Today is the birthday of Nicolas Appert, who was born in 1749 in Châlons-sur-Marne. He worked in Paris variously as a chef, confectioner and distiller. I’m celebrating his birthday today because he is the person who invented a method of storing food in airtight containers that could preserve it for years. He used wide mouthed glass bottles sealed with cork and wax, but his method led to the invention of canned food.
In 1795 the French military had offered a prize of 12,000 Francs to anyone who could come up with a new method of preserving food. Getting fresh food was difficult for soldiers on the march and for sailors on long voyages. They could only really carry meat that had been preserved in salt or dry biscuits. Not very nice, and also not very good for you. Napoleon knew that an army marches on its stomach and he was looking for a better alternative.
Appert knew that wine spoiled when it came into contact with the air and he felt the same was probably true of food. He spent years experimenting with different types of food. He heated it in the containers to varying temperatures before he sealed the bottles and kept careful notes. He experimented with different sorts of containers. He knew champagne bottles were strong but the necks were too small, so he had to get his own specially made. Appert had no idea that, in heating up the food to a high temperature, he was killing the bacteria in it. It would be more than fifty years before Louis Pasteur invented pasteurization as a method of killing bacteria in milk and wine.
In 1810 samples of Appert’s preserved foods were given to Napoleon’s troops on a four month sea voyage. He provided eighteen different foods all sealed in his glass containers. Among them were partridges, vegetables, milk, and broth. None of the food and spoiled and everyone thought it tasted very good. Appert was presented with his prize by Napoleon himself. He also wrote a cookery book explaining his method so that anyone would be able to do it. It has the rather unappetizing title of: ‘The Book of All Households: or The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances for Many Years.’
While Appert’s invention is certainly a brilliant one, I probably wouldn’t have mentioned him today, had I not read that on one occasion, as a sort of publicity stunt, he bottled and preserved an entire sheep. For all my searching, I have not been able to find any more information about this, but I really hope it’s true. He sounds like a nineteenth century Damien Hirst.
Later the same year a man named Peter Durand patented a similar method in Britain, but he used a steel can coated with tin to prevent rusting. The cans proved far more durable that Appert’s glass bottles. Unfortunately, you would need a hammer and chisel to open one, as the can opener was not invented until 1855.