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.
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.
Pictured: 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.