Captured, blinded, bloated and drowned: how Haughey and Mitterrand showed their baser instincts
The ortolan-eating scene in ‘Charlie’, the RTÉ docudrama, tells us a lot about Charles Haughey and François Mitterrand – as well as something about ourselves
Hiding his shame from God: Aidan Gillen, as Charles Haughey, eats an ortolan under a napkin
French delicacy: an ortolan. Photograph: De Agostini/Getty
Given the abundance of grotesquerie offered by the biography of the former taoiseach Charles Haughey, it is surprising that the most bizarre moment (so far) in the TV docudrama Charlie is provided by a small bird at a dinner table.
The context for the party in question is already characteristically outlandish: Haughey and his mistress, Terry Keane, are entertaining the French president François Mitterrand and his mistress, Anne Pingeot, on our bankrupt leader’s private island, Inisvickillane. Entente cordiale, indeed.
By dinner-time, however, the mood is more black Mass than frolicking foursome. Mitterrand is clearly now The Boss, and is instructing CJ in one of the most arcane and disturbing rites in French cuisine: the preparation and ingestion of an ortolan.
He describes how this little bird is captured, blinded, bloated with food and drowned in cognac before it comes to the table. Haughey is a willing pupil.
He covers his head with napkin (“to hide our shame from God”). Then he holds the bird by its tiny beak and follows Mitterrand’s direction to “chew gentiment”, to properly appreciate, in sequence, the sweetness of flesh, the bitterness of entrails and the salt of his own blood when the bones pierce his gums.
The agnostic French leader delights in identifying each taste with a person in the Christian trinity, telling the taoiseach that through this “cruel and beautiful” sacrament he has “eaten the food of the gods”. A clearly impressed CJ emerges from under the napkin; he wipes a trickle of blood from his chin.
You could be forgiven for thinking that this scene is a crude dramatic device to amplify the moral corruption of two brutally power-hungry politicians – but that’s the thing about characters like Haughey and Mitterrand: you couldn’t possibly make them up.
It is a moot point whether these events actually took place, but Mitterrand did indeed demand ortolans on his death bed and consumed them according to the traditional ritual. Haughey’s adoption of the some of the trappings of aristocracy also makes this scene credible.
But what exactly, you may still be wondering, is an ortolan? The TV series suggests a “finch” or a “blue tit“, but it is neither. Nor is it, as Seán O’Rourke understandably thought on his show last week, “some kind of game bird”.
In fact it is a very pretty bunting, a songbird widespread in France, and related to our own lovely yellowhammer. And because we don’t eat songbirds in this country, Haughey’s decision to chew on it is repulsive to most of us. But perhaps those of us who are not vegetarians should pause for a moment, and wonder why this is.
Why is that many of us are quite comfortable eating “game” birds – pheasant, duck, and snipe – but balk at putting a robin on the table? It can’t be entirely about protecting threatened species. After all, the robin is a much more common bird than the snipe.
So maybe it is about cruelty? The treatment of the ortolan is certainly abusive, by any standards. Perhaps, though, like me, you occasionally yield to the temptation of foie gras, or veal? Or maybe you eat crab claws, which are torn off living crabs as a matter of course by fishermen? If you have ever splashed out on lobster, it was probably boiled alive . . . we are in glass house territory here, that’s for sure.
The American environmental philosopher Bill Jordan says that there is something inevitably “shameful’ in our relationship with nature, because it necessarily entails killing and eating other creatures, including plants.
Many cultures have developed rituals to cope with this existential anxiety, he points out. Some Native Americans thank the slaughtered salmon for giving life to the tribe, for example; the English folk song John Barleycorn Must Die uneasily celebrates our annual sacrifice of grain for beer.
There are surely echoes of such ideas, however perversely expressed, in the ortolan ritual. Perhaps the real lesson is that all of us carnivores should think again about why and how we eat animals at all.
It is also important to remember that France has banned ortolan hunting since the 1990s, although some chefs want to revive it. So Mitterrand violated his own laws as he lay dying. Plus ça change. This is, after all, the man who turned a blind eye to Spanish death squads operating in the French Basque Country and himself ordered the fatal bombing of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior. He was, then, a rather appropriate dinner companion for Charles Haughey.
Charlie concludes on Sunday at 9.30pm on RTÉ One