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