Bon appétit Napoléon Bonaparte
Much has been written about Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile and death on St Helena Island.
Today marks the 200th anniversary and bicentenary of his death on 5th May 1821.
Two hundred years on, and the interest in his life has remained strong. His military campaigns, political prowess and famous romances all make for fascinating reading. We were interested in what the Emperor liked to eat. What were his favourite meals? His likes and dislikes at the dining room table.
There are countless accounts of the food he and his armies consumed on the frontlines. But we want to pay particular attention to the food consumed whilst in exile on St Helena from 1815 to 1821.
There are three accounts in particular that are of interest. Their authors, so diligent of the details, we felt an obligation to quote all three descriptions at some length. Between them, they paint a vivid picture of the daily habits and food enjoyed by the Emperor.
We know a great detail of the day-to-day eating habits of the Emperor from an account by his Valet, Louis-Etienne Saint-Denis.
Saint-Denis tells us that Napoleon was a fast eater, consuming most meals in “scarcely more than fifteen or twenty minutes”
And that “the simplest dishes were those which suited [Napoleon] the best. He preferred a good soup (he liked it very hot) and a good piece of boiled beef to all the complicated and succulent dishes which his cooks could make for him. Boiled or poached eggs, an omelette, a small leg of mutton, a cutlet, a filet of beef, broiled breast of lamb, or a chicken wing, lentils, beans in a salad were the dishes which they habitually served at his breakfasts. There were never more than two dishes on the table for this meal, one of vegetables, preceded by a soup.
The dinner was more elaborate, the table more abundantly served, but he never ate any but the most simply cooked things, whether meat or vegetables. A piece of Parmesan or Roquefort cheese closed his meals. If there happened to be any fruit it was served to him, but if he ate any of it, it was but very little. For instance, he would only take a quarter of a pear or an apple, or a very small bunch of grapes. What he especially liked were fresh almonds. He was so fond of them that he would eat almost the whole plate. He also liked rolled waffles in which a little cream had been put. Two or three lozenges were all the candy that he ate. After his meals, whether breakfast or dinner, they gave him a little coffee, of which he often left a good part. Never any liqueurs.”
Saint-Denis goes on to say that the Emperor’s food on St Helena was the same as what was served to him in Paris, but on Island “lacked the quality, the variety of the food and its delicacy.” And Napoleon often complained of not having tender meat. “When he ate salad or fish he used his fingers more than his fork. When he found any bones in the fish he had his plate changed at once. “I don’t like thorns,” he would say. That was the name which he gave to the little bones; he was afraid that one might stick in his throat and make him sick at his stomach.”
“His drink at St. Helena was claret; in France, it had been Chambertin. He rarely drank his half bottle, and always with the addition of as much water as there was wine. There were hardly ever any fine wines. Sometimes, in the daytime, he would drink a glass of champagne, but never without adding at least as much water; it was a lemonade.”
“When the Emperor did not feel well he took tea and hot lemonade or chicken broth. He thought that dieting was a sovereign remedy for any disease. If he felt better after he had fasted he would send to find out what there was for him to eat. If there was nothing that he liked he would order a mutton chop or a couple of poached eggs. When he had not been hungry during the day he would order something to be ready for the night in case he should wake up and his body needed nourishment. If the night passed and he had not asked for anything he would have them bring him some soup with rice or paste early in the morning and he would also take a small glass of Constance wine. His manner of life agreed in all respects with the state of his health, his humor, his caprices, his needs, and his work.”
Napoleon’s fourth chef de cuisine, Jacques Chandelier, also wrote with great candour of the great man’s likes and dislikes.
