So imagine there's a new horror movie
out, conceivably a low-budget Hannibal Lecter
sequel, whose plot pretty much runs as follows:
Hannibal kidnaps some person hiking in the forest. Let's say a plucky redhead so you empathize with her. He drugs her and hauls her back to his basement where he holds her down and blinds her. He then keeps her locked in a small iron-walled room for a few months, feeding her fatty foods and preventing her exercise, until she has quadrupled in size. In a horrific scene, she blindly claws the walls for a way out as he fills the room with Armagnac (a type of brandy). Her efforts are in vain and she drowns in the stuff, her lungs and stomach filling with the amber liquor. Then, with the press of a button, Hannibal drains the remaining brandy, and with the press of another he turns the small room into a searing oven, which he lets run for around 20 minutes. Finally, he turns off the oven and, licking his lips, rushes in to devour her. He foregoes utensils and places her charred, plump, juicy hand right in his mouth as his eyes roll back in his head with delight. His glistening teeth bite down. We desperately hope for a protagonist—a scrappy Jodie-Foster-esque somebody—to come in and save the day, but no such protagonist comes. Hannibal spends the remaining 30 minutes devouring the fattened, brandy-soaked and seared corpse. Credits roll.
One would hope that there would be fury. Riots in the streets. Celluloid burning. But you can relax and put away the lighter fluid, because while this does happen in real life, our victim isn't human. It's a beautiful little songbird called the Ortolan. And instead of Hannibal Lecter, it's some French gourmet.
The bird is in the bunting family, and is common in Europe and West Asia. It builds nests on the ground in undergrowth or along banks. It migrates to Africa in the winter. It is between 15 cm (6 inches) long and about 4 ounces. It has an olive green breast and head, a yellow throat, and a ruddy brown with black streaks on its back. The female looks paler with small dark streaks on her chest.
The recipe for the bird-as-delicacy is only slightly different than what I've described above. They are captured in the wild. They are blinded or kept in lightless boxes as they are fed millet, grapes, and figs for three days to a week to fatten them. They are drowned in a snifter of Armagnac. They're significantly smaller than humans, and so only need to be cooked for eight minutes. In a tradition begun by a priest friend of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the gourmet covers his face with a traditional, embroidered white cloth napkin to hide his shameful gluttony from God (and only the French could use fashion to justify other crimes). Modern gourmets say the napkin is not for shame, but that it allows you to focus on the experience and surround your head with the lovely aroma as you eat.
The gourmet picks the bird up from the pan in which it is served by the beak and places it, whole, into his mouth. If he is a bit squeamish about eating the head, he will set it in his mouth up to the neck. The purist takes the whole thing with just the little beak poking out. It is still searing hot from the oven, and he must breathe rapidly with his mouth open to cool the bird. Meanwhile its "ambrosial fat" is coursing down the gourmet's throat. Once the bird is cool enough, the gourmet begins to chew. He goes slowly, enjoying the brittle crunch of the bones, the chewy fat, the tiny muscles, and the little pockets of brandy released when he pops open their pea-sized lungs and stomach. It is said that as one eats the bird, one tastes its entire life, "from the wheat of Morocco, the salt air of the Mediterranean, the lavender of Provence." One also is said to taste "the soul of France." Whatever that means.
Though the capture and eating of l'Ortolan was banned in the late 1970s—and detractors claimed it heralded the death of French culture—the ban hasn't been seriously enforced.
In the May 1995 issue of Esquire, Michael Paterniti writes of hearing tales of François Mitterrand's last orgiastic meal, and then flying to France to interview attendees and actually eat a recreation of the meal by the chef. In addition to the oysters, foie gras, and capons, it included not one, but two of these little, illegal delicacy birds. Part of Paterniti's description follows.
"Here's what I taste: Yes, quidbits of meat and organs; the succulent, tiny strands of flesh between the ribs and tail. I put inside myself the last flowered bit of air and Armagnac in its lungs, the body of rainwater and berries. In there, too, is the ocean and Africa and the dip and plunge in a high wind. And the heart that bursts between my teeth.
It takes time. I'm forced to chew and chew again and again, for what seems like three days. And what happens after chewing for this long—as the mouth full of taste buds and glands does its work—is that I fall into a trance. I don't taste anything anymore, cease to exist as anything but taste itself.
And that's where I want to stay—but then can't because the sweetness of the bird is turning slightly bitter and the bones have announced themselves. When I think about forcing them down my throat, a wave of nausea passes through me. And that's when, with great difficulty, I swallow everything."
So by now you're either disgusted or salivating. Me, I'm the former. If you're the latter and you're up for a bite, word has it that you can still get Ortolan at the Hotel Libertel Austerlitz in Paris. But word also has it that you'll have to wear a mask.