Ortolan! The Recipe!
A two-ounce songbird. A lemon-sized tumor. An imperial appetite for death, flesh, and the immortal gesture. It was time for dinner.
Preparing and cooking ortolan is very simple. The following is an brief excerpt made by a kind reader from a review of a book called In The Devil's Garden - A Sinful History Of Forbidden Food, the full review is worth reading and I'll probably buy the book for myself.
The birds must be taken alive; once captured they are either blinded or kept in a lightless box for a month to gorge on millet, grapes, and figs, a technique apparently taken from the decadent cooks of Imperial Rome who called the birds beccafico, or "fig-pecker". When they've reached four times their normal size, they're drowned in a snifter of Armagnac.
Cooking l'ortolan is simplicity itself. Simply pop them in a high oven for six to eight minutes and serve. The secret is entirely in the eating. First you cover your head with a traditional embroidered cloth. Then place the entire four-ounce bird into your mouth. Only its head should dangle out from between your lips. Bite off the head and discard. L'ortolan should be served immediately; it is meant to be so hot that you must rest it on your tongue while inhaling rapidly through your mouth. This cools the bird, but its real purpose is to force you to allow its ambrosial fat to cascade freely down your throat.
When cool, begin to chew. It should take about 15 minutes to work your way through the breast and wings, the delicately crackling bones, and on to the inner organs. Devotees claim they can taste the bird's entire life as they chew in the darkness: the wheat of Morocco, the salt air of the Mediterranean, the lavender of Provence. The pea-sized lungs and heart, saturated with Armagnac from its drowning, are said to burst in a liqueur-scented flower on the diner's tongue. Enjoy with a good Bordeaux.
Francois Mitterrand's last meal has become a legend. The Ortolan Bunting, a bird about the size of your thumb, was on his menu. The bird is prepared by drowning it alive in Armagnac, cooked and then served whole, eaten bones and all. Now, aside from being considered more than slightly cruel, even by the standards of French cuisine, serving Ortolan is also highly illegal, because the bird is endangered.
Writer Michael Paterniti has written about and, in fact, eaten a sample of Francois Mitterrand's last meal. He joins us now. Thanks for being with us.
Mr. MICHAEL PATERNITI (Writer): Thank you for having me.
SIMON: It is illegal, but there are chefs who will apparently do it.
Mr. PATERNITI: Yeah, yeah. And in my case, we went to Bordeaux, some years ago now, and the chef that did serve this meal to us felt it was his French duty to serve Ortolan, Ortolan symbolizing the French soul and thought by many in the Southwest region of France to be the highest of all cuisine.
SIMON: After the bird is drowned, is it just plucked and roasted, or what?
Mr. PATERNITI: It's plucked. It's put into a little dish, a cassoulet, and it's salted and peppered, and it's put in the oven, and then comes straight from the oven to the table, and then lays before you in the cassoulet and you lift it with your fingers. And some people will eat the head, and in my case I did not eat the head, but bit the head off and left it on the plate.
SIMON: Now, people eat this blindfolded or under a sack?
Mr. PATERNITI: Yeah. People typically will eat it under a white napkin. And part of it is to create a little capsule for yourself so that all of the aromas and tastes are captured in the space before you. But also people traditionally ate beneath the cloth napkin because they didn't want to have God see them eating these little songbirds.