While Napoleon Bonaparte was not a great lover of gastronomy, he nonetheless was perfectly aware of the importance of the table in the daily practice of politics and diplomacy. He gladly delegated these boring meals to his marshals who saw no penance in it, even pushing the cooking to such a level that French gastronomy radiated everywhere with a brilliance that still shines today.

The Golden Age of French Gastronomy

Without doubt there was a before and an after the Empire in the history of French gastronomy. But where we would expect our Napoleon, legislator of good fare, he is not. Not at all. Worse, if Bonaparte had been able to delegate the need for food to another, there is a good chance that today we had no cutlery to attribute to this character. However, the post-revolutionary context at the turn of the 19th century favored a reorganization of society, we witnessed a rapid and remarkable development of restaurants and caterers. Did the French have more appetite at this time than under the Ancien Régime? Obviously no. But the cooks formerly serving in noble, princely and aristocratic kitchens very quickly had an imperious and ironic need for food. Their employers having partly emigrated and shortened for many, it was necessary to find a living by practicing what one knew best how to do, namely to feed those who did it in the wrong way. For as early as the 19th century, a clumsiness in the handling of stoves was detected in the part of the population, this was also coupled with a spending power which largely excused this incongruous incompetence. Idle cooks therefore hastened to provide hungry gourmets with places where they could find all the comfort of satiety in exchange for a significant reduction in their purses. And a well-proven and perfectly synchronized ballet saw bellies swell as purses dried up. Restaurants were thus born, developing and adapting to all kinds of customers and budgets while at the same time large caterers were established, offering the services of a home restaurant for those who lacked the lavish service of the Ancien Régime. Between 1800 and 1815, the very young restaurants daily supplied the public most in sight ; one gladly goes to Chez Méot, rue de Valois, which will soon become the fashionable Boeuf à la mode or to the Café Véry at the Palais-Royal. Opened in 1808, it was the first fixed-price restaurant in Paris and also considered the best in the city. Balzac evokes it in La Comédie humaine since Lucien de Rubempré has his first Parisian lunch there:

A bottle of Bordeaux wine, oysters from Ostend, a fish, macaroni, fruit … He was pulled from his dreams by the total of the menu which took away the fifty francs with which he thought he was going very far in Paris. This dinner cost a month of its existence in Angoulême.

 

Cartoon dating from 1797 mocking sartorial extravagances under the Directory. Ironically titled "Le Bœuf à la Mode" after the name of the restaurant satisfying the famous stomachs of the time, the cartoon became so popular that it became the name of the establishment. Louis-Charles Ruotte (1754-1806?) After Frans Swagers (1756-1836), Le boeuf à la mode, Stipple engraving, 1797 © Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Department of Prints and Photography

Restaurants at least and the table more widely are a new luxury that distinguishes – in a different way than with aristocratic particles – those who matter from those who can easily be forget. Bonaparte had the good idea, despite his little taste for these food things, not to neglect the table, using it for his politics and his diplomacy as soon as he found himself in the position to govern or to negotiate. It was Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès (1753 – 1824) and Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754 – 1838) who were notably the most zealous emissaries devoted to this task, Napoleon, now Emperor, had widely encouraged them to do so :

Welcome to your tables all the French and foreign personalities passing through Paris to whom we have to do honor. Have a good table, spend more than your salary, incur debts, I will pay it!

The importance of gastronomy in French diplomacy was already recognized in January and February 1801 when an anecdote occurred during the Lunéville congress. Cambacérès, then Second Consul, learned that the first one had forbidden, during the congress, the mail delivery to be nothing other than dispatches and couriers, effectively preventing the delivery of hens and pâtés. Cambacérès complained to Bonaparte, who had to yield to the urgent necessity:

How do you expect us to make friends if we can’t give fancy food anymore? You yourself know that it is largely through the table that we rule.

This famous argument of the Second Consul was with Talleyrand nothing less than a law. First known as a priest – whose libertine escapades and relative integrity contradict a possible natural inclination towards religious principles – Talleyrand was undoubtedly an outstanding diplomat, perhaps one of the greatest in History, as well as an equally remarkable gourmet. Failing to be assiduous in the religious office, he was always scrupulous in that of his kitchens. Every day he went there, discussed and studied each dish with his brigade, at the head of which he appointed the chef Antonin Carême (1784 – 1833), of whom we will speak later. As he explained to Louis XVIII, Talleyrand to practice his art “needs pots more than written instructions”. And for good reason ! This fine gourmet used the table as a weapon of diplomacy and his French-style service was literally listening to his guests: to each guest was attached a valet who was responsible for pouring the drink, removing the empty glass and serve to the plate the dishes all arranged on the table together and at the same time. Patiently and discreetly, each set back valet listened attentively to his master of one evening’s words and scrupulously reported to Talleyrand the next day everything that had been said at the table the day before.

