French cuisine is full of myths, mystifications and fables. Classic recipes sometimes have disputed origins. So it is with dishes named ‘Marengo’, after the June 14, 1800, battle in northern Italy by Napoleon against the Austrians.
One of the stories is that Napoleon’s cook, a Swiss chef named Dunand, the son of a chef for the Prince of Condé in France, assembled some meagre provisions available at the battle field and made a dish of chicken, tomatoes, craw fish, eggs and water and presented it to the First Consul after the decisive clash. Napoleon liked it and demanded to eat the dish at every victory.
True or not? There certainly were far more crayfish available then compared to now and there still is a delicious recipe for Bresse chicken with crayfish. Cut-up chicken can be prepared in 30 minutes and seems feasible in an army kitchen.
Of the father and sons Dunand, the first names are not known while Internet searches mention the presence of Swiss Henri Dunant at the battle of Solférino (he went on to create the Red Cross).
Some writers say that over the years, Dunand replaced the chicken with veal, dropped the crayfish, fried eggs and toasted bread and added mushrooms and wine. Perhaps.
In any case, the modern recipe calls for two hours of cooking and that seems not feasible in a 19th century army camp.
Veal is a lean kind of meat, low in fat and calories and rich in vitamins B3, B12 and minerals such as iron and zinc.
The problem with veal, as with other meat, is that the animals are not always kept in respect. The horror stories of crate calves have, justly, turned a lot of people away from the meat obtained from ‘excess’ milk cow calves (like male calves) kept in chains and in narrow boxes, fed on a sort of baby formula instead of cow milk etc. Dairy cows are often made pregnant because it enhances their milk production.
Therefore you need to know the origin of the meat. That is not very easy in a supermarket where it just says ‘origin EU’ on the package. At a traditional butcher’s, you can ask about the provenance and you have to trust the professional about the way the animal was raised and killed.
The more expensive the meat is does not necessarily signal respectful rearing. The best way to be sure of that is to know the producer. That is rather difficult in big cities, but not impossible.
I ran into François Demarais during a fair in our town. He has a farm in Normandy (Bailleul-Neuville) where he and Fabienne raise boar, dear, geese, cows and sheep on an area of 30 hectares and the calves are fed whole milk (not necessarily from exactly their own mother). The meat is sold in vacuum sealed packages, and the supplies depend on the cycle of nature.
The surrounding area is known for the Neuchatel cheeses.
Demarais also prepares potted patés of boar and deer.
I used a 1.2 kilo bag of mixed cuts (for blanquette de veau) to make this sautée de veau Marengo.
‘Sautée’ usually means quick fried in a little fat (as opposed to deep frying) but that is only one preliminary step of the recipe which is more a stew, or braised veal recipe.
- 1.2 kilo of veal
- 2 onions
- 4 shallots
- several sprigs of flat parsley
- 200 grammes of mushrooms
- six tomatoes
- a dozen green olives
- One tablespoon of flour
- 50 grammes of butter
- olive oil
- a glass of white wine
- salt and pepper
- herb mixture in sachet or tied-up herbs (bouquet garni)
- Wash and dry the veal, cut up in cubes of about 1.5-2 centimetres.
- Preheat the oven to 150 °C.
- Cut finely the shallots, one onion and the parsley.
- Cut the other onion into small cubes.
- Put butter and two tablespoons of olive oil in a pan, heat until the foam subsides, add the onion and brown the cubes of veal quickly on all sides.
- Add the onion/shallot/parsley and mix with a spoon. Sprinkle a tablespoon of flour over the meat and let it colour slightly.
- Add white wine so that it almost covers the meat, add salt and pepper and the mixed herbs and put on the lid.
- Put the pan in the oven for an hour and a half, turning the meat once or twice.
- Meanwhile clean and slice the mushrooms.
- Remove the skin from the tomatoes (Bring water to the boil, plunge tomato in boiling water for a some 10 seconds then remove to cold water), slice lengthwise in quarters and remove pips.
- After the 1h45 has passed, add mushrooms and tomatoes to the pan and continue cooking for another 30 minutes.
- Stir, add (pitted) olives, remove herb sachet and let it cool down a bit before serving with boiled potatoes or pasta. Sprinkle some more chopped parsley over the dish.
The dish improves when reheated the following day.