I did. Jonny is a mercurial gastronome who delights in language almost as much as he relishes food, and I knew that when he said “perverse” he really meant it.
In France, he said, there is a certain songbird: the ortolan. It is about the size of your hand and rather plain, but for connoisseurs of the dark culinary arts, it is the ultimate test of a chef’s skill – and morality.
Well, at least it was until fairly recently. The French government has banned the killing and cooking of ortolans, partly because they are so rare and partly because (here the storyteller laughed at the awfulness of what he was about to reveal) it’s just so completely depraved.
Ortolans are too small and delicate to be shot, he explained, and so instead they are trapped and put inside a box. A box full of grain. Into which no light whatsoever can penetrate. And so the frightened bird begins to eat. It eats and eats, growing fat on the grain that is its only comfort in a hellish universe.
At last the bird is taken out of its endless midnight . and promptly drowned in a vat of Armagnac, a type of brandy. Its lungs fill with the liquor; a self-marinating delicacy.
The bird is cooked whole, bones and all, and the diners assemble. But instead of sharing their experience, they drape a large napkin over their heads and eat in the solitude of this small linen tent. Some say that the napkin traps the aromas, bathing the diners’ faces in a steamy mist of tortured songbird. Others say it allows them to spit out the bones without looking disgusting. But apparently the napkin’s most important purpose is to hide them from the disappointed gaze of God.
Jonny was laughing uproariously at the macabre spectacle of a tableful of French Ku Klux Klan lookalikes hiding from the Almighty as they wolfed down the evidence of a terrible crime. For me, it was a curiously human scene, like children driven by some barbaric curiosity into killing a frog, now hiding from their mother.
It reminded me of the tensions that lurk in our relationship with animals, especially the animals we eat. I had heard of culinary traditions that verge on psychopathy. For example ikizukuri, the Japanese art of slicing up a sea creature, like a fish or an octopus, but leaving all the organs functioning so you can eat a still-writhing animal. But I had never before seen so clearly that child-like intersection of cruelty and shame.
It was the Stone Age equivalent of #Blessed
I suspect we’ve been living with that intersection since the first human bludgeoned a passing rat. As we got better at hunting, we got better at denial, too, kidding ourselves that if we thanked a buck before we cut its throat and had a little spiritual moment, everything was in balance. It was the Stone Age equivalent of #Blessed: if you’re grateful for it, it doesn’t matter how you got it.
(By the way, can we stop kidding ourselves that our ancestors “lived in harmony with nature”? If they’d had AK-47s they would have turned the planet into a meat loaf faster than you can say “Hasta la vista, bison!”)
If all of this is sounding a little combative, I apologise. The fact is I’ve given up bacon and I want to blame someone. But please don’t think I’m trying to take any moral high ground. You should keep eating what you like. I’m still going to eat every cow, sheep or chicken that crosses my path. That’s because I’m a human and therefore a hypocrite when it comes to food. (Yes, vegans, you too: you might be saving the big fur-people but your sprout farms are Armageddon for entire civilizations of creepy-crawlies.) All I’ve done is add pigs to the group of animals I’ve decided are lovable rather than edible. It’s not an ethical decision; it’s a sentimental one.
Then again, perhaps there is hope for us meat eaters. Even as I watch Babe, gently moaning and pawing the screen, scientists are hard at work making lab-grown flesh. Apparently the burger they conjured in a petri dish in 2013 tasted a bit like meat, though somewhat dry. So they’re already way ahead of McDonald’s.
It’s inevitable that this kind of meat will become more common. The planet can’t cope with the meat eaters it has, let alone the host of new carnivores appearing in the developing world and, by all accounts, petri flesh requires vastly less energy and water to produce. Soon I might be able to enjoy a rasher of facon while romping with my pet piglet, all the terrible contradictions removed by science.
But I wonder: when Jonny’s protégé prepares faux meat, will diners ask for it to look bloody? Will we always require evidence of a kill to really believe that it’s meat?