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What Is Ortolan Bunting?

Posted: May 27 2016

The ortolan bunting is a bird—similar to a finch. And they have quite a post-life life.

When they migrate to Africa, they’re caught and captured via net and then kept in cages or boxes. While they’re in these boxes, they gorge on grain because their other senses are deprived—and the ancient Romans used to poke their eyes out to get them to do so. They double in size! Once they’re fed, they’re put into containers, where they drown and then marinate. They’re then roasted. Their feathers are plucked

They’re consumed in a most violent and scary way—A person puts the bird, feet first, into their mouth while holding onto the bird's head—and all of it, occasionally save for the head, is eaten. The bones are spit out.

The traditional way that French gourmands ate and eat ortolans is to cover their heads and face with a large napkin or towel while consuming the bird. Some say that the napkin is used as a means of preserving the flavors and aromas of the bird, others claim that it's intended to shield the disgraceful act from the eyes of God. 

At one time, in Cyprus, people formed a chief depot for the exportation of ortolans. The birds were pickled in spices and vinegar and packed in enormous casks.

Ortolan hunting was banned in France in 1999--but the old custom has since become popular again and today up to 50,000 ortolans are thought to be killed each year by 1,500 poachers. When caught, they're often punished with nothing more than a verbal warning. In 2007, the French government promised to abide by the EU directive protecting the ortolan, with a zero-tolerance approach--but nothing has changed.

When you order an Ortolan in a French restaurant, each bird costs about £120--and it's still not illegal to eat them.  

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