by Fred McMillin
for June 15, 1998

Well Done Napoleon


Yesterday was the 109th anniversary of the Battle of Marengo in northern Italy. Napoleon had secretly brought his 40,000 troops across the Alps, surprised the Austrians, and gained control of the great wine district of Piedmont.

Napoleon had pursued the Austrians with such vigor his supply wagons were far behind. So, his chef, Dunand, prepared a victory dinner from what could be scavenged...a scrawny chicken, Cognac filched from Napoleon's canteen, and a few crayfish placed on top of the hen. Bonapart was so impressed, he said, "You must feed me like this after every battle." To this day, the dish is know as Chicken Marengo.

...Sources: Waverley Root; Larousse Gastronomique.

The Rest of the Story

  At the University of Dijon, my wife learned the dish made with veal rather than chicken...Veal Marengo. So, that's what we had yesterday. The wine had to have a Piedmont connection. We chose the most widely-planted varietal of the district, Barbera. The Barbera leader in the U.S.A. is Sierra foothill's Montevina winery with 80 acres of vines and 16 years of experience. The 1995 is a pleasing plum and cherry red...but smooth enough that Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon recommends it with chicken as well as stronger fare. Hence, you can enjoy the wine with either the fowl or veal version of the Napoleonic favorite, at only $12 for a bottle.


After the next battle, Chef Dunand decided to eliminate the "unholy" combination of crayfish and chicken by replacing the former with mushrooms. Bonaparte spotted the change and said, "You have left out the crayfish. It will bring me bad luck. I don't want any of it." The crayfish garnish was restored.
Note—for another Montevina red wine you could serve with either chicken or veal, see the Dec. 15, 1997 WineDay article titled "Brioso Ain't So-So."

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College and is Northern California Editor for American Wine on the Web. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.


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