In our universe, Genoa ceded the island of Corsica to France in 1768. Napoleone Buonaparte was thus born in 1769 as a subject of the King of France. (Later he changed his name to Napoleon Bonaparte to make it sound more French). Napoleon was sent to a French military academy, graduated as an artillery officer and then became a general, a consul and an emperor. He won many battles. But perhaps Napoleon’s most lasting legacy was the Code Napoléon, the French code of civil law, one of the few documents, it has been said, which has influenced the whole world.
In a parallel universe, Genoa never ceded Corsica to France.
Thus Napoleone Buonaparte, as a citizen of Genoa, never changed his name. He didn’t go to a military academy but studied cookery in Genoa.
He began his career as a pastry chef. It was immediately obvious to those around him that he was phenomenally talented. Determined to make a name for himself, he toured Northern Italy (in what he later called his “Italian Campaign”) exhibiting his cakes and distributing free slices. He seems to have invented a new cake in every place he visited, often breaking with the most hallowed traditions. Those which achieved lasting fame were probably his lemon-flavoured Marengo Cake (Torta Marengo in Italian) and the Lodi Cake (Torta Lodi – cherries and walnuts).
After this thunderstorm of a start to his career, Napoleone gradually extended his repertoire to cover all areas of cooking and his fame spread outside Italy. As his output grew, his kitchen became something like a military operation and he enrolled his brothers and sisters to assist him in his exploits.
His food became famous throughout Europe. Austria and Prussia quickly fell under his spell and he was invited to their imperial and royal courts.
In 1803 he sailed from Boulogne and landed in England. It took him no more than three weeks to conquer the English. One notable dinner was held in Oxford for a collection of eminent Britons. A flash flood prevented the supplies he had ordered from reaching him in time, but he still managed to produce a memorable feast using an assortment of unpromising leftovers. William Hazlitt wrote a chronicle of the event in the Edinburgh Review, where he marvelled at Napoleone’s “scrap-filled and old-boney magic“. From then on he was referred to affectionately in Britain as Old Boney. Some historians have suggested, that without Napoleone’s “invasion” the English would never have become the enthusiastic Europeans they are now, although most have ridiculed the idea that food could achieve this result.
In Vienna, he became friends with Beethoven. In the summer of 1806, he spent a few days with him. One night he cooked him a risotto with wild herbs. Beethoven, who was composing a new symphony, was so taken with the amazing taste that after dinner he scratched out the first part of the dedication he had prepared on his manuscript (To the Memory of a Great Man) and made it To Napoleone Buonaparte, a Great Man and named his new symphony the Aromatica.
In 1808, Napoleone met Goethe and elicited a similarly enthusiastic reaction. What bowled Goethe over, however, was Napoleone’s lemon-flavoured Torta Marengo. Goethe told him that you could feel a lemon tree blossoming as you ate it. He was moved that night to pen his famous poem which begins “Kennst du den Kuchen wo die Zitronen blühen” (Do you know the cake where lemons blossom?)
In 1812 he was invited to Russia by Tsar Alexander. After taking just one bite of his food, the Tsar was so overcome that he jumped up from the table, rushed into the kitchen and embraced Napoleone. He called him “my brother”, insisted that Napoleone address him with the intimate “tu” and told him that he was the ” Emperor of Food, a country even bigger than Russia”. Napoleone’s popularity in Russia became so great that a statue was erected in Saint Petersburg and, later, Tchaikovsky commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the great man’s birth with his 1769 Ouverture.
“Napoleone” became a term to denote a state of near-perfection. “I’m Napoleone” people would say to indicate that they were in a wonderful condition or mood. Or “The weather is Napoleone!”
And the greatest accolade a chef could receive was also to be called a Napoleone. In the 21st Century, the most successful TV show world-wide was a cookery competition entitled Who wants to be a Napoleone?
Although Napoleone invented many dishes – Pollo Austerlitz (chicken), Brodetto di Ulm (fish soup), Ravioli Rivoli (ravioli), just to mention a few, there is only one dish which bears his own name.This is fitting because it is his masterpiece. Requiring many hours to prepare, it is so refined and delicate that it is almost impossible to believe that the basis of the dish is “coda”, the general Italian name for oxtail. As King Ferdinand of Naples famously exclaimed “if this is coda my grand-mother was a tram”. (Note: Since the first horse-drawn tram began operating in 1807 and the King’s grand-mothers died in 1757 and 1766, this would have been impossible.)
It is not known where this dish was first served. Thanks to this, almost every European nation has claimed that it was in their country that it was invented. This has led to the European Union adopting Buonaparte’s Coda as one of the symbols of Europe. Exactly half-way through every official dinner at EU summits, the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Aromatica bursts out, the waiters wheel the wonderful thing in and the diners all stand to pay tribute to Napoleone’s lasting legacy, one of the few dishes, it has been said, which has influenced the whole world, the gloriously complex Coda Napoleone.
(Note – While all the other delegations stand in respectful silence, the British by long tradition, jump onto the table and shout “For us, for Boney, the Coda Napoleone!”)