Wednesday, October 1, 2014

La Belle Créole, a Famous beauty and Her Favorite Spicy Stew, Cuban Ajiaco

Mercedes Cruz y Montalvo, Countess of Merlin (1789-1852)

Maria de las Mercedes Josepha Teresa Bárbara Luisa de Jesus Santa Cruz y Montalvo, the Countess Merlin, was born on February 6, 1789 in Havana, Cuba.

Beauty, talent, charm and good breeding combined with the dramatic vagaries of the Napoleonic war to thrust her into a life of great fame in the early 19th century only to be nearly forgotten today –– until now.

Author Alina Garcia-Lapuerta has long enjoyed reading early 19th century journalism and literature. A few years ago she became aware that Countess Merlin's name was reoccurring in much of what she read. So much so that Garcia – Lapuerta wondered that the spirit of Baron Munchausen  could have been at afoot.

In a video for her book, La Belle Créole: The Cuban Countess Who Captivated Havana, Madrid, and Paris, the author reflected, “When I started looking into her life, I found what I thought almost were too many exaggerations –– she knew too many famous people, she had been in too many interesting places at just, at certain tumultuous times and I just thought, it can’t all be true. There must be some exaggeration here. So I decided that the only thing to do was to go back from the beginning and look in the archives, look in the letters and her memoirs and in other places to really find the true Mercedes –– and once I did so I was just completely captivated by her and I had to do this project.”

Garcia-Lapuerta's passion for the subject is palpable. After I read her marvelous La Belle Créole I can admit, Mercedes reached across time and seduced me too –– her story reads like a great romance novel.

Mercedes grew up without her parents but in a loving, multi-family, multi-generational extended family. Rich and titled, her mother and father ran off to Europe to tend to business interests and advance their social standing –– leaving baby Mercedes in the care of her mother’s grandmother, Luisa Herrera y Chacón. Mercedes remembered her as having, “…snow white hair gracefully rolled up and pinned in braids exposing a perfectly formed brow and angelically sweet blue eyes. Her fine and delicate features revealed her entire soul by an ineffable expression of calm and habitual benevolence….” It was very fortunate she ended up with her mother’s side of the family. Garcia-Lapuerta noted they had “forward-looking … attitudes [that] would steep her earliest childhood days in openness, affection, and freedom that laid the foundations for her attitudes and beliefs.”

Mercedes father joined her in Cuba in her early teens in 1796. He proceeded to spoil her terribly before taking her away to Europe to join her mother.

Teresa Montalvo y O’Farrill, Countess Jeruco

Mercedes came by her charm and social skills naturally. Her mother, Teresa Montalvo y O’Farrill, Countess Jeruco was a splendid combination of Spanish aristocrat and upstart Irish (the O’Farrills). Mercedes described Teresa as beautiful and “uniting all the natural charms which heaven in its generosity can bestow upon a mere mortal.” Her father, Joaquin was a whirlwind of energy who said, “our time here was too short to lose any of it with sleep.” He evidently was never without a pot of coffee at his side. Mercedes said of him, “ Spoiled by his good star and by nature, he wished to live much in a short time and because of it he neither feared fate nor illness; he had always been happy, and nature had endowed him with a prodigious strength.” His drive paid off –– he was appointed a Gentleman of the Bedchamber to the Spanish court in 1789 and got his commission in 1794.

Teresa was known for her splendid Tertulias (social gatherings with musical and artistic overtones – like the French salon) even before Mercedes joined her. Garcia-Lapuerta wrote, “Their lavish entertainment attracted notice and comments for many decades. They had style and taste, and their musical soirées included the best instrumental and singing artists of the time….Teresa became an effective networker and flourished as a popular hostess.”

There was a good deal of rumor that Teresa was a mistress of Joseph Bonaparte, the French king of Spain. Bonaparte graciously provided Mercedes’ dowry (her father had died unexpectedly in 1807) as the family money was tied up for decades in his testamentaría (“the legal process of executing the deceased’s will”).

Mercedes was much courted in Madrid when she came of age –– the exotic Cuban beauty intrigued European men even as Spain became a prize tossed between members of the Bonaparte family in a world gone mad with war. Napoleon’s brother Joseph took control of Spain and French military men and diplomats flooded Madrid –– it was an uneasy occupation.

Christophe Antoine Merlin

The man that won her heart was a French general, Christophe Antoine Merlin. They fell in love quickly, even though he was chosen for her by her mother and was twice her age. They were married on October 31, 1809. The first years of their marriage were happy ones but not all roses and ribbons. France lost Spain along with everything else and the French had to leave the country in a hurry. Merlin had supported Napoleon so was persona non grata in France as well when the monarchy was restored. His commissions and appointments were few and far between and he only just escaped a treason sentence for his associations.