Chandelier, originally a soldier, was employed to be the Emperor’s cook after three of his predecessors retired from ill health. Amongst various kitchen paraphernalia and utensils, Chandelier, brought to the Island the materials needed to construct a “german stove” or cast Iron oven. Saying that “there has been a brick oven formally at Longwood, but it was useless, because there was no wood in the island to heat it, and , in consequence, no baking”
Chandelier, quickly set to work hand making bricks, masonry and forging ironwork for the new stove and was visited by Napoleon during the construction. Napoleon told him”you will have much less trouble…and will be able to serve me up little patties for breakfast.” Chandelier, reports that he would serve up patties to Napoleon daily at “half an hour’s notice”
Chandelier’s former life as a soldier also worked in his favour in his new position. “The emperor one day ordered a camp soup for his breakfast: the cook, who had been a soldier, did not like serving the hodge-podge of the common soldiers. He put in less bread, and left out the haricots, (a kind of white bean,) and the end was that the emperor was dissatisfied. “Thou,” said he, “hast been a soldier, and knowest that this is not a camp soup. Eh bien! make me a better to-morrow.” So, on the morrow, M. Chandelier served up a real camp soup, stuffed with bread and full of haricots. The spoon stood upright in it, and the emperor saw that it was what he wanted. He ate some of it, but never again asked for it.”
We wonder what Napoleon would make of the St Helena’s traditional Bacon Pea Soup. A rich, thick and moreish traditional soup made of bacon bones or pigs trotters and split lentils. Served with healthy helpings of bread and butter
Chandelier spoke very poorly of the island’s climate and agriculture in general and reiterates Saint-Denis’s account of the substandard quality of fresh meats on the Island at the time. “From Brazil and the Cape of Good Hope, came all the fresh provisions; and as the sheep and cattle had ensured a three weeks’ voyage, they arrived at St Helena lean and out of order, and never fattened after landing, as the island furnished no means of restoring them to condition. The flesh was inevitably tasteless – sometimes even unwholesome…All attempts to fatten fowls, pullets, geese, ducks and turkeys, inevitably failed.”
Game birds such as red partridge and pheasant arrived at the Island only twice, three times a year. But Chinese pigs arrived “fat and lively” and he reported favouring them. “Their flesh is delicious and it gave [me] infinite leisure to prepare pork griskins, sausages, and black puddings, all of which Napoleon was fond of.” “The only fruit of any value was the banana: this was excellent in fritters, or iced with rum.”
Black puddings and Banana Fritters are much-loved food on the Island even today! Locals make their Black Puddings using rice instead of oatmeal. St Helena Banana Fritters and Pumpkin Fritters are quick and easy to make. Take very few ingredients and are delicious.
Chandelier goes on to paint a picture of a full menu for us. “Napoleon’s breakfast consisted of sorrel pottage, or any other refreshing pottage: breasts of mutton, boned and well grilled, and served with a clear gravy; a roast chicken or two griskins, and sometimes a plate of pulse.
For dinner, he had a pottage, a remove, two entrees, a roast, and two side dishes of sweetmeats or pastry, of which he was very fond. This was always served on plate. The removes used to puzzle M Chandelier for he often had nothing for this purpose but large pieces of beef, mutton, fresh pork, with sometimes (by a happy chance) a goose, a turkey, or a sucking pig. Madeira, Teneriffee, and Constantia, were wines supplied to the suite of the emperor. His own drink was Claret, and if that very moderately.”
Chandelier was particular to record in his “Reminiscences” the specific dishes his master preferred. “They are roasted fowl, pullets minced a la Marengo, a la Italienne, a la Provençale, without garlic; fricaseed fowls, sometimes done in Champagne, which was very dear in the island, as much as twenty shillings a bottle. He liked puddings à la Richelieu ; but, above all, he preferred sweet things and pastry, such as vol-au-vent, petites bouchées à la reine, and little cakes of macaroni prepared in various ways. The cook was unable (he says, with much sorrow,) to make these as good as he ought, because the macaroni, though sent from Naples, grew stale on the passage, as did the parmesan. As Napoleon’s health grew worse, he was more difficult to please, and poor M. Chandelier found his skill and ingenuity tasked to do this.”
