Writing about the food of Japanese monks and nuns for a magazine like this one presented a conceptual difficulty. From the Buddhist perspective, cooking is a form of spiritual practice that produces nourishment to prepare the body for hard work and meditation. Unlike, say, Memphis barbecue or the cuisine of Lyonnaise bouchons, shojin doesnâ€™t have a whole lot to say on the subject of pleasure. Shojin has bigger fish to fry. Its goals are nothing less than permanent enlightenment, nirvana, the fundamental transformation of the human mind and society. It does not fit easily into the hedonistic, novelty-addled world of food journalism.
Before every other restaurant extolled the virtues of seasonal produce, there was shojin ryori, a Buddhist cuisine reimagined by monk chef Toshio Tanahashi.
I chanced upon my salvation, journalistically speaking, in the person of Toshio Tanahashi. Heâ€™d practiced the art of shojin as a Zen monk in a rural temple near Kyoto and then did something unprecedentedâ€”he opened a restaurant in Tokyoâ€™s chic Omotesando neighborhood that presented vegan monastic cuisine in a fine-dining context. The restaurant, Gesshin Kyo, became both successful and influential. Reviewing it for the New York Times, author and culinary authority Elizabeth Andoh described it as a â€œsecular space imbued with a spiritual respect for food.â€ It was a spiritual respect that nonetheless made room for distinctly un-Japanese elements like tomatoes, mangoes, and white bordeaux. Freed from temple kitchens and its role as nourishment, shojin dazzled Tanahashiâ€™s diners with its unfamiliar and subtle beauty. The Zen monk had become a famous chef by reimagining monk food.
Tanahashi closed Gesshin Kyo after 15 years, in 2006. Along the way he wrote two books about shojin ryori and came to see it as a corrective to the worldâ€™s restaurant culture, which he believes to be addled with costly, scarce, and unhealthy ingredients. …
[S]hojin [is] world poised between the rigorous simplicity of spiritual practice and its often exquisite trappings. Consider the tools found in a shojin kitchen. On the day we met, Tanahashi brought me to Aritsugu, renowned as a shrine among the international brotherhood of knife fetishists. The family-owned shop has been in continuous operation since 1560 and once supplied swords to the Imperial House of Japan.
At the modern-day shop in Kyotoâ€™s enclosed Nishiki Market, we shimmied past vitrines of eye-wateringly expensive sashimi blades to a back room, where a soft-spoken manager showed us the principal tools of the shojin chef. There was an adorably petite vegetable cleaver called a nakiri-bocho; a one-sided grater of tinned copper trimmed in magnolia wood and deer antler used for working with lotus root and wasabi; and a strainer-ricer made of the braided hairs of a horseâ€™s tail bound with a band of cherry bark. These utensils, made by hand, were remarkably beautiful.
â€œThings that are made by humans for humans are good for the spirit,â€ Tanahashi declared. He explained that shojin kitchens forbid plastic and machinery. Taking care of oneâ€™s tools, he added, turning the cleaver in his hand, was in itself a form of Buddhist meditation.
Over the next several days, Tanahashi led me on a breakneck tour of shojinâ€”not the grand theory behind it, but the myriad building blocks. He referred to it as my â€œeducation.â€ At an antique lacquerware shop called Uruwashiya, behind one of those dimly lit Kyoto storefronts that always look closed, Akemi Horiuchi, the elegant proprietor, showed us the most important dishes used in serving shojinâ€”several attractively worn red bowls and a matching tray. Red is the auspicious color of the temples, she explained, and the trayâ€™s raised edge indicates that it encloses a sacred space. Shojin must be served in handmade vessels, and few are as painstakingly handmade as theseâ€”delicately carved wood covered with layer upon layer of urushi lacquer, making the dishes supple, lightweight, and resilient. The lacquer on the bowls Horiuchi showed us had faded in placesâ€”a prized quality, she saidâ€”because they were made nearly 500 years ago, in Sen no Rikyuâ€™s lifetime.
