There’s a songbird native to most of Europe called the ortolan bunting. It’s a small, fragile thing – no larger than a child’s fist – and, frankly, looks quite unremarkable. It also happens to be the subject of one of the most controversial ingredients in French culinary history that was commonly eaten from Roman times up until the late 20th century.
After being caught, the birds are kept in the dark, which prompts them to gorge themselves on grain until they balloon up in a manner not unlike how geese are fattened for the production of foie gras. Once sufficiently large, the birds are drowned in Armagnac before being plucked and roasted.
To eat an ortolan bunting, you cover your face and head with a napkin and consume it hot in a single mouthful. Skin yields to fat, fat yields to flesh and bone, and bones crunch to give way to internal organs. It’s like eating a macabre – but reportedly sublime – soup dumpling flavoured with brandy, and conjures up the thrill of participating in some kind of dark, ritualistic indulgence. The napkin? It’s popularly believed to be there to hide the shame of such decadence from the eyes of God.
Today, there’s Instagram.
While it’s harder – not to mention illegal – to get a hold of ortolan these days, every other indulgence is up for display on social media. There are the multi-course, hours-long extravaganzas with tables full of wine of a combined value of someone’s university fees and everyone’s favourite caviar-uni-wagyu stack.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not passing judgement and I certainly do not come from moral high ground; I have indulged in my fair share of decadence and would jump at the chance to try ortolan in a heartbeat. Legally, of course. Mine is merely an observation on the state of things. Fine dining is no longer just about the relationship between chefs and their customers. Every dish eaten and every photo taken ripples outwards and with that comes the responsibility to consider the message one sends out into the universe.
Eating is the most natural thing one can do, but fine dining is an unnatural activity – one where each of the 10 different things on a plate comes from a different corner of the globe, and filling you up is the last priority. From its position of privilege, fine dining has to be about making a point, whether it is about culture, sustainability, novelty, heritage or pure hedonism. The technique and luxury ingredients are just a means to an end.
When that dollop of caviar feels more obligatory than intentful, when the pictures provide more pleasure than eating the food itself, or when you start wishing you had a napkin to hide a gastronomic affront to a higher power, perhaps it’s time to start consuming consciously.
Featured image: an uni dish from Odette’s 2018 summer menu.