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What the Habsburg Emperors Ate in Mexico

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Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City
Credit: Rocio Carvajal

Ever wonder about what the Habsburg emperors ate in Mexico? One of the oddest episodes in Mexico’s history was the brief and confusing reign of the Austrian empire, which resulted in a rather embarrassing event for those who were involved. It ended in sad tragedy but left an imprint on today’s Mexican cuisine.

Mexico was going through a very difficult time during the first years of the 1860s. After achieving its independence from Spain in 1810, the political class in Mexico remained divided between those who pushed forward the republican project and the royalists who were ready to do anything to regain their privileges. After the Reform War, by 1860, the liberal government lead by Benito Juarez finally passed a set of radical laws that stripped the Catholic Church of its political, economic and cultural power, approving a unique model of secular public education and significantly reducing the influence of the Mexican Army.

Meanwhile in Europe, the ambitions of Napoleon III to surpass the achievements of his uncle Napoleon I following his successful investments in the construction of the Suez Canal, led to his interest in expanding the French Empire to the North American continent. Napoleon III decided to invade Mexico and create an empire under his political influence. He just needed an ambitious, naïve and easy-to-manipulate noble to volunteer to become Emperor of Mexico.

For years he had groomed Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph of the house of Habsburg, who really had no chance of succeeding his brother Francis Joseph I, Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. With the support of Mexican royalists, he convinced Maximilian and his young wife Charlotte of Belgium that the Mexican people were desperate to have another absolutist government and would welcome them as emperors.

After two military campaigns, France was able to send Maximillian and Charlotte to Mexico in 1864 – under false pretences – to an extremely polarized and volatile country. Curiously enough, the cultural footprint that the three-year empire left was enough to encourage the conservative aspiring middle class to fully adopt a fashionable and sophisticated lifestyle.

Soon, fine restaurants in affluent cities were opened and began offering French menus that had no room for unrefined traditional food. In the city of Mexico alone 111 patisseries opened. The most famous were owned by the French bakers Louis Reinot and the Plaissant frères. Balls, soirees, banquets and concerts were frequently offered at the residence of the emperor in Chapultepec. Along with the young couple came the Hungarian head chef Jözsef Tüdös, who was in charge of a little army of cooks at the imperial kitchens. They produced relevés, oysters, braised fillets, soufflés, sponges, ices, buttery croissants, ladyfingers and fancy fondants by the dozens.

To the dismay of the empire’s supporters, the royal couple turned out to be very liberal and progressive in their ideas and policies. Maximilian was so bewitched by Mexico’s beauty and traditions that he refused to use his carriage and instead rode the beautiful avenues of Mexico City on his own horse dressed in a full charro suit.

To this day, Mexico has a big passion for pastries. The staple Viennese croissant is by far one of the national favorites, smothered with butter and dunked in milky hot chocolate. On more than one occasion Charlotte sneaked into the working class districts of the city to drink pulque and eat enchiladas. And Maximilian demanded to eat cheese-stuffed chiles, tortillas and mole as often as possible, much to the amazement and embarrassment of the royal court.

But a bad beginning makes for a bad ending, and sooner than later the lies and the illusion of imperial stability crumbled. Just as Maximilian became in favor of a more liberal and even republican model of government, the legitimate president of Mexico regained control of the country and ordered the execution of Maximilian and the subsequent banishment of Charlotte from Mexico.

One thing is sure, wines, patisseries, bakeries and French cooking techniques transformed forever food in Mexico and influenced the creation of new dishes that combined the best of both gastronomies: one with an uncanny variety of ingredients and the other with refined methods that could only result in a delicious new cuisine filled with spiced brioches, piquant soufflés, tropical tarts and huitlacoche crepes,

Luckily for us, this exciting culinary moment was captured in two famous cookery manuals under the titles of: “Novisimo Arte de Cocina,” or Newest Cookery, published in 1831, which promised affordable methods to prepare Spanish, French, Italian and English dishes, and “New Mexican Cook,” which was In the form of a dictionary and published in 1888.

You can listen to this and other delicious stories on episode #4 of my Pass the Chipotle Podcast.

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