Every detail inside the out-of-time barn carried hidden meaning. There were flickering candles elevated on spikes, all thinly spread out to help workers navigate the blackness without fear of treading on the prized crop. There were shadowy hoes propped against the brick walls to help mulch the earth. There was the outline of gas propane heaters, and a sprinkler system to intensify the heat and humidity in the dark. There were around half a million buds â€“ all cultivated in rows and all making groaning sounds as they germinated at an unnatural speed. It was a riveting exhibition of Mother Nature at work, yet a display teetering on the edge of the surreal. And one all-the-more glorious for rarely being seen by outsiders.
Come to West Yorkshire during the rhubarb harvest in mid-winter and you can expect to hear tales of this strange agricultural ritual. Here, land gathers into a swathe of greenbelt that points to the cities of Bradford, Leeds and Wakefield. Some 23 sq km in area, the realm is punctuated by the odd cathedral and castle and framed by plunging dales to the north and the gently sloping foothills of the Pennines to the west. But it is also a pocket of frozen, flinty soil with high rainfall where one of the worldâ€™s most complex vegetables grows in abundance. And it would be a peculiar place even without the name â€˜the Rhubarb Triangleâ€™. …
â€œRhubarb has been called â€˜Godâ€™s great giftâ€™,â€ said Oldroyd Hulme, who is also known as the â€˜high priestess of rhubarbâ€™ for her knowledge on the subject. â€œWatch and you can see the plants shooting towards the light â€“ just as we would warm our hands on a fire.â€
A notoriously fickle vegetable to harvest, Yorkshire forced rhubarb is anything but easy to grow. It thrives in the countyâ€™s cold winters, but if the soil is too wet, it canâ€™t be planted. If the temperature is too hot, it wonâ€™t grow; and 10 or more frosts are needed before a farmer can even think about forcing it. Only then can horticulturalists remove the heavy roots from the field, then clean and replant them inside the forcing sheds where photosynthesis is limited, encouraging glucose stored in the roots to stimulate growth. It demands patience, expertise and good fortune, and, ultimately, it is engineered for maximum taste: once deprived of light, the vegetable is forced to use the energy stored in its roots, making it far sweeter than the normal variety.
Last month, a challenge from Durham University spurred bakers to whip up a soul cake, a bygone bun once integral to a medieval tradition of feeding the poor and honoring the dead. But, in the spirit of competitive baking reality shows, there was a catch: Nobody really knows how, traditionally, it was supposed to be baked.
We know generally what soul cakes looked like, and what was inside of them. We know that bakers crafted them into small, round, square, or oval bunsâ€”garnishing the top with currants in the shape of a cross. And we know its purpose: Giving a soul cake to someone in poverty allegedly freed a departed soul from Purgatory. But weâ€™re still in the dark about its intended taste and texture, and exactly how to go about concocting a soul cake in true medieval fashion.
â€œWe have a recipe from a household book from 1604 compiled by a certain Lady Elinor Fettiplace that includes a recipe for a soul cake,â€ says Dr. Barbara Ravelhofer, a professor of English literature at Durham University and facilitator of the soul cake challenge. â€œHowever, it doesnâ€™t give us the quantitiesâ€”nor does it tell us how long to bake it. So you have to work out for yourself what to do with the ingredients.â€ Spearheaded by Dr. Ravelhofer and the Records of Early English Drama North East team, the Great Northern Soul Cake Bake doubles as a competition and crowdsourcing project. By challenging the public to decode the bare-bones recipe, the research team hopes to understand and resurrect the original soul cakeâ€”as well as the tradition that surrounds it.
Soul cakes are connected to Britainâ€™s early Christian celebrations known as All Saintsâ€™ Day and All Soulsâ€™ Day, Halloween-like festivities commemorating the recently departed. On November 2nd, beggars would weave their way through the chilly darkness, rapping on wealthy homeownersâ€™ doors in exchange for a soul cake. But obtaining it was no cake walk. To successfully soul, one had to sing for sweets.
Whether it be musical or theatrical, souling required performance in exchange for a cakeâ€”a tradition that looks a lot like modern-day trick-or-treating. And, though itâ€™s impossible to definitively claim souling as the progenitor of tricking and treating, Dr. Ravelhofer says theyâ€™re certainly connected. However, she points out, there are key differences. â€œA soul-caker was somebody who did something to obtain something,â€ she says. â€œWhereas trick-or-treating strikes me as, â€˜Give me something or else Iâ€™ll do something.â€™â€
Demanding candy door-to-door, she posits, is a â€œslightly degenerated, commercialized formâ€ of the All Soulsâ€™ Day transactions of medieval Europe. Souling, Dr. Ravelhofer adds, also had a strong connection to charity and memoriam. The act of doling out freshly baked goods, while thinking of a â€œpoor, departed soul,â€ filled two needs with one deed, giving to the hungry and freeing a soul in question from Purgatory in one fell swoop.
