The current push reported in the New York Times today to return the Ortolan to the gourmand plates of France reminds me of my one and only Ortolan. A gentleman had asked me to plan a trip to France with him. I did, and then he turned out not to be a gentleman so I went by myself. We had planned to stay and take cooking lessons a the three star restaurant in the spa Eugenie les Bains, in Pau, France.
Michel Guerard’s spa and three star restaurant were famed for their food. I loved the chic asparagus spears dipped into a perfectly poached egg for breakfast, served in my perfectly appointed spa room, with it's flowing white curtains. I was eager to learn all about the newest food trend, Nouvelle Cuisine, which Michel Guerard was promulgating. As it turned out, he canceled the class and left without a backward glance. The kitchen staff, however, offered to let me observe free of charge. It was a youthful staff, happy to be free of their strict chef, pouring truffle juice from a can to take occasional gulps , and preparing the exotica on the menu. I swear once they used red dye number one, bending secretly over it to hide it from me.
The piece d’ resistance was the ortolan, a tiny bird which was illegal to catch and cook, but was prepared in fine restaurants nonetheless. The ortolan is a fattened-up wild bird, encouraged to gorge itself trapped in a cage the last few weeks before being eaten.
It was served in a perfectly cooked baked potato, split enough to nestle the cooked bird in its crevice. The diner eats the whole thing, head to toe, in one big bite the better to relish the contrast of textures and flavors from hot flesh, bones, fat and blood. The last day, when I was to eat my ortolan for my final dinner, there were ribald jokes even I could understand from the young men with their starched white toques as we cooked.
My French, then as now, is kitchen french, and not too good at that, so somehow I missed knowing a bit of the ritual. I sat, alone at my table, in the exquisitely tasteful dining room and confronted my ortolan. I glanced up, and here were three tall pleated toques, bedecking three giggling chefs, sticking out the slightly ajar door to the kitchen. I could only imagine the ortolan hanging half in and out of my mouth, its blood dripping down my chin, the fat splashing on my silk dress, while I tried to swallow the bones and flesh. Humiliation beckoned.
Carpe Diem! Seize the day! I told myself I was going to succeed, and not be laughed out of Pau. I grabbed the bird out of its potato nest, and was about to eat it when the maitre’ d came over and plopped an opened snowy white napkin on my head. It was as if a nun had quickly covered my head upon entering a Cathedral.
The napkin was to “hide this indulgence from the eyes of God, a sin of gluttony,” the maitre d’ said, and so I stuffed my bird into my mouth and, with one bite, crunched and swallowed it, in a private reverie. I thrust off my impromptu head dress and from the kitchen door came cheers and glee as they relished my conquest. A bird in one! I can’t remember if I ate the potato.
I left the next day and drove to Bordeaux and another adventure, but it had nothing to do with my big mouth.