The first half of Feast and Phrase’s Waterloo 200 special examined historical accounts of what soldiers ate during the campaign. In the second, it’s time for mains and desserts: wellingtons, napoleons, and other edible associations with two of history’s military masterminds.
The Duke of Wellington’s name has been used for many things. In 1840, the New Zealand Company bestowed it on their small North Island settlement, honouring the commander’s support of their business. That became the national capital in 1865, and has remained so ever since. Antique lovers can buy ‘Wellington chests’ – drawers with locking covers, designed for military use when travelling. Most well-known of all are ‘wellington boots’ or ‘wellies’: initially knee-length leather footwear, now synthetically produced for a rainy day. Coming from them is ‘give it some welly’, that delightful expression for ‘giving a bit more force to something’.
It might feel logical to assume that puff pastry ‘wellingtons’ – whether filled with beef, fish, beans, or even tofu – follow the same tradition, but the matter is unclear. Despite a lack of evidence, various sources have claimed that ‘beef wellington’ is so called because the Duke was fond of eating it, or because of the pastry’s supposed resemblance to a wellington boot (this second reason, as journalist Leah Hyslop rightly adds, ‘depends on the cook in question being outstandingly awful’).
Carrot wellingtons in the Narcissa Restaurant, NYC. Photo by Flickr user T.Tseng.
An early written reference to a dish bearing this name may be found in The Los Angeles Times of 28 October, 1903: ‘Fillet of beef, a la Wellington.’ However, this seems to be something else entirely, calling for the meat to be consumed with chutney. A record of the pastry version can first be seen in a New York dining guide from 1939:
‘Tenderloin of Beef Wellington… Larded tenderloin of beef. Roast very rare. Allow to cool and roll into pie crust… Slice in portions and serve with sauce Madire.’
Diana Ashley, Where to dine in Thirty-nine (1939).
Beef wellingtons as known today appear to have come from the United States; Hyslop notes food writer Theodora FitzGibbon’s suggestion that they may have had Irish precursors which crossed the Atlantic. More certain than any guessing after origins is that their inclusion in the ground-breaking American publication Mastering the Art of French Cooking led to a surge in popularity from the 1960s onwards. The Oxford English Dictionary gives earlier examples of recipes ‘à la Wellington’ which were named after the Duke. Two ‘Wellington pudding’ desserts stand out: one from 1827, featuring plums; the other from 1881, with ‘puff paste’ and ‘some apricot jam’.
Beef wellington. Photo uploaded by Flickr user Elsie Hui.
Earlier still are written mentions of ‘Wellington Apples’ – large cooking apples with a pale yellow exterior. These were brought to London around 1820 by one Richard Williams, who had received them from the Leicestershire Gopsal Hall estate ‘under the name of Wellington’, which quickly became widespread. This variety is more commonly referred to by its initial name of ‘Dumelow’s Crab’ or ‘Dumelow’s Seedling’, after the 18th century farmer who bred them, Richard Dumelow. Insistence on this occurred from the very beginning. Williams sent samples to the Horticultural Society, which, viewing the whole renaming affair as most improper, expressed its displeasure:
‘This Apple affords another instance of the impropriety of giving new names to fruits already named. […] There can be no doubt as to the propriety of restoring its original name, by which it is so extensively known in the neighbourhood where it was first produced.’
A commemorative plaque for the founding of what is now known as the Royal Horticultural Society. It was the Horticultural Society of London to begin with, gaining a royal charter and its present name in 1861. Image located via Wikimedia Commons.
There are several fruity links to Napoleon’s name. ‘Napoleon Bigarreau’ is a type of cherry with white flesh – a ‘magnificent cherry, of mammoth size’, as an 1864 copy of The Canada Farmer testifies. Robert Hogg’s Fruit Manual of 1860 lists a ‘Napoléon’ pear, now quite uncommon. Other titles for it include Gloire de l’Empereur (‘Glory of the Emperor’) and Captif de St. Hélène (‘Captive of Saint Helena’); a fitting reflection of Bonaparte’s rise and fall. Described in the same work is the ‘Emperor Napoléon’, a large gooseberry with smooth red skin.
