Thursday, June 7, 2012


TileHead’s Word of the Day for 7 June 2012

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Word of the Day:
ORTOLAN  (n. pl. -S)

  1. (n.) a small, greenish brown European songbird
  2. (n.) any of various small songbirds formerly eaten as a delicacy

Useful info for word game players:
  • Front hooks: (none)
  • Back hooks: -S
  • Anagrams: (none)
  • Longer extensions: (none)
  • Wraparounds: (none)
  • Other Spellings: (none)
  • Related Forms: (none)

Current theme:
Weird Foods

If you tend to be squeamish, particularly about the use of animals for food, you may wish to know only that ORTOLAN is a cute little songbird, also known as a BUNTING, and that the word comes from French and Italian forms of the Latin hortulanus (“of the garden”), apparently because the bird often nests in garden hedges.

So far, so good.  The culinary history and lore surrounding this little creature, however, is anything but cute — for the ortolan as food is the height of culinary ecstasy to some, mere culinary barbarism to others.

The latest edition of the Larousse Gastronomique takes pains to point out that the ortolan has been “considered since early times to be the finest and most delicate of birds to eat.”  And, indeed, several ancient Roman accounts refer to the consumption of ortolans, larks, and other small songbirds.  In more modern times, the ortolan, in particular, has come to be regarded by some foodies as a forbidden and almost preternaturally flavorful culinary delicacy.  Former French President Francois Mitterand, for example, was famously said to have consumed ortolan as the pièce de résistance in a lavish “last meal” in 1995, just a few days before dying of cancer.

In They Eat That? A Cultural Encyclopedia of Weird and Exotic Food from around the World, Thomas Crowley explains one traditional method for preparing, cooking, and consuming the bird:
“After netting one of the buntings (or several), the gourmand-now-turned-poacher places the bird in a darkened or artificially lit room; alternatively, he will gouge its eyes out — both are strategies for disrupting its feeding schedule.  Then, for a month, the ortolan is fed figs, millets, and oats in order to fatten it up quite severely.  Once it has grown to four times its normal size, the bird is drowned in brandy — ideally, Armagnac — before it is plucked clean, seasoned with salt and black pepper, and... baked in the high heat of an oven for six to eight minutes... The diner places the whole ortolan in his mouth, tail first, so that the bird’s head protrudes from his mouth.  He then bites in, perhaps discarding the head, or at least the beak.  The ortolan rests on his tongue to cool for a moment, while the fat runs from it.  He savors this still-sizzling-hot fat, and then begins to crunch away on the sea salty bones.  As he continues to chew, he tastes the bitterness of the internal organs rupturing, followed by the sweetness of the Armagnac that has asphyxiated it.”
It is now illegal to hunt or pay for ortolans in France, Crowley explains, more due to scarcity than morality, but certain chefs are still known to prepare them “discreetly” for “friends or high bidders.”

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