Chicken Marengo – Napoleonic Propaganda
“-Take one scrawny farmyard chicken, cut it up with a sabre; and fry it in olive oil (in the absence of butter) until browned on all sides.
-Add some garlic, roughly chopped tomatoes and some water, and place a crayfish on top to steam.
-Allow the ingredients to simmer until the meat is tender.
-Add a dash of cognac from Napoleon’s own flask
-Serve with fried eggs and lashings of fried, army-issue bread, the staler the better”
-Durand, Napoleon’s chef, 14 June 1800
“Why are we eating this?” asked the Saucy Dressings’ Chief Taster when I presented him with this rice and chicken dish, unusually topped with a fried egg. I explained that its name was chicken Marengo and since we were in Waterloo-rememberance month, and today was 14 June – the date of the eponymous 1800 battle between Napoleon and the Austrians, it seemed an appropriate time to try it out.
Then I added, somewhat cynically, that I couldn’t really see the army cooks producing fried eggs for a whole battalion.
“They wouldn’t have” explained Chief Taster, who doubles as History Consultant, “this would have been prepared for senior officers… in fact I seem to recall it was for Napoleon himself.” It seemed quite a claim for chicken, rice and fried egg… which seems more a sort of random leftovers recipe so I cautiously asked him for his source. The History Consultant was evasive on that detail so I thought I ought to do a bit of checking for myself.
If I thought researching into the origins of Chicken Marengo might prove difficult I needn’t have worried. I soon found that in fact a whole book has been written dedicated to that exact subject. Like Anzac biscuits which probably never found their way to the troops at Galipoli, Chicken Marengo may never have made it even to Napoleon.
In fact it seems likely that it was a developed as a piece of conscious propaganda. In his seminal work on the subject, Napoleon’s Chicken Marengo: Creating the Myth of the Emperor’s Favourite Dish, Andrew Uffindell explains that far from being a resounding victory, Marengo was a skin-of-the-teeth more-by–luck-than-judgement affair – a near defeat in fact, glossed over by a rewrite which included the creation of the chicken Marengo as ‘corroborating detail’.
Chicken can very often be dry, but this recipe, where it’s simmered for half an hour or so in liquid keeps it moist. My butcher had run out of chicken, but offered turkey. That is often drier and has much less taste than chicken, but even that worked well.
Allow an hour.
Recipe for chicken Marengo
- About 250g/8 oz flat-sliced skinless chicken or turkey breast meat cut into pieces about 3”/5 cm x 2”/4 cm
- Olive oil to fry
- 1 tbsp seasoned flour
- 1 red onion, peeled and finely chopped
- 200 – 250g/6 – 8 oz mushrooms, peeled and chopped
- 180 ml/¾ cup dry Martini – or some Napoleon brandy!
- 180 ml/¾ chicken stock (boiled water with a tsp of chicken stock powder, or a chicken stock cube), plus two more cups/480 ml for the rice
- 240ml/1 cup basmati rice
- Couple of knobs of butter
- 2 free range eggs
- 3 tbsp tomato purée
- Freshly ground white pepper
- 2 fat garlic cloves, crushed with a tsp of smoked salt
- Put plates in to warm.
- Add some oil to a frying pan and begin to warm.
- Coat the chicken pieces in the seasoned flour and then fry for about five minutes until golden (a couple of minutes each side).
- Remove and put in a saucepan (one which has a lid… or use a multisize silicon lid).
- Fry the onion for a couple of minutes, then add the mushrooms – you will probably have to add more oil, fry for another three or four minutes, then add the garlic. Keep frying for another couple of minutes.
- Meanwhile add the stock and the tomato purée to the saucepan.
- Add the frying pan mix to the saucepan.
- Pour the Martini into the frying pan and deglaze, add the enriched liquid to the saucepan.
- Bring to the boil, then a low simmer and cover (you can put it in the simmering oven if you have an Aga).
- To another saucepan (also with a lid) add some butter and cook the rice (go here for more on cooking basmati rice) for a couple of minutes.
- Add the stock, bring to the boil and then down to a simmer.
- Take the lid off the saucepan with the poultry in order to reduce the liquid.
- Cover the rice, and cook either on the hob, or if you have an Aga in the baking oven, for about a quarter of an hour.
- About ten minutes after you’ve put on the rice, add a little more oil to the frying pan, and fry the eggs.
- Serve the poultry mix on a bed of rice and top with an egg.
For more Napoleon propaganda, go to one of my absolutely favourite blogs – Luke Honey’s The Greasy Spoon, and his post: The Strange Affair of Napoleon’s Cognac.
Below you can listen to Coldplay singing Viva La Vida: