Today, June 14th …
Today in 1800 was indisputably the day that Napoleon defeated the Austrians at the battle of Marengo. It is also indisputably NOT the day that the dish “Chicken Marengo” was invented. The story that Napoleon’s chef, Dunan(d) scrounged the makings of this dish from the local area after the battle, and created it on the spot, is simply that – a good story. It can be denied on a number of counts: Dunan(d) was not in Napoleon’s service until after the event and the dish was not mentioned in contemporary accounts or cookbooks until nearly 2 decades later.
There is no need for an indisputable truth to get in the way of celebrating the classic dish however, for it was indisputably named FOR the famous event, in the grand tradition of nineteenth century chefs, who also named “Chicken Austerlitz” in honour of Napoleon’s victory over the Russians in that battle in 1805.
One major problem in re-creating the classic dish, is that there is no indisputable list of ingredients. Other than the rather obvious chicken (probably cooked in oil not butter), various interpretations include tomatoes, crayfish, mushrooms (especially truffles), garlic, parsley, ham, and lemon juice, with a garnish of croutons and/or fried eggs.
It seems reasonable to give a recipe from the correct century, so here is the version from Baron Brisse, from his 1868 cookbook.
Chicken à la Marengo.
Cut up a chicken into joints, and cook in olive oil and a little salt, put in the legs before the other pieces, as they take longer to cook. When a good colour and nearly done, add a bouquet of mixed herbs, pepper, mushrooms, and some slices of truffles; place the chicken on a dish, and add the oil drip by drop to some Italian sauce; stir the whole time. When warm, pour over the chicken, and garnish with fried eggs and sippets of fried bread. If preferred, clarified butter may be used instead of oil.
Simmer a lump of butter as big as two eggs in a saucepan, with two tablespoonsful of chopped parsley, one tablespoonful of chopped eschalots, and the same quantity of minced mushrooms, add a bottle of white wine; reduce the sacue, and moisten with a tumblerful of velouté sauce and half a tumblerful of stock; boil over a quick fire, skim off all grease, and as soon as the sauce is thick enough, take off the fire, and keep warm in a bain-marie.
Tomorrow: Practically straight cucumbers.
Quotation for the Day …
We did not immediately come up with béarnaise, Bercy, and poivrade sauces. It took more than a single attempt to discover reduced cream, marinade, and forcemeat. We did not straightaway invent barding fat, the touch of garlic, and the thin slice of truffle under the skin .... While genius is spontaneous, its manifestations nevertheless require the passage of time before glorious perfection is achieved. This is particularly true in the area of food and drink .... Magical dishes, magical words: a great cook is, when all is said and done, a great poet. . . . For was it not a visit from the Muses that inspired the person who first had the idea of marrying rice and chicken, grape and thrush, potatoes and entrecôte, Parmesan and pasta, aubergine (eggplant) and tomato, Chambertin and cockerel, liqueur brandy and woodcock, onion and tripe? 'Cinquante Ans a Table' (1953) Marcel Étiennegrancher (1897-1976)