Some of today’s most famous dishes evolved over centuries, starting out as simple recipes that metamorphosed until they became classics. Other dishes were created at a stroke, quite by accident, when a cook had a lucky touch of inspiration that produced pleasing results — especially for the diners.
But there were other dishes that were more or less made to order, dishes that were put together at a moment’s notice at some special occasion. That was the case with a chicken dish that was 220 years old last Saturday.
That dish is ‘poulet Marengo’, or chicken Marengo as we know it. This classic is the only dish I know of that was created on a battlefield. The battle, fought in the tiny Italian village of Marengo in Piedmont, ended in victory for the man who was to become Napoleon Bonaparte, although on the evening of June 14, 1800, he was still only Bonaparte.
Napoleon was famous for saying, among other things, that an army marches on its stomach. He didn’t actually use those words. What he said was: “C’est la soupe qui fait le soldat” — literally, it’s the soup that makes the soldier.
What he meant was that soldiers would win battles if their bellies were filled with good country soups.
Napoleon knew what he was talking about. He hated feeling even slightly hungry and as soon as he felt peckish he had to eat something at once. He had to satisfy his appetite immediately. He was a compulsive eater who ate quickly and badly. He did not have high culinary standards, either on manoeuvres or in the luxury of his Tuileries palace. He was always in a hurry, even when not fighting a battle, and he gulped down his food at all times.
He almost always lunched alone and roast chicken was his favourite dish. Even at the palace he seldom sat down in the dining room, preferring the corner of some occasional table.
He liked a glass of the best burgundy and chambertin was his favourite. But he always diluted it with water — for which all wine lovers will revile him for ever. On the other hand he drank vast quantities of coffee, which almost certainly contributed to the terrible stomach pains that were to attack him in later life. He eventually had a serious ulcer.
Unlike the traditional Frenchman who lives to eat, Napoleon ate to live and had none of the attributes we associate with the French gourmet and bon vivant.
This was nicely summed up by Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in his famous book The Philosopher in the Kitchen when writing about “the absent-minded, the garrulous, the busybodies, the ambitious and others who try to do two things at once and who eat only to fill their bellies”.
Brillat-Savarin continued: “Such a man was Napoleon. He was irregular in his meals and a quick and careless eater. But this was an instance of that absolute will-power which he applied to everything. As soon as his appetite made itself felt, it had to be satisfied immediately; and his kitchen services were so arranged that anywhere and at any time he had only to say the word, and a fowl, cutlets, and coffee could immediately be put before him.”
Wherever Napoleon went, his Swiss cook Henri Dunan was there to prepare a meal at a moment’s notice. Dunan left nothing to chance. He was an extremely well-organised and methodical Swiss whose supply system was foolproof.
No matter where Napoleon’s army went, Dunan had well-stocked kitchen wagons in which chickens were at different stages of roasting, so that Napoleon’s sudden desire to eat could be satisfied at once.
As soon as the battle of Marengo was won on that evening on June 14, 1800 — when Napoleon smashed the Austrian infantry — he summoned his officers to assess the losses of that day’s fighting and to plan the next day’s operations. He also ordered Dunan to produce a meal.
Under normal circumstances, even during or immediately after a battle, that request wouldn’t have presented any difficulties. But on that June 14 day Dunan had a problem of incredible magnitude: his kitchen wagons weren’t there. In the turmoil and mayhem of the battle, the wagons were still very much in the rear…and Napoleon wanted to eat immediately.
In his own carriage, Dunan had nothing but a drum of oil and a flask of good brandy. But, like all good cooks, he could improvise with speed and expertise. He immediately sent off some cavalrymen to the village of Marengo where many of the houses were nothing but smoking ruins.
They soon returned with several chickens they had requisitioned from a farm as well as some tomatoes and garlic from the farmer’s garden and also two dozen eggs.
The plucked and cleaned chickens were cut into serving pieces with a cavalry sabre and were soon sizzling and browning in some oil. A handful of garlic cloves were crushed between to two stones and added to the chicken. Several tomatoes were chopped up and thrown into the frying pan without being peeled — speed was more important than culinary refinement.
A few generous splashes of the finest brandy finished off the chicken which was transferred to a serving dish, the chicken pieces in the centre surrounded by a ring of fried eggs, like soldiers on ceremonial parade.
On a high from the nervous tension of the battle and the euphoria of victory, Napoleon and his officers tucked into this impromptu chicken creation and probably thought it was much better than it really was. No one, not even Dunan, thought the dish would be baptised poulet Marengo and that people would be making it, eating it and talking about it 220 years later. But that was its destiny.
French cooks later added wild or cultivated mushrooms and in Jura in the French Alps, cooks also fresh water crayfish and the dish became known as poulet aux écrevisses.
