Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Napoleon Bonaparte's Chicken Marengo

This is the original Chicken Marengo that was served to Napoleon after the Battle of Marengo!
     Napoleon Bonaparte liked a quick meal after a major battle.  His cooks used influences of local cuisine from places they were stationed at.  This is not a traditional Spezzatino Marengo Italian recipe.  This recipe is French and is makes use of food items that were available in the Marengo region.
     The reason Napoleon's cooks made use of local ingredients was because Napoleon used a blitzing fast moving style of attack.  Soldiers could only depend on food from the spoils of victory.  The strategy of pillaging food during a fast advancing military campaign worked fine, until Napoleon started the Russian campaign.  The Russians used a smash and burn policy to destroy crop fields and stored food, before Napoleon's army could commandeer the food.  The Russian dirt roads turned to mud during the rainy summer, so Napoleon's slow supply lines were clean out of the picture.  By the time winter rolled in, Napoleon lost over 500,000 men in the Russian campaign and few shots were fired.  The commandeer food as you advance campaign strategy failed.
     Italy also used a technique that was similar to the Russian crop field burning tactic.  Italians stash food in hidden places, like caves, during the Austrian army advance that led to the battle of Marengo.  Italians hid almost every available food item from both armies, so Napoleon's army was lucky to turn any food up at all.  
     As the fabled story goes, Napoleon's cooks had very few ingredients on hand, after the battle of Marengo in the Piedmont region of Italy.  After any battle, the easiest meats to acquire are chickens and eggs from farms.  Crawfish are abundant in any stream or pond.  Tomato paste and dried herbs were a French army mess tent staple.  Local Italian olives, olive oil, peppers, mushrooms, leeks, tomatoes and onions were available in Marengo.
     Of course, Napoleon's French Cognac was on hand as well.  The enlisted men had hard tack bread issued to them.  Napoleon often ate hard tack, just like the regular soldiers.  French officers often had French bread baked by their cooks.  Put all these ingredients together, with the skill of Napoleon's French cooks, and you have the creation of one of the finest recipes in history!
     • These next few facts should act as a guide for preparing an authentic chicken marengo:
     • The ingredients for the original chicken marengo were prepared with only a French infantry short sword.
     • The original chicken marengo and the garnish was cooked quickly, using only one pan.
     • The original chicken marengo was served on a tin plate.
     • The Crawfish Garnish was prepared with the excess sauce in the pan.
     • The fried egg for the garnish was prepared after the pan was wiped clean.
     • No potato, no rice and no pasta was served with this entree!
     A garnish of toasted crusty bread and fried egg was a classic garnish for entrees during the late 1700's and early 1800's.  Napoleon liked fried egg and toast garnishes!  Many modern chefs make the mistake of simply placing a poached egg with no toast on top of a chicken marengo and it is historically the incorrect garnish to use.  
     Spezzatino di Vitello Merengo (Spezzatino Marengo) is a traditional local stew of the Italian Piedmont region and it is made with veal or pork, not chicken.  Many chefs state that a poached egg is required on a Spezzatino Marengo, just like Napolean's chicken marengo was prepared.  The original pre Napoleonic Italian spezzatino marengo recipes required no egg garnish.  Garnishes of fried egg and toast were a French tradition, not an Italian tradition.  The egg garnish for a modern Italian marengo stew is not really authentic, but it could loosely be considered to be a remnant of the influence of Napoleon's chicken marengo.
     To be precise, if an egg garnish is used for a marengo stew, then it has to be a fried egg and toast garnish.  The only marengo stew that requires an egg and toast garnish is a chicken marengo.  When fried egg and toast garnishes a chicken marengo, it can only be called Napoleon Bonaparte's Chicken Marengo if a second garnish of crawfish is used for the presentation!
     If you are interested in the fine Italian cuisine of the Piedmont region, I have also posted a nice authentic Italian Spezzatino Marengo recipe in this food blog.  The Spezzatino Marengo recipe in this food blog has no egg garnish and it is served with a traditional risi e piselli.
     Napoleon Bonaparte's Chicken Marengo Recipe:
