Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Marengo fought in 1800, a decisive and momentous battle in what are now known as the Napoleonic Wars. I rarely “celebrate” battles in this blog because I am fundamentally opposed to war, and I am not going to dwell on the actual details of the battle. But Marengo had widespread consequences throughout Europe. Furthermore, the battle spawned the name of a much celebrated dish – Chicken Marengo – although the history of the recipe and its precise form is disputed to this day.
The battle of Marengo was fought between French and Austrian forces near the city of Alessandria, in Piedmont in northern Italy (roughly midway between Milan and Genoa). The French overcame General Michael von Melas’ surprise attack near the end of the day, driving the Austrians out of Italy, and enhancing Napoleon’s political position in Paris as First Consul of France in the wake of his coup d’état the previous November.
Surprised by the Austrian advance toward Genoa in mid-April 1800, Bonaparte had hastily led his army over the Alps in mid-May and reached Milan on 2 June. After cutting Melas’ line of communications by crossing the river Po and defeating Feldmarschallleutnant Peter Karl Ott von Bátorkéz at Montebello on 9 June, the French closed in on the Austrian army, which had massed in Alessandria. Deceived by a local double agent, Bonaparte dispatched large forces to the north and south, but the Austrians launched a surprise attack on 14 June against the main French army under General Louis Alexandre Berthier.
Initially, their two assaults across the Fontanone stream near Marengo village were repelled, and General Jean Lannes reinforced the French right. Bonaparte realized the true position and issued orders at 11:00 am to recall the detachment under Général de Division Louis Desaix, while moving his reserve forward. On the Austrian left, Ott’s column had taken Castel Ceriolo, and its advance guard moved south to attack Lannes’ flank. Melas renewed the main assault and the Austrians broke the central French position. By 2:30 pm the French were withdrawing and Austrian dragoons seized the Marengo farm. Bonaparte had by then arrived with the reserve, but Berthier’s troops began to fall back on the main vine belts. Knowing Desaix was approaching, Bonaparte was anxious about a column of Ott’s soldiers marching from the north, so he deployed his Consular Guard infantry to delay it. The French then withdrew steadily eastward toward San Giuliano Vecchio as the Austrians formed a column to follow them in line with Ott’s advance in the northern sector.
Desaix’s arrival around 5:30 pm stabilized the French position as the 9th Light Infantry Regiment delayed the Austrian advance down the main road and the rest of the army re-formed north of Cascina Grossa. As the pursuing Austrian troops arrived, a mix of musketry and artillery fire concealed the surprise attack of Général de Brigade François Étienne de Kellermann’s cavalry, which threw the Austrian pursuit into disordered flight back into Alessandria, with about 14,000 killed, wounded, or captured. The French casualties were considerably fewer, but included Desaix. The whole French line chased after the Austrians to seal a victory of major political consequences because it secured Bonaparte’s grip on power after the coup. It would be followed by a propaganda campaign, which sought to rewrite the story of the battle three times during Napoleon’s rule. As a small aside, “propaganda” is an English loan word from Italian (ultimately from Latin), with an original meaning of to “propagate” or “spread around” (and not pejorative originally). It was a huge victory for Napoleon, but he sought to make it into a triumph of brilliant strategy – enhancing his status as a general and leader – instead of a series of lucky mistakes and potential blunders that ended up in his favor. Napoleon came close to losing earlier in the day.
Napoleon sought to ensure that his victory would not be forgotten, so, besides the propaganda campaign, he entrusted General Chasseloup with the construction of a pyramid on the site of the battle. On 5 May 1805, a ceremony took place on the field of Marengo. Napoleon, dressed in the uniform he wore on 14 June 1800, together with Empress Joséphine seated on a throne placed under a tent, oversaw a military parade. Then, Chasseloup gave Napoleon the founding stone, on which was inscribed: “Napoleon, Emperor of the French and King of Italy, to the manes of the defenders of the fatherland who perished on the day of Marengo.” This pyramid was actually part of a very ambitious project meant to glorify Bonaparte’s conquests in Italy. The field of Marengo was supposed to become the site of a “city of Victories” whose boulevards, named after Italian battles, would converge to the pyramid. In the event, the project was abandoned in 1815 and the stones recovered by local farmers. The column erected in 1801 was also removed, but restored in 1922.
There is now a museum dedicated to the battle on the outskirts of Alessandria. Re-enactments are organized there every year on the second Sunday in June to commemorate the event. I was quite surprised when I first taught the history of the French Revolution in Italian schools to discover that Napoleon is considered a hero by many Italians because he drove the Austrians out of northern Italy and, in a sense, paved the way for the unification of Italy, half a century later. Marengo was the name of a greyish-brown color used for fabric produced in the vicinity before the battle, and a coat of that color became Napoleon’s signature color in common battle portrayals. He also named his battle horse and several warships in honor of the victory. The power of propaganda.
