Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Poulet à la Marengo: The dish named after Napoleon’s victory

Published today in Wargame Bloggers Quarterly is this piece on Poulet Marengo.  By posting it here I am reversing the trend in the magazine for putting a piece in it based on a blog posting.  I wrote this as a specific commission (thanks to Big Red Bat for putting my name forward) for the magazine and it has only become a blog posting now!  En avant!

It was my father who introduced me to the story behind Poulet Marengo. He also started me on my interest in Napoleonic military history and in the early seventies took me to see the Sergei Bondurchuck film Waterloo at the cinema and to Les Invalides in Paris, where he bought me a couple of splendid Starlux plastic 54mm French cavalry. Airfix Napoleonics followed and he bought me my first metal figures: Hinchliffe Imperial Guard and carabineers. 

My first metal painted figures.  Hinchliffe Imperial Guard completed 1971

Other than military history (he had served in North Africa in WW2 and Palestine afterwards), American architecture, wine (I had my first glass of wine at the age of two and a half – I’d probably have been taken into care by social services these days) and women, what he really liked was French cooking. He had a French friend, Lou, who was prototypically Gallic in a sort of Gilbert Bécaud way, whose house in Roussillon we borrowed during the summer holidays. My father was able to indulge his taste for French regional cooking, local wine (which even at the age of eight I realised was pretty rough in the area the house was – I can’t believe the price Corbières is now – you could get it for 5 centimes a litre then, if you supplied your own bottle), Gauloises and, I strongly suspect, French women. 

Certainly, when we were on holiday he would do all the cooking, delighting in the fact that the house was located in prime cassoulet country and dragging us around markets in places like Cahors as he tried to obtain some obscure ingredient. There were a quartet of key French dishes that defined his cooking: Coq au Vin, Boeuf Bourguignon, Cassoulet and Poulet Marengo. The first three were very popular in restaurants in Britain in the late sixties and seventies but Poulet Marengo was less so. This, I suspect, was to do with the rather odd set of ingredients involved. “After the Battle of Marengo,” my father told me “Napoleon sent his chef out to find him something to eat. He came back with some chickens, tomatoes, eggs and crayfish and invented the dish using those ingredients.” I was immediately doubtful when I was told that the egg was fried and put on the top. I also had no idea what crayfish were but fish, fried eggs and chicken did not sound promising. This was the only one of my father’s four classic French dishes that I don’t remember him ever cooking for me. Perhaps the difficulty of sourcing crayfish had something to do with it. After all, we could only have cassoulet if he had bought the key ingredients (particularly confit d’oie) in France. One of his other favourites was paella but in the late sixties there was just one shop in Soho where you could then buy the now ubiquitous chorizo. So, I was always intrigued by this dish with its Napoleonic connection and thought that it might make an interesting post. 

The Battle 

The Battle of Marengo by Louis-François Lejeune

The climax of Napoleon’s Italian campaign, the battle was fought on June 14 1800 near the city of Alessandria in Piedmont, in Northern Italy, between the French Consular Army under Napoleon, in his first battle as head of state and an Austrian army under General Melas. The hamlet of Marengo was sited at a key point on the battlefield which the Austrians had to take in order to deploy properly. One of the bloodiest battles of the nineteenth century, the details of the battle are subject to controversy, not least because Napoleon subsequently had the accounts of the battle rewritten so that what looked like an imminent rout for the retreating French, saved by a fortuitous counterattack (led by Desaix and General François Kellermann’s famous heavy cavalry) was later transformed into a clever, according to Napoleon, pre-planned feigned retreat, brilliant manoeuver and calculated strike back. The fact was that Napoleon was very, very lucky and some have even said that the creation of Poulet Marengo was a deliberate part of Napoleon’s PR effort to re-cast the battle as a brilliant triumph complete with lovable food-linked legend. 

The Legend

Marie-Antoine Careme the real architect of Poulet Marengo?