While vestigial remnants of this practice can still be found in some parts of England, the tradition of souling, and the cakes that came with it, have since disappearedâ€”until now.
To more fully understand the history and tradition of All Souls Day, Dr. Ravelhofer and her team devised the bake off. The technical challenge (the first of a series of three) called for readers to recreate a successful iteration of the festive bun using only Elinor Fettiplaceâ€™s 17th-century recipe, which reads:
â€œTake flower & sugar & nutmeg & cloves & mace & sweet butter & sack & a little ale barm, beat your spice & put in your butter & your sack, cold, then work it well all together & make it in little cakes & so bake them, if you will you may put in some saffron into them or fruit.â€
Folks from across the globe responded, submitting recipes, photographs, and anecdotes via email, Facebook, and Twitter, with results ranging from wild successes to valiant flops.
â€œWe had proper food archaeologists who really got into the spirit of things, and then we had candidates who tried to microwave it,â€ says Dr. Ravelhofer.
David Petts, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at Durham University, posted about his soul cakes on his personal blog, likening them to â€œslightly dense hot-cross buns.â€ Another participant found that using a ruby or dark ale gave the cakes a soft, chewy texture. Yet another made a successful stoneground cake by adding rye, theorizing that medieval bakers may have used additional grains.
But cataloguing the failed cakes, Dr. Ravelhofer says, has been just as informative as admiring the more edible ones.
Understanding what doesnâ€™t work, and why, allows historians to do detective work when it comes to understanding what the recipe may or may not have looked like.
They’re staples on every American dining table and the requisite ingredients in virtually every European cuisine, so inseparable that polite society dictates they always be passed together. Salt and pepper are the undisputed champions of condimentsâ€”but how did they get so popular?
Picking, cooking, and eating flowers and wild herbs was once a common practice across rural Italy. From Naplesâ€™ sciurilli (deep fried courgette flowers) to Venetoâ€™s frittelle di fiori de gazia (acacia flowers doughnuts), most regions have a dish whose key ingredient is flowers. But after World War II, industrialization and urbanization led to the abandonment of this ancient tradition. Now, one woman is trying to bring it back.
Elena Rosa, whose last name literally means â€œRose,â€ is growing flowers, wild herbs, and rare vegetables in a two-hectare farm nestled between the wheat fields of rural Piedmont, about 30 miles from the snowcapped peaks of the Cottian Alps. Rosa grew up in Turin, Piedmontâ€™s main city, but spent summers with her grandparents in Ceresole Reale, a mountain village inside Gran Paradiso National Park. Thatâ€™s where she first learned about foraging.
â€œAs a kid, I loved helping my grandma picking vegetables,â€ she says. â€œI used to go out into the woods to look for wild caraway to make grappa.â€ Now, some 30 years later, sheâ€™s delivering flowers to the kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant. …
Common recipes included soups and frittatas made with luppolo (hop flower), jams and infusions made with rosa canina (dog rose), and dumplings filled with tarassaco (dandelion). Flowers were also a key ingredient in popular herb digestifs such as Serpui, a grappa seasoned with wild thyme, and Genepy, a spirit made with eponymous genepy herbs.
â€œWild flowers and herbs are rich in vitamins and minerals, and they were especially important during time of famine, disease, or war to provide sufficient nutrition to the population,â€ says Alessandro Di Tizio, a graduate of the University of Gastronomic Science in Pollenzo who works as a professional ethnobotanist. …
â€œAfter World War II, many young people left rural areas to look for work in cities, and were no longer interested in foraging,â€ De Tizio explains. â€œAnd those who stayed could often do without foraging thanks to newly available industrial products.â€ …
Two years ago, Rosa purchased abandoned farmland in Gemerello, a rural area at the foot of the Cottian Alps. After years of job-hopping, from sous-chef in a top restaurant to manager in a construction business, she was looking to start her own organic farm. The initial plan was to grow to grow regular crops, but her foraging sessions with â€œgrandma Irideâ€ inspired her to start what she calls an â€œancient seed farm.â€
She now grows roughly 200 different seeds, ranging from rare vegetables to wild plants and flowers including nasturtium, cornflower, and dahlias. â€œI have learned that flowers are very nutritious and can be used for a vast range of recipes,â€ Rosa says.
