The plight of the Ortolan


My ginormous Book of Birds tells us that the Ortolan (Emberiza hortulana) is a bird in the bunting family Emberizidae, a passerine family. The bird’s common name is French, from the Latin hortulanus, the gardener bird, (from hortus, a garden).

It’s a cutey. What a nice little beak it has.

Apparently it’s also very, very tasty – in a weird French cuisine sort of way…

Ortolans used to be netted in great numbers, kept alive in an artificially lighted, or darkened room to disrupt their feeding schedule, and fed with heaps of oats and millet – sometimes the odd fig. In a very short time they became enormously huge – a bit like my big Book of Birds.

They are then drowned in Brandy, roasted and you pop them in your mouth – whole.

Chowdown and swallow the lot.

In 1976 Craig Claiborne, the New York Times food critic, made a winning $300 bid in an auction for a dinner for two, courtesy of American Express, at any restaurant in the world that takes Amex. Claiborne selected Chez Denis in Paris for a $4000 meal that included a course of ortolans. It led to a front-page story, and some controversy.

It’s illegal to catch and kill the Ortolan – but it’s not illegal to eat one. Oh, only the French.