a stew I think...

Browners said...

@LeLaquet - Haha. Glad it has had an effect.

@Helen YP - It's a shame the French let us down so badly. But hardly surprising! Glad you liked the carrier bag. We thought it was a suitably bizarre touch!

@Olli - luckily Warblers are very tame and it simply jumped into my net. Quite lucky really.

@Lizzie - glad we made you chuckle. It was quite a laugh doing it.

@Saladclub - songbirds in a stew sounds awesome. Will see if I can dig it out

Anonymous said...

Just stupid.

Mr Goodmorning said...

Brilliant. I did the same thing, but over here in New England, I had to settle for a Baltimore Oriole and a Stop & Shop bag. I ended up in the hospital after my large intestines were perforated by the oriole bones.

Paunchos said...

@Mr Goodmorning - Glad to fine a kindred spirit. Hope you recovered from the intestinal problems.


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