You may not have heard of Nicolas Appert, but if you have eaten any canned food in your life, Appert played a part in making that possible. The story starts in the early years of the French revolution, at the height of The Terror. a dangerous phase in the history of the country. Nobody was safe, whatever their position, not even Nicolas Appert.
This short story is based on what is known about Nicolas Appert. It is loosely based on the history of the period and it has been checked by a French historian, who had no issues with the content. It should be regarded as a work of historic fiction rather than a detailed contemporary account. The passage from the 21st century is set in a time when we were in France, visiting family. The characterisation of William Leymergie as a smarmy toad is not an exaggeration, although some toads may find this offensive.
Citizen Appert’s food revolution
The heavy door rattles on its hinges as a motley bunch of men swing at it with whatever weapons they found to hand. As they hammer on the heavy timber, a gruff voice floats up on the chill evening air. “We’ve come for citizen Appert.”
As if it would have mattered had they had come to the wrong house. Children stir. Their muffled whimpers unsettle the night. Their mother lights a candle and prepares to face the militia men.
Outside, rue Saint Denis is deserted as the revolution sleeps fitfully across Paris. The roughnecks mill around in front of the house. Some of them tear down a flagpole. They take it in turns to wave the new tricolour in a bid to keep warm. The damp red revolutionary caps of the Jacobins are bathed in the sooty flicker of lanterns, glinting dull yellow on gunmetal. Red and blue ribbons pinned to their hats identify the longer serving men.
“Tell me your business,” snaps Elisabeth as the cold night air chills her bed-warmed body. The light of her guttering flame reveals a wall of stony faces. Bristly chins and calloused hands crowd around the doorway, chafing in the night. The spokesman is a former clerk. He holds up his warrant. “These are charges that citoyen Appert must answer, citoyenne.” A rat scuttles past in the darkness.
Before dawn, commodes will be emptied into an open sewer down the middle of the street, before the bourg can wear its public face. Amélie-Justine is bawling her eyes out upstairs. The glacial dark air claws at the warm spot where her mother, a revolutionary Marianne in all but name, had been nursing the teething infant. Her siblings surge from nightmare to a waking terror and the fright stems their voices. Inky blackness engulfs the brood.
“We are from the surveillance committee,” commissaire Cretinier booms brusquely, sweeping aside all vestiges of his habitually humble demeanour. The troop murmurs like mutineers with their prey in sight.
Once, the commissaire would have deferred to the Appert household. Cretinier remembered the disciplined fervour of Citizen Appert at revolutionary meetings of the Lombards section. Appert had risked his life to hold such proceedings in his own workshop at 57 rue des Lombards. At that time, the section was the revolutionary vanguard. Today, it is no longer a byword for revolutionary leadership by example, but a rogue faction.
Today is 24 Frimaire, Year II (December 14, 1793). Goaded by Robespierre, the Committee of Public Safety is routinely despatching good, upstanding citizens, gibbering and babbling, to early deaths. No-one, not even citizen Appert, is above suspicion. His absence raises doubts. Hidden by the night, his children are terrified and call for their mother.
“Citizen Appert is not here,” Elisabeth replies firmly. “You already know that. Your committee issued him a passport during Brumaire (November), authorising him to leave Paris for his business, victualling the quartier hereabouts. He earns an honest living, ensuring citizens can eat.” The wailing youngsters can be heard up and down the street. The inky black shuttered bedroom cannot contain their panic.
“You know that my husband’s commitment to the Revolution is unwavering. You detained him last Prairial (June) for no good reason. He told you then that he was no longer carrying arms. Yet we have since laid out good money to kit out ragged men, to make soldiers of them in the battle for Liberty.” The delegation shuffles awkwardly. “Citizen Limodin should know better than to make mischief here, like this,” Elisabeth rebukes her accusers.
Cretinier winces at the mention of his senior. The men squirm. The drizzle starts to send cold, damp tendrils down the backs of their necks. A drop of water splashes from the roof above. It boils and fizzes into steam on the hot metal atop a flickering lantern. “Our business is with your husband,” he mumbles.