Nicknamed the Lame Devil, it has been said that “The only master Talleyrand has never betrayed is Brie cheese,” a scathing assertion that depending on your perspective … always holds true.

Talleyrand was a formidable politician and diplomat, very intelligent and incisive, he spared no one. The rivalry which opposed him to Cambacérès also took the way of the table growing the aura of gastronomy in no time thanks to a permanent one-upmanship between the two foodies.

Empire Gastronomy in the Service of Power

Let us quote several talented cooks who put knives and pans in the service of the power: François Claude Guignet, known as Dunant (or Dunand), cook who entered the service of Bonaparte very early and to whom we owe the famous Marengo chicken, tinkered with in the rush after the victory of the same name, in June 1800 in Piedmont. André Viard (1759 – 1834), author of the famous Le Cuisinier impérial, ou l’art de faire la cuisine et la pâtisserie pour toutes les fortunes, a work that will have the flexibility to adapt throughout the tumultuous nineteenth century becoming Le Cuisinier royal, then Le Cuisinier national and again Le Cuisinier impérial… Viard, a discreet but eccentric character, was a genius in his field, in fact attracting the attentions of Cambacérès, who entrusted him several times with the organization of his grandiose meals. But certainly, the name of the most famous of all was not destined to cook feast, it even foreshadowed the opposite. Antonin Carême (1784 – 1833) (Carême meaning Lent in French) was during his lifetime described as “king of chiefs and chief of kings”, the first also to bear this title of “chief”. Initially a pastry chef, the young man drew inspiration from architecture to erect spectacular sweet constructions that were soon recognized as delicious centerpieces. The architectures took on the appearance of temples, ancient ruins and pyramids which did not fail to seduce the service of the First Consul. Carême studied tirelessly and successfully tried classic cooking, allowing him to enter the service of a Talleyrand who challenged him to cook for an entire year, never repeating himself and using only seasonal produce. The challenge successfully met, the fame of Carême was made both in France and abroad.

Details of the painting by François Flameng, Reception at the Malmaison in 1802, oil on canvas circa 1894 and presented at the Hermitage Museum

If Napoleon is (almost) perfectly indifferent to culinary pleasures, he is well aware that he is certainly the only one in this disposition. Joséphine, having a sure taste in all things, is therefore in charge of the receptions at Malmaison. This activity will not awaken a sudden and passionate taste for accountancy. As with regard to the layout of her residence, her toilets, her ornaments, her works of art, her garden or even her dog, she spends resolutely and without ever trying to haggle; an eminent quality according to the sellers, an annoying blemish according to her husband.

Two plates of the service with "red marli, butterfly and flowers" in Sèvres porcelain. This second service from Fontainebleau adorning the imperial table from October 1809. © Les Amis du Château de Fontainebleau

For wine alone, expenses amounted to around 50,000 francs per year (or around 50,000 cheeses or 2,500 kg of butter). To dazzle the distinguished guests who were sure to parade through the Empress’s favorite residence, nothing was too beautiful or too fancy. The best cooks were therefore begged to constantly strive to develop the most delicate dishes, adding to their recipes a sometimes Creole touch in homage to the hostess. Fruits and vegetables were cooked with exotic spices and flavors, accommodating meats and dishes that sometimes recalled the Emperor’s simple tastes. The meal always opened with a soup of which there were an infinite number of variations: fat, lean, tortoise, princess, Turkish, Italian, etc. Then the dishes followed one another, forcing admiration. Poultry cappuccino with coffee, avocado « féroce », osso-buco with orange-vanilla rubbed shoulders with dishes more to Napoleon’s taste: veal kidneys in a crust, macaroni timbale, polpettes and sweet potato, limoncello babas or, more surprisingly, fricassee of crows. All staged in an elegance never seen before.

Let us note here the talent of the Renards Gourmets who excel at reproducing these delicate dishes of the Empire – Macaroni timpani, Chicken Marengo, Polpettes or Vol-au-vent and many others – in a setting to which the great men of the gastronomy we are talking about would not have been indifferent:

Crystal Saint-Louis or Baccarat glassware is everywhere. It is both on the ceiling and on the table, at the rate of one glass per drink (water, wine, liquor and champagne) when the aristocrats of the 18th century used French service, Russian service – still practice today, namely serving one portion per plate – was preferred at Malmaison.

