Is there nothing we won’t eat?
In its Dining section this week, The NY Times reported that “one essential dish” has been missing from the menu of renowned restaurants in Southwestern France — ortolans (songbirds). “Gourmands consume the head, bones and body in a single, steaming mouthful, while covering their faces with a white napkin to conceal the act.”
Hunting ortolans has been illegal since 1979, when the European Union declared them a protected species. In an effort to “revive the tradition” of eating them, French chefs are lobbying to legalize their consumption, but activists are pushing back, arguing that the chefs’ publicity stunt will further endanger the birds and subject them to egregious abuse.
And abusive it is. Poachers lure ortolans into ground traps during their migration from Europe to Africa. Once captured, the birds are held in a dark box for three weeks; force fed until fattened to three times their normal size; and drowned alive in liqueur.
Allain Bourgrain Dubourg, president of the Birds Protection League in France, argues that “Good cuisine cannot be used as an excuse for the conditions these animals are kept in.” Chefs, of course, insist the birds are treated humanely.
Frustrated by the illegal poaching, activists put themselves in harm’s way to liberate the birds from traps — as shown in the trailer to Emptying The Skies, a (brilliant) documentary on the “the secret war to save the songbirds.” In 2013, the film received the Zelda Penzel “Giving Voice to the Voiceless” Award at the Hamptons Film Festival in New York.