Napoleonic meals are nothing fancy

«He’s the fastest eater in history», Indicates the historian Philippe Costamagna, director of the Museum of Fine Arts of Ajaccio responsible for opening by 2024 the first Napoleon museum in the same city.

Specialist in the saga of the emperor, the author delivered at the beginning of March a detailed biography from the very famous Corsica where he tackles “The nose and the mouth” of Napoleon, the opposite of a gourmet.

“If Napoleon’s rise to power seems rapid, it is nothing compared to his meals taken at a rate that would stun a regular at fast food”, thus writes Philippe Costamagna.

Philippe Costamagna. | JF Paga Grasset

The emperor is as impetuous in front of a plate as on the battlefield. If ordinary dinners with the Empress never exceed twenty minutes (for Charles de Gaulle forty-five minutes), it is because the first of the French eats little, in haste, “Swallowing in post” as Joséphine says, that is to say, by badly chewing large bites without order and without fear of getting dirty – which happens frequently.

While he is very concerned about its cleanliness, Napoleon covers the tablecloth with stains without complex, often tapping into dishes with his fingers, including sauces and juices, which contrasts with the ceremonial setting of the table of the most solemn.

In his haste, he sometimes eats the sweet before the salty. He only stops to refresh himself with a glass of ice water or his legendary Chambertin cut off with water on the recommendation of his doctor Jean-Nicolas Corvisart.

The ex-Bonaparte has no knowledge of oenology, does not have a cellar in his palaces and smiles when he is told that there are better wines than those served at home.

“If we stay longer at the table, it is the beginning of the corruption of power”, he said. Everything rather than wasting time. And woe to those who take theirs!

During less rushed formal meals, the emperor tolerates no waiting. You should neither laugh too much nor talk too much, more than one guest has had the bad surprise of having their full plate withdrawn from under their nose.

Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David. | Achim55 via Wikimedia Commons

When the emperor rises, it’s over. The butlers clear everything away and all the guests have to do is leave with their hunger. If he is late, a system is put in place to keep the food hot until it arrives.

One evening, Joséphine waits for him hungry for hours while in the kitchen more than twenty chickens are roasted so that the emperor will find one just out of the oven when he sits down.

“His palate is unrefined”

His food minimalism is not only due to his eternal impatience. He only wants two dishes, which suits his schedule and diet. This frugality results in savings, which is not to displease him. He has fun: “If you are a little eater, come to my house.”

Even if the meals served at the table are a chore, he sometimes returns a banal infusion that seems poorly made or suspect. The emperor fears poisonings. A dish of bad taste prompts this remark all its own: “They are trying to poison me!” A total phobia.

He has a taste for simple things that shouldn’t upset him. From filandreux green beans where he thinks he can find hair, he forbids it to be served to him, but his favorite meat is that of chicken presented roasted, quenelle, Provencal, Italian, fricassee.

The veal Marengo, Napoleonic recipe par excellence, was also a Marengo chicken deglazed in oil and brandy with onions and mushrooms: one of the emperor’s favorite dishes.

Rare red meat, never: he demands the most cooked piece. At the butcher’s, no fatty beef, pork or game, he needs mutton, chops or breast accompanied by starchy foods: lentils, white beans, potatoes and parmesan macaroni. And pot-au-feu and a cabbage leaf stuffed with spinach, lettuce, flour and bacon: that’s what gets him congratulations.

Let’s also mention his mother’s lasagna. Apart from the garlic he can’t stand, Napoleon enjoys Mediterranean-inspired cuisine: it’s his childhood at the table. In good Corsica, he enjoys grilled reds that he intends to make his relatives taste.

“His palate is not very refined, the military way of life makes him a lover of omelet, fried, boiled eggs, both in the countryside and under the gold of Fontainebleau”, notes the historian. An interview between the emperor and Goethe takes place around a plate of mirrored eggs.

One day, he tries to make a sautéed omelet that will end up on the floor. Milk and eggs: these are Proust’s madeleines of the sovereign with the appetite of a schoolboy, he confesses to Marguerite, the cook of his childhood, whom he will reward with a purse full of gold.

The container rather than the content

The emperor in his apartments is everywhere master of the house. He is more and more absorbed in his function. The more time passes, the shorter the meals: less than ten minutes.

At the table, he receives a crowd of guests with whom he lingers until the service of the vermeil coffee.

He bombards his household officers, Daru, Duroc, Ségur, with questions about purchases, ordinary expenses, and the massive lifestyle of the imperial household. It is the occasion for the treasurer, son of Letizia, to complain about the expenses inflated by his statute of emperor.