“You know full well, citizen, that as well as being his wife, I manage his affairs during his routine absences. Our staff respond to my bidding the same as they do to his. We support the cause of Liberty with our own money. I make up the envelopes. I post the entries in the accounts. Why, I have even read your name on grovelling letters of acceptance, citizen Cretinier.”
The commissaire flinches as she treats him this way. The Terror feeds on anonymity. It gives once humble people the power of life and death over former superiors, squeaking triumphantly, like rats in a drain.
He had even cut dead a former workmate, citizen Chapon, during his final pleading moments before the guillotine. Cretinier had turned his back on the shackled wreckage of a doomed man, clutching at his elbow imploringly. A grown man, Chapon was crying like the children upstairs. His body writhes and his eyes bulge when the blade jams in the swollen, bloody groove, partially severing his head.
The second attempt parts body and soul. It ends his death rattle with a resounding thump. The head rolls, soggily, under a stool. A toothless tricoteuse looks up from her knitting. “Sharpen your blade, citizens. We don’t want blood on our work while you mess about with renegades,” she scolded.
The Apperts, though, are true revolutionaries. Cretinier scowls. Traders, but not merchants. Citizen Appert is a brave man. He has seen action. Besides, the commissaire could always come back another day. Rats are only round the corner here. The sobs upstairs subside. Chill terror numbs young minds. Elisabeth pauses, waiting for the men to move on.
“Give me that, anyway,” she says, plucking the paper from his hand. “I’ll write to commissaire Limodin myself. My husband has business in Reims. It will take up a lot of next month. He is unlikely to be home much before summer. Now, if you’ve quite finished, my family needs me. Leave the flag here, by the way,” she adds, pointing at the doorstep, before shutting the door.
A sheepish hulk of a man with a red and blue cockade pinned to his hat carefully stands the broken flagpole up against the wall by the door and the shabby troop shuffles off into the rat-infested night.
The month is Germinal. Nicolas Appert is in Reims. He is visiting his wife’s cousin, local Jacobin Nicolas-Louis Benoist. They sit down to lunch. Marie-Anne Benoist excuses herself. She hurries upstairs and hangs a red tablecloth out of the window. A waiting urchin scurries off, unseen.
At table, they talk of family business. They pay little heed to the street noises. Armed men are marching on the cobbles. They halt in front of the house. Nicolas looks across the table. Nicolas-Louis fails to conceal his embarrassment. The entrance shakes under heavy blows. “Who’s there?” cries Benoist, rising. The door is thrown open by armed men. They are wearing red and blue cockades on their red bonnets, like Benoist.
“Ah, commissaire Lelièvre, Père Dardare, what a surprise.” Benoist lies abjectly, as if the men are about to collect him, too.
“We can always come back for you another day,” Lelièvre thinks to himself. “We know where you live, worm.”
Unfolding a piece of paper, he recites aloud from the warrant. “On behalf of the Revolutionary Section of Reims, we are here to arrest citizen Nicolas Appert in accordance with this warrant signed on 23 Germinal, Year II by the Amis de la Patrie in Paris. Take him.” So far as Lelièvre knows, the words generally follow the same formula, the paper is just for show. Nobody has a clue how the revolutionary calendar is supposed to work, so no-one ever challenges his rendering of a date. He always memorises a name before an arrest.
If anyone else raises their voice, Lelièvre always says: “…and your name is on this paper, too,” waving the document above his head, like a sword. For the victim’s fate is sealed at this point. Who would dare to argue with a commissaire? Everybody’s name is on a piece of paper, after all.
“You’re new here, socks on your feet,” rasps a prisoner, sending a rough kick into the ribs of a damp, sleeping figure. Nicolas gasps, his stomach turning with the pervasive stench of night soil, borne aloft on the wings of countless flies. It is still cool in the early morning gloom. An unsleeping army of rats is on the move. A week of jolting in the tumbrel from Reims had all but shaken the teeth out of his head. He watches the clouds above him: rain clouds.
