Poulet à la Marengo; or, butterless Napoleon

Mrs Beeton is the go-to lady when it comes to all things pertaining to Victorian household management. One could say she wrote the book on the subject.

Which you definitely could, because she did.

Isabella Beeton (1836-1865) worked as a journalist for her husband’s publication “The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine”. She wrote a cookery column, publishing recipes garnered from various sources such as friends, readers’ letters and previously published recipe books. Her column proved so popular that she collected her newspaper columns first into monthy supplements for the newspaper, and then into an actual book. “Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management” was published in 1861.

At a whopping 2751 entries Mrs Beeton’s book covers not just recipes but also general information about foodstuffs, how to manage your household economy, how to care and cook for invalids, how to keep your servants in line and even some notes on legal intricacies.

Beeton’s book has been criticised for heavy-handed plagiarism since most of the recipes have been lifted from somewhere else. That notwithstanding, Beeton’s writing is entertaining and very, very thorough. Many of her recipes are embellished with additional information on where the recipe comes from, how the vegetables used are grown, or how to tell if the fish you buy is fresh or not.

Today’s recipe is entry number 949: poulet à la Marengo, or chicken Marengo. Beeton gives us a little story of how Napoleon was preparing for the Battle of Marengo in Italy, in 1800. The supply wagons hadn’t caught up with the French army yet but Napoleon’s cook had a fowl and needed to cook something out of it – “there was no butter at hand, and unluckily none could be found in the neighbourhood”, which would obviously be a disaster for any serious cook. Luckily oil was found to be a decent substitute, and the cook went on to toss in some garlic and mushrooms, along with a dash of wine, and hey presto, a dish worth naming after a battle. Especially since Napoleon won the battle. “Ever since”, Beeton adds, “a fowl à la Marengo is a favourite dish with all lovers of good cheer.”

There are plenty of modern versions of the recipe around, but they differ in many ways from Beeton’s take on the dish. Most modern recipes add tomatos, crab meat, eggs or olives. Beeton’s version is simple, so much so that even though the story includes wine, her recipe does not.

Ingredients – 1 large fowl, 4 tablespoonfuls of salad oil, 1 tablespoonful of flour, 1 pint of stock, or water, about 20 mushroom-buttons, salt and pepper to taste, 1 teaspoonful of powdered sugar, a very small piece of garlic.
Mode – Cut the fowl into 8 or 10 pieces; put them with the oil into a stewpan, and brown them over a moderate fire; dredge in the above proportion of flour; when that is browned, pour in the stock or water; let it simmer very slowly for rather more than ½ hour, and skim off the fat as it rises to the top; add the mushrooms; season with salt, pepper, garlic, and sugar; take out the fowl, which arrange pyramidically on the dish, with the inferior joints at the bottom. Reduce the sauce by boiling it quickly over the fire, keeping it stirred until sufficiently thick to adhere to the back of a spoon; pour over the fowl, and serve.
Time – Altogether 50 minutes. Average cost – 3s, 6d.
Sufficient for 3 or 4 persons.
Seasonable – at any time.

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Chicken fillets instead of a whole bird. I cheat on occasion.

The recipe requires very little modernisation. Whole chickens aren’t easy to find at the local grocery store here so I used pre-cut fillets. I chose stock instead of water, but in hindsight water may have been just as good. I don’t know what the fat content of a 19th century bird was, but I didn’t need to skim off any fat while this was cooking. I cut the mushrooms into smaller pieces and let them simmer for a while too, even though it doesn’ say anything specific in the recipe. Once I took the chicken out I tried to reduce the sauce just by boiling, but the sauce wasn’t cooperating so I had to resort to corn starch.

I stacked the chicken as best I could and poured the sauce on top. It turned out okay, though not very pyramidical.

imagePictured: not a pyramid.

The taste was perfect, though. Very strong in umami thanks to the stock and the mushrooms, so a little sauce went a long way. In honour of Italy and Marengo and all that I served the chicken with pasta, and my 5-year-old (who hates mushrooms) had a second helping. Now our whole family is ready to defeat the Austrians in battle.