When the French occupation ended, Merlin’s money and property was forfeit in Spain. Mercedes money was and would be tied up in decades of litigation following her father’s death so the Merlins were in rather reduced circumstances when they arrived in France –– but not for long. Mercedes was a brilliant strategist. What she lacked in gold, she made up for in talent and wit. She made sure her family lived comfortably if not extravagantly. She studied voice and became a famous amateur soprano – attracting Chopin, Liszt and other great talents to her salons (she improvised Spanish songs at the piano with Chopin).
La Malibran (1808-36)

She also took to writing and earned an income with books about Cuba and even biographies like a well-received history of her friend ‘La Malibran’ –– Rossini’s diva who died too young at the height of her fame.

Even though the Merlin’s diminished circumstances wouldn’t have allowed for a grand hôtel particulaire (a private townhouse), Mercedes friends, the very wealthy Count and Countess de Lariboisière shared their mansion at 40 rue de Bondy from 1818 to 1831 with the Merlins. When the de Lariboisières moved to an even finer house at 58 rue de Bondy, the Merlins remained their guests.

It’s no wonder the Lariboisières loved having Mercedes with them. They could have a front row seat to a salon filled with the brightest talent in Paris –– writers, artists and musicians.

Alexandre Dumas was undoubtedly describing Countess Merlin when he wrote in Pauline:

“There was a tremendous crush in the ballroom; during a momentary pause, the Comtesse M took me by the arm and to escape the stifling heat, carried me to the card room; there was also a curious inspection to be made as all the artistic, literary and political celebrities of the day were there… Madame M identified them each with a charming complacency, accompanying each name with a comment such as was often envied by the wittiest society chronicler…. The ball was interrupted. Liszt sat down at the piano… The effect was magical; the sounds floated in the air like vapor.”

Mercedes was a true femme du monde. Madrid’s paper, El Heraldo captured her magic perfectly:

“To achieve fame in Paris… is the easiest thing in the world… for one hour, for two, for half a day…{to achieve it] for a week, that is phenomenal. Paris… always needs to be devouring something…. Nonetheless, as we have said, Madame the Countess Merlin is one of the few privileged beings who maintain in Paris a constant and fixed value, one of those persons who everyone knows and appreciates, even if only by name… but how, you may ask? How has a foreign lady… who has not published any masterpieces, nor possess one of those fabulous fortunes… who is not a celebrated artist… been able to conquer such a unique position.”

Garcia-Lapuerta believed that “ Mercedes united the more obvious gifts of beauty, good birth, and culture with the talents of the artist, the attractions of a witty hostess, and the elegance and stylishness of a trendsetter, along with the nurturing soul of a patroness of the arts.”

It was a glorious time to be a taste-setter when she arrived in Paris. The clothes were sublime and such a relief after centuries of imprisonment in corsets and voluminous skirts.

Sadly, the revolution did not last and hoop skirts and stays returned in all their fussy, bonneted glory.

Countess Merlin didn't only inhabit the dazzling sphere of Parisian society, she made a triumphal trip back to Havana in 1840, and recorded it in a popular book that is still well respected today for its portrayal of the city in those years.

She continued to write and entertain as she entered the last years of her life but her circumstances became more humble and she moved to the country to save on the expenses of town.

 She stayed in her daughter’s husband’s 15th century castle in Dissay for a time and later in a small rented place of her own. She lived out the rest of her life with many friends who never forgot the legendary hostess.

Just as I began reading about Mercedes, my friend Mandy Aftel at Aftelier Perfumes released a new perfume that seemed to conjure my impression of Mercedes and her time magnificently. I don’t normally share perfumes here, but for some reason when I read about Mercedes I thought of her surrounded by a cloud of scent like Liszt’s music floating on the air. The way Mandy described the perfume, Palimpsest seemed to fit the bill perfectly:

"Leafing through dozens of volumes, some more than a century old, I felt as though I had stumbled into a secret old world of scent, whose story can still be read, in whispers and traces, beneath the story of the world we know.... I wanted to capture the richness that you feel when you experience the past as alive in the present, creating the gorgeous complexity of life." Palimpsest " allows you to experience the past in the present and the present in the past; in a whiff, it undoes the structure of time...."

I do not really write about perfume, so forgive my poor stab at capturing what I feel about the scent. Here’s the deal. Palimpsest is an island paradise at once bright and dark. It feels sweet at the same time it is smouldering. The ancient, unknowable deep of ambergris haunts the dark notes of the fragrance (if you follow my blog you KNOW how I love ambergris ). It is divine stuff that is NOTHING like modern department store perfume – you can close your eyes and drop through time for a moment when you wear it – to a Parisian salon during the 1830’s in a sea of Chopin waltzes, silk and ormolu.

