November 17, 2012
Napoleon Bonaparte’s famous quote captures the essence of military campaign.
In 1795, while Bonaparte was emerging as a military leader, French armies were fighting across Europe to protect the young Republic, which had been established in 1792 with the deposing of King Louis XVI on Sept. 21, from the established European powers.
It was a significant challenge to equip and feed its soldiers and sailors, with starvation and sickness often more effective enemies than the Austrian, Dutch, English and Spanish armies they faced. To foster the development of a safe way to preserve food that could be easily transported, the French military offered a 12,000-franc (the new currency introduced that year to replace the livre, a franc was the equivalent of 4.5 grams of silver) prize.
Nicolas Appert, who was born in Châlons-en-Champagne, Marne, France, on Nov. 17, 1749, responded to the challenge.
Appert grew up on his family’s farm and worked in their inn, where he learned about food and food preparation. As a young man he loved to pickle foods and brew beer. He served an apprenticeship at the Palais Royal Hotel in Châlons-sur-Marne, and moved to Paris in 1780. He opened a candy and grocery shop in 1784, gradually expanding his grocery into a wholesale produce business. He began experimenting with methods to expand the market for his produce.
The primary ways food was preserved for non-seasonal consumption was by smoking, salting and pickling, processes that altered the taste and nutritional value of the food. Appert had learned of the studies that Italian biologist Lazzaro Spallanzani had done around 1770 to understand how to prevent the spontaneous growth of cellular life. His experiments showed how boiling could kill microbes, and he postulated that microbes moved through the air. In an experiment with peas, Spallazani showed that boiled food sealed in a jar would last far longer, though it would still spoil.
In addition to altering the taste of foods, smoking, salting and pickling did not yield preserved foods that were easily transportable.
The lure of the prize, spurred Appert to increase his experimentation. In the early 1800’s he moved his produce business to Massey, near Paris, and opened La Maison d’Appert (House of Appert), with a farm and separate kitchens to prepare dairy products, fruits, meats and vegetables. He also designated separate rooms for cleaning the glass jars, labeling them, and packaging for shipment. It was the first food processing plant in the world. Appert started with champagne bottles because their thickness could tolerate the heat, but when he switched to wide-mouthed jars he expanded his preserving options. By 1806, the French Navy was buying his “canned” foods to provision ships for long voyages.
His constant experimenting continued, and though it took him 14 years, his invention “canning,” preserving food by sealing it in glass jars with cork and wax tops and immersing the jars in boiling water, was awarded the 12,000-franc prize in 1809. The “Courier de l’Europe” said Appert had “made the seasons stand still.” In 1810, as a condition of the award, he published “L'Art de conserver les substances animales et végétales” (The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances), a manual and cookbook on how to preserve and prepare foods. The first published guide to preserving foods.
Englishman Peter Durand used Appert’s with tin cans in 1810, which Appert copied. Appert also invented the bouillon cube.
He died in 1841.