‘L’ortolan à l’Armagnac’, the exquisite, exclusive and forbidden delicacy that François Mitterrand tasted at his last dinner

At Christmas 1995, François Mitterrand, President of the French Republic from 1981 until practically his death, was seriously ill, already given up by doctors, due to prostate cancer which, according to some chronicles, “sometimes he noticed like a lemon in his gut and, on the worst days, like he’s the size of a grapefruit.

Before handing over the spoon, Mitterrand decided to give himself a final gastronomic tribute and organized a very special dinner, both in its setting – between the pompous and the gloomy – and in the chosen menu (its details have come down to us thanks to the pen of one of those present, the journalist Georges-Marc Benamou, author of the book Le dernier Mitterrand, ‘The Last Mitterrand’).

At a house on the outskirts of Bordeaux, he gathered a few dozen friends and held a sumptuous farewell feast. He was in such a bad way that he could hardly speak, practically prostrate between some sheets, with his eyes already dull, anticipating the fatal outcome. First, he was served several silver platters filled with oysters from the Marennes, his native region. Mitterrand sipped a dozen silently but relishingly, showing those present the last throes of his famed gluttony. He closed his eyes for a while, resting, while he waited for the seconds, foie gras and a capon, which he again ate heartily.

Francois Mitterrand, in his best years at the head of France.

But it was then that the star dish arrived, to the amazement and delight of the diners, hot casseroles of ortolans à l’armagnac, little garden birds plated with just their fat layer and their breast still boiling, one of the most refined, cruel recipes, exquisite and unlikely dishes of European gastronomy. But what exactly are they?

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The ortolan buntings are a type of country sparrow, typical of the French area of ​​the Landes, rather small in size. They are caught alive in a net and subjected to an atrocious fattening and preparation process (according to a rigid 17th century recipe book). First, their eyes are pricked and they are locked in small dark boxes, where they are fattened relentlessly with the aim of turning them into veritable balls of fat.

The idea is that their bones do not calcify and remain rather cartilaginous in order to be able to swallow them as a whole, along with the meat. After twenty days, once the desired fattening has been reached, they are plucked, submerged and drowned in a glass of Armagnac, the famous brandy from the south-west of France, and they are roasted in one piece.

The wild way of cooking them is so ruthless and brutal that tradition dictates that diners must cover their heads with a napkin – if it is linen, better – when tasting them ‘to hide from God’ and not show the world the shame that comes from enjoying them (although in reality it is to better capture the aromas and effluvia that the dish gives off). They are eaten in one bite, letting the bones of the animal melt in the mouth, accompanying the chewing process with prolonged sips of some exquisite Burgundy wine.

For obvious reasons, its consumption is today prohibited throughout France, even sanctioned by the European Union, with penalties that can reach a fine of 150 euros and two years in prison. However, it is possible to find this strange delicacy in certain clandestine environments. Normally, they are usually rich, powerful, influential politicians or unscrupulous gastronomes (all four things together, in the case of Mitterrand) who defy the limits of the conventional to try, at least once in their life, the ortolans à l’ armagnac.

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Normally, it is more than enough to satisfy this morbid curiosity with a single piece, although the chronicles assure that the dying Mitterrand pushed two gardeners between chest and back that evening. It was his last whim. He would pass away just two weeks later.

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