Photo: Pierre Dalous

It is well-known that alleged eye-witness accounts can sometimes be unreliable. A case in point is the ‘last supper’ that the French President François Mitterrand organised for himself and a score of guests at his Paris home on December 31 (or was it December 24? – accounts vary), 1995, only a week before his death from cancer. Unless of course, as in other versions of the gathering, the feast took place at his country residence, Latché, in the southwestern department of the Landes. As a true arbiter elegantiae, Mitterrand ensured that the menu would include some of his favourite dishes. But here again there exist almost as many differing accounts of what the president ate as there were guests, who included family and in-laws, close friends, former ministers, a biographer and a doctor. In one eye-witness version, Mitterrand scoffed three dozen oysters; in another, he did not touch a single one. Then came the ritual of eating an ortolan, or possibly two, or maybe just a leg.

What, you may ask, is an ortolan? Emberiza hortulana is a small bunting, very slightly larger than a house sparrow, which is illegally captured in southwest France during its nocturnal migration from Scandinavia to Africa in August and September. (Ironically, the bird's binomial name, hortulana, means ‘of the garden’ or ‘found in gardens’ – which is the last place it should venture into.) With the help of a live ortolan decoy in a cage, a netting device called a matole collapses on to the migrating ortolan as it feeds on the ground, usually, but not always, without injuring it. The bird is then enclosed in an almost entirely darkened box for a week or so, during which, stressed out, it gorges itself on millet. When it is deemed plump enough for the table – at three times its normal weight of 1oz (28g) - it is taken out of its box, drowned in Armagnac, plucked and casseroled. It is then that it is said to sing for the last time – the singing being the sound of the bird gently sizzling as it cooks. According to the ritual of ortolan consumption, the diner places a large napkin over his or her head, as though resorting to an inhalant to get rid of a cold. But in this case the napkin serves not to clear the nostrils, but to prevent any of the reportedly sublime aromas escaping as the ecstatic diner munches the whole bird (beak, brains and entrails, though not the tiny feet). I say ‘reportedly’, because I have never sampled an ortolan, am unlikely ever to do so, and in any case would never want to. The bird has been a protected species since 1999 and its hunting prohibited since 1979. The surviving ortolan population is believed to have dwindled by 84% in the past 30 years. Other protected species that get caught by mistake in the matoles include chaffinches and goldfinches.

So how did ortolans get to be on the menu of Mitterrand’s terminal banquet? One of the president’s close friends at the time was the beetle-browed Henri Emmanuelli, MP for the department of the Landes and a former budget minister. The Landes has always been a bastion of the dwindling band of ortolan trappers (despite that, they are still thought to number about 15,000). Emmanuelli knew how to procure the birds – at enormous cost: a single ortolan can fetch up to €150 on the black market.

The French League for the Protection of birds (LPO) has long waged a courageous campaign to halt the practice of ortolan trapping. Its leader, the well-known environmentalist Allain Bougrain-Dubourg, is not afraid to confront hunters in person by organising commando-like swoops on their farms in order to dismantle the matoles. Such events are abundantly covered by journalists and photographers. Photographs taken in November 2015 show Bougrain-Dubourg and his LPO colleagues ripping some matoles apart. As they do so, they are suddenly confronted by the irate owner of the traps, Jean-Marc Dutouya, who emerges from his home barefoot and dressed only in a teeshirt and a slip (underpants). He proceeds to attack the intruders with a shovel. Photos of the incident (just google Jean-Marc Dutouya), immediately dubbed ‘slipgate’, went viral on the internet and prompted a flurry of photoshop memes. Dutouya’s stand was immediately hailed as ‘heroic’ by his fellow ortolan hunters. They regard such LPO operations as interference in their traditional sport by a gang of ‘Parisian media darlings’ and ‘totalitarian city-dwellers’ (whatever that may mean). The hunters are fully aware they are breaking the law, but justify their action on the grounds that ortolan hunting forms part of the ancestral traditions of southwest France. (Bull-fighting is another ancestral ‘sport’, undoubtedly the most sadistic of legal human pursuits in peacetime; fortunately it now attracts fewer and fewer aficionados.) The French authorities tacitly condone ortolan hunting, since very few prosecutions are brought, and those that are result in light sentences. Gendarmes are instructed to keep a low profile when LPO activists confront hunters. And of course any condemnation of the sport by an ambitious local politician would prove fatal to his or her budding career.

Bougrain-Dubourg’s campaign against the clubbing of baby seals in the mid-70s resulted in his teaming up – in every sense – for seven years with fellow animal-rights activist, Brigitte Bardot, and eventually getting the practice banned. He is fortunate that Dutouya wielded only a shovel, not a gun. In another operation, the plucky Bougrain-Dubourg, accompanied by a couple of gendarmes, caught a group of hunters in the act of shooting roosting waterfowl out of season in the Somme valley wetlands. A heated argument ensued, to the point where the armed hunters’ attitude became so menacing that the gendarmes had to radio their headquarters and ask to be rescued by helicopter.

A surprising aspect of the ortolan controversy is that the hunters enjoy the support of several leading French chefs. One of them is Hélène Darroze, who in 2015 won the Veuve Clicquot World’s Best Female Chef award. She runs an eponymous restaurant in Paris and the kitchens of the prestigious Connaught Hotel in London. In one of her cookbooks, she includes a recipe for ortolans. While admitting that ortolans are on the banned list of game birds, she has no qualms about suggesting that with a little ingenuity the reader should be able to obtain a supply of them. Ortolans run in the family: Hélène’s cousin, Alain Darroze, has written a book entitled Touch’ pas mon ortolan (‘Hands off my ortolan’).

Before the appearance on the scene of sophisticated TV chefs like Hélène Darroze, Rick Stein and Gary Rhodes, cooks offering viewers simpler and more easily executed fare were (and often still are) hugely popular on both sides of the Channel. Delia Smith and Jamie Oliver have long been such cooks in the UK. In France, in the 1980s and 1990s, Marie-Thérèse Ordonez, known as ‘Maïté’, a strapping middle-aged woman with a booming voice and a strong southwestern accent, had a similarly large following in France. Viewers were amused or shocked by her no-nonsense way of dealing, for instance, with a very slippery live eel (with a meat cleaver). Maïté, now retired, has always been a great fan of ortolans. In a now legendary video, she consumes an ortolan in a manner that has been variously described as ‘erotic’ and ‘an act of fellatio’. It is certainly not for the squeamish. She emits long-drawn-out sighs of ecstasy as she scrunches up the tiny bones, causing ortolan fat to dribble down her chin. Another video featuring the consumption of an ortolan by a media celebrity – in this case the unspeakable Jeremy Clarkson, world champion of political incorrectness – is fortunately no longer available on the internet.

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