The Truffle Tragedy

French Périgord truffles prepared on top of toasted bread slices

Traditional gastronomic presentation of French Périgord truffles

Another French product is in jeopardy – and this time, Americanization is not to blame. French truffles are in serious danger of being out-competed by cheap Chinese versions in an apparent “black market” truffle trade.

French truffles are among the most expensive foods in the world by weight. Going for around €500 per kilogram, black French truffles from the Périgord region in the Southwest, are considered one of the most luxurious symbols of high French cuisine and gastronomic heritage. Along with geographically benevolent vineyard soil, French truffles are considered one of France’s most prized natural culinary possessions. As such, they command an extremely high price. The financial benefits are attractive not only to French truffle growers, but to imitators, specifically those Continue reading

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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