Napoleonic code

Food - Bee Wilson on the French dictator's meagre rations

It is best, if at all possible, to buy your cheese from a proper cheese shop. But if by some chance you find yourself in a supermarket - it has been known to happen - the Waitrose Select range of cheeses, wrapped in waxy paper, is very good. One of the most alluring, beautiful to look at, and not too overwhelming, is the Valencay from Touraine, a truncated pyramid of firm, close-textured un- pasteurised goat's cheese, covered in fine grey charcoal. It costs about £3.

Something on the label caught my eye. "The cheese was originally shaped like a pyramid," it says. "On Napoleon's return from a disastrous campaign in Egypt, it reminded him of the Pyramids, so he chopped off the top with his sword."

Sad to say, this tale is probably non-sense. There are various unsubstantiated stories told by French gastronomes about Napoleon and Valencay cheese, all based on the idea that he was enraged by the pyramid shape after his military fiasco in Egypt. But it turns out that goat's cheeses moulded like pyramids with the tops cut off had been made in Touraine, Charentes and Poitou for years.

What is undisputed, however, is that Talleyrand, the Machiavellian French statesman and backer of Napoleon, bought the Chateau de Valencay in 1805; and that soon after this, the pyramid cheeses of the region, which previously held various names, became known collectively as "Valencay". It was Talleyrand who had urged Napoleon on during his ill-conceived Egyptian campaign. Talleyrand, moreover, was a notorious cheese-lover. He crowned Brie the king of cheeses. It does seem possible - probable even - that, while staying in the chateau, Talleyrand and Napoleon should have shared a plate of the local cheese, noticed the shape and joked bitterly about those other pyramids.

In general, Napoleon seems not to have cared very much what kind of cheese, if any, he was served. His fierce Corsican mother, Letizia, brought him up not to notice his stomach. Napoleonic legend claims that, when he was a tiny boy, she would send him to bed hungry on purpose, so that he was in training for the kind of hunger that soldiers must face. The strategy worked: Napoleon ate in military fashion from the earliest age. Letizia sent him off to school every day with a loaf of white bread for lunch; every day, he swapped it for a dark hunk of unappetising military ration rye bread.

Hunger seems to affect people, broadly speaking, in one of two ways: either you become fixated on food and engage in all kinds of voluptuous feasts in the mind (like the anorexic who can't stop reading cookery books), or else you become indifferent to food, except as fuel. Napoleon, evidently, did the latter. At school, he snacked on eggs and milk, purchased from the hut of a woman called "la mere Marguerite". Even when, as a young officer, he found it hard to scrape together the money for a main meal, he did not pay much attention to its content. Often, he ate nothing but gaudes, a kind of cheap porridge made from corn. When stationed in Lyons, he ate at an inn called Les Trois Pigeons. In the words of one of his many biographers: "Although the food there was good, he ate quickly, scarcely spoke to the other guests, disdained the card games that followed the meals, and hurried back to his room to read."

Napoleon saw meals as annoying interruptions to work. They should be dealt with in ten minutes or less so that he could get back to the serious business of thinking, talking, dictating, fighting, map-reading and carving up Europe. According to Frank McLynn: "He liked to eat little, fast and often, and expected his favourite food to be ready [at] any hour of day or night." The emperor's favourite campaign food was roast chicken, and he was fond of fried potatoes with onions, but sometimes even that seemed too much trouble and he stayed in the saddle or at his desk wolfing down some fruit and bread and a cup of coffee.

It is a kind of tragedy for the French, that the man with whom they are still most obsessed (eclipsing even Zinedine Zidane, even the great Johnny Halliday himself) should not have bothered with the French passion for gastronomy. (But then Napoleon, the Corsican nationalist, was no more a Frenchman than was his hero, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Genevan.) Though he knew the importance of feeding his army, Napoleon did not dream, like Henri IV, of giving all of his citizens a weekly treat of poule au pot.

To console themselves for this gastronomic loss, it is not surprising that the French like to invent comforting little myths about the emperor's connection with this or that food: such as the chicken Marengo (with crayfish, eggs and tomato) that Napoleon is supposed to have eaten after his great victory against the Austrians in 1800, or the pyramid-shaped Valencay cheese once mutilated by his magnificent sword.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The urban guerrillas Britain forgot

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.