Flowers of Blitum virgatum, commonly known as leafy goosefoot (left), and a rare breed of calliope eggplant grown by Elena Rosa (right). Elena Rosa (left) and Vittoria Traverso (right)
But starting an ancient seed farm was not easy. Italyâ€™s byzantine bureaucracy was in the way. â€œLocal health authorities donâ€™t know how to rate flowers,â€ Rosa explains. â€œI got a mix of surprised and skeptical reactions when I explained you can actually eat them.â€
[D]espite bureaucratic obstacles, her products are slowly taking off. Last spring, Rosa brought a sample of her produce to Michelin star chef Christian Milone, who runs the family-owned restaurant Trattoria Zappatori in the nearby town of Pinerolo.
When Milone was a kid, wild flowers and herbs were a staple ingredient in his parentsâ€™ kitchen. â€œFrittatas with luppolo (hop flowers) were one of my favorite dishes,â€ he says. Tasting Rosaâ€™s sample was like re-discovering long-lost flavors.
A month later, Milone was serving dishes prepared with Rosaâ€™s herbs and flowers. One such floral creation is crostino con erba ostrica, a bread crouton topped with Mertensia maritima, a wild herb known as oyster leaf due to its oyster-like taste, and garnished with violets, daisies, and cornflower petals. â€œItâ€™s like an oyster for vegans,â€ Rosa says.
Somebody has to try these things for the rest of us. Jason Gay did.
I ate a $180 steak sandwich. Not for me; donâ€™t be ridiculous. I did it for journalism.
Letâ€™s dispense with the obvious: A $180 steak sandwich is an indefensible purchase. It is a foodstuff strictly for vulgarians, a decadent symbol of 21st-century gluttony and the over-luxurification of everything. To buy it is to wallow in oneâ€™s privilege, oneâ€™s shameless indifference to the plight of humankind.
Other than that, itâ€™s pretty tasty. …
Unlike, say, the beignets at New Orleansâ€™ Cafe du Monde, the Don Wagyu $180 sandwich seems to be less of a foodieâ€™s bucket-list experience than a freak-show curiosity: How could a sandwich cost as much as a plane ticket to Florida? This is, after all, the type of thing that makes the rest of the planet think New Yorkers are out of their minds. Was the $180 sandwich a legitimate food experience or some kind of commentary on late-stage capitalism?
I should call the sandwich by its real name: the A5 Ozaki. The â€œA5â€ is a reference to the summit-grade of Japanese beef, and â€œOzakiâ€ is the farm from which Don Wagyu gets the meat (the only U.S. establishment to receive it, the server says while Iâ€™m there). Don Wagyu also serves more affordable Katsu sandosâ€”thereâ€™s a $22 off-menu burger, for exampleâ€”but the $180 Ozaki is the cleanup hitter at the bottom of the menu. It is served medium-rare.
Ordering the A5 Ozaki is not a showy experience. The lights do not dim, the kitchen does not clap; it does not require much more of a wait than a turkey club at a diner. A slice of beef is encrusted with panko, fried, placed on toasted white bread and served quartered, like a preschoolerâ€™s PB&J. Nori-sprinkled french fries and a pickle spear are the only accompaniments.
Breaking news: I liked it. Iâ€™m not a food critic. I hardly know my cuts of meat, and I cannot offer a detailed analysis of why the A5 Ozaki is $100 more of an event than the closest-priced item, the A5 Miyazaki. I will not try to justify paying such an absurd amount for a single piece of food, especially one that can be tidily consumed in the space of five minutes. But the A5 Ozaki was light and buttery to the point of being almost ethereal, as if the sandwich knew the pressure of delivering on its comical price.
