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A Songbird for Charlie's supper

A Songbird for Charlie's supper

Wednesday 28 January 2015

We are a perverse lot when it comes to food. On the one hand, we are totally squeamish watching reality TV contestants eat live worms and insects, yet we think nothing of eating black pudding made from pig's blood! As the old saying goes, 'one man's meat is another man's poison'. There was, quite rightly, uproar over 'horse-gate', as people weren't aware of what they were buying; yet horsemeat has always been very popular in Belgium and in China. We wouldn't dream of eating a turtle, or snake blood, yet both are delicacies in Asia, while the guinea pig is a big delicacy in Peru.

As if that's not bad enough, people in Japan like to eat fugu, the puffer fish, which can kill you if not prepared and cooked by a specially trained chef. Another specialty is ikizukuri - sashimi prepared from a living fish. The chef guts and fillets the fish without killing it first. But it's not just fish - the live list goes on: eel, snakes, fruit bats in coconut milk, octopus in Korea, and if you ever see Odori ebi 'dancing shrimp' in Japan, or 'drunken shrimp' in China, think before you order, they may still be moving their legs and antenna as they dangle from your chopsticks!

Rene Redzepi, of Noma in Copenhagen, the number-one restaurant in the world, caused a culinary frisson a couple of years ago by serving live ants with creme fraiche when Noma did a pop-up restaurant in Claridge's in London. Apparently, ants are light and citrusy, with a flavour of lemongrass! They are featuring now on Noma's pop-up restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo - where there is a 60,000-person waiting list for a seat.

However, the latest food 'scandal' here, and the subject of conversation over foodie dining tables in the past couple of weeks, has been a tiny little songbird. The ortolan, a pretty bird that weighs less than an ounce, is just a mere mouthful. Charlie Haughey and Terry Keane were always the subject of chat and gossip, but it seems in Charlie, the latest TV rendition of their story, the bird became the unwitting star!

According to the TV show, Charlie and Terry were hosting the French president, Francois Mitterrand, and his mistress, Anne Pingeot, on Charlie's private island, Inishvickillane, where Mitterrand apparently initiated them in the barbaric delights of consuming ortolan - reputedly his favourite delicacy and his last meal on this earth.

Like many other worldwide 'delicacies', the killing and cooking of the ortolan is now banned in France, where they were traditionally popular in the south-west. The ban was imposed because they were becoming an endangered species. However, a number of leading French chefs, including the legendary Alain Ducasse, have lobbied the French government to partially reverse the ban on killing and cooking the birds.

It's not possible to shoot small birds out of the sky, as there would be nothing left to consume, so they are caught using nets and traps. They are then kept in cages or dark boxes where they are fattened up on grain to double their size.

When they are ready 'for the table', they are drowned in a vat of Armagnac, extinguishing their little lives and marinating them at the same time. They are then stuffed, roasted briefly and eaten whole - bones and all, apart from the feet - with the diner traditionally covering its head with a white napkin to 'hide his shame from God' - a custom attributed to a priest friend of legendary chef Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.

I've never been faced with the prospect of eating an ortolan. It strikes me as a sort of horrible 'he-man' habit for those who have something to prove. Both Jeremy Clarkson and Anthony Bourdain have caused furores by having partaken of and described their ortolan dinners.

I asked some of our top chefs had they ever eaten, prepared or been asked for ortolan.

Chef Richard Corrigan told me he had eaten it for the first time two years ago. "I was picked up in a private jet and flown down to a restaurant in south-western France with a high-profile chef and some others, where yet another very famous chef was cooking.

"When I entered, there were stuffed robins and ducks on a spit. I didn't even have time to think because, before I knew it, people were stuffing whole birds into their mouths and chewing and chewing. It's the whole grinding of the teeth, grinding, grinding, and grinding the little bones, and what bit of flesh there is, into a paste before they could swallow it. It's a bit like a cow chewing grass.

"I can honestly say it was the most decadent day of my life, but I was in the position of being a guest."

Ross Lewis of Dublin's Michelin-starred Chapter One restaurant told me that he had never tasted an ortolan, prepared one or, indeed, been ever asked for it as a dish.

Paul Cartwright of Roly's Bistro in Ballsbridge worked some 20 years ago both at Pierre Koffmann's very famous Tante Claire restaurant in London and also the Savoy Hotel.

"I never saw ortolan on a menu but I did see it served at a private dinner for five chefs. It was served in the chef's private diningroom, overlooking the kitchen through a glass wall. It's not a very nice practice and certainly wouldn't appeal to me."

John Howard owned and ran Charlie's favourite restaurant, Le Coq Hardi on Pembroke Road, for many years and if anyone knows what Charlie liked to eat, he does. He told me he would not have served ortolan, pointing out that it is illegal. As to the consuming of the ortolan on Inishvickillane, Howard said: "I am as confused about that scene as I am with a few other scenes in the series. I thought that was in France.

"Charlie liked game, he was very well up on his food and what he liked and didn't like. A later scene that looked like Le Coq Hardi, with the bill being presented by a waiter and Charlie taking a chequebook out of his pocket, was wrong - Charlie never wrote a cheque in his life! Another thing that struck me as odd, at the end, was seeing Charlie in a pinstripe suit. As far as I remember, Charlie never wore a pinstripe suit in his life!"

Whatever about the vegetarian issue, there is no doubt that the methods of hatching and dispatching a lot of 'culinary delights' are off-putting to most people. But there is a difference between something feeling strange because of cultural differences, like eating kangaroo or dog, and something feeling strange because we know the way in which it's produced is inherently wrong. It's something we don't like to think about as we continue to chomp through commercially farmed pigs and chickens!

Sunday Independent