Napoleon Bonaparte's major contribution to the culinary arts - preserved food

Carrots preserved on November 29, 1938 and peas preserved on July 16, 1942.
Since my father-in-law had just told me that it was prohibited to sell fresh bread in Switzerland during World War II, I was amazed that these jars of vegetables remained uneaten. Bread could only be sold after it had been aged 48 hours to stop people from eating too much of it. As a result, my father-in-law still has a preference for stale bread.

Napoleon Bonaparte's name is more likely to conjure the image of a man commanding his troops than of one concerned with the culinary arts, but when the French government offered a prize of 12,000 francs to the person who could develop an effective method for preserving food, Napoleon took his place in culinary history.

As the French army suffered more casualties from scurvy, malnutrition and starvation than from enemy muskets, Napoleon recognized the need to provide preserved food for his troops as they advanced into Russia during the Napoleonic Wars.

Fortunately, Nicholas Appert, a candy-maker, brewer and baker, had the idea to preserve food in bottles, in the same manner as wine. After experimenting with different methods for 14 years, he discovered that food did not spoil if it was packed in bottles, corked and submerged in boiling water. Napoleon, pleased to have a secret weapon that he thought would help him to defeat his enemies, personally awarded Appert the winning prize in 1809.

Realizing that it would be more practical to preserve food in metal rather than glass, British inventor Peter Durand received a patent for creating a cylindrical canister made out of iron coated with tin. Interestingly enough, the can opener wasn't invented until 1858. In the meantime, soldiers used knives, bayonets or even rocks to open their rations.

L'Art de Conserver, the book written by Nicholas Appert describing the method of sterilization, which is known as "appertisation" in French.

If you're interested in food, the Alimentarium in Vevey is a fascinating place to spend a couple of hours. While talking with one of the museum guides about Nicholas Appert's contribution to food preservation, she told me that she was surprised that most of the children who come to the museum don't know the season for fruits grown in Switzerland. I guess that's to be expected since our global supply chain allows us to buy strawberries in January and oranges in July.

Preserved strawberries, pears, cherries, raspberries and abricots. Are you smarter than a 7 year old?
See if you can put them in the order that they appear in Switzerland. 

Writing this post reminded me of Barbara Kingsolver's entertaining book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, in which she recounts the story of her family's resolution to grow their food themselves or to buy it locally for an entire year.

Alimentarium - Food Museum
Quai Perdonnet
Vevey, Switzerland

Tuesday-Friday: 10am-5pm; Saturday-Sunday: 10am-6pm

Alimentarium - Food Museum, Vevey, Switzerland


  1. I'm often not that keen on going to museums, but the Alimentarium in Vevey is a favourite of mine, probably because the topic of food is so fundamentally fascinating to most of us. I also very much liked the book that you mention by B. Kingsolver. Although I don't have a garden (and definitely no green thumb), I try to follow her ideas while grocery shopping and cooking for my family. It does make big sense!

    1. Heidi, I was thinking about you and the lunch that we had with your English students at the Alimentarium a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, I ran out of space to include photos of the Japanese lunch that Stephane and I had yesterday. It was delicious. From May 3 - July 17, the theme is "A la table de Apicius". After just learning about this early Roman gourmet at the Pompeii exhibitions in Boston and Paris, I'm planning to return to the Alimentarium when I'm in Vevey in June. You should join me!

  2. Coming from New Zealand, which is obviously small and isolated and whose economy is still heavily dependent on exporting agricultural produce, I always feel obliged to point out that buying local is not *necessarily* more environmentally-friendly than buying food imported from elsewhere. This is due to a variety of reasons, such as apples (for example) being grown in Europe and refrigerated for the rest of the year, or food being grown in heated greenhouses. Of course, part of these problems are also linked to eating foods out of season, even if they are local produce. Here's an article that gives a good overview, if you're interested

    And if you're not interested, then sorry for taking over the comment box!

    1. To the contrary, Gwan, your comment and the article present a thought-provoking argument as to why buying local doesn't always make better sense from an environmental standpoint. I'm including a clickable link for the article so that it's easier to reach:
      Greener by Miles.
      Many thanks for telling me about it!

      I also found the documentary, Blue Gold: World Water Wars to be interesting because it showed the amount of water used to grow green beans in Kenya, which is a water scarce country, that are then sold in water rich countries.

      After reading The Telegraph article, I'm pleased to report that our lamb always comes from New Zealand. Although, I'm not even sure if I've ever seen French lamb at the market.

    2. I'm glad you were interested! Once when I was a language assistant the teacher sprung a whole lesson on me about why eating food from New Zealand was BAD and none of the students should do it, and of course with no preparation I couldn't really explain to a class of English students why that wasn't a very nuanced argument. I understand there are all sorts of reasons people might prefer to buy local, but that quite annoyed me!

      That documentary sounds interesting too - I think water rights are posed to become a very big issue in the near future...

  3. fascinating post...who knew? I didn't.

  4. I'm glad you found it fascinating - it's always fun when I stumble across some interesting (to me) bit of knowledge in Switzerland that links back to France.

  5. "Hola" from Mexico! I have only a minute on the computer before it will certainly crash, and wanted to say hello. What a great story to open to, I can't believe the age of those items. Where are they in actuality?

    Going into the high mountains tomorrow, I may need some canned food.

  6. I wonder if Napoleon's culinary expertise will feature in Napoleonland, assuming that project ever sees the light of day!


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