Nicolas had recognised some landmarks as the gelding clatters down the wet cobbled streets of Paris. The tumbrel delivers a damp and dazed human cargo to the Prison des Madelonnettes. Formerly a debtors’ prison, many of the late payers had already visited Madame Guillotine. They had made way for a new wave of supposed counter-revolutionaries, unwitting victims of Robespierre’s bloodthirsty witch hunt. Appert is but a few streets away from his home and waiting family.
The Lombards’ section had lost worthy citizens to the Terror. Nicolas recalls citizen Chapon’s descent from respected citizen to headless corpse. Indicted but unheard, they shriek their final pleas, in vain, to Madame Guillotine. Her heavy blade descends on guilty and innocent alike in a final judgement of random execution. The first republic, Liberté, Fraternité, Egalité – ou la Mort (“Liberty, Fraternity, Equality – or Death”) claims her victims with bloody hands, paying no heed to their protestations of innocence.
Time gnaws at their souls. The place smells worse than ever. Sometimes, food is thrown to inmates, flies and rats without distinction. The survivors visit Madame Guillotine. The rest are visited by flies and feed their maggots, while the rats roam far and wide, collecting unwatched morsels as they go.
Four months pass. Tomorrow citizen Appert goes to Madame Guillotine, who will hear his prayers.
Suddenly, a crowd engulfs the gates. “Robespierre has fallen. The bloody tyrant is dead.” Prisoners reclaim their freedom. Nicolas Appert emerges, blinking, on the street. It is a dazzling Thermidor (July) afternoon and everyone is in a hurry.
He limps homeward, ragged and barefoot. He slows briefly in front of his sealed workshop in rue des Lombards. He turns towards the Seine, heading for rue Saint Denis. Pausing in front of 178, he takes a deep breath, knocks and enters his home. The children cry out in alarm. They huddle, shrieking in terror, under the table. They fail to recognise that the ragged apparition is their father. Elisabeth bursts into tears as she faces the bearded spectre of a husband that she never expected to see alive again.
“Robespierre is dead. He nearly took me with him,” Nicolas falters.
“Amélie-Justine is walking now. They are hiding under the table in case you are a ghost,” she sobs. “Children, come out. Papa is still alive.”
Two years later, Nicolas Appert is working in the Paris bourg of Ivry-sur-Seine, upstream from rue des Lombards. Clearing his previous workshop, Nicolas discovers some wide-necked glass bottles containing fruit. He had boiled the jars and stopped them up before his involuntary absence.
A chef and confiseur by trade, Nicolas has a copper of water boiling as he works, surrounded by seasonal food, stoppers and glassware. When sugar is available, it is used to sweeten fruit, which can then be stored successfully for a while if properly closed. But the slowly cooked meat of a duck confit, or potted stew, is sealed with the grease that floats to the top of the vessel. This never keeps as long. It needs to be sold as soon as the jars are cool.
Nicolas grew up working in a rambling coaching inn that his parents owned in Chalon sur Saone. The rooms were all named after European cities: near the office, Dijon sported a mustard yellow door; Bordeaux had a bright red door, like the waxed cheeses from thereabouts; the twin cities of Buda and Pest were joined by a covered walkway that spanned the gap between two of the buildings that housed a constantly changing army of travellers and their staff, bound for foreign parts. The young Nicolas was kept busy serving a constant flow of meals and drinks to the rooms: “Terrine with a quartern loaf and a bottle of sack for you, sir,” he would say, adding “I’ll be back with your roast pork after I’ve sorted out what they want in Sevastopol and taken the dish of fish to Moskva.” His lighthearted banter was usually well received. From an early age he learnt to supplement his French with a polyglot pastiche picked up from passing travellers. He was trained to feed people, forever seeking ways of preserving surplus food. Vinegar is too sharp, salt too harsh.
Coming back to earth with a jolt, the adult Nicolas turned the jar over in his hand. The fruit had been cooked in jars four or five years ago. Yet it was not rotting. So what was the key?
