Ortolan: the endangered songbird with the barbaric eating ritual

I have been thinking about reporting on this topic ever since I heard about it for the first time several weeks ago in Steve Barnes’ food writing class.

The Ortolan is a small songbird that you eat whole – bones and all – while a large dinner napkin is placed over your head like a shroud.

But it gets better. Or worse, depending on your point of view.

The Ortolan as a food appears on Cracked.com’s 6 Most Sadistic Dishes From Around the World, MSN.com’s 10 Most Controversial Foods Around the World, and Today.com’s 7 Foods for the Fearless Eater.

Let’s back up.

The Ortolan is a small songbird in the bunting family. It is often described as about the size of your thumb.

Although it can be found in many places, Ortolans have become endangered in the area where it is known best, and is most hunted: southwest France. A law banned the hunting of this animal in the late 1990s, with steep penalties for convictions. This was just a few short years after the former French president François Mitterrand consumed the bird as a much public “last meal,” mere days prior to his death.

I was introduced to this subject by being shown an excellent example of awesome food writing. CookingWithLittleBuddy.com showcases Anthony Bourdain’s recollection of this “orgasmic meal.”

After reading about the experience, I recall thinking, “I could totally try that!”

The description of the bones cutting into the inside of your mouth was brutal. Okay, and biting off the head has got to be less than pleasant. But I’m of the try-anything-once kind philosophy, particularly when it comes to food. And, anything roasted in its own fat in addition to brandy can’t be terrible.

However, upon reading further into the subject, I have quite changed my mind, as the following information was brought into light:

  • As mentioned before, the bird is endangered.
  • The bird is caught by being blinded.
  • Then, it’s kept in a dark cage and fattened up.
  • Finally, the bird is drowned before being eaten.

I am far from a vegetarian, but I do celebrate and encourage the practice of humane treatment of animals before consumption. This sounds like the exact opposite of that.

The origin of the bizarre Ortolan eating ritual can be traced back to Roman times. Fact-Index.com quotes The Wine Spectator, who sums up the custom quite nicely: “For centuries, a rite of passage for French gourmets has been the eating of the Ortolan. These tiny birds—captured alive, force-fed, then drowned in Armagnac—were roasted whole and eaten that way, bones and all, while the diner draped his head with a linen napkin to preserve the precious aromas and, some believe, to hide from God.”

The most recent article I could find on the topic of Ortolan consumption was on TheGuardian.com from just about three months ago. A German organization called the Committee Against Bird Slaughter has officially accused French authorities of “turning a blind eye” to massive killings of the endangered animal.

Evidently, this centuries-long tradition is still a highly controversial and quite serious issue today.