Feast and Phrase

Gastronomy in the world of words.

Tag: Wellington

Wellington and Napoleon 2

Waterloo 200: Wellingtons and Napoleons

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 WellingtonCarrot 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 WellingtonBeef 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.’

           In Transactions, of the Horticultural Society of London, Volume IV (1822).

640px-Royal_Horticultural_Society_(4624387791)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 HouseLongwood 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.

Mille-FeuilleA 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).

Duke of WellingtonThe 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?”’

In The Table Talk and Opinions of Napoleon Buonaparte (1870).

Jacques-Louis_David_-_Napoleon_Crossing_the_Alps_-_Schloss_ChThe 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.

Wellington_at_Waterloo_Hillingford

Waterloo 200: Battlefield Victuals

In this two-part 200th anniversary special, Feast and Phrase looks at the food and words linked to the Battle of Waterloo. First course: Written accounts of battlefield feeding.

What food did soldiers have during the Waterloo Campaign of 1815? The frequent attribution of the popular saying ‘an army marches on its stomach’ to French leader Napoleon makes it all the more appropriate to ask. A collection of accounts published in the same year as the battle gives some idea of how those in the field ate – and how they didn’t:

‘The whole of the 17th, and indeed until late the next morning, the weather continued dreadful; and we were starving with hunger, no provision having been served out since the march from Brussels. While five officers who composed our mess were looking at each other with the most deplorable faces imaginable, one of the men brought us a fowl he had plundered, and a handful of biscuits, which, though but little, added to some tea we boiled in a camp-kettle, made us rather more comfortable; and we huddled up together, covered ourselves with straw, and were soon as soundly asleep as though reposing on beds of down.’

‘Letter from an Officer to his Friend in Cumberland’, in The Battle of Waterloo, published by John Booth (1815).

De_Slag_bij_Waterloo_Rijksmuseum_SK-A-1115.jpegDe Slag bij Waterloo (The Battle of Waterloo), by Dutch artist Jan Willem Pieneman (1824). Located via Wikimedia Commons. The featured image at the top of this article is Wellington at Waterloo by English painter Robert Alexander Hillingford, also found on Wikimedia Commons. Grand and impressive as both works are, they show a very different reality to that endured by the combatants.

Difficulty getting supplies to British troops and their European allies during clashes before and during 18 June meant that many were fighting on low fuel. The French were similarly afflicted, with their support wagons falling behind as they advanced into Belgium. As evidenced above, fighting was fed by foraging, which made up for direly insufficient rations. The process could drain areas of resources – one report by a French eyewitness almost seems to liken it to a Biblical plague:

‘As soon as the troops had taken even a momentary position in the vicinity of a village, they rushed like water from a broken dam over all the country beneath; corn, cattle, bread, meat, even household furniture, linen and clothes disappeared in an instant. The village became a mass of ruins; empty houses; broken doors, and the inhabitants flying into the woods and fields. The adjacent fields, hitherto covered with the promise of a rich harvest, seemed like the straw in a stable trodden under foot; and the fires of the bivouacks, leaving their blackening traces in meadows and corn fields, seemed to mark so many places which had been struck by thunder.’

From The Journal of the Three Days of the Battle of Waterloo, translated from the French (1816).

Waterloo_campaign_mapA plan of the Waterloo Campaign, located via Wikimedia Commons.

Finding enough food in a conflict situation is one problem; finding enough time to eat it is another. A British officer’s description of the lead up to the Battle of Quatre Bras (two days prior to Waterloo) shows the overriding force of urgency and orders:

‘[…] we had scarcely rested ourselves, and commenced dressing the rations, which had been served out at Enghien, when an Aide-de-Camp from the Duke of Wellington arrived, and ordered us instantly under arms, and to advance with all speed to Les Quatre Bras, where the action was going on with the greatest fury, and where the French were making rapid strides towards the object they had in view […] The order was, of course, instantly obeyed; the meat which was cooking, was thrown away; the kettles, &c. packed up, and we proceeded, as fast as our tired legs would carry us, towards a scene of slaughter, which was a prelude well calculated to usher in the bloody tragedy of the 18th.’

‘Extract of a Letter from an Officer in the Guards’ (21 June 1815), in The Battle of Waterloo, published by John Booth (1815).

Wollen,_Battle_of_Quatre_BrasThe Black Watch at Bay, by British painter William Barns Wollen (1894). The Scottish regiment is shown fighting at the Battle of Quatre Bras. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

Following victory, the trouble with provisions continued. Some British soldiers ‘slept supperless in the fields’; others hunting for sustenance found French huts full of meat which was dealt with so hurriedly that it was rendered inedible:

‘[…] scattered over their floors were numerous fragments of meat partly raw, partly half-cooked, which in the hurry of some movement had been thrown away. The British soldiers were very hungry, but they could not bring themselves to taste these viands […] raw meat of every description in abundance – beef, pork, and mutton; but it had been so beaten about in the hurry of the strife, and was so vilely dressed – the very hides being in many instances left upon the morsels, and these but indifferently bled’.

George Robert Gleig, Story of the Battle of Waterloo (1847).

Napoleon_French_Lancer_by_BellangeA Lancer in Napoleon’s Grande Armée, or ‘Great Army’. Illustration by Horace Vernet in Laurent de l’Ardèche’s Histoire de l’Empereur Napoléon (History of the Emperor Napoleon), published in 1843. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

According to the National Army Museum, a British soldier’s basic everyday ration during the Napoleonic Wars was a pound of meat – fresh or salted – and the equivalent weight of bread biscuits.  Other items could include oats, cheese, vegetables, rice, and alcohol. The biscuits were generally made of wheat, with added barley in times of poor harvest. Their tough, solid texture earned them the name ‘hard tack’, while normal bread was known as ‘soft tack’.

One such biscuit is featured in the museum’s online showcase of ‘200 Objects from Waterloo’; another eye-catching food-related item is a nutmeg grater made of silver. This was the possession of Sir Galbraith Lowry Cole, an Irish officer who served under Wellington but missed Waterloo as he was honeymooning at the time! Given the high cost of the spice due to Dutch monopolies on trade, to have and to use such a piece of equipment was an unmistakeable indicator of wealth. It also allowed for much more exotic meals than those on standard rations might enjoy. Wellington apparently remarked that Cole gave ‘the best dinners in the army’, while his own were ‘no great things’. Not that officers lived a life of complete luxury – if supplies were strained, they suffered with their men.

Bryan DonkinAn image of British industrialist Bryan Donkin, who revolutionized food storage by being the first person to mass-preserve goods in tin cans. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

One innovation which made an appearance at Waterloo was canned food. As Tom Standage writes in An Edible History of Humanity, this developed from a preservation technique of sealing food in bottles, thought up by Frenchman Nicolas Appert in 1749. In the 1810s, a merchant by the name of Peter Durand received the first patent to do so in England, later selling it to British industrialist Bryan Donkin. He replaced the bottles with cans, and the technology took off. Can openers were not invented until around fifty years later, so soldiers would have to prise their rations free using a trusty bayonet or chisel.

British Rations21st century British rations: A 24-hour Multi-Climate Ration (MCR) pack developed by the Ministry of Defence in 2009. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

Canned foods are common sights in modern ration packs, which can feature everything from squid to Szechuan noodles for a taste of home, depending on their country of origin. To note this and recall men in the first source ‘starving with hunger’ and ‘looking at each other with the most deplorable faces imaginable’ makes it all the more clear: whether meat and biscuits or stuffed peppers and halva, food plays an essential part in boosting morale. 

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