France Bans An Old Culinary Tradition

Apr 17, 1999
For centuries, a rite of passage for French gourmets has been the eating of the ortolan. These tiny birds -- captured alive, force-fed, then drowned in Armagnac -- were roasted whole and eaten that way, bones and all, while the diner draped his head with a linen napkin to preserve the precious aromas and, some believe, to hide from God.

This ritual is now over. In March, the French Ministry of Agriculture and Fishing classified the ortolan, a kind of bunting, as a protected species. This may save the Emberiza hortulana (the scientific name for the bird) from becoming extinct in the next century. Today environmental values trump culinary traditions, even in the country that invented haute cuisine.

Many years ago, you could order ortolan at top restaurants such as Paul Bocuse in Colognes, but the sale of this delicacy has been banned in France for more than 10 years already. "I have not sold the ortolan for over 15 years now, and the last time I served it was at a private dinner party three or four years ago," said chef Alain Ducasse, who runs two three-star restaurants: Louis XV in Monte Carlo and Alain Ducasse in Paris.

The new law means that hunting the ortolan is entirely forbidden. Violators should be relatively easy to spot, as the hunting techniques are unusual and require specific materials that are very visible. Claude Darroze, a restaurateur in Langon, a small town south of Bordeaux, recalled the method from his childhood: "You use a 'matole,' a type of cage in which you put grains. The ortolan enters the cage to eat the grains, and there is a little door that falls down behind the bird. You place these traps at intervals of 150 meters, and leave them for about one month."

The decision to protect the ortolan from hunters has aroused mixed reactions. "Like [the moonshiners of] Prohibition, in the hunting regions there will always be a few people who will continue to hunt the ortolan," said chef Paul Bocuse. "However, I wonder how many people today could still savor eating entire game, with the bones."

Currently, very few species of game can legally be hunted in France, among them hare, deer, wild boar, partridge and pigeon -- and those only during designated hunting seasons. "I regret that the great culinary traditions of [France's] southwest that have made our reputation are disappearing," said Darroze. "For our grandfathers, it was their cinema, their entertainment, a certain quality of life. But the laws are there to be respected and this hunt will disappear."

Added Ducasse, "It's more important to protect a species than it is to protect traditions. But it is still a pity to lose traditions."

Back to Bordeaux Basics

For more information on ortolans:

  • May 15, 1995
    Culinary Summit
    The great chefs of France honor New York's Le Cirque with a feast that moves the capital of cuisine from the Old World to the New.

  • News

    You Might Also Like

    Major Food Group Debuts Dirty French Steakhouse in Miami; Daniel Boulud Opens Le Gratin in New York

    Major Food Group Debuts Dirty French Steakhouse in Miami; Daniel Boulud Opens Le Gratin in New York

    The team of Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi and Jeff Zalaznick are expanding their presence in …

    May 19, 2022
    Prince Robert de Luxembourg Auctions Wines Straight from Haut-Brion's Cellars for a Cause Close to Home

    Prince Robert de Luxembourg Auctions Wines Straight from Haut-Brion's Cellars for a Cause Close to Home

    The Sotheby's sale of rare collectibles—Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion and other top …

    May 18, 2022
    Destin Charity Wine Auction Raises $3.8 Million for Children in Need

    Destin Charity Wine Auction Raises $3.8 Million for Children in Need

    The northwest Florida event has become one of the country's largest, supporting 16 …

    May 11, 2022
    Instagram Live Chats: View Wine Spectator's Upcoming Schedule

    Instagram Live Chats: View Wine Spectator's Upcoming Schedule

    Our next two episodes feature American music trio and founders of Gaslighter Wine Co. The …

    May 20, 2022
    Sommelier Caleb Ganzer Reaches Agreement with District Attorney on Arson Charges

    Sommelier Caleb Ganzer Reaches Agreement with District Attorney on Arson Charges

    Accused of torching two outdoor dining sheds in 2021, the sommelier will pay restitution to …

    May 9, 2022
    Exclusive: Northern Rhône's E. Guigal Expands in the South, Buying Tavel's Château d'Aquéria

    Exclusive: Northern Rhône's E. Guigal Expands in the South, Buying Tavel's Château d'Aquéria

    Philippe Guigal believes there is great potential for Tavel's deeply colored rosés

    May 6, 2022