Those of us who love food know that it transports as well, doesn’t it? We remember events more clearly when they are linked to a smell or a taste. How many of our favorite memories have the smell of a favorite dish as a powerful marker? Your grandmother may have been linked to the smell of bread, a long lost lover always comes to mind when you smell ripe strawberries – we remember home with the smell of a mother’s special stew or casserole. So it is with the elegant Countess. She may have traveled Europe and dined at the finest tables (it was the time of Carême after all) but when she returned home, fancy French food wasn’t what she wanted.

Author Alina Garcia-Lapuerta discovered this in a passage from Viaje a la Habana (Spanish version of her travel account published 1844), "On the first day [of my visit], my aunt wished to serve me one of the finest dishes from our [French] cuisine, and I, happy and satisfied with a simple ajiaco, told her in a disdainful tone: 'no, no, I do not want that; I have only come to eat creole dishes.' "

I had never heard of ajiaco, but the author was kind enough to send me a recipe, from Cocina Criolla by Nitza Villapol but modified by her ‘tia Gina’. I made a few more modifications as well but it is close to the original – proportions of meat to vegetable can be altered to taste. It smells rich and satisfying as it bubbles away on the stove. The root vegetable thickening is brilliant and adds creamy texture without calories. There are many layers of flavor and texture to it. It is not the Creole food I am used to at all –– it’s not spicy in the least. It is mild and earthy and perfect for a cool fall day.

Traditional Cuban Ajiaco, Serves 6

½ chicken – cut up into pieces (approximately 1 ½ lbs.)
½ lb. flank steak, cubed
1 lbs. pork pieces or spareribs (I used boneless pork chops)

OPTIONAL: ¼ lb. beef jerky (tasajo) (Tasajo is a traditional ingredient, but many cooks today – including my aunt – leave it out. If you choose to use it, it must be cut into pieces and soaked overnight and cooked with the chicken as directed below).


2 ears of corn, cut into 4 fourths
½ lb. yellow taro root (Malanga) peeled and cut into chunks (I couldn’t get this so used more yucca and sweet potato)
½ lb. cassava (yuca – can be fresh or frozen) peeled and cut into chunks
½ lb. sweet potato (boñiato) peeled and cut into chunks
½ lb. fresh pumpkin (calabaza) peeled and cut into chunks
1 green plantains (unripe) peeled and cut into chunks
1 ripened plantains (starting to turn black) peeled and cut into chunks
sliced beans (optional)
1- lime for recipe plus more for squeezing on top
Salt – to taste


1 tablespoons olive oil
½ onion chopped
2 garlic cloves minced
½ cup tomato puree
*1 small green pepper chopped
Salt – to taste
Black pepper – to taste
½ tsp. cumin
1 tsp. dry oregano or a T or 2 of fresh

* I steamed a poblano and pureed it with 3 T olive oil and drizzled it on the portions instead of including it in the sofrito.


In a deep stock pot, place about 3 ½ quarts of water and the chicken pieces (this is the time to add the beef jerky – previously soaked overnight – if you choose to use it). Bring to a boil and simmer for approximately 30 minutes or until the chicken is almost cooked (the beef jerky will take longer to soften). Add the other meats and simmer for another hour or until all the meats are tender.

While the meats are cooking, make the sofrito and prepare the vegetables except the ripened plantain and the pumpkin. Soak the green plantain pieces in lime juice.

To make the sofrito, heat the oil in a sauté pan and add the onion, garlic and pepper. Sauté until beginning to soften, then add seasoning. Cook a minute more and then add the tomato puree. Cook for an additional 5 minutes.

When the meats are tender, begin adding the vegetables (except ripened plantain and the pumpkin). Add the lime juice used to soak the green plantains. Add the sofrito. Cook for approximately 1 hour at lower heat or until all vegetables are tender. Add the ripened plantains and pumpkin and cook until these are tender (approximately 30 minutes).

Adjust seasoning to taste. Add the beans and cook for a few minutes till cooked through

If you wish to thicken the broth, remove some of the vegetable pieces, puree them and add that back to the stew –– I used about 1/4 of the vegetables.

Serve with lots of lime -- it is fabulous with a good healthy squeeze of lime juice and all that squash, spoon the green pepper puree over the top and sprinkle with fresh oregano.

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Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Good morning, BEAUTIFUL! Wow, is this not a spicy and beautiful history for us today! I am of Mexican decent and have had a few Cuban-American friends, but I've never heard of or eaten this dish....there are so many flavors that combine from different cultures and the Cuban fare is one lovely mix. I always enjoy your stories and then you top it off so deliciously, literally!

