Sep 022016


Today is the birthday (1778) of Luigi Buonaparte, brother of Napoleon I. He changed his name to Louis Napoléon Bonaparte in France, then to Lodewijk Napoleon when his brother made him King of Holland in 1806. He was born on Corsica as the fifth surviving child and the fourth surviving son of Carlo Buonaparte and Letizia Ramolino. His son was the last French Emperor, Napoleon III. His story is not well known popularly, but I find it engaging.

Louis Bonaparte’s early career was spent in the Army, and he served with Napoleon in Egypt. Thanks to his older brother, Napoleon, Louis was given a commission in the French Military, and was promoted to Lieutenant in the 4th Artillery Regiment, and from there he was made Aide de Camp on Napoleon’s staff. Napoleon, during his Italian Campaign, recommended Louis to Carnot, and Louis was consequently made a Captain. He later became a General by the age of 25, although he himself felt that he had risen too high in too short a time.


Upon his return to France, Louis was involved in Napoleon’s plot to overthrow the Directory. After becoming the First Consul, Napoleon arranged for a marriage between Louis and Hortense de Beauharnais, the daughter of Empress Josephine, and hence Napoleon’s stepdaughter. Hortense, who was opposed to the marriage at first, was persuaded by her mother to marry Louis for the sake of the family.

Louis supposedly had some kind of noticeable mental condition at times, but it’s really unclear what this actually entailed.  It’s quite likely that he suffered from depression, but its cause is anyone’s guess. Repressed homosexuality is a common speculation, but there’s no real evidence of this, or any other cause – or even that depression was the problem. There is no doubt that he was unstable.

Feeling that the Batavian Republic was too independent for his liking, Napoleon replaced it with the Kingdom of Holland on 5 June 1806, and placed Louis on the throne. Napoleon had intended for his younger brother to be little more than a French prefect of Holland. However, Louis had his own mind, and tried to be a responsible and independent ruler. In an effort to endear himself to his adopted country, he tried to learn the Dutch language; he called himself Lodewijk I (adopting the Dutch form of his name) and declared himself Dutch rather than French. Allegedly, his Dutch was initially so poor that he told the people he was the “Konijn van ‘Olland” (“Rabbit of ‘Olland”), rather than “Koning van Holland” (“King of Holland”). However, his sincere effort to learn Dutch earned him some respect from his subjects.


Having declared himself Dutch, Louis tried to make his court Dutch as well. He forced his court and ministers (mostly provided by Napoleon) to speak only Dutch, and also to renounce their French citizenship. This latter was too much for his wife Hortense who, in France at the time of his demands, refused his request. Louis and Hortense had never been compatible, and this demand further strained their relationship. She went to Holland reluctantly, and deliberately avoided Louis as much as possible. She did bear Louis three sons, Napoléon Louis Charles Bonaparte (10 October 1802 – 5 May 1807), Napoleon Louis Bonaparte (11 October 1804 – 17 March 1831), and Charles Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, later Napoleon III, Emperor of the French (20 April 1808- 9 January 1873), although their paternity is occasionally called into question. Their legitimacy is not. Hortense actually got on very well with the Dutch, which annoyed Louis to no end. It was Louis himself she could not stand, and was forever petitioning to return to Paris where she had a scintillating social life until Napoleon remarried and felt it unseemly to have his step-daughter from his first marriage kicking around.


Louis could never settle on the location for his capital city while he was in Holland. He changed capitals over a dozen times, trying Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam, among others. On one occasion, after visiting the home of a wealthy Dutch merchant, he liked the place so much that he had the owner evicted so he could take up residence there. Then, Louis moved again after seven weeks. His constant moving kept the court in upheaval since they had to follow him everywhere. The European diplomatic corps went so far as to petition Bonaparte to remain in one place so they could keep up with him. This restlessness was later attributed to his alleged “lunacy.” Seems to me more like he was an infantile idiot.

Two major tragedies occurred during the reign of Louis Bonaparte: the explosion of a cargo ship loaded with gunpowder in the heart of the city of Leiden in 1807, and a major flood in Holland in 1809. In both instances, Louis personally and effectively oversaw local relief efforts, which helped earn him the title of Louis the Good.


