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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Flights of Fancy: Songbirds



The French have a way with bureaucracy: they generate a lot of it, and a large percentage involves laws regulating the finer things in life: sex and food. They understand completely that the point of such endeavors is to make one more like the other. Hence, a certain forgving attitude towards the taboo leads one to create one’s own point of no return, which is surely sexier to knock up against than one imposed by the State. By deeming it illegal to pay for, yet perfectly legal to consume, the ortolan, they create a loophole just large enough or the tiny songbird to fly through. Françoise Mitterrand, the former President, combined all of these in his person: both as a bureaurocrat charged with maintaining the law, a man who openly maintained both wife and mistress, and as a gourmand, whose last meal (of ortolan) demonstrated a flagrant disregard for the very laws he oversaw.

Another thing the French do damnably well (and with as much constricting oversight) is language. Thus it is that one of Auguste Escoffier’s many recipes for Ortolan is the divinely named Slyphides d’Ortolans. Not for him the pedestrian nomenclature one usually finds on the menu; no Roasted Songbird with Pineapple Juice for him. Instead, he calls upon the sylph, those fairy-like wisps of femininity who are composed of and inhabit the air. The ballet Les Sylphides has no plot per se, just delicate ballerinas flitting about a bloke they fancy. It’s a very French type of story. A bit like the wee ortolans flying over Landes before the traps are sprung.

Once netted, the hapless ortolans are fattened up in the dark. Death comes for them at the bottom of the glass of Armagnac in which they are drowned. They are then roasted whole so that none of their fats and juices escape until popped into the mouth of a lucky diner, head, tail, legs, wings, guts and all. Crunching their tiny bones scratches the insides of one’s cheeks, so that the diner’s own blood mingles with the bird, enhancing its flavor. The perfume is said to be worth the effort, and is often cited as the reason this whole affair takes place with one’s head hidden beneath a large napkin (all the better to trap the aroma), though romance and superstition claim it is necessary to hide the disgraceful act from God.

The more observant among you will have noticed that this is all a very clever magic trick for turning actual birds into mythical women via semiotics (both are “Les Sylphides” and made of air, like ideas and language), which incidentally is about as French as it gets.

Ma Cuisine, Auguste Escoffier, 1934

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