By Liz Alderman
PARIS — The menu at Les Prés d’Eugénie, a three-Michelin-star restaurant in the bucolic Landes region of southwest France, reads like a decadent litany of the terroir: truffle blini in a silky galette; toasted pigs’ feet with smoked eel; verveine soufflé scented with citronnelle.
But the chef, Michel Guérard, says that one essential dish is missing: the ortolan, a tiny songbird that gourmands, including former President François Mitterrand, used to covet, consuming the head, bones and body in a single, steaming mouthful, while covering their faces with a white napkin to conceal the act.
Now, Mr. Guérard and three other celebrity chefs who hail from southwest France — Alain Ducasse, Jean Coussau and Alain Dutournier — are trying to engineer a public comeback for the ortolan, an overhunted species that France banished from restaurant menus in 1999. If they get their way, the forbidden food will be legally offered to napkin-wearing diners at restaurants in Landes for one weekend a year — the gastronomic equivalent of a visitation from the holy grail.
“The bird is absolutely delicious,” said Mr. Guérard, who recalled preparing ortolans for Mitterrand and his successor, Jacques Chirac, back when it was legal. (Mitterrand was said to linger over two ortolans in his last supper before his death in 1996, also consuming three dozen oysters, foie gras and capon.)
“It is enveloped in fat that tastes subtly like hazelnut,” Mr. Guérard said, “and to eat the flesh, the fat and its little bones hot, all together, is like being taken to another dimension.”
But the campaign has provoked environmentalists, who accuse the chefs of engaging in a publicity stunt to promote what they say is an archaic custom that will further endanger the bird, and that treats the ortolan inhumanely before it is killed.
“These chefs are totally backward; they are not living in the 21st century,” said Allain Bougrain Dubourg, the president of France’s Birds Protection League. “They aren’t doing this for gastronomy. It’s all about raising their profile.”
Mr. Ducasse, who has several restaurants around the world, had already alarmed animal-rights activists in New York City when he served about 20 ortolans during a 1995 dinner at Le Cirque that grabbed tabloid headlines.
Today, Mr. Ducasse and his confreres say their main objective is to revive a culinary tradition that dates to Roman times, when emperors sought out the ortolan’s intoxicating taste, and to pass the savoir-faire to a new generation of cooks. “We want to be able to do this so as not to lose all the beautiful things that make up the history and the DNA of French cooking,” Mr. Guérard said.
The European Union banned the hunting of ortolans and declared them a protected species in 1979 amid concerns about their survival and an outcry from environmentalists. But France waited two decades to codify the measure.
Still, many people in France continue to capture and eat the birds. Families in Landes would traditionally savor them once a year, “like a bonbon” at the end of a big lunch, eating them in total silence with a glass of Sauternes and the shades drawn, said Mr. Dutournier, a native of Landes and the head chef at Carré des Feuillants in Paris, which has two Michelin stars.
Wearing the white napkin allows diners to savor the aromas and enjoy some privacy while devouring the bird — or, critics say, hide their indulgence from the eyes of God. More....