 

Old-Time Ginger Cake

A series of weekends with May Day and Mother’s Day has kept Mrs. Hindle very busy and off the blog, but I’m back now and today I’m joined by Mrs. Fisher, a fascinating woman who has sadly vanished almost completely into the mists of history.

According to scetchy census logs, Abby Fisher was born around 1832 in South Carolina. Listed as the daughter of an African-American mother and a French father, it’s fairly safe to assume that she was born a slave. From what I’ve been able to gather her parents’ names are not given, since Abby Fisher’s maiden name is nowhere to be found. Sometime in the 1860s she married Alabama native Alexander C. Fisher, and she gave birth to eleven children – the 160th and final recipe in her book is for “Pap for Infant Diet”, with which Fisher says she nursed all her children. Whether Abby Fisher was emancipated before or after the civil war, and whether her husband was ever a slave at all, is unclear, but certainly after the civil war ended the family chose to move West. In the late 1870s Abby gave birth to one of her children in Missouri, and in a census in 1880 the Fisher family was living in San Francisco. Abby Fisher was still alive for the 1910 census, but in 1920 her husband is listed as a widower. These are dry facts, but there’s so much one could speculate about. How did the family travel West? Train was an available option, but may have been too expensive. Covered wagons?

And did this happen?

In any case, once in San Fransisco Abby Fisher started a business selling pickles, preserves &c. She received medals for her products at the Sacramento State Fair of 1879 and the San Fransisco Mechanics’ Institute Fair of 1880, which encouraged her to publish her best recipes the next year. She seems to have been somewhat hesitant since, according to her own preface, Abby Fisher could neither read nor write. Her husband had also been “without the advantages of an education”, but it’s still implied that he wrote the book at Abby Fisher’s dictation. The resulting work, “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking”, is a slim and concise collection of 160 recipes covering “an experience of upwards of thirty-five years – in the art of cooking Soups, Gumbos, Terrapin [turtle] Stews, Meat Stews, Baked and Roast Meats, Pastries, Pies and Biscuits, making Jellies, Pickles, Sauces, Ice-Creams and Jams, preserving Fruits”.

I’m not quite brave enough for jellies or jams yet, let alone turtle stew, so my first recipe from Mrs. Fisher’s little book is “Old-Time Ginger Cake”. The recipes don’t list the required ingredients at the beginning, so careful study of the recipe is necessary right from the start.

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I make that:

1 pint or 4,7 dl molasses

1 quart or 1,1 liters flour

½ teacup or 5 tblsp brown sugar

1 teacup or 1½dl or 130 g butter

1 tblsp cinnamon

2 tblsp ginger

1 teacup or 1½ dl sour milk

1 tsp soda

3 eggs

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In other words, this.

Molasses are available in Finland, but only at very specialised stores and I just didn’t have a chance to obtain any, but I did some research and decided dark syrup was an adequate replacement. Dark sugar comes in many shapes and forms, too, so I don’t know which type Fisher would have used. I opted for very slightly refined dry dark sugar. The sour milk in the recipe probably refers to milk that has spoiled a bit, whereas I used fermented milk. Shouldn’t make much of a difference to taste. Baking soda requires an acidic catalyst to make it work, so regular sweet milk would not give the desired result.

After that it’s a pretty straightforward recipe. Cream the sugar and butter, then add the other ingredients. Pour into greased pans, or if you’re as lazy as I am, put baking paper in your pans and then pour in the batter.

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Thusly. In hindsight, I could have taken a photo before putting them in the oven.

The recipe doesn’t specify heat or baking time. I improvised with 175 degrees C and an hour or so of baking time.

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It seemed to work.

The resulting cake wasn’t nearly as gingery as I thought it would be, considering I poured in the entire contents of my ginger jar (note to self: restock ginger jar). It was tasty cake and my friend who actually knows stuff about Southern cooking didn’t sneer at it, so I call it a win.