“Elisabeth, what do you fancy for supper?” he called to his wife in the back kitchen. “How about some fruit for dessert?”
“Don’t be silly, it’s spring and far too early for any fruit,” comes the predictable reply.
“Yes, but I’ve got these bottles from rue des Lombards…”
“…get on with you, they’ll stink the place out, like the last ones…”
“…no, the fruit hasn’t rotted. It is cooked and the bottle is still sealed. I must have been working late. The bottle might have stayed longer in the copper.”
“Can we have bottle fruit, then, please Papa?” pipes Amélie-Justine, looking up from the cradle where her younger sister Angélique-Eloïse is babbling and dribbling. A tired Elisabeth emerges from the back kitchen, feathers sticking to her hands, still moist with blood. “We know and trust citizen Dupuis, who sold us that rooster today. What is more, it even arrived here alive!” she exclaims.
“You want me to trust your jars of fruit? They’ve been languishing in one of your crates for the past few years. Food is for now. You can’t put it aside and bring it back from the dead years later. Now come and give me a hand with this tough old bird. Otherwise we won’t eat tomorrow night.”
“I saw Docteur Parmentier in Neuilly this morning,” Nicolas observes over lunch.
“He’s not still pushing potatoes at everyone who gets within hailing distance, is he?” Elisabeth is sceptical. “We had little else but potatoes to eat under siege in Year III. Potatoes are for pigs. That’s why they grow underground. So that sows can teach their young to grub them up.”
“He’s making an improved ship’s biscuit for the Navy. He wants me to taste some.”
“I hope that it’s better than the stuff he made with cornmeal. That was quite vile, too. Why does he insist on making food fit only for pigs? Why, even your bottles of fruit were better than that.”
“He’s given me an introduction to the quartermaster at Brest. Sailors cannot live on hard tack alone. They need something moist, not salty. How about peas with supper?”
“Not more of your bottles, again? It’s Pluviôse (February)! Where do you get peas at this time of year?!”
“They’ll make a break from salted green beans, though, won’t they?”
“How much longer are you going to mess around with those bottles of yours? These have been gathering dust since we moved to Massy in Year IX.”
“Yes. I need to work out how long food can be stored. I’ve listed everything in my daybook, along with notes for each batch.”
“So does the difference between three or five years matter?”
“The Navy wants to be sure that they are good for a year. Then they might place a big order. We need to make this place pay. That’s why I’m travelling down the west coast this winter. I’ve already got letters of introduction. I’m taking samples of every vegetable imaginable, milk and game stew. The panel at Brest found the bouillon a bit bland last year. So I’ve changed the recipe.”
“Hello, Docteur Parmentier. I trust your ship’s biscuit is improving life at sea?”
“My dear Appert, so nice to see you. Thank you, yes, it is a successful work in progress. They still need something moist, though. Which reminds me, you’ve been away too, visiting the Navy. So Monsieur de la Reynière writes in his Almanach, anyway. Such an effusive man. Makes me blush, just to read him. How did you get on? “
“The poor devils in Rochefort would give their hind teeth for a decent draught of fresh water. They have to fill barrels from the Charente and cart it to the dockyard. If it hadn’t been for prison labour back in Colbert’s day, there’d be nothing there. The navigation, the dry docks and the earthworks: all built on bones of prisoners from the bagne. Anyway, I am hoping for some business from the Navy.”
“Indeed? Those bottles of broad beans were most excellent last winter, by the way. Cook looked at me as though I was quite mad. She’s used to my fondness for potatoes and usually tolerates my foibles with food.”
“Rear admiral Allemand wrote me an encouraging letter, the other week. Seems that his servant found some of my bottles. Forgotten in a locker somewhere for a year or so. He ordered his officers to sample the contents with him over lunch. They pretended they couldn’t tell the difference between my bottled peas or this year’s crop, fresh from the marketplace. Allemand is keen for the Navy to adopt my bottled food for wounded men in sick bay. They need a wholesome diet to recover. He would like a stronger container than a glass bottle, though. I assured him that mine are the finest champenoise bottles. A sea voyage is nothing for them.”
