The Napoleon of Preserved Food

portrait of napoleon bonaparte

Rarely does ingenuity find just reward. The enterprising Nicolas Appert learned this unhappy fact when, in 1795, he hit upon the means by which to preserve meat, fish and vegetables in glass bottles. This découverte came only after a serious of professional failures. Appert began his career as a champagne salesman, and then tried his hand at confections before ending up in a grubby little atelier in the rue de la Folie-Méricourt, immersing in a piping hot bain-marie wide-mouthed glass bottles stuffed with everything from peas to pot roast. Finding that the bath rendered the jars airtight, Appert hit upon an idea that, for a few years at least, would bring him fame and welcome fortune.

Appert’s discovery came at a most opportune moment. Traditional methods of preserving – drying, smoking, salting – yielded unpredictable, often unsatisfactory results. Appert’s method, on the other hand, proved so effective that the Frenchman soon found himself crowned “the Napoleon of preserved food.” It wasn’t long, however, before the Napoleon of world conquest  learned of his culinary counterpart. Looking for a way to feed vast numbers of soldiers, the emperor summarily appointed Appert “official purveyor of the Grand Armée” whose theater of operations was a food bottling factory at Massey. Supervising more than fifty employees, the official purveyor discharged his duty to the Empire with élan, seeing to it that troops marched off well supplied with bottled rations.

Appert’s luck changed in 1814. A pair of English technicians infiltrated the factory and stole his trade secret. Shortly thereafter, the first English canned foods (the clever Britons improved upon Appert’s design by substituting metal for glass) came rolling out of the factories of Donkins-Hall.

vintage ad for canning press from the secrets of canning

Unlike their American cousins, who also learned food preserving, the English failed to credit Appert with his discovery, and this oversight proved fatal. He never recovered from this bit of industrial espionage; his fortunes declined as the popularity of his invention increased. Not even a gift of 12,000 livres and the title of Benefactor of Humanity managed to stave off the mortification of poverty. In 1841 Appert was found dead, half-starved and penniless.

Should you wish to rectify a historical wrong, this recipe for canned apples from the 1906 Book of Choice Recipes will help you to preserve the memory of Appert and his signature innovation.

Canned Apples

Choose ripe, finely flavored apples, only slightly tart. Pare, core, cut into eighths, throw into cold water and after draining, weigh, and put into the preserving kettle with boiling water enough to cover. As soon as the water begins to boil up, place over a slow fire to simmer until tender, but not soft. Into another kettle put one pound of sugar, one quart of boiling water, the juice of one lemon and half its rind, grated, for every five pounds of apples. Stir, and simmer five minutes. Drain the water from the apples carefully, let them slip slowly into the syrup, and simmer until the fruit looks clear and may be pierced with a straw. Lift with a perforated spoon, one or two pieces at a time, slip into jars and cover to overflowing with the boiling syrup. If you have sweet apples canned with pineapples, they are very nice.


Baumgarthuber, Christine. Fermented Foods: The History and Science of a Microbiological Wonder. Reaktion Books, 2021.

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