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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