Escargot: Save the Snails?

Traditional French preparation of escargot. Paris, France.

Traditional French preparation of escargot. Paris, France.

Again, I’ll ask: what is the absolute most French food you can think of?

If it’s not frog’s legs, then it’s got to be escargot. Another dish that confuses and even disturbs many Americans, snails are considered a traditional component of gastronomic history in France. But it’s not just the French – archaeological evidence suggests that snails have been on the menu in Mediterranean regions since prehistoric times. Other cultures eat snails as well – Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, and some Asian countries all include snails as a common (or at least socially acceptable) menu item. For whatever reason, though, snails have been Continue reading

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Frogs’s Legs, a French Identity Crisis

Traditional French preparation of frogs' legs, served at Allard in Paris

Traditional French preparation of frogs’ legs, served at Allard in Paris

What is the absolute most French food you can think of?

…Chances are, frogs’ legs come to mind. In a sense, you would be right – of 160 million frogs reportedly consumed in Europe each year, exactly half of those are eaten in France. The French are undoubtedly the biggest fan of the tiny amphibian…so much so that they have driven their own frog populations to near extinction, and were forced to place a ban on frog hunting in 1980. In order to maintain high levels of frog leg consumption, France now must import its amphibians from Asian countries with thriving frog populations, namely Indonesia, the #1 exporter of frogs’ legs globally. So it seems that suddenly French frog legs’ are no longer French, Continue reading

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