Crystal liqueur decanter with the crowned monogram of Napoleon, Malmaison © RMN-Grand Palais (museum of the châteaux of Malmaison and Bois-Préau)

The cutlery is silver and can be distinguished according to its use: soup, meat, fish and cheese. The fragile vermeil is reserved for desserts. Sèvres porcelain services – of which the famous “Emperor’s private service” is the masterpiece – adorn the tables with delicate painted scenes. Adorned with subjects evoking the Emperor’s campaigns, his conquests, his imperial residences or the great institutions set up under the Empire, this service consisted of 72 pieces, some of which were sometimes offered as gifts by Napoleon himself. In Saint Helena, where he was authorized to take this precious souvenir, he never used it but kept it to offer as New Year’s gifts (link) to those who were dear to him and thus keep alive the memory of his reign.

Rare plate from Sevres porcelain service said of the Quartier Généraux and carried during the exile in St. Helena. It was certainly offered to an exil companion by the Emperor himself. © Le Parisien

Others had no other wish than to leave their memory to culinary creations, nothing was more fancy in this first half of the XIXth century. Labeling with his name a famous recipe distinguished the socialites from the common. Chicken à la Duroc, soles à la Dugléré or à la Murat, Matelote à la Kleber, quail fillets à la Talleyrand or timbales of truffles à la Talleyrand (one will note the simple tastes of the Lame Devil) and even the Joséphine chicken and Marie-Louis poularde (because it seems that the empresses are only suitable for poultry). No Napoleon-style meal, and for good reason, the man was an austere eater, perhaps a memory of a childhood when Letizia’s table was neither refined nor expensive.

Napoleon's Favorite Dishes

What did the Emperor eat? Let us first specify that he ate quickly: it is said that the First Consul ate in 15 minutes and the Emperor in half an hour on the condition that he was not in campaign, in which case the meal was eaten standing, on horseback or with his soldiers and in a few minutes. 

ROEHN Adolphe, Bivouac of Napoleon I on the battlefield of Wagram during the night of July 5 to 6, 1809. Oil on canvas dated 1810 and presented in Versailles, Versailles and Trianon châteaux.

Such rapidity necessarily tolerated a lightness of manners, as evidenced by the magistrate and knight of the Empire Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755 – 1826):

[Napoleon was] irregular in his meals and ate quickly and poorly.

And many of his close friends testify to this habit of eating on the fly on a pedestal table, without a napkin, sometimes with his fingers and wiping himself on his uniform which could hardly endure this ordeal; Napoleon therefore often changed his clothes after his meals. Day or night, he could ask for hot pâtés, poultry or any dish he liked at any time. The Emperor’s service always had to have ready veal kidneys, potatoes, chestnut polenta, or macaroni that Bonaparte particularly liked (so much so that during the Russian campaign, the stewardship bought no less than 250 kilos of this Italian specialty). Napoleon loved coffee and chocolate, which he sometimes consumed excessively when working late at night. Generally speaking, Bonaparte liked only the simplicity of lamb chops, fried eggs, crepinettes or pasta. From the Egyptian countryside he brought back a strong taste for dates and from his Corsica, infusions of orange blossoms. He drank ice-cold water and used it to pour into his Chambertin wine, sometimes a glass of champagne and often a glass of cognac, a liqueur he particularly enjoyed.

Such indifference to gastronomy thus had the merit of not increasing the burden of his exile in Saint Helena. The meals usually consisting of a soup, two dishes of meat, a dish of vegetables and salad had nothing to please or to displease him.

His reign was, however, a remarkable and important period in the history of gastronomy: the appearance of the first restaurants and fine gourmets, the unprecedented recognition of cooks and their literature as well as innovations forced by the continental blockade (think of the development and the industrialization of beet sugar production), military campaigns (Nicolas Appert was the first inventor of glass cans although the patent for tinplate ones was filed by the English) or the success of potatoes which in the 19th century became a common food for all layers of the population.

Pot à oille of the Grand Vermeil of Napoleon I, vermeil (gilded silver). Work of the goldsmith Henry Auguste (1759–1816). Château de Fontainebleau, Napoleon I museum © RMN ‐ Grand Palais

Although he was the one who re-established the etiquette borrowing directly from that of the Ancien Régime monarchy, Napoleon Bonaparte was certainly not the one who was most enthusiastic about the Grand Vermeil, this service offered by the city of Paris on the occasion of the imperial coronation. Knowing the pomp and ostentatiousness necessary for the recognition of the Empire on the European scene, Napoleon I offered to see this magnificent service, whose spectacular nave was placed next to him, more to the satisfaction of the major figures of the time than for his own. The same was true for the art of the table and the gastronomic subtleties. Leaving the endless meals that bored him to others, he however always enjoyed sharing simple bivouac meals with his soldiers.

Napoleon eating alongside his soldiers © Christophel Fine Art / UIG / Getty Images

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