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Fresh thinking

John Stringer takes us on a potted history of food preservation from the Tudors to the present day. Photograph by Chris Knaggs

Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan set sail in the Victoria from Spain in 1519, leading four other ships across the Atlantic in search of spices from the East Indies to flavour food. Then, as now, spices were highly popular in the kitchens of Europe; they helped disguise the taste of bad meat and other food.

Magellan and his crew knew enough about nutrition to recognise that fresh fruit and oranges somehow helped prevent scurvy; but these were eaten in the first few weeks. After that, the crew began to suffer. They had few ways of preserving food available to them - drying, pickling and salting.

Storing food in salt - or sugar - draws the water out of micro-organisms, so killing them. It's only when they get wet enough to reproduce that they begin to rot food. That's why mould forms on jam after water has condensed inside the lid and dripped to make a puddle.

We still use drying to preserve fruit such as grapes and apricots, and we enjoy the taste of pickled foods and corned (salted) beef.

Magellan reached the strait that now bears his name in October 1520. Emerging into the Pacific, he thought the Spice Islands (the Moluccas) were only two or three days away. It took nearly four months to cross the ocean.

Antonio Pigafetta was with Magellan on his voyage. He kept a diary of their sufferings and wrote: "We ate only old biscuit turned to powder, all full of worms and stinking of the urine the rats made on it, having eaten the good. And we drank water, impure and yellow. We ate ox hides, which were very hard because of the sun, rain and wind."

These provisions, washed down with wine (much of which had turned to vinegar) and water, lasted the crew for "three months and 20 days". Magellan reached the Philippines in March 1521, where he was killed in a skirmish on the isle of Cebu. The survivors returned in the Victoria via the southern tip of Africa reaching Spain in September 1522, almost three years to the day after they set out. Of the 270 men who started, 18 returned. They were the first people to sail round the world. The fact that so many did not survive bears testimony as much to the trouble with the diet as it does to bad weather, tricky navigation and the warlike conditions they encountered.

Napoleon's cans

Magellan and his contemporaries had no understanding of bacteria or the airborne spores of fungi that brought decay to their stores. It was an Italian biologist, Lazarro Spallanzani who suggested in 1765 that sealing food in containers so that air could not penetrate would preserve it.

But it was Napoleon who recognised he was losing more soldiers to disease than he was to the enemy, and who demanded a practical method of preserving foods. Two hundred years ago, the French emperor was pushing forward into Russia. The retreating Russian army left a stripped and ravaged countryside with their "scorched earth" policy. There was no food to be had. More French soldiers were dying from scurvy, malnutrition, and starvation than from enemy muskets. The French government offered a reward to anyone who could develop a method of preserving food for soldiers to carry.

A French cook, Nicolas-Francois Appert, tried packing food in bottles, corking them and putting the bottle in boiling water. The heat killed the micro-organisms and the food stayed good. His son Nicolas explained how this worked in a book entitled The Art of Saving Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years. But bottles were easily broken. It was an Englishman named Peter Durand who solved this problem. He made a canister from steel, coated with tin, with a lid that was soldered shut. Thus the tin can was born - and people started eating what they called "embalmed meat". But even better ideas were to come. People already knew that food could be preserved by keeping it cool.

Indeed, the Elizabethan scientist Francis Bacon, whose books predicted robots, telephones, tape recorders and the electric motor, died in 1626 after experimenting with a chicken stuffed with snow to see if it would decay less rapidly. He was not a victim of food poisoning though - he caught a fatal chill while doing the experiment.

Wealthy people stored food in ice houses - underground cellars stuffed with ice to stop the food going off so rapidly. But effective freezing defeated them. The texture of the food was always spoilt by being in the ice house, which turned it soft and unpleasant.

Cap'n Birdseye

Clarence Birdseye was born in 1886 in Brooklyn, New York. He wished his family could have fresh food all year. On a trip in 1917 to Labrador, a cold peninsula of north-east Canada, he watched as local people froze fresh fish and meat in barrels of sea water. The contents of the barrels froze in minutes on the ice in the bitter winds. Cooked months later, the food tasted fresh. Fast freezing had stopped big ice crystals forming and prevented the food going mushy.

Back home, Birdseye experimented with packing food in waxed cardboard boxes and freezing it very quickly squeezed between two flat, icy surfaces. By 1924, his invention was ready to use, and he formed a company to sell his idea. Two big companies bought Clarence Birdseye's patents and trademarks in 1929 for $22 million. Quick-frozen vegetables, fruits, fish, and meat were sold to the public for the first time in 1930 in Springfield, Massachusetts, under the trade name Birds Eye Frosted Foods.

Fish fingers and TV dinners

During the Second World War, food was rationed and there was a shortage of protein in people's diets. Meat was rationed, but fish was cheap and plentiful.

The British government wanted children to eat more of this protein-rich, nutritious food. But fish was smelly and hard to prepare, children didn't like the bones and skin, and it was not fresh unless you lived near the sea. In the US, Birds Eye found a product called the fish stick - a boneless oblong of fish coated in breadcrumbs and frozen. They tried making it with Britain's commonest fish, the herring. They called it the Herring Savoury and compared sales of herring savouries with another product, made from cod. People much preferred the cod.

What would they call the cod product? Cod savoury? Cod sticks? Fish bites? Nobody knows who invented the name Fish Fingers. But the herring savoury was forgotten and the Fish Finger was launched in 1955, the year that television with advertising began in the UK.

The previous year also saw of the launch of the TV Dinner in the US. This was stuffed roast turkey with sweet potatoes and peas, ready prepared in an aluminum tray. It was just put in the oven and heated.

Frozen, chilled, canned, bottled, salted or pickled, we enjoy a greater variety of preserved food than any previous generation.


The provisions Magellan took with him included:

360 kg of flour

: 250 strings of garlic (this disguised the taste of rotting food, and sailors believed garlic would keep them healthy)

1,200 kg of cheese

600 kg of honey

35 litres of almonds

150 barrels of anchovies

10,000 sardines

850 kg of raisins

90 kg of prunes

100 litres of beans

Many gallons of wine

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