     Use only one skillet for making this recipe, just like the original recipe was cooked! 
     Heat a skillet over medium heat.
     Add 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil.
     Place a slice of French bread in the pan.
     Toast the French bread on both sides.
     Set the toast aside.
     Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil to the pan.
     Add 3 chopped garlic cloves.
     Add 1/4 cup of thin bite size onion slices.
     Add 1/8 cup of sliced leek.
     Add 1/4 cup of mixed diced red bell pepper and diced green bell pepper.  (Optional.  There is an argument concerning whether bell peppers were actually part of the original recipe!)
     Add 1/4 cup handful of mushroom quarters.
     Saute till the vegetables become cooked al dente. 
     Add 8 ounces of large bite size cube shaped pieces of chicken breast.
     Note:  A whole small chicken cut buffet style into 10 to 12 pieces was probably how the chicken was originally butchered for this recipe.  Boneless chicken breast pieces do cook quickly.  The definition of how this recipe was cooked states, "A quickly prepared meal after the battle."  It is possible that only the chicken breast meat was used, because it cooks quickly and the breast meat is easy to take off of the bone, even by using a small sword. 
     Saute and toss the ingredients in the pan, till the chicken is halfway cooked.
     Add 8 to 10 large pitted green olives.
     Add 8 to 10 large pitted ripe black olives.
     Add 2 canned plum tomatoes that are cut into large bite size pieces.  (optional)
     Note:  Many food historians state that no fresh tomatoes were available during the battle of Marengo.  It is possible that a lucky find of home made canned whole plum tomatoes were available.  French officers had first dibs on lucky finds like that! 
     Add 1 cup of French Cognac.
     Simmer and reduce the pan juices by half.
     Add 3 1/2 ounces of imported Italian tomato paste.
     Add 1 cup of water.  (After the battle, there was no time to make broth or stock.)
     Add 2 pinches of tarragon.
     Add 2 pinches of thyme.
     Add 2 pinches of sage.
     Add 1 pinch of marjoram.
     Add 1 pinch of basil.
     Add 1 pinch of oregano.
     Add 2 pinches of chopped Italian parsley.
     Add 1 bay leaf. 
     Add sea salt and black pepper. 
     Reduce the temperature to medium/medium low heat.
     Simmer the Chicken Marengo, till the chicken is fully cooked and the sauce reduces to medium thin tomato sauce consistency.  (Do not simmer the Marengo for too much time or the vegetables will become "flat" and mushy.)
     Napoleon Bonaparte's Chicken Marengo Presentation:
     Remove the bay leaf.
     Set the toast on one end of a serving platter.
     Use a spoon to place the Chicken Marengo ingredients on the platter, while leaving a little bit of the sauce in the pan.  (Use a tin platter if possible.)
     Return the pan with the excess sauce in it to medium heat.
     Add 3/4 cup of water.
     Add about 10 to 12 whole crawfish. 
     Quickly poach the crawfish in the diluted sauce.
     Arrange the crawfish around the toast and Chicken Marengo on the serving platter.
     Discard the diluted sauce that was used to poach the crawfish.  (The diluted sauce will now have crawfish legs in it that fell off of the whole crawfish, so it is undesirable for being served.)
     Rinse the excess sauce off of the skillet and wipe the skillet dry.
     Return the skillet to medium heat.
     Add 1 small splash of olive oil.
     Add 1 egg.
     Pan fry the egg, so it is sunny side up.
     Use a spatula to place the fried egg on the toast.
     Viola!  Cooked with one skillet like the original Chicken Marengo!  You have to poach the crawfish separately in the diluted excess sauce, instead of with the Chicken Marengo itself, because the legs and claws tend to fall off of the crawfish.  If you were cooking for Napoleon, would you want him to bite into a crawfish claw and break a tooth?  No!  That would be the means to a very short career as a chef!
     The flavors of the cognac, tomato and herbs with olives is very appetizing.  The aroma of this entree is rich and comforting!  Snacking on the crawfish garnish while eating the chicken marengo is a great simple pleasure.  The old fashioned garnish of toast and fried egg does accompany this recipe well.
     This was how the original Chicken Marengo was cooked and presented to Napoleon by battle weary chefs.  Bon Appetit!  ...  Shawna


  1. Thank you for the information and recipe, I look forward to cooking this!

  2. You are welcome! It took a little bit of research to figure out what the original recipe was. Thank you!