From In The Devil's Garden by Stewart Lee Allen:
When French president Francois Mitterrand realised he was about to die of cancer, he invited his friends over for a final dinner: December 31, 1995. The first course was oysters. Then came foie gras. Then roast capon. But no dessert course, no cheese: the last flavour Mitterrand wished to savour belonged to the flesh of the endangered ortolan, a songbird the size of a human toe that is a crime to buy or hunt, and is certainly illegal to eat. Mitterrand devoured it in the traditional manner, first covering his head with an embroidered cloth, then inserting the entire bird into his mouth.
If guilt is a flavour, and it definitely is, then l’ortolan is one of the world’s greatest dishes. The lemon-coloured songbirds, called buntings in English, originally appeared in French chansons as symbols of innocence and the love of Jesus. Then a tribe near Bordeaux began trapping them as they migrated south to Africa, pulling them out of the sky with little wooden traps called matoles hidden high in the treetops. The birds must be taken alive; once captured they are either blinded or kept in a lightless box for a month to gorge on millet, grapes and figs... When they’ve reached four times their normal size, they’re drowned alive in a snifter of Armagnac. This sadistic mise en scene has transformed the bird from a symbol of innocence to an act of gluttony symbolic of the fall from grace. In Colette’s novel Gigi, for instance, the tomboyish main character prepares for her entry into polite society with lessons in the correct way to eat lobsters and boiled eggs. When he begins training to be a courtesan, however, she is said to be “learning how to eat the ortolan”. Not that it was only courtesans who indulged. The tradition of covering one’s head while eating the bird was supposedly started by a soft-bellied priest trying to hide his sadistic gluttony from God.
Cooking l’ortolan is simplicity itself. Simply pop them in a high oven for six to eight minutes and serve. The secret is entirely in the eating. First you cover your head with a traditional embroidered cloth. Then place the entire four-ounce bird into your mouth. Only its head should dangle out from between your lips. Bite off the head and discard. L’ortolan should be served immediately; it is meant to be so hot that you must rest it on your tongue while inhaling rapidly through your mouth. This cools the bird, but the real purpose is to force you to allow its ambrosial fat to cascade freely down your throat. When cool, begin to chew. It should take about fifteen minutes to work your way through the breast and wings, the delicately crackling bones, and onto the inner organs. Devotees claim they can taste the bird’s entire life as they chew in the darkness: the wheat of Morocco, the salt air of the Mediterranean, the lavender of Provence. The pea-sized lungs and heart, saturated with Armagnac from its drowning, are said to burst in a liqueur-scented flower on the diner’s tongue. Enjoy with a good Bordeaux.
What could be more delicious? Nothing, according to initiates, who compare the banning of the ortolan to the death of French culture and continue to eat them despite fines of up to $2,000. “It is the most incredible thing—delicious!” says Jean-Louis Palladin, a French chef who once smuggled four hundred ortolans into the United States for a dinner at his restaurant in Washington’s Watergate Hotel (he hid them from customs in a box of diapers). Palladin sneers at the idea that the covering of the diner’s head is to hide their shame from God. “Shame? Mais non! It is for concentrating on the fat going down the throat. It is really like you are praying, see? Like when you take the Mass (communion wafer) into your mouth from the priest’s hand in church and you think about God. Now that is what eating l’ortolan is really most like”.
President Mitterrand appears to have agreed. Although so ill that he was passing out between courses, France’s last truly great leader broke the traditional limit of one bird per diner that night in 1995. He ate two. It was the last thing he tasted. The next morning Mitterrand began refusing food. He died within the week.