“You know, Elisabeth, the Navy’s procurement creaks along slower than a becalmed dog watch.”
“What, you mean they want something stronger than glass bottles?”
“Well anyway, I’m optimistic about my submission to the Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale. Three scientists will judge my work. One of them is our friend, Docteur Parmentier. They will test everything I have ever preserved in bottles.”
“You and your bottles! It’s a good thing that there is nothing more intoxicating in them than fruit cordial!”
“Well, citizen Durand has plenty of wine languishing in his warehouse. But he doesn’t want to buy any bottles from me, though. He says he can sell the method, for a fee, to one of his customers in England.”
“Do you think you can trust him?”
“I trusted your cousin and look what happened…”
“Papa, this letter came. Delivered by such a distinguished gentleman, too. Was he a marquis?”
“Not here, Amélie-Justine. We work too hard in this house for a marquis to want to know. That’s a fancy envelope, now. No mistake. Maybe it’s another bill!” A look of disbelief spread across his face as Nicolas read the letter.
“Amélie-Justine, Elisabeth… our efforts are to be rewarded! We are to be paid an encouragement of 12,000 Louis d’or for my work on the bottles. Montalivet at the interior ministry says so.”
“What, for your old bottles? My, my, the docteur Parmentier did put in a good word for you at the ministry. What are the strings attached to money like that, then?”
“Well, Montalivet says… …I must… …publish instructions for the process… …at my own expense… …200 copies… …but listen to this… …the Republic commends my efforts… …in this Year of Liberty XVIII…”
“Can we have fruit for supper, then?”
“Why yes, we open a bottle of fruit every week.”
“No Papa. Real fruit?”
“But it’s Nivôse (January).”
“So what does Bonaparte eat, then? That’s real fruit in the picture of him on the wall at your town hall, Papa.”
“Yes, but even as the mayor of Massy, I can’t change the seasons. No more than Bonaparte can, much as he’d like to turn winter into spring overnight, I’m sure. Food has its allotted times, just as we do. The bottles just mean we can keep food for hungry days. Nature cannot do that for us. I must answer citizen Durand’s request for a handbook now, though. Before news of the encouragement reaches him.”
Nothing escapes Pierre Durand. Least of all money. A Bordeaux wine merchant with English blood in his veins, he has business contacts on both sides of the water. Of necessity, Durand had turned in recent years to portable things like patents. “There’s not so much as a sloop within 20 leagues of here that isn’t stopped and searched by the Navy,” he tells Nicolas over a meal at a dockside hostelry in Brest.
“So I can hardly ship a barrel of good wine. Let alone bottles of vegetables. But paper is light and processes can be replicated. Nobody in the Navy searches documents for ideas. They are too busy following orders,” he shrugs, cleaning his plate with a crust of bread.
“I know a man in London who builds papermaking machines. He sorted out a pitiful state of affairs for Leger Didot. With some help from Leger’s brother-in-law and the Fourdrinier brothers. But now the cost of the venture is bankrupting the Fourdriniers. My client has a huge workshop in Bermondsey, with no prospect of a backer for paper machines.”
Pierre Durand leans across the table and siezes Nicolas by the lapels. “Tell me why my English friend will buy this idea,” he growls. His pointy beard almost touches his fellow diner’s nose. Nicolas hesitates. To be sure, he had documented the process after his own fashion. He had never had to justify it to anyone though, not even Elisabeth, on quite this basis.
“On Monday I pick a bushel of peas,” he begins, “and that week they can be stored and eaten. The following week they are fit only to feed pigs. Everybody else in the market square has peas in much the same quantities and season as I do. So there might be a temporary glut. But then again, on Tuesday I might bottle a bushel of peas. Now those same peas will be as good to eat in two weeks, two months or two years.”
Nicolas pauses, to let this sea change register in Durand’s face. “So you can stop food rotting, then?” Appert nods. “…and you can transport these bottles or store them for how long?”
