One of my bucket list meals is to eat a proper Chicken Marengo on the 14th of June. It is very difficult to get the dish, and this is reflected in the difficulty of getting a decent free to view photo of it. The free photos of Chicken Marengo on the internet are dreadful, and seem to be taken by people who don’t know what they are cooking.
First let’s understand the Battle of Marengo and why it was such a celebration and so important to Napoleon. Bonaparte had just returned from his victories in Egypt and was appointed First Consul of France, but he was at this stage just another lucky general. Defeating Mamelukes was just not the same as defeating a scientific Western army like the Prussians, Russians or the mighty Austrians.
Napoleon took his army over the Alps into Italy in a moment subsequently celebrated with heroic portraits of the Emperor astride a prancing stallion on the mountainous tracks. In fact he crossed on a mule.
His army was in bad shape. Many of his troops were barefoot, starving and sick. The French moved over the country in loose formation to maximize the ability of the men to live off the land. This spread a wide net to catch the Austrian Army, but ensured that the French would be weak when the two sides engaged.
The French fought a number of battles in the Italian campaign but matters came to a decisive head at Marengo on June 14th, 1800. At first when the retreating Austrian army turned to fight Napoleon thought it was merely a diversionary tactic by the rear-guard to cover the retreat. But the Austrians had other ideas.
Napoleon spent the morning fighting, and losing, and praying that his calls to his distributed divisions would bring him reinforcements in the afternoon. The Austrian commander Von Melas, was so sure of victory that he handed mopping up operations to his inferiors and retired from the field with his senior staff. When Louis Desaix, commander of Bonaparte’s reinforcements arrived ahead of his 6,000 men Napoleon asked his opinion of the situation. The legendary comment: “This battle is completely lost. However, there is time to win another.”
And win they did, an unexpected and highly significant victory that assured Napoleon of his place at the top table in France. The Austrians came to the negotiation table and ceded Italy.
After the battle the story goes, Napoleon’s chef was in a conundrum. He was supposed to make a meal to celebrate a great victory but had little to work with. He sent his foragers out in the local area to see what they could find. They came back with a chicken and some eggs, crayfish, tomatoes, onions, garlic, herbs, oil. The chef chopped up the chicken using a military sabre because his cooking equipment was miles away, escaping an expected defeat.
He made a sauce of the tomato, onion, garlic and herbs and “borrowed” some Cognac from Napoleon’s personal supply. He fried the chicken in olive oil, boiled the crayfish, fried the eggs and added some rough bread from the military supplies.
Although the chef was embarrassed at the rude assembly Napoleon loved it and refused to permit changes to the recipe. He considered it a lucky dish and called for it frequently.
The truth is a proper Chicken Marengo is just not very photogenic. It is a rough peasant meal and that’s how it should look.
If you go to a restaurant and they offer you Marengo with pasta, rice, or potatoes, it’s not Marengo. If they replace the crayfish with lobster thermidor or Dublin bay prawns then it’s not Marengo. If they serve it in a Provencal sauce – not Marengo.