Louis Bonaparte’s reign was short-lived, however, due to two factors. First, Napoleon wanted to reduce the value of French loans from Dutch investors by two-thirds, meaning a serious economic blow to the Netherlands, angering both Louis and the Dutch. The second factor was ultimately why Napoleon forced Louis to abdicate. As Napoleon was preparing an army for his invasion of Russia, he wanted troops from the entire region under his control. This included troops from the Netherlands. Louis, confronted by his brother’s demand, refused point-blank. Napoleon then accused Louis of putting Dutch interests above those of France, and removed most of the French forces in Holland for the coming war in the east, leaving only about 9,000 garrison soldiers in the country. Unfortunately for Louis, the English landed an army of 40,000 in 1809 in an attempt to capture Antwerp and Flushing. With Louis unable to defend his realm, France sent 80,000 militiamen, commanded by future King of Sweden Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte and successfully repelled the invasion. Napoleon then suggested that Louis should abdicate, citing his inability as king to protect Holland as a reason. Louis refused and declared the occupation of the Kingdom by a French army as unlawful. On 1 July 1810 Louis abdicated in favor of his second son, Napoleon Louis Bonaparte. He fled from Haarlem on 2/3 July and settled in Austria. Oudinot invaded Holland on 4 July. Napoleon annexed Holland to France by the decree of Rambouillet on 9 July.


After his abdication, Louis Bonaparte assumed the title of Count of Saint-Leu (comte de Saint-Leu), which was a reference to his property at Saint-Leu-la-Forêt near Paris. He was appointed as the Constable of France in 1808, which was a strictly honorary title. After his Dutch kingdom was taken away from him, the Austrian Emperor Francis I offered him asylum. Between 1811 and 1813, he found refuge in Graz, where he turned to writing and poetry. Louis wrote to Napoleon after the latter’s defeat in Russia to request that the Dutch throne be restored to him but Napoleon refused. His request to visit the Netherlands was denied several times by King William I of the Netherlands, but King William II allowed him a visit in 1840. Although traveling in the Netherlands under a false name, some people found out that he was their former king, which led to a cheering crowd gathering under the window of his hotel room. He is reported to have been quite moved by this demonstration of affection.

After the death of his eldest brother Joseph in 1844, Louis was seen by the Bonapartists as the rightful Emperor of the French, although Louis took little action himself to advance the claim. His son and heir, the future Emperor Napoleon III, on the other hand, was at that time being imprisoned in France for having tried to engineer a Bonapartist coup d’état.


Louis died on 25 July 1846 in Livorno, and he was buried at Saint-Leu-la-Forêt, Île-de-France.


Given that Louis supposedly called himself, by mistake, the rabbit of Holland, a Dutch rabbit dish might be in order. But this French recipe for rabbit in the Corsican style is unusual and fits with the Bonaparte tradition. The chestnut polenta makes the dish. However, to make it you are going to have to find coarsely ground chestnut flour. In these days of gluten-free flours it’s not too hard to find. A “Dutch” oven might be the best cooking pot – linguistically speaking. I use a cast-iron skillet for such dishes.


Lapin à l’Istrettu



1 rabbit, cut in 8 pieces
4 oz/100 gm pancetta (optional), cut in small pieces
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp capers
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup green and black olives, pitted
2 medium onions, peeled and sliced
2 tsp dried rosemary (or marjoram)
2 tsp dried thyme
1 tbsp  tomato paste
2 cups dry white wine
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
olive oil


½ lb/250 g chestnut flour
2 cups milk
2 cups water
vegetable oil


Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Brown the rabbit pieces on all sides and set them aside.

Add the pancetta (if used), and onions and sauté for about 5 minutes over medium heat until the onions are transparent, but not browned.

Add the garlic and cook for an additional minute.

Pour in the vinegar and white wine and mix. Then add the tomato paste, olives, capers, herbs and stir well.  Put in the pieces of rabbit and add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook over low heat, for 1 hour, checking occasionally to be sure the sauce is thickening, but not drying out. Add stock if needed.

Meanwhile, prepare the chestnut polenta. Making this polenta is exactly the same as making standard corn polenta, requiring just as much experience.

Pour the milk and water into a saucepan over medium heat. Start sprinkling in the chestnut flour, stirring all the time. As the flour is incorporated add more, a little at a time, stirring continually, until the mixture forms a dense mass. This takes 15 to 20 minutes.