Thank you so much for coming by to visit yesterday. School is crazy busy and now I have to run off here at 6:15am!

Big hugs and joy to you as you celebrate this lovely time of year! Anita

La Table De Nana said...

How interesting that when you started reading about her you wanted to know more:)
No wonder your knowledge of so many things is great.
The dish looks so interesting ..
Always unique your posts.
No one else :)

Barbara said...

Fascinating reading, Deana. Countess Merlin was an unknown and now I feel as though I knew her. It never ceases to amaze how one with practically no money to speak of can reach such heights of popularity and elegant living. In those days, it was usually through a man, or men. That doesn't seem to be the case here.
Love the unusual, I've never seen anything like it. Chock full of all kinds of meats and veggies. Quite a lovely dish!

mandy said...

This is a fascinating post Deana, and I love your description of Palimpsest! It makes sense that you would write so beautifully about it - you are familiar with so many of the essences in my perfumes from your cooking!
xo Mandy

Rhodesia said...

Sorry I am behind on comments. My computer died a month ago and it has taken a while to get another one minus a French key board which I did not want!! Finally back on line but having to learn a whole new system!

Great post again as always. Love the recipe but what got me is the pureed poblano in oil, we have masses in the garden and this is a great way of preserving them as well. Thanks for a great idea :)

Keep well Diane

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

Such an interesting person Mercedes must have been! Many times I skim but I had to read everything :)

What a wonderful Cuban dish and so perfect for this time of year.

lindaraxa said...

Oh my, do I love this post! I don't even know where to begin...

I have her memoirs in Spanish in my bookshelf and they are what she is best known for. They are often cited as the best depiction of what life in the island was like in those days. It is a pity they have not been translated into English. As much as she is mentioned and quoted, there is not much written about her life either before this famous trip or afterwards so I am delighted we now have a book on her. Thank you!

As to the ajiaco...Madame Mere and I have been talking about making one and we will do it now that the weather is cool. It is a fabulous dish, not elegant at all and made with all the Cuban vegetables available which you can now easily find in most supermarkets. I find most of them at my Publix here in Georgia. You must, though, use the boniato or Cuban yam...different from the sweet potato here in the states. Malanga is also widely available, and another must. Our squash, calabaza, is also slightly different and a little harder to find outside of Miami. I have just requested some from a friend travelling up here from Miami. Nitza Villapol's cookbook is the best on Cuban food and the only one we use here in the house when we need to. It is the Joy of Cooking of Cuban food so I congratulate you on picking a good and authentic source for your recipe.

I will print this post and show it to mother who will really enjoy it. I will let you know when we make our ajiaco and wish you were closer so we could entertain you...perhaps not as grandly as the Condesa as neither of us plays the piano, but the food will be good!

Thanks again for this post. Fabulous job, as usual!!!

lindaraxa said...

Btw, Cuban food is not spicy as in hot. The word in Spanish for Creole is Criollo and is used for those born in the island while it was occupied by Spain.

The author's use of the word in the title, though correct to a certain extent as it means those of European parents born in the Americas, is really not appropriate in her case. She was not a Creole, as in Louisiana Creole, since she was born in Cuba, a Spanish possession at the time. The Empress Josephine was a Creole, since she was born in the French island of Martinique.

You would be correct in assuming from the title that she enjoyed Creole (Louisiana) food which, as we know it, is hot and spicy.

Alina Garcia-Lapuerta said...

Thanks so much for including my book, La Belle Créole in your blog, as well as the recipe for ajiaco that I passed along. It looks delicious on your blog!

I just wanted to offer clarification on the word Creole. It does cause confusion and I have an explanation in the book for that reason. It has nothing to do with Louisiana. In the time period it referred to (both French and Spanish) persons born in the colonies, generally of European descent. Mercedes was very much a Cuban creole and came from the Cuban creole aristocracy. She called her own memoirs: Souvenirs d'une Créole. (Her memoirs are not her Viaje a la Habana, but a different book published between 1831 and 1836).

In Cuba, criollo/criolla can also refer to anything from the island -- including food. The French sometimes called her La Belle Créole in reference to her beauty and birthplace. Just like Josephine Bonaparte was a french creole from Martinique.

Thanks again and I hope this little clarification helps!

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Marjie said...

It's astonishing that someone so famous in her time can now be completely unknown now. Fascinating story, though. As always, your interpretation of the dish is beautiful, Deana.

I hope Dr. Lostpast is doing well, and that your lives are getting back to normal.

Karina A. Fogliani-Ahmed said...

What an interesting woman. I look forward to reading the book. In regards, to ajiaco, I was married to a Colombian once, so I am familiar with that version, which uses hojas guascas. A great soup for winter.