Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Chicken Marengo Story.

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.

Italian Sauce.
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)


Anonymous said...

So glad to see this post. I had this dish stuck in my head from Julia's The Way to Cook for about a year or so, and then one night on the way home from work late I realized I had everything I needed in the form of leftovers except for shrimp. I stopped off and bought some, and I had this after about ten minutes: picture here

The Old Foodie said...

Meez, that looks fantastic. For some reason - although the history fascinates me - I dont particularly fancy the dish, or I hadn't - your pic has my mouth watering now, so I must try it.

Anonymous said...

What is the true story? Does it matter.

For several reasons, I have always found the James Beard version of the Chicken Marengo recipe to be the one probably closest to what was actually made, if it was created after the battle of Marengo. aikiv

Here is that recipe, I omit the eggs and use shrimp if Crayfish aren't available.


2 boneless chicken breasts, about 1 to 1 1/2 pounds
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons brandy or cognac
1/2 cup diced canned tomatoes
1/4 cup chicken stock
2 ounces crayfish or shrimp, chopped
1 tablespoon butter
2 eggs
2 slices French bread, toasted

This recipe contains: Meat, Shellfish, Wheat
Chicken Marengo
Michael Glatz
Hotel Fauchère, Milford, PA

This recipe comes from Beard House chef Michael Glatz of Hotel Fauchère in Milford, Pennsylvania.

Yield: 2 servings


Preheat oven to 375ºF.

Season the chicken breast with salt, pepper, and thyme. Heat olive oil over medium heat in a sauté pan. Add chicken and sear until golden brown, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer chicken to a roasting pan and roast for 20 to 25 minutes.

Using the same sauté pan over low heat, add garlic to the hot oil and sauté until softened, about 3 minutes. Add brandy or cognac and deglaze over medium-high heat until liquid evaporates, about 3 minutes. Add tomatoes and chicken stock to pan and simmer until sauce begins to thicken, about 5 minutes. Add crayfish or shrimp and cook until slightly opaque, about 1 minute. Remove from heat.

To fry the eggs, melt butter in a nonstick pan over medium heat. Break the eggs into the pan and immediately reduce heat to low. Continue slowly cooking until whites are completely set and the yolks are still runny.

To serve, divide the tomato and shrimp sauce between 2 plates. Place a chicken breast on top with the fried egg and toast alongside.