This section is from the book "The Steward's Handbook And Guide To Party Catering", by Jessup Whitehead. Also available from Amazon: Larousse Gastronomique.
A famous luxury of ancient and modern epicures, concerning which there are more stories of reckless expenditure and extravagance told than of any other rare dainty whatever, not excepting even the truffle. The ortolan is a small bird comparable to the rice bird of America; its home is Italy, France and southern Europe generally. The scarcity of the bird as compared with the demand gives it prominence as a most expensive morsel.
Soyer says: "Florence and Bologna sent to Rome cases of ortolans, the enormous price of which irritated instead of discouraging gluttony. They arrived in the metropolis of the world, picked and separated one from the other by layers of flour to prevent decomposition. Each of these little birds furnish only a mouthful; but this incomparable mouthful eclipsed everything else, and produced a sort of epicurean ecstasy which may be called the transcendantalism of gastronomy".
"At this time of year the caterer must perforce meet the appetite of his epicurean customers for 'winged game' by placing on menu ortolans and quails. The former delicious little birds - 'lumps of delight,' as some enthusiastic gourmet has described them - are too expensive for ordinary diners, and the quail is the only really popular game substitute".
"Ortolans should not be killed with violence, like other birds, as this might crush and bruise the delicate flesh - to avoid which the usual mode is to plunge the head of the ortolan into a glass of brandy".
"Having picked the bird of its feathers, singe it, cut off the beak and ends of the feet, but do not draw it; put it into a paper case soaked in olive-oil, and broil it over a slow fire - charcoal or slack cinders - and in a few minutes the ortolan will swim in its own fat and be cooked. Some epicures wrap each bird in a vine leaf".
"One of the dishes for the supper-table, upon the occasion of a grand ball given by Sir Julian Goldsmid on the 15th of June last. Everything was carried out upon the most magnificent scale; the table decorations were elaborate and beautiful, and the service was all in gold!" - "Bone the ortolans; fill them with a puree of foie gras incorporated with a little chicken forcemeat. Next roll each bird in a leaf of buttered paper, and poach them in an oven. When cold, the paper should be removed, each ortolan carefully trimmed, and the whole covered neatly with a brown chaud-froid sauce, flavored with an extract prepared from bones of the birds".
The birds trussed without drawing them. First a vine-leaf and then a slice of bacon laid over the breast of each and tied on with a string. Roasted at quick fire in about 25 minutes; served on toast with their own gravy, and orange sauce aside.
Large truffles with part of the inside removed and an ortolan placed inside; in a saucepan with slices of bacon, and wine, etc.; served in the truffles on toast, with sauce made of the essence in the saucepan.
Name of the dish of ortolans in truffles.