Napoleon Bonaparte – l’Empereur at the table

Napoleon Bonaparte – l’Empereur at the...

by Nicoletta Arbusti

Louis-Constant Wairy (1778 – 1845), Napoleon Bonaparte’s head valet de chambre, in his Memoires de Constant, premier valet de chambre de l’Empereur, sur la vie privée de Napoleon, sa famille et sa cou (1), writes that Napoleon loved to eat alone and swiftly, with no tablecloth, and rarely his meals lasted more than ten minutes.

His daily meals were two: breakfast at 9:30 and supper at 18:00. The Emperor loved apricots and breaded cutlets and tended to gain weight, although without compromising his harmonious figure.

Napoleon’s meal looked quite ordinary: a little meat, Parma ham, grilled mutton and chicken with sauce “where he dipped the bread that he adores”. He was very demanding when it came to quality food.

Such haste in eating caused many digestive issues, such as acute congestion, followed by vomit and gastritis (2).

In reality, he was not a gourmet!

Constant-Wairy adds that Napoleon was a quick and inattentive tablemate, missed his meals or arrived late; he usually ate with his hands and favoured potato, beans and onion soups (3 ibid).

The many cooks working in his kitchens, even after 10/11 years of service, received little wages and were unsatisfied with their jobs.

Stendhal wrote in his A Life of Napoleon (4) that “the brightest moment in his life” was the first Italian Campaign (1796-1797), when his bond to Italy had a specific trait, curiously also in the cooking sphere.
On the occasion of the Congress of Modena, on 15th October 1797, Napoleon stopped at Novellara, where they offered him a sumptuous banquet with forty-two courses, as reported by Andrea Belletti in his Storia di Reggio nell’Emilia (5).

“People at lunch waste much time; I will accept a dèjeuner”, said Napoleon.

He had to accept the invitation, alas, and ate very little and with no appetite, and throughout that meal, he kept on talking, asking questions and acquiring information.

During the second Campaign of Italy, on 14th June 1800, in Marengo, close to Alessandria, they cooked a chicken which went down in history as the Chicken Marengo.

That day, Napoleon led a decisive field battle, moving around and giving orders, but followed by his cook.
The fate of the battle seemed unfavourable to the French, so much so that General Louis Charles Antoine Desaix (1768-1800), who died on the same evening, seems to have said to the Emperor: This battle is completely lost, but it is two. There is time to win another (6). Hence, Napoleon tempted his faith, charging with the cavalry of Desaix and winning what seemed a lost battle. Do it your way; I am going to eat! said the General.
Francois Durand, Napoleon’s personal cook, sent his kitchen helpers to the surrounding farmsteads since the Austrians had seized all the French supplies.
The helpers came with a small chicken, fried eggs, garlic, tomatoes and rived shrimp.
What did Dunand cook? It is hard to say because we cannot find his original recipe. But the Marengo chicken was born, and Napoleon was so pleased that it became the dish he ate after every one of his victories.
Among the many historical versions, we have one by Pellegrino Artusi in his Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (1891) (7) and one by Auguste Escoffier (8) in his Guide Culinarie (1901).
The Marengo chicken aroused such an interest that even Walt Disney, in 1989, published the adventure Topolino e il pollo alla Marengo (n. 1731) in Mickey Mouse Magazine, where Mickey and Goofy discovered the recipe directly from Francois Durand.
After the Italian Campaigns, Napoleon had the chance to appreciate Parma ham. In 1801, the Duchy of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla were part of the Napoleonic Empire, and Moreau de Saint-Méry (1750-1819), administrative counsellor of the Departments of Parma, Piacenza e Guastalla sent him some ham to Milan, recommending it to the Emperor, because of its highly digestive properties.
According to the historian Michael Broers, a professor at Oxford University who has dedicated several books to Napoleon, the latter was not a real wine connoisseur. He did not drink much and only on quality, almost always diluted in water.

Emmanuel de Las Cases, French official and historian (1766-1842), in his Memorial of Saint Helena (9), mentions the Chambertin, based on Pinot Noir, a Burgundy wine coming from the Grevey area, as a favourite wine of Napoleon, who believed it to be healthy.

The bottles at Chambertin were an inevitable part of the supplies intended for him, and they carried them during military campaigns.

Gevrey Chambertin represents one of the noblest, most aristocratic expressions of Pinot Noir of Burgundy. It takes its name from the little French municipality located at the northern end of the Côte de Nuits area that, with its more than 400 hectares, is among the largest terroirs in the Côte-d’Or: a golden homeland of the wine world.

But if Napoleon was not a great drinker, he never underestimated the value of wine. His economic advisors had planned to spread Burgundy wine throughout the Empire. In 1814, at the First Battle of Brienne, three hundred thousand bottles of Champagne and brandy were distributed to the troops.
Napoleon was also a wine collector: he would collect it in the Castle of Malmaison, an oenological patrimony of about thirteen thousand bottles: wines from Bordeaux, Bourgogne, Champagne and Languedoc-Roussillon. There were also excellences from Spain and Italy, such as the Picolit, Vermouth, Rosolio and fortified wines from the Mediterranean area, the Rhin, Hungary, and three hundred bottles of Rhum and liquors from Martinique.
Napoleon enjoyed drinking coffee: a generous cup after lunch and another after dinner. It was not uncommon that he drank it during the day as well. He loved barley water, too.
The general diet improvement in France is one of the many merits we attribute to Napoleon. He knew how important it was to preserve foods from deteriorating during the exhausting military campaigns, and in such a field, he showed his innovative spirit. In fact, for many centuries, people had to be put up with simple techniques such as smoking or salting. Thus, as First Consul, he held a public competition to prize 12.000 francs to the best method of preserving products used by the military.
Here is where the inventor Nicolas Appert (1749-1841), a candy maker and distiller, entered the scene with his research on the best way to preserve foods and won the prize with a specific sterilisation process based on the preservation in hermetically sealed bottles.
Successfully employed during the military campaigns, the process initially destined for liquid foods such as soups and marmalades was extended to many other foods, put in glass vases sealed with cork lids, wrapped in cloth and afterwards put to a boil (10).
In 1810, Appert published L’Art de conserver les substances animales et végétales (11), a milestone in the techniques of food preservation. After his text, the cuisine world would not be the same anymore because a revolution started determining new cooking directions and a new collective well-being. And again, in that field, Napoleon expressed his ability to assimilate the most innovative ideas of contemporary thinkers.


(1) Louis-Constant Wairy, Il valletto di Napoleone, Italian Ed., Feltrinelli, 2006.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Stendhal, Vita di Napoleone, Garzanti, 2021

(5) Andrea Belletti, Storia di Reggio nell’Emilia, 1925, re-edited in 1993.

(6) Chandler, David G. The Campaigns of Napoleon. Scribner, 1973, p.293.

(7) Pellegrino Artusi, La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene, Giunti, 2021.

(8) Auguste Escoffier, Guide Culinarie, 1901, Ed. Italiana, La guida Culinaria, Amazon, 2024.

(9) Emmanuel de Las Cases, Memorial de Ste Hélène, 8 vol., London, 1823 and 1840.

(10) Ada Corneri, Prelibatezze e curiosità nel piatto di Napoleone, Il Leone Verde, 2021.

(11) Nicolas Appert, L’Art de Conserver, re-ed. Menu Fretin, 2017


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