La Fermata, Marengo
June 12, 2008
The French victory over the Austrians in the battle of Marengo in 1800 was a key turning point both in the French dominance of Europe for the next thirteen years and for Napoleon’s consolidation of power in Paris. But for us its main importance may be the origin of Chicken Marengo. No, that wasn’t General Chambarlhac, who fled from the battlefield when it went badly for the French at first, but the recipe described below. Anyway, like Napoleon, we were looking for a good stopping place as we went south from Milan on June 5, 2008. Relying on the Michelin Guide, which isn’t always a good idea in Italy, we headed for La Fermata, which had recently moved its starred restaurant into a farm renovated into a hotel outside Marengo, on the eastern edge of the Piemonte. Driving out of Milan was not as easy as we had planned so we didn’t arrive at La Fermata until 2:00, but we were warmly welcomed. Since we were embarrassed about the time, we asked what they would like to serve us and it turned out that they had already had a plan to serve us their menu of local specialties.
A slice of salami with a puffy, fresh little wafer was put in front of us. A good start.
Next came a bowl of porcini bisque. Very good.
We ordered the same wine we had enjoyed so much at lunch the day before. We enjoyed it again.
A large onion stuffed with its own meat puréed with cheese and “salt-roasted” came next. Lovely.
Then came the agnolotti al plin with an explanation that each town has its own version and that here it is made with fresh egg pasta, stuffed with roasted veal and topped with good olive oil. Excellent
Then came two veal cheeks, which were very rich, too much so in what had been a light meal so far.
They were planning to serve us a dessert, but we declined and just enjoyed the mignardises with the coffee.
We really liked everything about La Fermata and hope that we will find an opportunity to spend the night some time.
According to tradition Napoleon demanded a quick meal after the battle and his chef was forced to work with the meager results of a forage: a chicken (and some eggs), tomatoes, onions, garlic, herbs, olive oil, and crayfish. The chef cut up the chicken (reportedly with a sabre) and fried it in olive oil, made a sauce from the tomatoes, garlic and onions (plus a bit of cognac from Napoleon’s flask), cooked the crayfish, fried the eggs and served them as a garnish, with some of the soldier’s bread ration on the side. Napoleon reportedly liked the dish and (after winning the battle) considered it lucky. He refused to have the ingredients altered on future occasions even when his chef tried to omit the crayfish.