Four top French chefs want to overturn a ban on serving a tiny songbird called the ortolan, long seen in France as the pinnacle of gastronomic delight that connoisseurs such as the late president François Mitterrand used to eat whole and, as tradition demanded, with a napkin draped over their heads.
Celebrity cook Alain Ducasse is one of the four who want to be allowed, just one day a year, to serve the endangered species that was banned more than a decade ago from restaurant menus in most of Europe after being hunted almost out of existence, according to Le Parisien newspaper.
The songbird, no bigger than a child's hand, was said to have been part of the last meal eaten by the epicurean president Mitterrand before he died in 1996.
The traditional way to cook the birds is to fatten them on millet, douse them in Armagnac before roasting them in the oven. Its feet and some other body parts are then removed before the diner places a napkin over his head and puts the whole bird in his mouth.
Explanations for the napkin vary. Some say it serves to avoid the eater the embarrassment of being seen spitting out bones, others claim it helps the diner savour the aroma. Some even say it is used to conceal from God the diner's shame at eating a songbird.
One of the four chefs, Michel Guérard, seen as the inventor of nouvelle cuisine, said that he and his colleagues were respectful of the environment and aware of the need to protect endangered species.
"While respecting everyone's feelings, we also need to respect secular traditions, particularly from the Landes region… and to transmit to younger generations the savoir-faire of the preparation and cooking of these birds," he said.
The ortolan is particularly popular in the Landes region and other areas of southwestern France, where bird-protection campaigners accuse local authorities of turning a blind eye to the capture of thousands of the migratory birds.
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