Bobby: If I ever do have a last supper, it's gonna be hard to top this.
Wags: Which is why I wanted you to have the ortolan tonight, commander, as a reminder of how alive you yet are.
Bobby: Wylie, how do I eat it?
Wylie Dufresne: Whole, sir. In France, ortolan were only ever to be eaten by royalty or in the monasteries. And hunters would bring them as absolute tribute for being allowed to work the land. The birds are trapped where grapes grow so their insides have the flavor of the terroir, [Wylie] the taste, of the land, all the way down to the guts and the bones. Which is why we don't carve them.
Wags: It's against the law to eat them in France now, isn't it?
Wylie Dufresne: Illegal the world over. Because there are those who don't recognize what truly matters.
Wags: Because they're so delicious?
Wylie: Because, in a crueler time, they were blinded. Their eyes would be gouged out so they would think it was nighttime, which makes them ravenous. So they would gorge themselves until they were three times their natural size. That we don't do anymore. But it's still death by Armagnac, they're drowned in it.
Wags: Very much how I'd like to go.
The ortolan (Emberiza hortulana) or ortolan bunting, is a bird in the bunting family Emberizidae, a passerine family now separated by most modern scholars from the finches, Fringillidae. The genus name Emberiza is from Old High German Embritz, a bunting. The specific hortulana is from the Italian name for this bird, ortolana. The English ortolan is derived from Middle French hortolan, "gardener".
The ortolan is served in French cuisine, typically cooked and eaten whole. Traditionally diners cover their heads with their napkin, or a towel while eating the delicacy. The bird is so widely used that its French populations dropped dangerously low, leading to laws restricting its use in 1999. In September 2007, the French government announced its intent to enforce long-ignored laws protecting the bird. It was famously eaten as the last New Year's Eve meal of former French President François Mitterrand before he died in early 1996.
The birds are caught with nets set during their autumn migratory flight to Africa. They are then kept in covered cages or boxes. The birds react to the dark cage by gorging themselves on grain, usually millet seed, until they double their bulk. Roman Emperors stabbed out ortolans’ eyes in order to make the birds think it was night, making them eat even more. The birds are then thrown into a container of Armagnac, which both drowns and marinates the birds. The bird is roasted for eight minutes and then plucked. The consumer then places the bird feet first into their mouth while holding onto the bird's head. The ortolan is then eaten whole, with or without the head and the consumer spits out the larger bones. The traditional way French gourmands eat ortolans is to cover their heads and face with a large napkin or towel while consuming the bird. The purpose of the towel is debated. Some claim it is to retain the maximum aroma with the flavour as they consume the entire bird at once, others have stated "Tradition dictates that this is to shield – from God’s eyes – the shame of such a decadent and disgraceful act", and others have suggested the towel hides the consumers spitting out bones. This use of the towel was begun by a priest, a friend of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.