There is a very small songbird that lives in the south of France. It is only about six inches long from head to tail and weighs in at about twenty grams, barely anything at all. It is very easy to simply dismiss it as a passing songbird, on its way from Africa to northerly Europe. But in fact, the ortolan bunting, Emberiza hortulana, has been said to represent “the soul of France” and the epitome of Southwestern French cuisine. However, this is also balanced by government protections, major fines, and a reputation as a particularly sinful dish.
Traditionally ortolans are captured wild, but not killed. Instead the bird is brought into a room and either blinded or exposed to extremely variable light levels in order to throw off its circadian rhythms and encourage the bird to eat more. The bird is then forcibly fattened until it weighs four or five times its natural weight. Finally, in an ultimate indignity, the obese birds would be drowned in alcohol, usually brandy, and roasted.
The diner was said to place a napkin over their head to not only capture the exquisite aromas but to also hide their face from God.
The birds are now protected by the French government after a sharp population decline around the 1960’s. The dish is also seen by many to be unnecessarily cruel and, while it is still legal to eat, selling ortolans can net you a hefty fine.