The official version of the story of the creation goes something like this. After the battle the wagons carrying food supplies were nowhere to be found. Dunant, Napoleon’s chef, anxious to provide for his master, sent out a foraging party who returned with a number of chickens, tomatoes, garlic, eggs and crayfish from the Bormida River. After preparing the chickens they were chopped up with a sword and cooked with the tomatoes and garlic. The eggs were fried and added to the dish on serving with the crayfish which were poached in some white wine. Napoleon loved the dish so much he insisted it was served after very one oif his battles. This gives us a nice, clear recipe of a dish with somewhat eccentric ingredients. Still, it is, perhaps, this curious combination which has kept the dish on the culinary scene for 200 years. Sadly, however, the story is absolute nonsense. None of the contemporary accounts of the battle mention the dish. For a start, Dunant was not Napoleon’s chef at the time. In June 1800 he was living in Moscow as the chef to the Condé family, who had fled France during the Revolution. Dunant didn’t enter Napoleon’s service until August 1802. Secondly, it is likely that Napoleon dined with Kellerman after the battle with food provided by the Convent de Bosco in exchange for being safeguarded from looting. There was jubilation in Paris after the battle and this Marengo mania must have resulted in the dish itself, although it isn’t recorded until 1814; but by then was on the menu of many of Paris’ top restaurants. It didn’t appear in a recipe book until 1820. Whoever created it (there have been suggestions that it was the great chef Marie-Antoine Carême) its popularity remained for 150 years until nouvelle cuisine, and increasing interest in ethnic food, essentially killed off traditional French dishes with rich sauces in restaurants. You will be hard pushed to find the dish on the menu of a restaurant today; which means that you will have to cook it yourself.

Order of Battle 

There is really no definitive Poulet Marengo recipe. Like cassoulet and Salade Niçoise the authentic ingredients are much argued about.  Really, like selecting a wargames army, you can choose from a number of troop choices.

Core Units


This is, in reality, the only 100% universal ingredient. You see veal and rabbit Marengo sometimes but they, of course, are just variants on the original not options. Napoleon was very fond of chicken and often had it for breakfast. which he tended to take late in the morning. There are those, therefore, who argue that Poulet Marengo is just a retrospective appellation given to the Poulet à la Provençale he often had for déjeuner.


Pretty much every recipe has these but some writers have argued that tomatoes would not have been available in Piedmont in June. Certainly some of the earliest versions of the recipe eschew them.

Olive Oil

Olive oil with pictures of girls on the label always tastes better 

Again, not everyone agrees that the dish was cooked in olive oil, which was something more common in the south of Italy. In this part of the country, walnut oil would have been more likely. Butter and dripping have also been offered as alternatives. Your cardiologist would certainly prefer olive oil, however.


Again not everyone agrees on this but I think it is a necessity and is in many of the versions of the original story.

Elite Units


These are certainly mentioned in most of the accounts of the dish being assembled. Lately, because of the difficulty of obtaining them, many recipes leave them out altogether or replace them with prawns. Freshwater crayfish are seasonal (May to September at their best in Britain) but you can sometimes get them at a good fishmonger (if you can find such a thing these days). They do add significantly to the taste of the dish and, anyway, they contribute to the sense of the randomly collected ingredients of the legend. You can get crayfish tails in some supermarkets but these are usually very small.


Some accounts of the original recipe mention truffles but these are more likely a later addition by Parisian restaurants. One version of the story says that Dunant hoped his foragers could find some truffles but they failed.


Some of the early accounts call for Cognac (as used in Coq au Vin to deglaze the pan) but this is usually omitted today. White wine is usually added although Robert Carrier (whose recipes are usually infallible) uses dry sherry. One account says that when Dunant added wine to the recipe, when he cooked it for Napoleon on another occasion, Napoleon rejected because it was not in the original recipe. Several accounts say that the wine was just to poach the crayfish in.

Heavy support 

Fried Egg

Pretty much every recipe includes the fried egg and it is one of the signature elements of the dish.


The original story had Dunant using some soldiers’ biscuits but you are more likely to see slices of fried French bread, often to act as a bed for the fried egg or, sometimes, in included, the mushrooms.

Light Support 

Chicken stock

Pretty much essential this. Fresh is best, of course (I make it and freeze it) but there are good supermarket options these days. Bouquet garni Bay leaf, tarragon, parsley etc.

