French ornithologists are waging an increasingly sophisticated war against the hunting of the ortolan, a songbird which is regarded by gastronomes – when eaten beak, bones and all – as the ultimate in sinful pleasure.
Over the next two weeks, bird lovers in south-west France will be systematically springing "live" traps set to capture the tiny ortolan buntings as they migrate from northern Europe to Africa. Although the capture of the ortolan has been illegal in France for more than a decade, hunting as an "age-old tradition" is tolerated semi-officially in the Landes, south of Bordeaux.
Up to 50,000 birds are captured each September and sold to chefs and gourmets as far away as New York, despite a ban on their sale. An ortolan, which weighs roughly 25g (less than one ounce) can fetch more than €100 (£80) on the international black market. The Ligue de Protection des Oiseaux (LPO) – led by Allain Bougrain-Dubourg, a television presenter and former boyfriend of the animal-loving actress Brigitte Bardot – accuses the French government of bowing to the local hunting lobby. It has decided to take enforcement of the law into its own hands.
In recent years, the LPO has hired helicopters and light aircraft to survey the maize fields, thick scrub and pine forests of the Landes to locate the main hunting sites. The traps consist of rings of cages, some of which contain live ortolans. The bird's distinctive call – and the prospect of food – brings other migrating ortolans into the cages. Over the last few days, and up to mid-September, volunteers will be raiding the trapping sites and opening the cages.
"This practice is unacceptable," said Mr Bougrain-Dubourg. "The population of these birds is in decline all over Europe. Hunting has been outlawed in France since 1999. Although the government has promised zero tolerance this year, the captures are going on in many areas. Afterwards, the birds are fattened in darkness for one month and then killed by drowning in armagnac."
Ortolans are, by Gascon tradition, served whole and aflame. Only the feet are removed, although some chefs are now said to take off most of the feathers. By tradition an ortolan must be eaten with a large white napkin draped over the diner's head. Some experts say this is intended to heighten the intensity of the experience. Others concede that it hides the messy act of chomping into a charred, red-hot ortolan. The ritual was described in 1997 in a book about the last months of the late president François Mitterrand.
The author, Georges-Marc Benamou, revealed that at a New Year's Eve supper in the Landes in 1995, the dying Mr Mitterrand consumed 30 oysters and two ortolans. Twelve of the little birds had been bought by a local politician, who was giving the feast (even though their capture was already doubtfully legal in France). After most of the guests had eaten one bird each, Mr Mitterrand reached for a second.
"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 chewed the tiny bird to a paste behind his napkin before swallowing it. Then Mr Mitterrand lay back in his chair, his face beaming in "ecstasy". Eight days later he died.
François Simon, the feared restaurant critic for Le Figaro newspaper, admits to having tried ortolans on several occasions. "It's absolutely delicious: rather crunchy, with the texture and flavour of hazelnuts," he once said.
Henri Emmanuelli, former treasurer of the Socialist party and president of the département of the Landes, yesterday criticised the "publicity-seeking" actions of the LPO. He said the hunting of ortolans was a "tradition for older people" in his department, which should be tolerated. He insisted that their numbers were not necessarily as low as ornithologists claimed.
The celebrated party in which Mr Mitterrand swallowed two ortolans was organised by Mr Emmanuelli.
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