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France Bans An Old Culinary Tradition


Julia Mann
Posted: April 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:

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