Dangerous Dining in France

Dangerous Dining in France
How would you like to taste a historic French culinary delicacy favored by royalty and presidents, savor its delicate aroma, put it in your mouth, bite down and delight in its flavor?   Does that sound good?  Does that sound very French?   Well, be careful. If you do that these days there’s an increasing chance that you could get socked with a 6,000 Euro (8,400 dollar) fine and possibly a six-month jail sentence.   If you know your way around. If you deal with the right, but perhaps not too scrupulous, people, you may be able to enjoy the experience and escape imprisonment and the fine.   But it’s a dangerous game.   Since September this year, France’s new Minister for the Environment, Nathalie Kosciussko-Morizet, has begun seriously enforcing a more or less ignored 1999 law banning the trapping, sale or consumption of a tiny, mostly yellow, sparrow-sized—and by all accounts extremely delicious–bird named the Ortolan.    Considered a princely delicacy since at least the mid 18th century in France, it is trapped, caged, fattened up for weeks, ultimately and literally drowned in armagnac to increase its aroma and heighten its taste and then roasted or grilled in its own fat with its yellow skin and skeleton intact.   That, say Ortolan fans, guarantees a satisfyingly crunchy meal with a slight hazelnut taste.  But it’s messy.   Traditionally during this operation the diner covers his own head with a large napkin so that the whole operation is shielded from other’s eyes and all that enticing armagnac and roasted bird odor doesn’t get away…. or, as some say, to shield the diner’s shameful gluttony from the eyes of God.   Then he bites off the head and swallows the roughly two-ounce Ortolan whole, bones and all.   Does that sound good?  Does that sound very French?   Well it ought to. The best-known Ortolan fan was none other than the country’s late President, François Mitterrand, who, although gravely ill from prostate cancer at the time, ordered up and consumed a number of Ortolans during a celebratory new year’s eve dinner with friends in 1995.   He died eight days later.   He could do that quite legally at the time, however; His dinner was well before enactment of the 1999 law putting Ortolans on the protected species list because the bird’s numbers in France had been declining drastically. Only an estimated 15,000 pairs of Ortolans are believed to exist in France today, a population hardly equal to the number captured by hunters annually before 1999.    Law or no law, in the Landes region of southwestern France, where Ortolan hunting is a regional tradition, Ortolans still can be obtained on the black market for up to 100 Euros each.   But, as noted, it’s a risky business. Four hunters in the Landes were arrested just recently for holding 30 Ortolans in cages; storing another dozen or so in a freezer and setting up roughly a hundred traps for the birds in the nearby forest.   With Minister Kosciussko-Morizet on the environmental warpath, more such arrests are almost certain to follow, although she has promised Ortolan aficionados that the restrictions may be eased later if the bird’s now protected numbers in France increase sufficiently.     Bet you can hardly wait.  
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