Pour the polenta into a pie pan and let cool. When cool the polenta should be firm. Cut into wedges and brown them on both sides in oil in a skillet over medium heat.

Present the rabbit on a platter surrounded with polenta slices and serve immediately.

Jun 202014


Today is the birthday (1819) of Jacques Offenbach, a German-born French composer, cellist, and impresario of the Romantic period. He is chiefly remembered for his nearly 100 operettas of the 1850s–1870s and his uncompleted opera The Tales of Hoffmann. He was a major influence on later composers of the operetta genre, particularly Johann Strauss, Jr. and Arthur Sullivan. His best-known works were continually revived during the 20th century, and many of his operettas continue to be staged in the 21st. The Tales of Hoffman remains part of the standard opera repertoire. Without doubt his most famous melody is “The Infernal Galop” from Orpheus in the Underworld, the tune most associated with the can-can

Offenbach was born in Cologne, the son of a synagogue cantor. At the age of 14, he was accepted as a student at the Paris Conservatoire but found academic study unfulfilling and left after a year. From 1835 to 1855 he earned his living as a cellist, achieving international fame, and as a conductor. His ambition, however, was to compose comic pieces for the musical theatre. His first choice was to stage his pieces with the Paris Opéra-Comique, but they were not interested. So in 1855 he leased a small theatre in the Champs-Élysées. There he presented a series of his own small-scale pieces, many of which became popular.


In 1858, Offenbach produced his first full-length operetta, Orphée aux enfers (“Orpheus in the Underworld”), which was exceptionally well received and has remained one of his most popular works. During the 1860s, he produced at least 18 full-length operettas, as well as more one-act pieces. His works from this period included La belle Hélène (1864), La vie parisienne (1866), La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867), and La Périchole (1868). The risqué humor (often about sexual intrigue) and gentle satiric barbs about French society in these pieces, together with Offenbach’s facility for melody, made them internationally known, and translated versions were successful in Vienna, London, and elsewhere in Europe.

Offenbach was very closely associated with the Second French Empire of Napoleon III, and the emperor’s court was genially satirized in many of Offenbach’s operettas. Napoleon III personally granted him French citizenship and the Légion d’Honneur. With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Offenbach found himself out of favor in Paris because of his imperial connections and his German birth. He remained successful in Vienna and London, however, and then re-established himself in Paris after the war, with revivals of some of his earlier favorites and a series of new works. In his last years he strove to finish The Tales of Hoffmann, but died before the premiere of the opera, which has entered the standard repertoire in a number of different versions which were completed or edited by other musicians.


Opinion was, and is still, sharply divided concerning Offenbach’s oeuvre. One contemporary critic wrote, “Offenbach’s orchestral scoring is full of details, elaborate counter-voices, minute interactions coloured by interjections of the woodwinds or brass, all of which establish a dialogue with the voices. His refinement of design equals that of Mozart or Rossini.” Friedrich Nietzsche called Offenbach both an “artistic genius” and a “clown,” but wrote that “nearly every one of Offenbach’s works achieves half a dozen moments of wanton perfection.” Émile Zola commented on Offenbach and his work in a novel (Nana) and an essay, “La féerie et l’opérette IV/V.” While granting that Offenbach’s best operettas are full of grace, charm and wit, Zola blames Offenbach for what others have made out of the genre. Zola calls operetta a “public enemy” and a “monstrous beast.”

All of the obituaries I have read for Offenbach take the same tone – his music is delightful but will not survive to the next generation. They were wrong, of course; their opinion was based on the assumption that the music itself is not great art, and the operettas, being products of a particular time and culture, would give way to newer fashions. The same could be said of Gilbert and Sullivan. Their operettas were full of social satire which is mostly lost on contemporary audiences. But Sullivan, like Offenbach, had a knack for a catchy melody which stayed with audiences, and many of the issues the operettas deal with are enduring – such as, the conflict between one’s dreams and social pressure to conform.

Debussy, Bizet, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov loved Offenbach’s operettas. Debussy rated them higher than The Tales of Hoffmann: “The one work in which [Offenbach] tried to be serious met with no success.” A London critic wrote, on Offenbach’s death:

I somewhere read that some of Offenbach’s latest work shows him to be capable of more ambitious work. I, for one, am glad he did what he did, and only wish he had done more of the same.

