Friday, April 6, 2007

Recipe of the Day: Roasted Ortolan


Anyway, enjoy the work of fiction - there aren't Ortolan in Central Park and if there were, I wouldn't eat them.

We had quite the feast for dinner last night, first, fresh chilled Blue Point Oysters, delicious, but nearing the end of the season. A wonderful Foie Gras Torchon and then for the grand finale, a rare Ortolan Bunting, the most savory of all foul. Though shucking the oysters and deveining the foie gras was quite a task, it did not compare to the two weeks of preparation that I put into the ortolans. I must say the effort was worth it, eating the ortolans was almost a religious experience.

The ortolan is a small migratory bird of the bunting family. It's native habitat is the wine-growing districts of France. Particularly in the south-western regions. The typical ortolan is 16cm in length and weighs 20 to 25 grams. Fortunately for those of us on this side of the pond, Francios Mitterand's father, Gilbert Félix Joseph, smuggled a colony of ortolan's into the United States where they found a suitable habitat in Central Park and the northern regions of New Jersey. Many New Yorkers mistake the delectable ortolan for your common Finch (or mistakingly group it in to the "not pigeon" avian family). The ortolan's main nesting area is around the Central Park Zoo where they feast on the corn, oat, and grain fed to the many animals who call the zoo home.

When I decided it was time for my rite of passage into the gourmet world, I knew that cooking and eating the ortolan was the only option. For instruction in this matter I consulted a friend of mine, a retired Gascon, who moved to New York after being persecuted for disturbing an endangered species of birds who had taken nest in his thatched roof cottage in south-western France. The following are the instructions he gave me for the capture, preparation, and consumption of the ortolan. As the ortolan is considered a rare and maybe illegal delicacy throughout Europe, please do not try this if you are reading this from outside of the United States. These instructions are for informational use only.

First you must capture the ortolans. To do this you need one large net and a helpful friend (the taller, the better). At the end of the summer months, find the Ortolan nesting and feeding grounds, climb into the tree and sit patiently with the net. Have your friend do the same at another nesting or feeding ground (as we were not allowed into the zoo property with the nets, we had to focus on the nesting areas). After 15 or 20 minutes the ortolan will return to their nests. In one quick motion, swing the net around the nest and the bird and capture the bird. Gently place the bird in a dark pouch. The dark pouch will instantly calm the bird and you can store it in your jacket pocket while you hunt for more ortolans.


Make sure you have your home prepared for your new guests. A thinly wired or screen cage, about one foot cube should hold as many as 6 ortolans. When you get them home, remove the ortlans from the bag one by one and use tweezers to pluck out their eyeballs. This will be painful for the ortolan momentarily, but it will quickly recover. Place all of your ortolans into the cage and feed with a mixture of oats, millets, and especially figs and other dried fruits. Feed the birds continuously for up to two weeks or until it has reached twice it's original wieght (whichever happens sooner). After the feeding, preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Then remove the birds from the cage, drown them in a snifter of your finest Armagnac. This will infuse the birds with the wonderful sweet aroma of the Armagnac. The actual cooking of the birds is very simple, put them on a nonstick tray in the hot oven for 7 to 8 minutes. Be sure not to overcook.


The presentation of the ortolan is of the utmost importance. Place the ortolan alone on a plate. Present to the diner with a fresh white napkin.


(The following is an excerpt from Brandon Kiley's excellent tome on gourmet etiquette.)

[Place the napkin] over your head to hide your cruelty from the sight of God. 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. According to Claude Souvenir, chewing the ortolan takes approximately 15 minutes.

We followed these instructions and I must say the experience was absolutely breathtaking. I would suggest it to anybody who desires the ultimate gourmet experience and is looking for something beyond the basic foie gras, caviar, or sashimi fugu.

Oh yes, and don't forget to wash it all down with a glass of your finest Bordeaux.