Saturday, May 30, 2009

Napoleon Cake

On the second day of 1812 Napoleon received news of a major breakthrough that would greatly aid his struggles against England. He immediately rode from his residence for Plassy to bestow an honour on the architect of this success, Benjamin Delessert.

Delessert was overwhelmed by the arrival of the Emperor, and even more-so when Napoleon took a medal from his own chest, nothing less than the Legion of Honour, and pinned it upon Delessert. The Emperor then granted all the workers in Delessert's factory a bonus of a week's pay.

Just what momentous feat had Delessert done to warrant such a display? His factory had succeeded in making sugar loaves from beetroot.

It may seem somewhat comical for sugar to provoke such a response from Napoleon. The idea of fighting and dying for sugar seems ridiculous, almost as absurd as dying for coffee, cocoa, nickel, iron or oil. Sugar, in itself, is not an essential food. Humans can survive without it. Yet somehow it seems essential. My mother has recounted her childhood experiences of rationing in the aftermath of the Second World War and the lack of sugar is at the top of the list of complaints, perhaps topped only by the lack of eggs. Sugar may not be as necessary as meat and vegetables, but it is passionately missed.

So for Napoleon the production of beet sugar was worth getting excited about. Nineteenth century France was a nation of sugar addicts, and world-wide sugar production was dominated by the British with their colonial plantations. The British ability to blockade French ports during wartime meant the French sweet tooth could not be easily satisfied. The creation of loaves of sugar from beetroot was a source of nationalistic pride, and was gleefully trumpeted to the masses. Fear not, citizens ... you may safely rot your teeth, even in times of darkest conflict.

So ... would you care for one lump or two? And a slice of Napoleon cake with your hot beverage?

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