Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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ortolan the French and gastronomic name for the little bird which the French fancy most in the genus Emberiza, whose members are known as buntings in non-gastronomic English. From beak to tip of tail they measure 12 to 15 cm (5 to 6"), and there is not much of them to be eaten; but they have aroused great enthusiasm among the likes of Alexandre dumas père (1873), who gave a lengthy account of a dialogue between a Pythagorean philosopher and a hunter on the propriety of killing ‘one of these charming birds which after all does no harm to anyone and whose looks and whose song bring joy to our eyes and ears’. The hunter’s arguments are presented as more compelling than the philosopher’s and Dumas concludes with a reference to Ortolans à la toulousaine. He explains that ‘in Toulouse they have a special way of fattening ortolans which is better than anywhere else; when they want to eat them, they asphyxiate them by immersing their heads in very strong vinegar, a violent death which has a beneficial effect on the flesh.’