Longwood House: Napoleon’s home on the British island of St Helena during his captivity from 1815 until his death in 1821. Photo by Flickr user David Stanley.
‘Napoleon brandy’ is ‘brandy thought to be of great age or merit’. The Oxford English Dictionary provides a line from Cole Porter’s 1934 hit song, ‘You’re the Top’, which carries that sense of immense worth: ‘You’re the top! You’re Mahatma Gandhi. You’re the top! You’re Napoleon brandy.’ For all that, don’t be fooled – the next example is from wine writer Creighton Churchill, who states in a 1967 book that ‘‘Napoleon Brandy’ ranks high among some of the more transparent promotional myths of the industry.’ Such an opinion is seconded in the Cambridge World History of Food: cognac can get better with around 50 years of aging, but anything more is unlikely to have an effect. Brandy lasting from the Napoleonic era is apparently nothing more than a legend; were it to exist, it would not be palatable.
‘Mille-feuille’ pastries (termed so because of their many layers; mille feuilles being French for ‘a thousand leaves’) are also called ‘napoleons’ in various countries of the world, such as the United States and Romania. The early 1900s saw the creation of an Iranian ‘napoleon’, which was a mille-feuille baklava with rosewater flavouring. None have any relation to the Emperor; the word is a corruption of Napolitano, ‘pertaining to Naples’, either indicating that the delicacy originally came from the Italian city or was named out of respect for its pastry-making renown.
A mini mille-feuille with vanilla bourbon. Image from Flickr user puce576.
Considering the previous article’s focus on what soldiers ate, it would be appropriate to explore Wellington and Napoleon’s own dietary habits. As touched on before, a lack of supplies affected commanders and troops alike, and both missed home comforts. Returning to England in 1814 after six years away, the Duke is said to have ordered ‘an unlimited supply of buttered toast’ at the Ship Inn, Dover. An acquaintance, George Robert Gleig, wrote of his routine at home as follows:
‘His general habits, to which he adhered to the last, may be thus described. […] At seven he dined. The Duke ate but twice a day, at breakfast and dinner. Though not a large feeder he ate fast, and had an excellent appetite. He was never given to much wine, and in later years found it advisable to cease from the use of it altogether. But the hospitalities of his table were generous.’
George Robert Gleig, The Life of Arthur, First Duke of Wellington (1862).
The Wellington Statue by Matthew Cotes Wyatt (1846). Originally on the Wellington Arch in London, it was moved to Round Hill, Aldershot, in 1885. Image from Flickr user Fotorus.
Bearing in mind that conflict situations do not exactly allow for leisurely meals, it is hardly surprising to find out that Wellington was a fast eater, and even less so to learn that Napoleon was the same:
‘Napoleon eat and slept according to the time, circumstances and situation in which he found himself; […] “Doctors,” said he to Antommarchi, “have the ordering of the table; it is but fair that I give you a description of mine; this is how it is arranged, one dish of soup, two of meat, one of vegetables, a salad when I can have it, compose the whole. I take half a bottle of claret much diluted, and a little pure at the end of dinner. For the rest I eat quickly and masticate little, for my meals do not take much of my time. You do not approve of that, but in my situation what is the advantage of mastication?”’
The famous painting, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, by French artist Jacques-Louis David (1800). This is a noteworthy piece of propaganda – Napoleon actually crossed the Alps on the back of a mule! Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Historical author Shannon Selin points out that Bonaparte was incredibly fond of liquorice, eating it so frequently that it may have been responsible for discolouring his teeth. Such was his love of the stuff that he insisted on drinking nothing but liquorice water when dying. One can only speculate whether he might have enjoyed Napoleon cherries and pears, and it is intriguing to imagine the Duke tucking into a beef wellington were he alive today. Would Bonaparte have seen the appeal of Napoleon brandy? Quite possibly – though he may also have put it aside for another glass of liquorice drink.