Munchies

Why the French Can't Get Enough of This Illegal Bird

Hunters consider the ortolan the king of all wildfowl; great chefs call it the caviar of birds—and for 25 years it's been at the center of controversy.

by Arthur Limiñana
Jan 29 2017, 7:00pm

This story originally appeared in French on MUNCHIES FR.

For several decades, the French have been obsessing over a small bird that weighs less than an ounce. Hunters consider it the king of all wildfowl; great chefs deem it the caviar of birds. However, in 1999 it became a protected species, and hunting it is now illegal. Since then, hunters have turned into poachers, chefs have become outlaws, and all have found themselves entangled in a complex web of public policy and bird conservation initiatives.

The object of desire in question went from being a dish that was found on the menus of some of the world's best restaurants to a dish that is criminal to serve.

The ortolan bunting, or simply ortolan, is part of the bunting family, a migratory passerine family of birds that can travel more than 4,300 miles south in order to spend a tranquil summer in Mauritania, Mali, or more likely, Guinea. Starting around August 15 in the Landes department of France, hunters set up in clearings in the countryside in anticipation of the birds' (estimated ) 40 days of migration. They take position in fallow fields or vineyards, and install bird traps called matoles.

ortolan capture

All illustrations by Lucile Lissandre.

This traditional hunt was allegedly started by the Romans across the South of France, and continued for centuries. To catch the small bird, patience is required—one prepares for the hunt all year. First, you have to breed "calling birds," which are placed near the trap so that they sing and attract the buntings passing through. The traps themselves also require care; they are artisanal objects held together by an iron wire. The ortolans venture inside, lured by the grains of millet that hunters sprinkle under each trap. After they are caught, the preparation of ortolan is almost as involved as the capture.

18 to 24 Days

In the early 2000s, Alain Darroze—a major figure in southwestern French gastronomy, who was once the head chef at the Élysée Palace—wrote a book titled Touch' pas mon Ortolan (Hands Off My Ortolan). It teaches you how to appreciate the dish, but is also a pro-nature manifesto.

The ortolan is the best kind of fat there is. It's a bulimic bird that you place in a cage 8 inches high, in the dark, with unlimited food and drink for 18 to 24 days.

"The ortolan had an impact on my life, because I aspire to total freedom in the rural world—freedom of action and freedom of thought," Darroze wrote. "The ortolan is really a symbol of this wonderful thing that is the rural environment. It's the idea of a predatory human that holds the greatest respect for this animal. It's like bullfighting with the toro: The ortolan is your partner in a dance of the tastebuds."

In his book, Darroze argues for a clean environment, a milieu in which animals live full lives. He supports natural human predation, one that exists without harming endangered species. But he does admit that he long ago gave up the matoles, because hunting ortolans—or merely being in possession of one—is against the law, and the fines are steep.

Once captured, you still have to fatten the bird. "The ortolan is the best kind of fat there is. It's a bulimic bird that you place in a cage 8 inches high, in the dark, with unlimited food and drink for 18 to 24 days," Darroze wrote. "His ass gets larger, heavier, and the bird doubles in volume. You then kill it by barely holding it in your hands. Once feathered, it is cooked for 20 minutes in the oven."

All kinds of fantasies surround the act of eating an ortolan, mostly because of the rare and famous photos of diners with a napkin on their heads as they hover over their plate. The images seem to have leaked from a secret society or some shady underground subculture. In reality, the tradition is to eat the bird during a meal with a few friends and a good bottle of wine. The folklore of the napkin atop the head is just there to restrain the smoke coming off the bird. The ortolan is generally served sizzling—it's said to be "singing"—and covered with a bit of Armagnac.

You put the entire thing in your mouth, and suck on it—it's hot, so you make faces, and let it melt slowly, while the grease pours onto your fingers. From the rump to the neck, you eat everything, including the liver and the innards. All that should be left in your plate is the bird's head.

Circus Politicus

The "Benarit" (which means "well fed" in the Gascon language, and is another name for the ortolan) is a culinary orgasm that has been served on every table, from the fancy to the ordinary, since Antiquity. Darroze remembers how in the 60s ortolan was on the menu at his grandfather's restaurant, Chez Darroze. "I served some at one of my guest houses, where President Mitterrand and his brother-in-law, Roger Hanin, visited. They loved it and were like naughty little kids who wanted to disobey. The Landes department had adopted him; people called him 'Uncle.' I think Mitterrand must have thought, 'Shit, even I, the president, can't have any?' I remember that at the end of the meal, Roger had come to see me, looking a bit ashamed, and said, 'If you see Brigitte Bardot, please don't say anything about this, okay?'"

People cry out against animal suffering while their kids eat at cafeterias managed by huge corporations, ingesting chicken from China that costs 1 euro per kilo and is stuffed with antibiotics.

