The Ortolan Bunting
The Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana is a small finchlike migratory bird. It winters in Africa before returning to parts of Europe and Western Asia in April or May. It is a small bird and rarely exceeds 25 grammes in weight. It's natural diet consists fo seeds and when it is feeding chicks will eat small small insects too.
Like so many birds today there has been a marked decrease in numbers. This is largely due to a change in farming practices complicated by issues such as the use of pesticide and habitat destruction. The 'Ortolan' as it is popularly known in France faced another threat. It was considered a culinary delicacy and was trapped at random to feed an increasing market.
The unfortunate Ortolan was artificially fattened before being drowned in Armagnac and then plucked. It was slowly roasted for six to seven minutes and then eaten in it entirety, bones and all. Consuming the little bird was subject to an unusual ritual in that it was eaten with the diners head beneath a large table napkin. This was said to trap the aroma and allow a greater enjoyment of the food. There was much superstition and tradition in the eating of this unfortunate little creature. It was sometimes said that the napkin over the head was to 'hide from God' and that the actual experience of eating was to experience the mystery of the trinity'.
Facing both threats from hunting and degradation and destruction of habitat the Ortolan Bunting was given legal protection. In France today it is illegal to trap or to sell them but not (according to some sources) illegal to eat them. Regardless of the truth of the matter there has been no change in the 'European bushmeat' market since protection was given in 1999 and poaching is common with prices very high. A single tiny bird can cost over £100! This makes it a profitable business to get into. For most restaurants it is very much an 'under the counter' meal but some will still apparently, serve it openly. There is always be someone who knows someone where you can go and savour the Ortolan.
It has been often said that François Mitterrand, the former French president ate an Ortolan as his 'last supper' when he was dying of prostrate cancer. The meal was of course, totally illegal.
At the end of August 2009 bird protectionists in France declared that enough was enough and vowed to destroy traps and release birds wherever they found them. The government had sat on their hands and turned a blind eye for far too long.
This action caused the French junior environment minister, Chantal Jouanno to say " the State has turned a blind eye for 30 years....now the message is clear - there will be zero tolerance."
Lets hope that it keeps to its word.
Clarkson eats an Ortolan
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