An ortolan.

One of the pleasures of reading old books is that you frequently encounter unusual words or words that are no longer in common use. So I found while reading an early passage in The Three Musketeers, in which d’Artagnan threatens an innkeeper and his employees if they cannot find an important letter that has been lost:

“My letter of recommendation,” cried d’Artagnan, “on the holy blood, I will split you all like ortolans.”

What, pray tell, is an ortolan?

In olden times I would have gone to a dictionary on a bookshelf to find the answer. Now I consult an Internet dictionary on my phone.

An ortolan, I find, is a European songbird that, back in Alexandre Dumas’s day (the 1800s), was sliced and eaten as a delicacy on the French table.

The French are known for that, you know, eating unusual gourmet delicacies. I once had frog legs sold to me a Parisian street vendor on Boulevard Saint-Michel. Buttery and with garlic, it wasn’t half bad.