Which, of course, it does not. There is no sandwich that is possibly worth $180. But thatâ€™s the thrill (and the crime) of extravagance, is it not? Eating this thing felt right and completely wrongâ€”more like a caper than a lunch.
One of the items I was reading yesterday in connection with the death of Anthony Bourdain referenced this must-read Esquire article on the last meal of French President FranÃ§ois Mitterrand, dying of cancer in 1996. They were right: this is a great read.
He planned his annual pilgrimage to Egyptâ€”with his mistress and their daughterâ€”to see the Pyramids, the monumental tombs of the pharaohs, and the eroded Sphinx. Thats what his countrymen called him, the Sphinx, for no one really knew for sure who he wasâ€”aesthete or whoremonger, Catholic or athiest, fascist or socialist, anti-Semite or humanist, likable or despicable. And then there was his aloof imperial power. Later, his supporters simply called him Dieuâ€”God.
He had come here for this final dialogue with the pharaohsâ€”to mingle with their ghosts and look one last time upon their tombs. The cancer was moving to his head now, and each day that passed brought him closer to his own vanishing, a crystal point of pain that would subsume all the other pains. It would be so much easier … but then no. He made a phone call back to France. He asked that the rest of his family and friends be summoned to Latche and that a meal be prepared for New Year’s Eve. He gave a precise account of what would be eaten at the table, a feast for thirty people, for he had decided that afterward, he would not eat again.
“I am fed up with myself,” he told a friend.
And so we’ve come to a table set with a white cloth. An armada of floating wine goblets, the blinding weaponry of knives and forks and spoons. Two windows, shaded purple, stung by bullets of cold rain, lashed by the hurricane winds of an ocean storm.
The chef is a dark-haired man, fiftyish, with a bowling-ball belly. He stands in front of orange flames in his great stone chimney hung with stewpots, finely orchestrating each octave of taste, occasionally sipping his broths and various chorded concoctions with a miffed expression. In breaking the law to serve us ortolan, he gruffly claims that it is his duty, as a Frenchman, to serve the food of his region. He thinks the law against serving ortolan is stupid. And yet he had to call forty of his friends in search of the bird, for there were none to be found and almost everyone feared getting caught, risking fines and possible imprisonment.
But then another man, his forty-first friend, arrived an hour ago with three live ortolans in a small pouchâ€”worth up to a hundred dollars each and each no bigger than a thumb. They’re brown-backed, with pinkish bellies, part of the yellowhammer family, and when they fly, they tend to keep low to the ground and, when the wind is high, swoop crazily for lack of weight. In all the world, they’re really caught only in the pine forests of the southwestern Landes region of France, by about twenty families who lay in wait for the birds each fall as they fly from Europe to Africa. Once caughtâ€”they’re literally snatched out of the air in traps called matolesâ€”they;re locked away in a dark room and fattened on millet; to achieve the same effect, French kings and Roman emperors once blinded the bird with a knife so, lost in the darkness, it would eat twenty-four hours a day.
And so, a short time ago, these three ortolansâ€”our three ortolansâ€”were dunked and drowned in a glass of Armagnac and then plucked of their feathers. Now they lie delicately on their backs in three cassoulets, wings and legs tucked to their tiny, bloated bodies, skin the color of pale autumn corn, their eyes small, purple bruises andâ€”here’s the thingâ€”wide open.
When we’re invited back to the kitchen, that’s what I notice, the open eyes on these already-peppered, palsied birds and the gold glow of their skin. The kitchen staff crowds around, craning to see, and when we ask one of the dishwashers if he’s ever tried ortolan, he looks scandalized, then looks back at the birds. “I’m too young, and now it’s against the law,” he says longingly. “But someday, when I can afford one . . .” Meanwhile, Sara has gone silent, looks pale looking at the birds.
Back at the chimney, the chef reiterates the menu for Mitterrand’s last meal, including the last course, as he puts it, “the birdies.” Perhaps he reads our uncertainty, a simultaneous flicker of doubt that passes over our respective faces. “It takes a culture of very good to appreciate the very good,” the chef says, nosing the clear juices of the capon rotating in the fire. “And ortolan is beyond even the very good.”