The container rather than the content, the emperor’s passion for Sèvres porcelain is real. He has ideas on everything and demands from the Manufacture de Sèvres productions to his glory and that of France: this is the only attraction of official meals. Here are the gold services and cameo decorations which he presented to the King of Württemberg in 1809 and to the Tsar at the signing of the Treaty of Tilsit: no naked women or nymphs on the artistic creations adorning his palaces.

During the voyages in the Empire, the imperial car shelters the provisions and battalions of cooks, clerks, arpetes ready to set tables, rotisseries, silverware and porcelain in less than half an hour. Sometimes the emperor decrees that he is not hungry, without being certain of having to bring out the materials, furniture, tents an hour later if his appetite wakes up.

The origin of Danzig chocolate

After the capture of Danzig, Marshal Lefebvre, architect of victory, was invited to the emperor’s table. He is stunned: in front of him stands a majestic pâté representing the city of Danzig, an edible model.

“You couldn’t give this pâté a shape that I like more. Attack him Monsieur le duke, here is your conquest ”, said the emperor, amused.

Napoleon went so far as to cook the chocolate dessert, but what delighted the Duke of Danzig was the little package prepared by the sovereign: banknotes for a hundred thousand crowns. This is the recipe for the now famous Danzig chocolate.

Napoleon’s favorite treat was aniseed liquorice that he nibbled on all day, his only confectionary aside from his passion for ice creams and dates.

In fact, the pastry chef Hubert Lebeau accumulated frustrations in the service of Napoleon. He strives to erect magnificent mounted pieces where the cabbage and cream, figures in sugar and cookies, pay homage to the victorious of the Arcole bridge, the Lodi bridge or the Passage du Tagliamento without sacrificing the flavors of the pieces. to aesthetics. And these sugar slideshows are brought back unopened in the kitchen.

Napoleon at the Battle of Lodi by Louis-François, Baron Lejeune. | ANGELUS via Wikimedia Commons

The attitude of the emperor at the table is all the more out of place since the beginning of the 19the century is the moment of the birth of French gastronomy. The word was coined in 1801 by Joseph Berchoux in his famous poem: Gastronomy, or the man of the fields at the table. Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, brilliant author of the Physiology of taste (1825) put it well: “If Napoleon employed his genius in cooking, mankind would be happier.” That being said, the French emperor knew very well that it is at the table that one governs, said Bossuet.

Restaurants in Paris under Napoleon

It was originally, before the Revolution, a broth called restaurant. A certain Boulanger, cafetier rue des Poulies (former public road of the IVe arrondissement), had the idea of ​​serving his customers a hearty broth that could take the place of dinner and then a stew. Denis Diderot wrote to Sophie Volland in 1767 that he felt good there, but dearly treated.

Le Procope, founded in 1686, very close to the Odeon, where Voltaire had his place, remains the first café-restaurant in the capital. It was an emblematic establishment in the history of France. The greatest writers and intellectuals gathered there including Montesquieu, Rousseau, Diderot, Verlaine … and during the French Revolution, Danton, Marat, Robespierre organized their political meetings there.

The entrance to the Le Procope restaurant. | CafeLeProcope

Grimod de La Reynière indicates that there were many restaurants under the Directory: Beauvilliers where a former chef of the royal household officiates, Méot very dear named after its founder, former cook of the Prince of Condé, the Trois Frères Provençaux, the Café de Foy, Café Hardy then Maison Dorée where the grill and the Nantua crayfish timpani were invented. Flaubert evokes it in Sentimental Education. Here are the specialties: a sturgeon head with champagne and a vol-au-vent with béchamel sauce. You have to be bold, they said, to have lunch at Café Hardy because the bill was steep.

At the Café de Chartres (1785) which would become Le Véfour in 1830, named after its owner Jean Véfour, Bonaparte fed on the menu: vermicelli, mutton, stir-fries, Marengo chicken fricassee and a rare poultry mayonnaise. We hurry at both meals.

The Café Very, in the Tuileries garden, was the first establishment to apply a fixed price, the wines are of good quality. For La Reynière, this is one of the best restaurants in Paris.

It was within these walls that Raymond Oliver invented in 1950 fried eggs with brain lobes served sparkling and peppery.

The room of the restaurant Le Grand Véfour. |

Le Grand Véfour is now owned by Savoyard chef Guy Martin, ex-three stars, not starred in 2021 because he is about to change the style of meal: “More uninhibited”, writes the Michelin.

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