The people behind the menu – 1


If you are powerful, celebrated or heroic you may be remembered by having things named after you. Schools, airports, roads, squares and public buildings are all dedicated to politicians, royalty, celebrities and heroic figures from a nation’s past. One way to be immortalised is to have a popular food, drink or dish named after you. The only danger is that the product becomes so ubiquitous that the name’s roots are forgotten. So this is the first of three posts to remember the people behind the menu.  

Queen Margherita of Savoy

Margherita of Savoy was part of the most gilded of nineteenth century elites. She was a daughter of the Houses of Savoy and Wettin placing her at the imperial heart of the interconnected royal houses of Europe.  Princess Margherita was, unsurprisingly quite the dynastic catch. In line with the genetically misjudged aristocratic preference for ‘keeping it in the family’, she ended up marrying her first cousin Umberto, Prince of Piedmont.

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In a divided, pre-Risorgimento Italy, Piedmont was one of the more powerful states. But it was far from the premier league of great powers. After the unification of Italy, its ruler became the King of Italy and, eventually, Princess Margherita would become the Queen of Italy.

Margherita was well known for her beauty, grace and elegance and she garnered a range of cultural and artistic displays of affection. One of these followed a visit to Naples, when the chef, Raffaele Esposito, designed a patriotic pizza in her honour. As David Gilmour notes in The Pursuit of Italy:

“One Neapolitan chef achieved renown with a pizza of tomato and mozzarella, which he named after Queen Margherita, the most gracious and elegant member of the Savoia dynasty, who accepted the honour.”

It is a bit of a stretch to describe a Margherita pizza as being either gracious or elegant. It is certainly not a beautiful dish. But it was patriotic, featuring the red (tomato sauce), white (mozzarella) and green (basil) of the Italian flag. It is also one of the more enduringly popular, famous and ubiquitous dishes to have emerged from the country. Did it really have a royal connection? Recent detective work in the archives suggests it may have been a twentieth century fabrication to bolster sales hit by the Great Depression.

The House of Savoy no longer has a throne; Italy has been a republic for more than 70 years.  But one of its first Queens is still remembered, albeit mostly unknowingly and perhaps fraudulently, in pizza houses across the world.

Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin

In general, the British do puddings whilst the French do desserts. It reflects an essential difference in national cuisine – solid, hearty, simple and heavy versus fancy, light, delicate and elaborate. When done properly, both can be superlative – I can be driven into dizzying heights of ecstasy by a syrup sponge and custard or a Crème Brûlée.

In a few examples, the French dessert veers dangerously close to the British pudding; a Tarte aux Amandes is essentially a Bakewell Pudding dressed up to the nines whilst a Tarte aux pommes à l’Alsacienne is the apple pie’s loose living half-sister.

And then there is the Tarte Tatin, the supreme crossover – a desert so pudding-like that it has become a favourite in Britain.

In the 1880s, France was recovering from a humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the bloody civil war centred on the Paris Commune. All of this seemed far away in Lamotte-Beuvron, a small town in the Loire Valley some 100 miles south of Paris.

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In this sleepy town, two sisters, Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin, ran the Hotel Tatin. There are various, probably apocryphal, stories to explain the creation of the tarte. Stéphanie, the sister who did the cooking, had left apples cooking for two long in butter and sugar and tried to rescue the apple pie she had intended to make by putting a pastry case over the filling.

Alternatively, Stéphanie baked an upside-down tart  with accidentally caramelized apples. In all the stories, dessert is rescued, diners are served the novel creation and it becomes an instant, if accidental, hit.

What is more likely is that the sisters improved on a regional classic, the tarte solognote. Whether an intentional creation or a successful mistake, the Tarte Tatin became a French classic. The Hotel Tatin now proudly boasts its gastronomic heritage as the birthplace of the dessert.

Franz Sacher

If the Tarte Tatin was an unintentional creation, Sachertorte was quite the opposite – it was designed to impress. Franz Sacher was a Viennese confectioner working in an Imperial capital that adored cake. The Austro-Hungarian empire was by this point an intricate patchwork of nationalities and languages.

Politically, it was unified by the ruling Habsburg emperors. Socially, it centred on the coffee house. Kaffeeklatsch over kaffee und kuchen was as popular in Budapest and Prague as it was in Vienna.

sachertorteFranz_Sacher

In 1832, Franz Sacher was a 16-year old serving the second year of an apprenticeship at the kitchens of Prince Metternich. Metternich was Austria’s powerful minister for foreign affairs and regularly hosted dinners. One particular evening in 1832, Metternich had assembled a particularly potent mixture of powerful and important guests. The chef of the household was taken ill, and the task of making the signature dessert fell on to Sacher’s young shoulders.

Metternich is reported to have added to the pressure by demanding, ‘dass er mir aber keine Schand’ macht, heut’ Abend!’ (‘Let there be no shame on me tonight!’). Sacher rose to the challenge, creating the eponymous chocolate torte.

Sachertorte became both a signature dish for the Sacher family (Franz’s son would eventually open the Hotel Sacher in Vienna) and a symbol of Viennese coffeehouse culture. It is even celebrated with its own national day in Austria on the 5th of December.

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