The meals enjoyed by Napoleon served by his french chefs were not representative of what local Island families consumed in the 1800’s of course. Therefore this last account will be of most interest to our St Helenian readers. It is an account of a picnic in 1818. A meal that in turn unwittingly gives a tiny glimpse into the meals of a local household.
Arthur William Forsyth documents the event in his book History of the Captivity of Napoleon which consisted of the letters and journals of Lieut-Gen Sir Hudson Lowe in 1853. He sets the scene:
“About five miles from that place stood the house and grounds of Sir William Doveton, called Mount Pleasant, which at Napoleon’s special request, had been recently included within his limits. Sir William was a native of St. Helena…On the morning of the 4th of October , as the old gentleman was taking his usual walk before breakfast, he observed several persons on horseback coming towards his house,
and, on reconnoitring them with his spyglass, perceived they were the party from Longwood.
Count Montholon dismounted from his horse, and Sir William went to the door to receive him; the Count in-
formed him that the Emperor presented his compliments, and requested he might come and rest himself… [Napoleon] sat on the sofa, and entered into conversation with his host, through Bertrand, as interpreter.
Sir William Doveton begged Bertrand to inform Bonaparte that he hoped he would stop and breakfast with him; but this the illustrious visitor declined, saying that they had brought their own breakfast, and preferred taking it on the lawn. Sir William endeavoured to dissuade him from this, saying that the house, and whatever accommodation he could afford, was at their service, and he took Bonaparte and Bertrand into the dining-room, where he pointed to a large pot of fresh butter on the breakfast table, saying it was at
the service of his guests. Upon this Napoleon smiled, and gently took hold of his host’s right ear, as was his custom when he wished to signify his approval. Then they returned to the drawing-room and Bonaparte resumed his seat on the sofa. Soon afterwards one of Sir William’s daughters, Mrs. Greentree, came into the room with her youngest child in her arms, and Napoleon rose and pointed to the sofa as a sign that she was to sit there. Two of her little girls had each their noses taken hold of by the affable visitor, and received from him a small piece of liquorice.
In the meantime Count Montholon had got a table and laid it on the lawn. Sir William Doveton sent out a variety of good things, and then the Count came in and announced that breakfast was ready. Their host was requested to go and share their meal, which he did, taking with him, he says, a pint bottle of Mount Pleasant water (alias, orange shrub), made by his daughter, and four liqueur glasses. Bonaparte reserved for him a chair on his right hand, and desired him to sit there.
After doing justice to some substantial viands, Napoleon filled a small tumbler of champagne for Sir William and another for himself, and he afterwards drank a glass of the shrub. Coffee was then brought, and Napoleon requested that Mrs. Greentree would come and partake of it. After she had tasted the coffee, which she found acid and disagreeable, Bonaparte filled a liqueur glass with shrub and offered it to
her. The party then rose, and Bonaparte handed Mrs. Greentree into the house, where he took his former seat on the sofa, with her beside him.
After sitting some time he rose and took leave, holding Bertrand’s arm as he went down the steps.
The breakfast (Sir William tells us) consisted of a cold pie, potted meat, cold turkey, curried fowl, ham or pork, I could not tell which; coffee, dates, almonds, oranges and a very fine salad.”
Forsyth writes, “this novel picnic is significant as being the last occasion upon which Napoleon ever went out of the immediate grounds of Longwood, until he was carried in his coffin to his tomb in Sane Valley.”
We can’t help but wonder if the “curried fowl” served to the Emperor during his impromptu picnic with Sir Doveton’s family is the same curry we Saints enjoy to this day.
- Saint-Denis, Louis-Etienne, 1788-1856; Potter, Frank Hunter: Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena,1851-1932
- Chandelier, Jacques: The Reminiscences of Napoleon’s Cook at St Helena, pamphlet reprinted in The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Volume XXXV (London, 1840). [Chiefly written by M. Careme with anecdotes from the actual reminiscences of M. Chandelier]
- Forsyth, William: History of the Captivity of Napoleon, 1853