A tin (can) of roast veal over a hundred years old was opened in 1938 at the request of the International Tin Research and Development Council. The tin was one of the exhibits in the museum of the Royal United Service Institution in
The instructions on the tin said “Cut round with chisel and hammer”, but perhaps in the modern 1930’s a heavy-duty can-opener was used. The contents of the tin when it was opened were found in perfect condition – at least perfect for animal food. Some of the meat was given to a cat “without ill effects”, and ten rats fed on it for ten days “provided a testimonial to its quality by putting on weight during the period.”
I used to think that calling the preservation of food in glass bottles ‘canning’ rather than bottling was an example of very flexible use of the language, but in fact the first large scale preservation of food by heat was done in glass containers. The pioneer was a Frenchman called Nicholas Appert (1749-1841) who rose to Napoleon Bonaparte’s challenge to find ways of preserving food to supply armies on the move, and won his prize in 1810. From then on things moved pretty quickly. Although Appert was the pioneer of the heat-preserving process, it was another Frenchman (Pierre Durand) who succeeded in using tins, and an Englishman (Bryan Donkin) who began large-scale production in 1811.
The method was a success long before the science was understood – and the time and temperature of heating was empirical in those early days, with either grossly overcooked food – or worse, seriously undercooked – the risk. Germ theory only began to be developed in the 1830’s and 1840’s, and it was not until Louis Pasteur’s work in the 1860’s that it was found that heating stopped the growth of the micro-organisms that were causing food spoilage. We now call that process pasteurisation, in his honour.
It is difficult to imagine life without canned food nowadays. Even the most ardent fresh-food purist is usually prepared to concede a can of tomatoes for spaghetti sauce, a Big English Breakfast requires canned baked beans, and a genuine Aussie hamburger must have canned beetroot slices (and canned pineapple slices too, according to some.)
In the 1860’s
Turn out a shape of beef of six pounds weight [they were large cans!]. To answer properly it should be a firm good shape with jelly round. It must be cut in rounds three inches thick – this will make three rounds. Lay them in a dish three inches deep, cover them with this mixture:- One ounce of pepper, one ounce of salt, half an ounce of nutmeg, a quarter of an ounce of allspice. Melt all the jelly, put the rounds back intact into their own tin, one over the other. To accomplish this you must press each round down separately with a piece of wood that just fits inside the tin. When it is all firmly pressed in, pour (by degrees to let it all soak in) all round the edge the melted jelly well seasoned. Let the shape stand to get cold. If it will not turn out easily, dip it in hot water.Quotation for the Day …
Canning gives … a kitchen garden where all good things grow, and where it is always harvest time … A regular Arabian Nights garden, where raspberries, apricots , olives and pineapples are always ripe, grow side by side with peas, pumpkins, spinach; a garden with baked beans, vines and spaghetti bushes, and sauerkraut beds, and great cauldrons of hot bean soup… James H. Collins, in The Story of Canned Foods