Ortolans: A 19th Century Delicacy—or Excess

 


There was a story last week in The New York Times about some French chefs who want to return ortolans to the traditional menu. Ortolans are small songbirds, and they have been banned from restaurant menus since 1999. The ban may have been a conservation measure to keep the tiny birds from being hunted out of existence, or it may have been a reaction to the way the birds is prepared and eaten.

Ortolans have always struck me as one of those 19th century gourmand excesses, like foie gras and truffles with everything, fashionable because they are rare and expensive. After all, sparrows are also small birds. Are they too common to appeal to jaded appetites? Ortolans, I think, belong on multi-course Edwardian menus, the kind that sent people off to take the waters at Baden-Baden or Vichy to recuperate from over-indulgence.

There are those who insist that the tiny birds are absolutely delicious, but I find the whole process off-putting. Those of you who are squeamish might prefer to stop reading at this point.

For those who are not so delicate, here are the directions for preparing and cooking ortolans from The Illustrated London Cookery Book by Frederick Bishop, published in 1852:

“Ortolans are solitary birds: they fly in pairs, rarely three together, and never in flocks. They are taken in traps, from March or April to September, when they are often poor and thin; but, if fed with plenty of millet-seed and other grain, they become sheer lumps of fat, and delicious morsels. They are fattened thus in large establishments in the south of Europe; and Mr. Gould states this to be effected in Italy and the south of France in a dark room.

“The Ortolan is considered sufficiently fat when it is a handful; and is judged by feeling it, and not by appearance. They should not be killed with violence, like other birds; this might crush and bruise the delicate flesh, and spoil the coup d'oeil—to avoid which, the best mode is to plunge the head of the Ortolan into a glass of brandy.

“Having picked the bird of its feathers, singe it with the flame of paper or spirit of wine; cut off the beak, and ends of the feet; do not draw it; put it into a paper case soaked in olive oil, and broil it over a slow fire. It will not require such a fire as would do a steak; slack cinders, like those for a pigeon à la cravaudine, being sufficient; in a few minutes the Ortolan will swim in its own fat and will be cooked. Some gourmands wrap each bird in a vine-leaf. Ortolans are packed in tin boxes for exportation. They may be bought at Morel's, in Piccadilly, for half-a-crown apiece. Mr. Fisher, of Duke Street, St. James's, imports Ortolans in considerable numbers.

So you force-feed the bird until it's nice and plump, drown it in a glass of brandy, pluck it, clip off the beak and feet, and broil it. Then you eat it. You pop it into your mouth, bones and innards and all, and crunch away. Some say you should bite off the head first. Others say the whole thing can fit in one or two mouthfuls. It became a tradition to cover your head with a large napkin while consuming the birds. Some say this is to preserve the delicate aroma. The priest who began the custom said it was to hide his self-indulgence from God.

Half a crown, incidentally, means two shillings and sixpence, or thirty pence. That's rather pricey. Mrs. Beeton's Victorian era cookbook is full of recipes that cost three or four pence per serving. For example, she says that her Irish Stew, enough for six people, should cost three shillings sixpence. That's eleven pence per serving for the entire meal.

I do not think ortolans will ever appear on a menu in one of my books. If they ever do, you may assume that those crunching away on the tiny bones are the villains of the piece.

The picture of the ortolans is by Wilhelm von Wright, via Wikimedia Commons

In food, recipe

Comments

"The priest who began the

"The priest who began the custom said it was to hide his self-indulgence from God." This part got a chuckle out of me.

It's so cruel how they prepare the meal!

It's kind of hard for me to

It's kind of hard for me to understand the appeal.

Even though I am a strict

Even though I am a strict non-vegetarian, I don’t feel so good after reading this. These are such tiny birds and why would people want to eat such lovely small birds. Why do these chefs ferrari oil change think them as some delicacy that can give them so much popularity?

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