Once recent morning, I met with chef Alain Dutournier steps away from the Place Vendôme, at the Carré des Feuillants, which has two Michelin stars. The day before, Dutournier had attended a colloquium at the Senate on the subject of humans and animals. The ortolan and other species were central to the discussions.

"People cry out against animal suffering while their kids eat at cafeterias managed by huge corporations, ingesting chicken from China that costs 1 euro per kilo and is stuffed with antibiotics, along with a side of pesticide-filled vegetables," he said. "That's the big paradox. There is so much ignorance; a lot of people still think that onions grow on trees."
ortolan arbre
For Dutournier, to enlighten the neophytes, one would simply need to take them to see some farms, or authentic duck-fattening operations. Not industrial farms, but real farms—those where ducks fatten on their own and animals live freely across many acres.

"Michel Guérard and I have been asking for the same thing for 20 years: one weekend every year during which people could enjoy ortolan in the Landes. They could taste it once in their life and tell their children about it. It'd be a tiny drop compared to the thousands of buntings that have reproduced; there's never been so many. In Turkey or Tunisia, there's entire flocks, and they stick them on a skewer without thinking twice about it. Here, in France, we know how to feed and fatten them, but we aren't allowed to hunt or eat them—mainly because of a small group of activists. But what the LPO (League for the Protection of Birds) doesn't tell you is that herbicides and pesticides kill a lot more of them than humans do."

The Ortolan War

The LPO was founded more than a century ago and has been led by a media-savvy president, Alain Bougrain-Dubourg, since 1986. The public remembers him particularly well thanks to what we'll call "the incident of the shovel and undies." Comical footage of a stunned old man fighting against LPO activists with a shovel was widely shared. It was taken during an action led by the organization to liberate finches that had been captured hours before by someone in Audon.

"The media coverage of this affair took on a life of its own, and surprised me as much as it did the man with the shovel," remembers Alain Bougrain-Dubourg. "While I do remember unwarranted violence on his part, I also know that the blame lies primarily with the area's elected officials, who keep implying that there is a tolerance around the issue. So I completely understand how discombobulated those poor poachers might be when people from the LPO remind them what the law says."

While it's well-known that an unofficial "administrative tolerance" is practiced by authorities in the Landes, courts in Dax and Mont-de-Marson have emphasized in recent years that the term "administrative tolerance" has no legal basis. The LPO, meanwhile, continues to fight and calls for dozens of actions against hunters with matoles. The presence of police officers at these kinds of operations results in sanctions—on December 1, 2016, eleven of these hunters were fined 1,000 euros and had their hunting license temporarily revoked.

"We estimate there are over 1,000 active poachers," adds the president of the LPO. "Between mid-August and mid-September 2016, nearly 30,000 ortolans were captured, fattened, and killed, in direct violation of French law and European directives. Some are even sold on the black market at 150 euros a piece."

Those fierce accusations are refuted by Jean-Jacques Lagüe, the president of the ADCTM, the Departmental Association of Traditional Hunting with Matoles. He accuses LPO activists of illegally trespassing on private property.

"The LPO obsesses over a bird that was once a fine dish and is nowhere to be found today,"Lagüe said. "And I mean nowhere—there is no more commercialization, despite what he claims. We have a gentleman's agreement with the state: a tolerance of 80 matoles for the finch and 30 matoles for the ortolan, during a specified hunting period. All it would take is one exemption to make it official. This only represents 30,000 ortolans, and that's why we are asking for the application of the European directive."

The 81,000 couples, most of whom come from Poland, diminish drastically every year by 20 or 30%.

The aforementioned directive authorizes the capture of ortolans so long as it represents less than 1 percent of natural mortality rates. Out of the 5 million ortolans who fly above the region, it is estimated that illegal hunting is responsible for the capture of around 30,000 "specimens," or 0.17 percent. The number is a source of comfort to hunters, and corroborates scientific studies that point to a steady increase in ortolan populations.

"For the first time, local politicians of all stripes agree on the reinstatement of ortolan hunting," comments Jean-Jacque Lagüe, rejoicing. "You need only look at the numbers. There are more ortolans than common wood pigeons. Why is it a problem for one and not the other?"

On December 16, 2016, however, the Museum of Natural History delivered some bad news, and blew the final whistle. A detailed report on ortolans in France made it clear that the number of birds who migrate along the Atlantic coast (in other words, those flying over the Southwest of France) is very much in decline. The 81,000 couples, most of whom come from Poland, diminish drastically every year by 20 or 30 percent. "It is a decline, but in no way does it represent a real risk of extinction," notes the director of the study, Frédéric Jiguet.

While the LPO is happy with the results and is once again asking the government to adopt a zero-tolerance policy, the hunters, on their end, are not giving up, and are already thinking of new proposals to uphold traditions while preserving the species.

In any case, it seems we'll have to wait a while longer before this tiny, 25-gram delicacy legally lands back on a plate.