I suppose one might sum all this up by saying that whether you like operetta or not, Offenbach was master of the genre. I am not a huge fan of the genre, but I find Offenbach amusing and diverting when I am in the mood.


In general, Offenbach followed simple, established forms. His melodies are usually short and unvaried in their basic rhythm, although modified from time to time to fit different characters. In modulation Offenbach was similarly cautious; he rarely switched a melody to a remote or unexpected key, and kept mostly to a tonic–subdominant–dominant–tonic pattern. He did, however, switch occasionally from major to minor, also to suit the character. Once in a while he employed conventional operatic techniques, such as leitmotiv, as, for example, when he parodied Wagner in La carnaval des revues (1860), or throughout to accompany the eponymous Docteur Ox (1877).

In his early pieces for the Bouffes-Parisiens, the size of the orchestra pit had restricted Offenbach to an orchestra of 16 players. He composed for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, two horns, piston (type of oboe), trombone, timpani and percussion, and a small string section of seven players. After moving to the Salle Choiseul he had an orchestra of 30 players. With the larger orchestra Offenbach was able to be more expansive, and re-scored many older pieces in revival. When they were available he wrote for cor anglais, harp, and, on rare occasions, an ophicleide (something like a tuba), tubular bells, and a wind machine (Le voyage dans la lune). Offenbach’s orchestration is not always subtle, but it has its moments.

What I believe is of supreme importance is to set Offenbach’s works in their historical context. They are primarily an homage to the social milieu of the Second Empire of Napoleon III – a perfect mirror of the historical amnesia and escapism that pervaded Paris in the aftermath of the revolution of 1848. But they must be understood as more than glittering distractions. The fantasy realms of such operettas as La Belle Hélène were certainly reflections of the unreality of Napoleon III’s imperial masquerade, but they also made a mockery of the pomp and pretense surrounding the mechanisms of power. At the same time, Offenbach’s dream worlds were imbued with a layer of utopian content that can be seen as an indictment of the fraudulence and corruption of the times.

I turn once again to Auguste Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire for a recipe to suit the times; something complex, fancy, and delectable. I choose his oxtail soup recipe, which I love. This is taken from a 1909 translation of the original French version. This website provides a good, detailed description (with photos) of the process, although the author strays a bit with the ingredients, and I note some droplets of fat in the final broth which would not have been acceptable to Escoffier. The image here is from the site.


Escoffier’s Oxtail Soup


1.8kg of oxtail, browned in the oven
900g gelatinous bones, broken small and browned in the oven
1 carrot, finely chopped
2 medium onions
one faggot [a bundle of parsley, bay leaves and thyme, tied together]
2.5 litres ordinary broth
1 litre water
450g lean beef mince
1 leek
½ an egg white
1 small carrot, cut into small dice
arrowroot if required


Brown the oxtails and the gelatinous bones in a roasting tin in the oven. Remove and cool.

Garnish the bottom of a small stockpot or stewpan with one finely chopped carrot and two medium-sized onions cut into thin rounds and browned in butter and one faggot.

Add the oxtails. The tails should be cut into sections, each of which should contain one of the caudal vertebrae. Also add the 900g of gelatinous bones, broken very small. Add 2.5 litres of ordinary broth and one of water. Set to boil very gently for 4½-5 hours.

When this is done, strain the broth, which should be reduced to 2.5 litres, and completely remove its grease. Transfer the largest sections of the tails, by means of a braiding needle, one by one to another saucepan. Cover them with broth, and keep them warm for the garnish.

Finely chop 450g of very lean beef. Put this mince into a saucepan with the white of a leek cut into dice and half the white of an egg, and mix thoroughly. Add the broth, the grease of which has been removed, set to boil, stirring constantly the while, and then leave to simmer for one hour, which is the time required for the beef to exude all its juices and for the clarification of the broth.

While the clarification is in progress, cut a small carrot in brunoise [small dice] fashion, or turn it by means of a very small spoon. Cook this garnish in a little water with butter, salt, and sugar.

A few minutes before serving, strain the oxtail broth through a napkin, put the sections of oxtail and brunoise into the soup tureen, and pour thereon the prepared broth.

This soup may be flavoured with port or sherry, but this is optional. Please note: if a thickened oxtail soup is required, add to the broth per every litre of it 10g of arrowroot diluted with a little of the broth or some cold water.