When news of the victory at Marengo reached Paris, the owners of the Grâce de Dieu restaurant in Rue Montmartre immediately gave the Marengo name to a veal stew that was their signature dish. It was quite fortuitous that both dishes have similar recipes.
If you want to try a poulet marengo recipe designed for the kitchen rather than the battlefield, you will need: one large chicken, salt and pepper, flour for dusting the chicken pieces, 3 tbsps of virgen extra olive oil, glass of brandy, glass of white wine, 6 tomatoes, bouquet garni, 2 garlic cloves (or to taste), 6 rounds of bread, oil for frying bread and the eggs, chopped parsley and 6 large eggs
Cut the raw chicken into 12 pieces or more, season to taste with salt and pepper, coat lightly with flour, and brown in a saucepan in hottish oil. Pour in the brandy and flambé the chicken. When the flames die down, add the wine, the peeled and seeded tomatoes cut into quarters, salt and pepper to taste, and the bouquet garni. Simmer for 40 minutes with the lid on.
Pound the garlic in a mortar. Cut six rounds of French bread and fry them in the oil. Extract the bouquet garni from the saucepan and skim any excess fat from the chicken juices. Stir in the mashed garlic until well amalgamated.
Arrange the pieces of fried bread round the rim of a hot oval serving dish with the fried eggs on top. Spoon the chicken pieces and their sauce into the centre and sprinkle with the finely hopped parsley.
Some cooks add mushrooms at the same time as the tomatoes and some use shallots instead of garlic. Either way you end up with a dish that’s fit for a general — even if he hasn’t come straight from winning an important battle.
An example of the kind of dish that evolves slowly over the centuries is a Spanish medieval chicken recipe known as pepitoria. It can be used for hen, rabbit, pigeon, quail and other feathered game, as well as firm fleshed fish such as monkfish or eel.
Pepitoria is a word that comes from the French ‘petite oie’, or little goose, because the dish was first made in medieval times with the giblets of this bird. The dish eventually became a fricassee of the giblets, liver and lights of any animal.
Later still, the dish moved up the social scale and was made with meats, poultry, feathered game and various kinds of fish. The one constant feature was that a pepitoria was always enriched with nuts, wine and egg yolks and thickened with flour or bread.
The pepitoria style of cooking is found all over Spain, with the main ingredients differing from place to place. Madrid and Andalusia prefer a hen pepitoria and in Castilla they’re more likely to use rabbit. Over the years, I’ve tried it several ways and I prefer it with a good free-range chicken. Get one of the yellow ones on sale at most supermarkets and butcher stalls at the Mercat d’Olivar and the Santa Catalina market.
You will need one large free-range chicken cut into 8-12 pieces (the butcher will do it for you), 1 medium onion finely chopped, 1 large glass sherry, 1 small glass dark rum or brandy, 2 garlic cloves, 2 hard-boiled eggs, 2 tbsps virgen extra olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, 2 smallish slices crustless bread (use Majorcan pan moreno), handful of parsley leaves, 50grs of toasted almonds or hazelnuts, 1 small glass sherry, 2 bay leaves, chicken stock, a pinch of saffron threads.
Sauté the pieces of chicken on all sides in a wide saucepan or a greixonera for about 10 minutes. Transfer them to a plate and in the same oil sauté the finely chopped onion over a gentle heat until soft and golden.
Put the chicken pieces back into the saucepan and add the large glass of sherry and the small one of rum or brandy. Let this bubble for a minute or two to burn off the alcohol and then pour in the stock to just cover the chicken. At this stage add the bay leaves and the saffron (see note in final paragraph), cover the saucepan and simmer for 20 minutes. Meanwhile fry the pieces of bread in a small frying pan until crisp and golden. Rub the skins off the almonds or hazelnuts.
Put the washed parsley leaves into a mortar with a little salt and mash to a pulp. Add the nuts a few at a time and continue to pound. Add the roughly chopped garlic and when it is reduced to a paste, the yolks from the hard-boiled eggs.
Soak the pieces of fried bread with a little stock from the chicken, add to the mortar and pound until everything is smooth and well amalgamated. Stir in the small glass of sherry and a little stock from the chicken.
When the chicken has cooked for 20 minutes, check the amount of stock. If it seems like a lot, pour some into a bowl and reserve. Add the mortar mixture to the saucepan and stir it in carefully and then cook slowly for another 20 minutes. The final cooking time will depend on the size of the chicken pieces and whether they are free-range.
The sauce should be thick when the dish is ready. If it is too thick it can be thinned with a little of the reserved stock. It is important not to overcook the chicken, so time it carefully.
When using saffron you should always heat it slightly in small dry frying pan, waving it over a very low heat. The threads must not change colour or they will have a bitter taste. When they cool down they will be crisp and you can crush them with the back of a small spoon.