The Ortolan, France’s Most Controversial Songbird

songbird ortolan bunting french delicacy

The tiny (edible) songbird, Ortolan Bunting

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, Continue reading

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Vegetarianism in France: Natural, or Non?

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Vegetarianism in France is on the rise. But is this a socially responsible, health-conscious attempt to preserve global resources and combat increasingly publicized poor animal treatment, or an economic decision influenced by diet marketing and economic strife?

Traditionally, French cuisine and its host of famous staple dishes (boeuf bourgignon, foie gras, and poulet rôti to name a few) is globally revered as the highest form of culinary art. It is also well understood to be a cuisine that consists of rich, fatty, buttery foods – with some form of animal protein as an indispensible staple. But things are changing in France. Vegetarianism is on the rise, and meat consumption is down – as much as 2% in 2013, a continuation of a downward trend experienced since at least 2011. Falling demand for meat (beef and veal specifically) in France is not due to the rise of vegetarianism, although Continue reading