The ortolan stirs up trouble behind a white napkin
Saturday 11 January 1997
It concerns, above all, a rare sub-species of bunting, called the ortolan, which has the misfortune to taste, if fattened and cooked in the right way, like a mixture of truffles and pate de foie gras.
Ortolans are, by Gascon tradition, eaten whole and still aflame - beaks, wings, feathers, legs, innards and all. Served in this ritual manner, they are part delicacy, part macho and, recently, an act of south- western regional defiance of interfering Paris bureaucrats and Brussels Eurocrats.
Since 1987, by European Union directive and reluctant French decree, the hunting, selling and eating of ortolans has been a contravention (fifth class) of the French Rural Code, punishable (technically) by a stiff fine. The chief effect of the decree has been enormously to increase the price of ortolans, which can now fetch up to pounds 35 each on the black market.
This fact was remarked upon recently by Alain Juppe, a Gascon by birth, Mayor of Bordeaux, and the least popular Prime Minister of France since records began. In an interview with Elle magazine, given as part of a campaign to seem less aloof and egg-headed, he said: "What is amusing about ortolans is that it is forbidden to hunt and sell them but you can still find them in all the best places."
Mr Juppe, presumably attempting to sound like a man of the soil, managed to sound like an elitist snob who did not let the law interfere with his pleasures. Animal welfare groups were furious. Brigitte Bardot, self-appointed defender of French wildlife, was indignant. The League for the Protection of Birds protested to the European Commission.
A few days later, extracts were published from a new book on the final months of President Francois Mitterrand, also a son of the gastronomically inventive south-west. The author, Georges-Marc Benamou, revealed that at a New Year's Eve supper in the region Mitterrand consumed, inter alia, 30 oysters and two ortolans.
After grabbing the last of 12 birds, the dying president disappeared for a second time behind the large, white napkin, which is ritually placed over the head of anyone about to indulge in the horrific act of eating a charred, but entire ortolan. "Those who had already been through the ordeal once, looked at each other in astonishment," wrote Mr Benamou. The table listened in embarrassment as the former president masticated the little bird to a paste behind the napkin, in the approved manner, before swallowing it. Then Mitterrand lay back in his chair, his face beaming in "ecstasy". Eight days later he died.
These revelations have unleashed a flurry of ortolan stories in the French press. Only the bird protection league remains unamused. Allain Bougrain-Dubourg, the league's president, claimed that up to 150,000 ortolans a year were captured and eaten during their migration through France. Mr Bougrain-Dubourg said the government had not yet made the capture of ortolans unequivocally illegal. The hunting lobby retorted that ortolans had been hunted since Roman times; that no more than 40,000 were taken each year; and this amounted to less than 2 per cent of the European population.
A cartoon in the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaine gave Mitterrand the posthumous last word on the controversy. "So what's the fuss?" says a ghostly, but portly, outline of the Socialist President. "There can also be leftist ortolans."
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