“I prepared some fruit in Year II. It was still edible when I moved to Massy in Year IX. My wife would have thrown them out, if she’d known where to look.” Durand is still absorbing the idea. But he’s thinking faster than the naval quartermasters, Nicolas tells himself. “Ships are so cramped that anything thicker than biscuit takes up too much room: a barn, on the other hand, can safely stockpile food for a commune. Even if one or two bottles still explode after a couple of months, it is nothing like the breakages I used to have in the early days.”
“So tell me about the breakages, then,” Durand asks.
“I use none but the finest champenoise broad-necked glassware, sir,” comes the weary response. Why does everyone see the weakness of glass and ignore the process I am refining?
Durand has made his mind up. “Let me see what I can do in London, then. Of course, I shall have to hire lawyers, take out patents, that sort of thing. It will be costly,” he adds quickly, raising a hand before Nicolas could broach the subject of money. “Send me written instructions… …before Montalivet gets his copies of the document.” The devil take him! Where does he get his information? Nicolas can barely conceal his anger.
“Why, this container is no more than what our gunners use for canister shot!” exclaims Bryan Donkin, holding up a metal cylinder. “We can make hundreds of these, easily.” He surveys the Bermondsey workshop beyond his desk and turns back to his visitor. “So what will I need, Mister Durand?”
“Tin-coated iron, someone who knows how to work it well. I may know a man. I am sure I can make it worth your while.”
“Huh! How much?”
“Shall we say five thousand pounds to license the necessary letters patent that I hold?”
“I’ll find you no more than two hundred on Midsummer Day, you rascal. Seely Fourdrinier was down here the other day, wringing his hands. Moaning about the cost of sorting out his paper machine. But I’ve got men to pay, apprentices to train,” Donkin blusters.
“Oh, and bring me the man who soldered up this lamp here, too.” He waves a desultory hand towards a magnificent oil lamp on the table. It is standing amid a tide of woodshavings that rise from an open crate. “Be quick about it, too. Before I next see Blagden. He’ll want that as soon as he claps eyes on it. There’s nothing like it anywhere in London. Not even the King has anything close.”
It is nearly dark. Philippe de Girard lights an oil lamp to work at his desk. That rascal Durand had made off with the best example of his work, but he will recover his loss. One day.
Philippe’s metal working skills are formidable. His biggest problem is a lack of good quality tinplate to make the oil lamps he has invented. The English had wheedled the secret of its making out of the Bavarians years ago and built several fortunes on it in the Black Country, around Stourport. “They are reluctant to sell me anything but downgrades,” Philippe frequently grumbles.
He impatiently tears open a note in a familiar hand: “Durand took flight, making spurious promises,” Philippe mutters to himself as he reads: “Come immediately to Dieppe. We must travel. Tell no-one of your errand, be vague. Citizen Durand.”
Gulls cry and wheel unseen in the night on a sea breeze above Philippe’s head. The gaunt, bearded figure of Durand looms out of the Normandy mists. “This way. Quick about it,” Pierre barks, heading for a waiting dinghy by the fishermen’s huts. “If there’s time, I’ll present you to some noble folk on the other coast.”
“The devil take you, this process isn’t working!” rails Donkin. The Frenchmen stand impassively before his desk. “Rotten food. It stinks when a cold chisel pierces the canister. What’s going on after all this time? It started promisingly enough. I’ll not make any payment this quarter day,” he warns. “Bring me someone who can sort out this mess!”
Wounded Prussian soldiers are everywhere. The estate at Massy had been commandeered from Nicolas and Elisabeth at gunpoint. Invading coalition armies were converging on Paris. Prussian troops had smashed everything in the workshop on their way through Massy. Now, victorious, but bloodied, the soldiers were back from Paris. The property had been requisitioned as a field hospital for those who might eventually return home. They might even live to tell the tale of how they helped to overthrow Napoleon Bonaparte in 1814.
Nicolas, however, is left without land, stock or any prospect of payment for goods he supplied to Napoleon’s forces. His family has nowhere to turn. Citizen Durand’s letter answers at least one of Appert’s prayers. He can make it to Dieppe in a week or so.
