5th May: ‘L’Empereur est mort’

'How far is St Helena from the field of Waterloo?'
'A near way - a clear way - the ship will take you soon.
A pleasant place for gentlemen with little left to do.....'

from 'A St Helena Lullaby' by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

On the 5th May 1821 on a campaign bed in a damp room on an even damper island, a small, sick and sad man died.  General Napoléon Bonaparte, formerly Emperor of the French, King of Italy, a soldier of brilliance, an administrator par excellence, a lover of beautiful women and a man endowed with amazing charisma, breathed his last. His final battle with an implacable enemy – stomach cancer, was lost.  Napoleon had been in St Helena six years, his last sight of Europe had been of Falmouth from the deck of HMS Northumberland where the local populace flocked to the quayside hoping to catch a glimpse of the fallen Emperor.

After the indignity of sickness was the further indignity of an autopsy; the removal of his heart – which he had bequeathed to his wife but which was buried with him, the hacking off of his testicles and penis – eventually to be sold to the highest bidder, the shaving off his hair - to be distributed amongst the faithful like the relics of a saint, the several bodged attempts to make a death mask and the final internment in a Russian doll set of four coffins; tin, lead and two of mahogany. 

It took twelve British Grenadiers to carry the coffins to the hearse. On the way to the bleak hillside tomb the catafalque was draped in Napoléon’s favourite blue cloak; the famous cloak of Marengo. 

This is Jaques-Louis David’s fabulous portrait of Napoléon showing him crossing over the St Bernard pass in order to begin his Italian campaign - which culminated on June 14th 1800 with victory for the French at the Battle of Marengo. The portrait is part of Napoléonic mythology and is an elaboration of the truth.  Napoléon followed the army rather than led it over the Alps and he crossed on the back of a mule - not a beautiful Arab horse, and although the uniform is correct, the cloak was dark blue.  

There are many portraits of Napoléon - he was after all the master of spin, but he usually refused to sit for them. He told David “Nobody knows if the portraits of the great men resemble them, it is enough that their genius lives there.” - so David's young son actually was the model for the painting. 

There is another famous myth about the Battle of Marengo – the story of the chicken supper. The myth is that after the victory, Napoléon’s Swiss chef Dunand made a chicken stew for the General with foraged ingredients; a scrawny chicken which he cut up with a sabre, some eggs, mushrooms, a few tomatoes, a truffle, garlic, freshwater crayfish and then he is supposed to have added a slug of brandy from the General’s own flask….

The story is not true on a number of counts. According to Alan Davidson it would not have contained tomatoes – and early versions of the recipe don’t include them. Furthermore Dunant didn’t work for Napoléon in 1800 and after the battle, the General and his staff ate supper at the nearby Convent de Bosco.  Dunand did work for Napoléon later and was a friend of the great French chef Carême. After (probably) Dunand made up the story it got passed to Carême and then found itself in the Larousse Gastronomique. In the 1960s Chicken Marengo was resurrected by the American food writer Craig Claiborne and it is now all over the internet as authentic on all counts.

There is a postscript to the blue cloak story. When it was lying over the body of Napoléon, a British soldier cut off a piece of the collar, the fragment then passed through a number of hands and was sold at auction in 1996.  After Napoleon's death was announced, Madame Tussaud's displayed a wax death bed scene and they used the Marengo cloak (which had been willed to Napoleon’s son) to cover the corpse. Early one morning Jacques Tussaud found the Duke of Wellington gazing on the wax body of his great enemy. 

The cloak was apparently lost in a fire in 1825, but no one really knows the truth.

So I’ve made a Chicken Marengo - well sort of...

Inauthentic Chicken Marengo
A chicken which you have chopped into eight pieces. Save the bones and all the bits left over.
1 litre chicken stock (see method)
2 onions
1 carrot
200g mushrooms
Dried porcini – about a dessertspoonful
Parsley and thyme and bayleaf
Butter and olive oil
Truffle salt or truffle oil.
Mushroom ketchup.
100ml white wine or sherry and a slug of brandy
Take the chicken carcass and put in a pan with parsley stalks and thyme sprigs, cold water, the carrot, one chopped onion, a bayleaf and 6 peppercorns. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 45 minutes. Take a little of the hot stock and soak your porcini.
Fry the chicken pieces in butter and oil until brown and set aside. Fry the other onion which you have sliced finely, when it is light brown add the mushrooms – divide any large ones but leave most of them whole, fry gently until the onions are dark gold and the mushrooms have ceased leaking their liquor. Remove from the pan and deglaze it with whatever alcohol you have to hand, Marsala, dry sherry, vermouth, white wine….
Put the chicken, onion and mushrooms back in the pan, add the porcini and their soaking water. Cover with hot stock.  Simmer for about 50 minutes and then taste the juice.  Add the brandy and adjust the flavour by adding an umami type ingredient, I used mushroom ketchup and some truffle salt.  Taste again and season…

I didn't thicken this, but you might want to, in which case dust the chicken with flour before you fry it.
Serve with noodles or rice.

He fought a thousand glorious wars,
And more than half the world was his, 
And somewhere, now, in yonder stars,
Can tell, mayhap, what greatness is.

From 'Napoleon' by William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863 )


Mary said...

This is a fascinating post. It lead me to browse through some of your earlier posts which were equally interesting. I really enjoyed the time I spent here and I will definitely be back. I hope you have a great day. Blessings...Mary

Liz Woods said...

Thanks Mary! I've been wondering since I wrote this whether Napoleon ate chicken marengo during his exile - he had two chefs with him on St Helena - I hope one of them made it for him when he was feeling low...
Thanks for the kind comments and keep in touch.