The fish specialty is reasonably priced, and the place got two stars in the Times. Why not go for it? If you like four-day-old fish, be my guest. Hereâ€™s how things usually work. The chef orders his seafood for the weekend on Thursday night. It arrives on Friday morning. Heâ€™s hoping to sell the bulk of it on Friday and Saturday nights, when he knows that the restaurant will be busy, and heâ€™d like to run out of the last few orders by Sunday evening. Many fish purveyors donâ€™t deliver on Saturday, so the chances are that the Monday-night tuna you want has been kicking around in the kitchen since Friday morning, under God knows what conditions. When a kitchen is in full swing, proper refrigeration is almost nonexistent, what with the many openings of the refrigerator door as the cooks rummage frantically during the rush, mingling your tuna with the chicken, the lamb, or the beef. Even if the chef has ordered just the right amount of tuna for the weekend, and has had to reorder it for a Monday delivery, the only safeguard against the seafood supplierâ€™s off-loading junk is the presence of a vigilant chef who can make sure that the delivery is fresh from Sunday nightâ€™s market.
Generally speaking, the good stuff comes in on Tuesday: the seafood is fresh, the supply of prepared food is new, and the chef, presumably, is relaxed after his day off. (Most chefs donâ€™t work on Monday.) Chefs prefer to cook for weekday customers rather than for weekenders, and they like to start the new week with their most creative dishes. In New York, locals dine during the week. Weekends are considered amateur nightsâ€”for tourists, rubes, and the well-done-ordering pretheatre hordes. The fish may be just as fresh on Friday, but itâ€™s on Tuesday that youâ€™ve got the good will of the kitchen on your side.
People who order their meat well-done perform a valuable service for those of us in the business who are cost-conscious: they pay for the privilege of eating our garbage. In many kitchens, thereâ€™s a time-honored practice called â€œsave for well-done.â€ When one of the cooks finds a particularly unlovely piece of steakâ€”tough, riddled with nerve and connective tissue, off the hip end of the loin, and maybe a little stinky from ageâ€”heâ€™ll dangle it in the air and say, â€œHey, Chef, whaddya want me to do with this?â€ Now, the chef has three options. He can tell the cook to throw the offending item into the trash, but that means a total loss, and in the restaurant business every item of cut, fabricated, or prepared food should earn at least three times the amount it originally cost if the chef is to make his correct food-cost percentage. Or he can decide to serve that steak to â€œthe familyâ€â€”that is, the floor staffâ€”though that, economically, is the same as throwing it out. But no. What heâ€™s going to do is repeat the mantra of cost-conscious chefs everywhere: â€œSave for well-done.â€ The way he figures it, the philistine who orders his food well-done is not likely to notice the difference between food and flotsam.
Even more despised than the Brunch People are the vegetarians. Serious cooks regard these members of the dining publicâ€”and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegansâ€”as enemies of everything thatâ€™s good and decent in the human spirit. To live life without veal or chicken stock, fish cheeks, sausages, cheese, or organ meats is treasonous.
Like most other chefs I know, Iâ€™m amused when I hear people object to pork on nonreligious grounds. â€œSwine are filthy animals,â€ they say. These people have obviously never visited a poultry farm. Chickenâ€”Americaâ€™s favorite foodâ€”goes bad quickly; handled carelessly, it infects other foods with salmonella; and it bores the hell out of chefs. It occupies its ubiquitous place on menus as an option for customers who canâ€™t decide what they want to eat. Most chefs believe that supermarket chickens in this country are slimy and tasteless compared with European varieties. Pork, on the other hand, is cool. Farmers stopped feeding garbage to pigs decades ago, and even if you eat pork rare youâ€™re more likely to win the Lotto than to contract trichinosis. Pork tastes different, depending on what you do with it, but chicken always tastes like chicken.
In this week’s episode of “Billions,” Axe has a Last Supper, prior to facing prison, described by Sean T. Collins, at the New York Times:
Axe and Wags, sitting at a table with cloth napkins draped over their heads, faces obscured, â€œfor two reasons,â€ as Wags puts it: â€œto keep the aromas from escaping, and to hide this shameful and depraved act from God.â€
Like the dying Mitterand, they are eating ortalans.
