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

Advertisements

Vegetarianism in France: Natural, or Non?

veg

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

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

The State of Fromage

Traditional French Cheese Board

Traditional French Cheese Board

French cheeses are going extinct.

In a literal sense, this dramatic statement holds some truth – raw-milk “traditional” cheese varieties, characterized by specific sets of bacteria, are dying out due to regulatory mechanisms, consumer disinterest, and a shifting agricultural model. French culinary authorities hold unpasteurized or raw milk-based cheese in high regard, even as a defining tenet of French national identity. But realistically, traditional unpasteurized French cheese may not survive in an increasingly standardized and industrialized global dairy industry.

In 1998, 18% of French cheese production was unpasteurized. In 2010, only 7% remained unpasteurized. So what happened in those sixteen years? Apparently, a lot: Continue reading

Restaurant Wars: France vs. the World

Croque Madame, Le Nemrod, Paris - French Dining

Croque Madame – Le Nemrod, Paris

France is in the midst of a modern-day culinary revolution.

From 1960 to 2008, 160,000 French cafés went out of business. McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants are growing in popularity, while traditional restaurants are falling amidst claims of poor quality and staggering prices. So what’s happening to the French restaurant as we knew it, and what does its future look like?

The restaurant as a modern institution can be traced back to post-revolutionary France. Cooks and guildsmen formerly employed by the French monarchy found themselves in need of a new occupation. They began cultivating a dining experience that served the civilian population with the same finery and sophistication previously exclusive to aristocrats, an appropriate response to the revolutionary creed of the time. Restaurant dining became a statement of democratic freedom from an unjust monarchy, a demonstration of equality and fallen feudal barriers. From these deeply political beginnings, it is not surprising that the restaurant, in France and around the world, has persevered as an institution that seeks to convey a certain image – one of prestige, luxury, and social collaboration. However, a new kind of restaurant has developed in the modern world: “fast food” provides us with consistent, cheap food served quickly and oftentimes taken to go.

This shift in the nature of restaurants has affected French dining culture deeply. Once considered the gold standard of culinary experiences, French restaurants are now Continue reading