17 November 2009

Feast of Ortolans

John Zmirak discusses the unfortunate legacy left by late French president Jacques Mitterand, and includes the infamous details of his last meal, taken seven days before he died of prostate cancer. It involved feasting on the now-outlawed ortolans, a little songbird that, once fattened to four times its size, is drowned in Armagnac, roasted, and eaten whole. Because the actual mastication can be rather messy, the whole ritual is done beneath a white cloth napkin, like so:

Yes, it looks just as silly as it sounds.

Anyone who has read this blog for any amount of time knows that I adore all things French and gourmet--in moderation. Considered the height of the culinary experience by some, feasting on ortolans strikes me as less an act of the civilized than of barbarians. After all, when one elevates the passions beyond all moderation (in this case, the appetite), one does not progress; rather, one regresses to barbarism. Consider the ritual itself.

After the songbird is captured, it is kept in the dark for a month or so to be artificially fattened, as the dark causes it to gorge itself on oats and millet. Once it has quadrupled in size, one can suffocate the bird by pinching the beak, or by drowning the poor creature in Armagnac so that its pea-sized lungs are drenched in the stuff. It is then plucked and roasted until the fat sizzles. When it is served, one covers one's head with a napkin. This serves a fourfold purpose: to hide the inevitable mess of eating the bird whole (for the entire bird must be stuffed into the mouth to get the full flavor), to capture the aromas, to conceal the gourmand's identity, and to "hide one's greed from God," some say.

As one bites into the bird, the delicate bones lacerate the gums so that one's blood mixes with the fowl's flesh. The fat of the bird balances the gaminess of the innards, while the liqeuer bursts onto the tongue when one bites into the lungs. Those who have tasted it say the experience is sensual and exquisite, and the texture is that of hazelnuts. No doubt, the flavor is fine--but this is one of those meals Christine couldn't eat, frankly, with any great delight.

You can watch Jeremy Clarkson partaking here.

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