A rare songbird called the Ortolan is an illegal delicacy in France. Every year 300,000 Ortolans fly from the North, Baltic states, Finland and Scandinavia to warmer climes in the South. On the way they have to cross France. In France around 30,000 ortolans are hunted during their emigration. The Ortolan features on International Union for Conservation of Nature’s endangered list.
The songbirds are captured as they emigrate to the south. The birds are then marinated in brandy, cooked and served whole. The diner traditionally wears a cloth as a mask, this is because seeing someone eat a whole songbird, guts, bones and all, can be a disturbing site!
Reserve of the super-rich
The ortolan dish is typically reserved for the super rich and powerful. Former President François Mitterrand and President Chirac were both big fans.
In the American TV series ‘Billions in an episode entitled “The Third Ortolan,” billionaire hedge-fund manager Bobby Axelrod, played by Damian Lewis eats an ortolan:
If hunting of the ortolan continues, it will lead to the ortolan’s disappearance.Frederic Jiguet, a conservation researcher for France’s national museum of natural history
Ortolan Cuisine Revival
In 2014 French Michelin starred chefs Alain Ducasse, Jean Coussau and Alain Dutournier started a campaign to bring back the ortolan to French dinner tables since it was banned in 1999. (The hunting of ortolans was officially banned in the European Union in 1979 and France waited two decades before banning it in 1999.)
The chefs say it is the ‘gourmet equivalent to the holy grail’ and celebrated chef Michel Guerard said “to eat the flesh, the fat and its little bones hot, all together, is like being taken to another dimension.”
The gourmet equivalent to the holy grail
Eating of the ortolan dates back to Roman times, but the ortolan is still captured and eaten today, for example as part of family traditions in Les Landes, where it is seen as a special treat like a dessert at the end of a meal.
What is an ortolan?
Full name: ortolan bunting (Emberiza hortulana)
Length: 16–17 cm (6.3–6.7 in) in length
Wing-span: 23–29 cm (9.1–11.4 in).
Habitat: European countries and western Asia.
In 2018 the ortolan was seen in Kenjar Coastal Karnataka, India. It was the first photographic record of an Ortolan bunting in India.
Value on the black market: €150 ($189)