Thursday, July 29, 2010

Fighting and Dining.

When the Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz said that "there are generals who win battles and there are generals who dine well", he would no doubt have included Napoleon in the first category and excluded him from the ranks of gourmet.

Clausewitz would have been correct. For all his pre-occupation with feeding his troops, Napoleon was remarkably uninterested in his own meals. He preferred plain food, which he ate very quickly. He said that ” A man's palate can, in time, become accustomed to anything” and told his colleagues "If you want to eat well, dine with the Second Consul; if you want to eat a lot, visit the Third Consul; if you want to eat quickly, dine with me." Small wonder that chefs, frustrated by their poor pay and the lack of appreciation for their efforts, did not stay very long in his employ.

Napoleon was by no means the first military leader to realise that “an army marches on his stomach”, nor would he be the last, but his constant efforts to feed his troops had ramifications far beyond the mere provisioning of his army. The usual strategy of the time was that the army lived off the land as it moved, but this was the largest land army the world had seen, and a supplementary strategy was needed.

Feeding the army was already a problem in 1795, and the Food Preservation Committee of the Societé d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale in that year offered a prize of 12,000 francs for a method of preserving food, especially for use by the army and navy. Eventually the news reached the ears of Nicolas Appert, a small town mayor and a chef and confectioner by trade. The idea of food preservation was already his personal passion, and he had spent years experimenting with various methods in his own workshop, initially using champagne bottles as his preserving vessels. By the turn of the century he was beginning to develop a reputation in this field, and had a thriving small business in Paris where his preserves were sold. His foodstuffs were eventually tried aboard French naval ships, and the reports were favourable. In 1810 Appert published his findings and on January 30th received his award, paving the way for the food “canning” industry as we now know it. You can read more about Appert in a previous post here.

The other significant development dating from this time was precipitated by Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. The ensuing English blockade of cane sugar imports from the Caribbean into continental Europe stimulated interest in alternative sources of sugar. Napoleon had heard of the pioneering work on the extraction of sugar from beets by Marggraf in Berlin 50 years earlier, and the progress made by Marggraf’s student, Franz Achard, but it was still not possible to produce sugar in any significant quantity.

Napoleon issued a decree on March 25th 1811 which was intended to stimulate experimentation in this area. It set aside 80,000 acres of land for production of beets, and established schools, scholarships, and factories in beet sugar production. In 1812 he awarded the Légion d'Honneur to Benjamin Delessert for his technical advances in the clarification of sugar, which enabled the process to be carried out on a viable scale. By 1814, there were 40 beet sugar factories were in operation in France, Belgium, Germany, and Austria. The industry did temporarily decline after Napoleon’s defeat, but eventually revived, and by the late 19th century, beets had again become the major source of sugar.

It became popular in the nineteenth century for chefs to name dishes after important guests or famous events such as battles. One dish named for (but NOT immediately in the wake of) a battle was Chicken Marengo, which has been a previous topic on this blog. One of the most famous foodie-generals of the time had a number of dishes named in his honour. He was Pyotr Bagration, the Russian general who died following Borodino ultimately had several dishes named after him, and these became standard items on European menus for decades. It seems that he may have been in Clausewitz’s second category as Napoleon said of him "The man is an absolute fool who has not the slightest idea how to command an army." Certainly he was well known for his extravagant dinner parties, their legendary status being assured when Tolstoy chose to write about them.

Fish Soup; so named from Prince Bagration
(Potage de Fillets de Poisson à la Bagration)
Prepare a good consommé, make a quenelle of soles with crayfish butter, trim in escalopes the fillets of a sole, perch, and carp, and throw a little salt over them; an hour afterwards wash, drain, and place them in a sauté-plate, mark [make?] an essence with the bones and trimmings of the fish, squeeze it through a tammy upon the escalopes of fish, and boil them slowly for ten minutes, then pour the liquor from them to the consommé, and clarify it as usual; reduce it one fifth, then pour it into the tureen upon the escalopes and quenelles poached in consommé, six roes of carp boiled in water with salt, and fifty tails of cray-fish (using the shells for the butter), some chervil blanched, two parsley roots cut in small pieces, and stewed in consommé, and the flesh of two lemons cut in thin slices and blanched, carefully withdrawing the pips
The Practical Cook, English and Foreign; Joseph Bregion, 1845

Quotation for the Day.
Happiness: a good bank account, a good cook, and a good digestion.
Jean Jacques Rousseau

1 comment:

Sharlene T. said...

Oh, wow, it's great to see the beginning of canning as we know it today... and, of course, for this unique history of Napoleon and food... he was a frequent house guest of Madame Germaine deStael and, when he was really focused on becoming Emperor, she found him practicing how to stand and bow appropriately in her empty dining room... maybe, in order to eat anything, one must have an adaptable organ like the tongue to get it down quickly! Thank you, again, for all your hard effort... come visit when you can...

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