The battle of Marengo also gave its name to the classic dish, Chicken Marengo, whose origins are encapsulated in an entirely fictitious legend. According to the legend, the dish was first made after Napoleon defeated the Austrian army at Marengo when his personal chef Dunand foraged in the town for ingredients (because the supply wagons were too distant) and created the dish from what he could gather. According to this legend, Napoleon enjoyed the dish so much he had it served to him after every battle, and when Durand was later better-supplied and substituted mushrooms for crayfish and added wine to the recipe, Napoleon refused to accept it, believing that a change would bring him bad luck.
Nice story, but with no merit whatsoever – even though, like so much of the folklore of “origins,” it is endlessly retold as fact. Dunand (or Dunan) did not become Napoleon’s chef until several years later, and tomatoes would not have been available at that time of year in that region, never mind crayfish. It’s much more likely that the dish was created by a French restaurant chef to honor the victory.
The recipe for Chicken Marengo varies considerably. The most distinctive, and possibly historically accurate, consists of chicken sautéed in oil with garlic and tomato, finished with wine, and served on toast garnished with fried eggs and crayfish. Without the toast, egg, and crayfish, the dish resembles chicken à la Provençale, and that is how it is often presented nowadays.
Baron Brisse gives this recipe in 1868 in his classic 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 sauce, 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.
Isabella Beeton gives this recipe in 1861, suggesting that the dish had spread to England by this time but we must remember that she copied most of her recipes from other sources. Nonetheless, some form of the dish appears to have been popular by mid century.
POULET A LA MARENGO.
- INGREDIENTS.—1 large fowl, 4 tablespoonfuls of salad oil, 1 tablespoonful of flour, 1 pint of stock No. 105, or water, about 20 mushroom-buttons, salt and pepper to taste, 1 teaspoonful of powdered sugar, a very small piece of garlic.
Mode.—Cut the fowl into 8 or 10 pieces; put them with the oil into a stewpan, and brown them over a moderate fire; dredge in the above proportion of flour; when that is browned, pour in the stock or water; let it simmer very slowly for rather more than 1/2 hour, and skim off the fat as it rises to the top; add the mushrooms; season with salt, pepper, garlic, and sugar; take out the fowl, which arrange pyramidically on the dish, with the inferior joints at the bottom. Reduce the sauce by boiling it quickly over the fire, keeping it stirred until sufficiently thick to adhere to the back of a spoon; pour over the fowl, and serve.
Time.—Altogether 50 minutes. Average cost, 3s. 6d.
Sufficient for 3 or 4 persons.
Seasonable at any time.
Mrs Beeton concludes with the much-repeated fable:
A FOWL À LA MARENGO.—The following is the origin of the well-known dish Poulet à la Marengo:—On the evening of the battle the first consul was very hungry after the agitation of the day, and a fowl was ordered with all expedition. The fowl was procured, but there was no butter at hand, and unluckily none could be found in the neighbourhood. There was oil in abundance, however; and the cook having poured a certain quantity into his skillet, put in the fowl, with a clove of garlic and other seasoning, with a little white wine, the best the country afforded; he then garnished it with mushrooms, and served it up hot. This dish proved the second conquest of the day, as the first consul found it most agreeable to his palate, and expressed his satisfaction. Ever since, a fowl à la Marengo is a favourite dish with all lovers of good cheer.
Pellegrino Artusi’s Italian recipe in his legendary Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well (1891) is as follows:
Take a young chicken, remove the neck and legs, and cut into large pieces at the joints. Sauté in 30 grams (about 1 ounce) of butter and one tablespoon of olive oil, seasoning with salt, pepper, and a dash of nutmeg. When the pieces have browned on both sides, skim the fat and add a level tablespoon of flour and a deciliter (about 7 fluid ounces) of wine. Add broth and cover, cooking over low heat until done. Before removing from the fire, garnish with a pinch of chopped parsley; arrange on a serving dish and squeeze half a lemon over it. The result is an appetizing dish.
What are we to make of all of this? Not much, I’m afraid, except to say that there is no canonical recipe. The idea of chicken with crayfish and wine served with an egg on fried bread appeals to me though, so here’s my version. I make no claim to this being an “authentic” recipe: there’s no such thing. Some people make something similar today using small shrimp instead of crayfish. You can use bone-in chicken pieces, but boneless breasts are easier to eat.
© Chicken Marengo
4 skinless and boneless chicken breasts
2 tbsp olive oil
flour for dredging
¼ cup brandy
6 oz crayfish, tails, shelled
1 onion, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin
1 cup chicken stock
½ cup dry white wine
1 tsp powdered thyme (or one fresh sprig)
1 tbsp freshly chopped parsley
salt and pepper
4 slices toast
Dredge the chicken breasts lightly in flour seasoned with salt and pepper to taste.
Heat the olive oil in a heavy cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat, and sauté the chicken breast until golden on all sides. In the final minutes add the onions and garlic, and cook them until they are translucent but not browned.
Heat the brandy in a small pan, allowing it to flame, and then pour it over the chicken. Add the white wine, stock, thyme, and parsley, and bring to a slow simmer. Cook until the chicken is tender (about 30 minutes), and add the crayfish tails at the end. The sauce should be somewhat thickened at this point, but can be reduced if need be.
Serve the chicken and sauce over toast and place a fried egg on top.