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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Food Trucks in France: Faster Food?

Le Camion Qui Fume Burger Fast Food

Burger from Le Camion Qui Fume. Photo by Kerry L, Flickr.

Food trucks are by no means new to France. But after three years of consistently rising popularity, it’s near-conclusive that this American culinary concept is here to stay.

In 2011, Kristin Frederick brought the first food truck to Paris, “Le Camion Qui Fume.” A California native and graduate of French culinary school, Frederick embodied the original creed of American food trucks while paying homage to her classical training; Le Camion Qui Fume produced high quality, professionally prepared food at low costs with a high convenience factor. The stereotypical American fast food item, the hamburger, was served to French culinary standards using quality local ingredients and impeccable cooking techniques, with all the attractive qualities of American fast food (speed, mobility, and affordability.) Since the astounding success of Le Camion Qui Fume (lauded by influential celebrity food critics/chefs such as Anthony Bourdain and David Lebovitz) more than 100 food trucks serving foods from various cultures and culinary disciplines have hit the streets of France, and a street food festival featuring food trucks premiered in Paris just last weekend. The question that rises to the surface in light of this new culinary trend is similar to the concerns that surround fast food in France. What does the food truck mean for French culture, and how will it alter the traditional French dining experience?  Continue reading