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Ortolan

16 February 2004

Actually, I quite like being convalescent. I am now, officially so: I tested the legs on Wednesday, and I could walk; I tested the head on Thursday, and I could talk; on Friday evening I went to town, for a reading by Margaret Murphy, my friend and fellow-Murder Squaddie. And managed the walk down, an hour at the gig (with a sensible question too), half an hourís chat with Margaret over a drink afterwards and then the walk back home again. Thatís official, I can walk and talk, and what else am I for?

Thatís a question that answers itself. I decided that Friday was enough, and Iíve spent all weekend back in my previous routine, which suits me very well at the moment. Talked to nobody, did nothing more adventurous than a little light shopping; otherwise did those solitary things that I do so well, watching TV and listening to the radio and reading. And, betweentimes, writing. Iíve written lots, ten thousand words this week. And the thing is, the secret Iím reluctant to share - Iím enjoying it. Honest. Sad it may be, but this kind of life is one of my ideas of fun. I like watching movies, I like reading books; I like cooking to a soundtrack, I like hot baths and Radio 4, I like the World Service in the dead of night; I really donít need company for any of it. And I really, really like it when Iím working well. Itís not just that I like myself for doing it, though that is a feature. I like the thing itself, I like the work when itís rolling. Right now Iím really excited about the ortolan, Iíve just discovered the haute cuisine rituals for eating it and Iím stealing them all for the book, and that goes in tomorrow, Iíve been looking forward to it for days; and Iíve been fighting off the urge to talk about it here because itís just so wonderful, but I donít want to pre-empt the luck, so the bird goes in the book and you can read about it there. I will tell you this, though, because it has no place in the book: that my friends Harry and Louise gave me the new edition of Larousse Gastronomique for my birthday, and one of the interesting questions has been how much it differs from the previous edition, which I also have. One of the answers is in its treatment of the ortolan. The 1960 (tr 1977) edition has half a page, and nine recipes; the 2000 (tr 2001) edition has a paragraph and no recipes, the bird having become a protected species in the meantime. I am outraged. Recipes are knowledge, they are inherent in the sum of human history and culture, they donít cease to exist just because the ingredients are no longer available. I shall organise a campaign of protest from my highest horse.

Besides, the bird is still eaten, albeit sub rosa. The last thing President Mitterrand ever ate was an ortolan. He invited friends round for a final dinner; they ate oysters, foie gras, capon - and ortolan. Indeed, he broke entirely with tradition and ate two. No dessert, no fruit, and he refused any food thereafter and died within the week. Forgive me, but that is the way to go. Truly the grand manner.

As for the grand manner of eating the ortolan - well, youíll have to wait for the book.


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© Chaz Brenchley 2004
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.