Pepper and salt

Certainly black pepper but I personally never add salt to food.


These were probably only added to the recipe to replace the more expensive truffles


Many recipes include onions, as well as garlic, and shallots in particular.


The inclusion of these is more likely a throwback to Chicken Provencale, considered by some to be the origin of the dish.


Unlikely to be found on an inland battlefield, I suspect these were added as a fishy alternative to crayfish.

Lemon juice

Some recipes include a squeeze of lemon juice but I suspect this is linked to the crayfish cooking process.

 The Recipe 

You can mix and match from many of the ingredients above but this is how I cooked it. I don’t give quantities for everything because I am not that sort of cook. I base everything on feel and experience as I have been cooking French recipes for forty-five years now.

My ingredients: 

• Chicken. I used chicken breasts but you can add chicken legs or a whole chicken jointed (more authentic – especially if you use a sabre).
•A dozen small shallots or one small onion and two cloves of garlic, finely chopped
• Flour (about a tablespoon).
• Black pepper.
•A tablespoon of olive oil.
•A glass of white wine, such as Gavi.
•Tomatoes. Plum tomatoes are, perhaps, more appropriate but in recipes like this I think you get more taste from high quality tinned Italian ones than fresh, supermarket greenhouse ones. If using fresh tomatoes they need to be peeled, seeded and chopped. Tinned ones just need slicing
• Chicken stock - homemade or in a pot or sachet from the supermarket. Not chicken stock cubes!
• Bouquet garni. You can get good ready-made ones in little muslin bags.
• Cooked crayfish tails. For small ones from the supermarket about a dozen would be fine for two people and half a dozen, if large fresh ones, which will need cooking first.

The process

•Brown the chicken at a medium heat in the olive oil in a heavy frying pan or, ideally, a cast iron casserole.  Keeping the lid on during this process keeps the chicken from drying out.
•Then add the chopped shallots and garlic and sprinkle the flour over it all. Mix the flour into the onion/garlic and add black pepper. Cook until the shallots are transparent.

 •Add the chopped tomatoes, bouquet garni, white wine and top up with stock until the chicken in covered. Cover the pan and cook in an oven (for a casserole) or on the hob (for a pan) so that it simmers for about forty-five minutes and the sauce thickens. If it’s not thickening take the lid off for a while.
•Shortly before serving, fry slices of a thin French loaf to make croutons. Put to one side.
•Add the crayfish tails to the casserole.
•Fry one egg per person.
•Remove the bouquet garni and serve the contents of the casserole. Add the croutons to the plate and top with the fried egg.

Serve with 

This is a rich dish so I just had peas but you often see it served with ribbon pasta. Napoleon was very fond of potatoes (at a time when many saw these as animal feed only) so they would be a good choice too.


Napoleon was not much of a drinker and invariably had his wine watered down. He drank, almost exclusively, Chambertin but any recipe that includes wine in Poulet Marengo specifies white wine. Piedmont is very much a red wine area apart from the sparkling Asti and, more appropriately Gavi. Gavi di Gavi is the best of this region and is what I put in the dish and served with it. La Scolca, which is the best Gavi di Gavi, is served at every first night at La Scala opera house in Milan. I was introduced to this wine when living in Rome by a splendid young lady who was a princess of the Borghese family, whose direct ancestor was married to Napoleon’s sister, Paulina!

There is actually a book about this dish, although it is as much about the political machinations of Napoleon after the battle as the culinary aspects. Napoleon’s Chicken Marengo: creating the myth of Emperor’s favourite dish by Andrew Uffindell.


  1. That`s a very intresting plate, would you mind if I tackled it one of these weeks?

    1. It is a sort of variation of Chicken Provencale but you do really need the fishy element to make it more piquant. Either the crayfish of one finely chopped anchovy fillet.

    2. Actually, I was thinking of trying it with shrimps instead of anchovy or crayfish, for a less salty taste, and adding instead a salty touch by using rough sea salt

    3. Yes they would work well. The bigger the better, through!