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The Poor Ortolan (or, what the heck is wrong with French people?)
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Guest blogger Philip, at your service.

So, I'm driving home the other day listening to NPR and they have this story about Francois Mitterrand's last meal. Mitterrand was the socialist president of France from 1981-1995, and apparently a bit of an egomaniac. For his last meal, he wanted to go out with a bang, so he gathered 30 of his best companions for the lavish and somewhat forbidden serving of ortolan. A description from here:

The ortolan does not exactly taste good. It is more art than nourishment. One does not eat it for the simple pleasure of flavor; one eats it to experience something transcendent—to commune with life, suffering, and death in one mouthful. It is said to be the final course ingested by French President François Mitterrand at his legendary, opulent last supper. Mitterrand, dying of cancer, drifted in and out of consciousness during the meal. He died eight days later.

According to the NPR story, the ortolan represents the soul in France. Also, purity and virginity.

Sounds great, right? Until you see how it's prepared (my emphasis in bold).

You catch the ortolan with a net spread up in the forest canopy. Take it alive. Take it home. Poke out its eyes and put it in a small cage. Force-feed it oats and millet and figs until it has swollen to four times its normal size. Drown it in brandy.

It's an odd paradox, treating a creature that they apparently hold in such high regard so cruelly. I guess it's not all that much worse than veal or pate. At least, in this case, they're honest and aware enough to be ashamed of the barbarity of it all.

Place a cloth—a napkin will do—over your head to hide your cruelty from the sight of God.

There's also a haute cuisine use for the napkin - it traps the aromas to create a fuller sensory experience.

Ah, but the suffering of the poor critter is worth it, since you get to experience not one, not two, but all THREE elements of the holy trinity!

Put the whole bird into your mouth, with only the beak protruding from your lips. Bite. Put the beak on your plate and begin chewing, gently. You will taste three things: First, the sweetness of the flesh and fat. This is God. Then, the bitterness of the guts will begin to overwhelm you. This is the suffering of Jesus. Finally, as your teeth break the small, delicate bones and they begin to lacerate your gums, you will taste the salt of your own blood, mingling with the richness of the fat and the bitterness of the organs. This is the Holy Spirit, the mystery of the Trinity—three united as one. It is cruel. And beautiful.

I certainly agree with the "cruel" part. I'm all for transcendent moments of dining, but there's got to be a way to do it without eye gouging and drowning.

Anyway, despite the distaste I have for the treatment of the animals, I did find it a fascinating story. Good ol' NPR, expanding my horizons in what would otherwise be dead time frustrated with traffic.

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