Thursday, August 12, 2004

De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum…

My most recent copy of the Bloomberg magazine (gratis with my Bloomberg account, I suppose) has an interesting gobbet from Schott’s Food & Drink Miscellany (review here).

I am very fond of this section in the Bloomberg. I might gloss over the other sections – the self-promotional bits about how traders use the special Bloomberg functions to maximize profits; and tips on new analysis strategies on the financial terminals etc. However, the bits on food, I never skip.

The Schott write-up focuses on how this bird called ortolan is prepared. This is a gourmet affair, you understand. You may never have heard of an ortolan, much less eaten one. For those of you from the U.K., this is the bunting we are talking about.

Anyway, Ben Schott, in the second in his series of quirky compendiums of gastronomical information, offers grisly details on how the ortolan is prepared.

“The traditional method of preparing and eating ortolan is as curious as it is barbaric,” he writes.

“The tiny birds are caught alive and kept in a dark box (or blinded) so that they gorge themselves continually on grain. Once they distend way beyond their natural size, the birds are drowned in Cognac, plucked and roasted.

“After their heads have been cut or bitten off, ortolans are eaten whole (bones and all) from underneath a napkin – to hide the shame of such cruelty and gluttony from the sight of God.”

The manner of eating was apparently, devised by a monk who wanted to hide his gluttony from God’s gaze.

By no means is the ortolan the extreme in French cuisine from what I hear. A friend and I have been having talking, co-incidentally, about this very same issue – the excess of French cuisine.

Some of the pre-revolutionary parties were wild to the extreme in their cuisine. One recipe from Alexandre Dumas’ Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine comes to mind - Rotie al'Imperatrice – the dish fit for the Empress. It involved dressing, marinating and stuffing a series of birds into another, from the smallest to largest. It all began with a fresh olive... which was pitted. In place of the pit was placed an anchovy, which was then placed in the mouth of the thrush... I think the smallest bird was a thrush, the largest a turkey. The birds were then all stuffed into a suckling pig before it was roasted. You cut through a section to get bits of all the meats... But the best bit, apparently, was the olive which was fused with the essence of the taste of everything else around it...

BTW, I have heard, eating the ortolan is banned in France. but I have also heard that long after it was banned, President Mitterrand reportedly had two for one of his last meals… his head covered by napkin and all.

There's no accounting for taste…