Life

The illegal delicacy Axe ate on 'Billions' is a real thing — here's the story behind it

Damian Lewis as Bobby "Axe" Axelrod in Showtime's "Billions" episode 306, "The Third Ortolan"
Jeff Neumann/SHOWTIME
Damian Lewis as Bobby "Axe" Axelrod in Showtime's "Billions" episode 306, "The Third Ortolan"

Sometimes, one of the best things about Showtime's series "Billions" is the glimpse you get into the way the 1 percent spend their money.

That was the case on the April 29 episode "The Third Ortolan," when billionaire hedge-fund boss Bobby "Axe" Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and his Axe Capital COO Mike "Wags" Wagner (David Costabile) ate a bird so rare it's illegal to consume — only the richest, most connected people on earth get to experience it.

Sitting with napkins over their heads (to savor the aromas, or as tradition goes, to hide your shame from God), Axelrod and Wagner, joined by star chef Wylie Dufresne (playing himself), dine on the tiny rare songbird, the ortolan.

"I don't know about you but I just had a religious experience," Wagner says, after popping the bite-sized fowl into his mouth whole. "At the climax I felt the crack of its little rib cage, then the hot juices rushing out, down my gullet. Sublime."

In real life, the ortolan is actually a thing — it is indeed the rarest of delicacies, "the gastronomic equivalent of a visitation from the holy grail," according to The New York Times.

"It is enveloped in fat that tastes subtly like hazelnut," French chef Michel Guérard told the paper in 2014, "and to eat the flesh, the fat and its little bones hot, all together, is like being taken to another dimension."

The fragile songbird from France, which weighs less than an ounce and is about the size of your thumb, was served exclusively to royalty and rich gourmands until it became illegal in 1999. The procedure for preparing ortolan has long been controversial. They are kept in darkness for weeks or are blinded, which causes the bird to gorge on grains and grapes and become fat, the key ingredient to its decadence when cooked. The birds are then thrown alive into a vat of Armagnac brandy (which both drowns and marinades them), then roasted. Ortolans are meant to be eaten feet-first and whole, except for the beak, according to the Times.

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But the arguably barbaric preparation isn't why eating the bird is illegal. They are endangered with a decreasing population. The European Union declared ortolan a protected species in 1979, though France took 20 years to act on this.

In 2014, Michelin-starred French chefs like Guerard and Alain Ducasse were fighting to get the bird on their menus to revive a culinary tradition dating back to Roman times. They wanted to be able to hunt and serve the bird for one week a year. They have been unsuccessful.

However, that doesn't stop some from eating the bird. According to The New York Times, about 30,000 ortolan are still captured and sold illegally in the South of France, with a single bird going for €150 ($180), or about the price of an ounce of coveted white truffles.

Secret gatherings featuring the elusive meal have been documented. In 2008, Esquire writer Michael Paterniti attended one such French dinner that served ortolan — the chef, who was breaking the law, "had to call forty of his friends in search of the bird, for there were none to be found and almost everyone feared getting caught, risking fines and possible imprisonment," Paterniti wrote.

And author and TV personality Anthony Bourdain describes his own ortolan experience in his 2010 book "Medium Raw." The bird, smuggled into New York, was served at a private dinner.

"I bring my molars down and through my bird's rib cage with a wet crunch and am rewarded with a scalding hot rush of burning fat and guts down my throat. Rarely have pain and delight combined so well. I'm giddily uncomfortable, breathing in short, controlled gasps as I continue slowly – ever so slowly – to chew. With every bite, as the thin bones and layers of fat, meat, skin, and organs compact in on themselves, there are sublime dribbles of varied and wondrous ancient flavors: figs, Armagnac, dark flesh slightly infused with the salty taste of my own blood as my mouth is pricked by the sharp bones. As I swallow, I draw in the head and beak, which, until now, have been hanging from my lips, and blithely crush the skull."

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