Anthony Bourdain, in his book, Medium Raw, describes a life-altering meal he was lucky enough to be invited to. Many great chefs were invited to a top flight restaurant for a late night dinner. No names are mentioned as they are about to taste forbidden fruits. I will not discuss the preliminary food other than to say that the dishes were old French standards, largely out of favor in todayâ€™s â€œhipâ€ culinary environment.
But, the main course, the reason they were invited in the first place, was something called Ortolan. Francis Mitterrand ate Ortolan for his last meal as he was dying. It is illegal in the US and illegal to sell even in France, although you can make it and eat it. The only reason it is illegal is that the bird is a threatened species. The ortolan for this New York dinner was smuggled in, according to Bourdain.
So, what is this life altering meal? It is Ortolan, a small bird in the bunting family. It is a traditional French delicacy going back to Roman times. The birds are caught in nets and placed in cages covered to make the bird think it is night all the time. They are fed millet, oats and figs and gorge themselves as they feed at night. When they are two to three times their normal size, they are killed, plucked and roasted.
The flames in the cocottes burn down, and the Ortolans are distributed, one to each guest. Everyone at this table knows what to do and how to do it. We wait for the sizzling flesh and fat before us to quiet down a bit. We exchange glances and grins and then, simultaneously, we place our napkins over our heads, hiding our faces from God, and with burning fingertips lift our birds gingerly by their hot skulls, placing them feet-first into our mouths â€“ only their heads and beaks protruding.
In the darkness under my shroud, I realize that in my eagerness to fully enjoy the experience, Iâ€™ve closed my eyes. First comes the skin and the fat. Itâ€™s hot. So hot that Iâ€™m drawing short, panicky, circular breaths in and out â€“ like a high-speed trumpet player, breathing around the ortolan, shifting it gingerly around my mouth with my tongue so I donâ€™t burn myself. I listen for the sounds of jaws against bone around me but hear only others breathing, the muffled hiss od rapidly moving air through teeth under a dozen linen napkins. Thereâ€™s a vestigal flavor of Armagnac, low-hanging fumes of airborne fat particles, an intoxicating dekicious miasma. Time goes by. Seconds? Moments? I donâ€™t know. I hear the first snap of tiny bones from somewhere near and decide to brave it. I bring my molars down and through my birdâ€™s rib cage with a wet crunch and am rewarded with a scalding hot rush of burning fat and guts down my throat. Rarely have pain and delight combined so well. Iâ€™m giddily uncomfortable, breathing in short, controlled gasps as I continue slowly â€“ ever so slowly â€“ to chew. With every bite, as the thin bones and layers of fat, meat, skin, and organs compact in on themselves, there are sublime dribbles of varied and wonderous ancient flavors: figs, Armagnac, dark flesh slightly infused with the salty taste of my own blood as my mouth is pricked by the sharp bones. As I swallow, I draw in the head and beak, which, until now, have been hanging from my lips, and blithely crush the skull.
There are many myths and mysteries surrounding the ritual of making queimada, the â€œfire drinkâ€ of Galicia, which is thought to have originated in ancient times when Celts established villages and settled in the region of Galicia. … This is the perfect specialty drink for an outdoor Halloween or winter party.
For the preparation of this drink, you will need a large fireproof clay pot or bowl, sealed or glazed on the interior and a very long-handled wooden spoon to stir the queimada. Sets of clay pots and glasses made specifically for this purpose are available through grocery stores and websites specializing in Spanish food.
What You’ll Need:
1 liter orujo (substitute Italian grappa if orujo not available)
2/3 cup granulated sugar
Rind of one lemon cut into strips
Scant 1/4 cup whole coffee beans
How to Make It:
Place the clay pot or bowl on a fireproof table of atop a cold BBQ grill. Be sure to have a large lid handy to put out the flames.
Pour approximately 4 tablespoons orujo and 1 tablespoon sugar into a small glass and stir to dissolve sugar, then set aside.
Pour the rest of the orujo and remaining sugar into the clay bowl and stir. Add the lemon peel and coffee beans and stir again.
Pour the orujo and sugar mixture from the glass into a ladle and light it on fire. Carefully move the ladle very close to the clay pot until the orujo mixture in the pot catches fire. Stir frequently until the flames turn blue. Slide the lid over the pot to put out the flames. Serve hot.