At first glance, the ortolan seems like a common songbird or even a finch. But to members of the French culinary elite, this tiny creature is a delicacy, even a gastronomic “rite of passage.”
Historically, the ortolan is captured and fattened through force-feeding, which sometimes (allegedly) included enclosing the animal in a dark box or even gouging its eyes out to engage instincts that cause it to overeat. The bird is then roasted and eaten whole, traditionally with a napkin over one’s head – either to seal in aromas, conceal the nasty process of spitting out bones, or hide from the “shame of God” at eating a songbird. The whole process may seem odd and even ridiculous to some, but in French gourmand circles the ortolan is considered a high culinary form. François Mitterand reportedly dined on ortolan for his last meal in 1996, and Anthony Bourdain describes it as a “life-altering” meal in his 2010 memoir “Medium Raw.” Recipes for ortolan appear in the 1961 edition of French cookbook Larousse Gastronomique, and the restaurant Chez Denis featured the delicacy on their $4000 menu in 1975. Clearly the ortolan is a traditional French symbol of culinary prestige, associated with wealth, status, and refinement. So what makes this tiny songbird so special? Like much else in France, the tradition and mythology behind it lends a certain element of nostalgia and prestige. But there’s more to the story – the rarity of such a specialty dish sets the price high, which drives demand in luxury consumers, which in turn affects the supply. Ultimately the very factor that rendered the ortolan so desirable in the first place has lead to its elimination from the French culinary tradition entirely.
In the 1970s and 1980s, rising demand and popularity of the prestigious dish drove the ortolan population to the brink of extinction. Dwindling ortolan numbers in tandem with arguments about the cruelty of its capture and killing methods lead to legal action. The French government banned ortolan hunting in 1999, but did not strictly enforce the law until 2007. Today hunting, killing, and cooking ortolans is strictly prohibited and punishable by law.
Several prominent French chefs (including Alain Ducasse) are protesting the ban, lobbying the government to allow selective and limited preparation of the delicacy. Since the ortolan is still revered as one of the most prestigious culinary experiences in France, this small movement has a dual purpose – the preservation of a historic French gastronomic tradition, and (perhaps most importantly) the exploitation of such tradition for huge profit. As one of the most basic principles of economics tells us, scarcity breeds value. The ortolan may be a French tradition, but it ultimately could have become so for the same reason it ended – rarity.
Rising populations across the globe combined with the interconnectedness born of globalization drove ortolan demand up. Suddenly it was not just a regional specialty, but something that American food critics bid for in auction. When François Mitterand ate it for his last meal, the ortolan was publicized across the world. These are all factors that inevitably led to overhunting and near extinction of the animal. Now the French are stuck in a stalemate – enjoy its culinary decadence and risk losing the bird forever, or let it persist and lose its status as a national delicacy? Which would hurt French culinary culture more?