After years of working with Seely and Henri Fourdrinier, Bryan Donkin speaks reasonable French, Nicolas is relieved to learn. England is such a hostile place: Londoners all speak so fast, shouting as often and as incomprehensibly as they speak.
“Yes, M’sieu, but how are you sealing the canisters? Your problem, it is the air. It is damaging your food. I am preserving food since twenty years. I was getting broken jars and smelly food at the start, too, oh yes. Your canisters must resist the air perfectly. Philippe, show me what you do, mon gars.”
“This tinplate is so much better than any in France,” Nicolas thinks to himself. The smooth coating yields to Philippe’s knowing touch with a soldering iron: the metal bends and flows to his every whim.
“So you put the lid on the next day then, after cooking?”
“Why yes. Otherwise the tinplate canister is too hot and greasy to work on.”
“Let’s try this: we punch a hole in the lid, fill the can and fit the lid. Then we boil the can, just as I boil my bottles. Afterwards, while the canister is still hot, we can solder a patch over the hole.”
Nicolas corners Durand in the workshop one bright morning. “Pierre, it is nearly Midsummer’s Day. We have business to discuss,”
“Getting your process to work with tinplate canisters is proving very costly.”
“I have kept my side of the bargain.”
“I might be able to cut you in for a few hundred.”
“A thousand. Or I will tell Philippe just how much you are making out of this patent racket.”
“So who blabbed that, then?”
“It is costly and you can’t afford it. Just pay me on Midsummer’s Day and we’ll say no more about it.”
It is autumn 2004: TV presenter William Leymergie bounces on to the set of Télématin, peak breakfast viewing for sophisticated foodies. “Today we have a piece of food history,” he purrs like a Cheshire Cat with a hand mirror.
His mind is in a backstage tumult: “…Gérard …you nasty little rat… you’ve got a sick bucket in case this antique stuff is rotten, haven’t you?”
Outwardly, not a wobble.
“…if I ever find out which one of you bastards put me up for this, I’ll throttle him…”
“In France, we all eat a kilo a week of appertised food, although none of it as old as this. These jars are about two hundred years old. They were found in a Paris cellar after the war. They may even have been prepared by Nicolas Appert himself. Today in the studio, we have Olivier Picot, president of the appertised food association UPPIA. Bonjour, Olivier, tell me about this national treasure.”
“Yada yada: so you’ve got some collection of mouldering food stashed away somewhere …we reckon that these peas go back, get this, two centuries…”
“Shall we see if these petits pois are still good, then?”
“Christ, they’ve hired a Michelin toque to open an antique bottle of peas! The portions were very modern when I last dined at his place. Visibly sparse… A chef’s fine for the cameras, but where’s the medical backup? What does clostridium botulinum taste like, for God’s sake? Botulism kills, you know. I told my agent. She just smirked. ‘Spit it out,’ she said…”
“Well, they look a bit pale. Wouldn’t we all, at that age, ha ha… ? Hmmm… well, they’re fine, aren’t they? A bit bland, but you’d expect that… ‘Gérard, you creep, come here with that bucket! He’s paid to eat this shit. He’s insured against dying of botulism, anyway,’ …hmmm… So where’s our national monument to the French inventor of the food canning process, then?”
“Oh shit!! There isn’t one!! The poor bastard lives to be ninety, dies penniless and is thrown into a communal grave for rats to gnaw his bones. What do you mean he rests among those he cared about, you pompous git? Even his wife left him in the end, because of his endless experiments, bottling food. You build up this whole bloody story. Then you’ve got the neck to tell us that France sidelined a true revolutionary, with a real flair for food. Roll the ads, I need to wash my mouth out.”
Note about names and events.
This historical dramatisation of an undercover trip to London at a time when England and France were at war relies heavily on informed guesswork to plug the large gaps in contemporary records. The principal characters in this short story appear with their real names and the events have been reconstructed as faithfully as historical accounts allow. Secondary characters have been given names for the purposes of narrative and readability. See also: a footnote on the protagonists in Time Travel for Food