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A short history of preservation

Preservation is a skill humans developed early on. Throughout history, people have found innovative ways to keep food, drink and cosmetics clean, and most importantly, safe to use.  

In the beginning

For early civilisations (and some later ones), food preservation was essential to human preservation. As far back as 5,000 BC, the Babylonians were using the fruit of the date palm to make wine and vinegar to be used as food and a preservative or pickling agent. The ancient Egyptians would dry grains and store them in sealed containers to ensure they kept for the longest period possible, while the ancient Greeks and the Romans packed their meat and fish in salt to keep it edible for months after it was caught. In 2003 a 2,400 year old shipwreck from the bottom of the Black Sea was found to contain the bones of a seven-foot catfish that had been dried and cut into steaks to feed the ship’s crew during the ill-fated voyage.

The role of fire

Wood smoking food has been traditional and natural way of increasing the shelf-life of a foodstuff for millennia. Since the Neanderthal era, people have used fire to preserve their food and feed their families for longer and there is evidence of early humans smoking food atop their chimneys and tipis. Heat from the fire reduces water content in food, which means it takes longer to spoil and nomadic tribes could preserve their food during times of plenty.

Smoked salmon, a delicacy enjoyed as part of a champagne breakfast, was first eaten by nomadic Native American tribes centuries ago. Younger members of the tribe would have the responsibility of keeping the fire at just the right temperature for smoking and ensuring the food was cooked through. This tactic ensured that no food would go to waste during the harsher months of the year.

The world’s oldest Christmas pudding

Fast forward a hundred years or so and fruit was steeped in alcohol - another natural preservative - to prolong its shelf life. This meant fruits harvested in summer could be enjoyed during winter. Fruitcake as we know it can be traced back as far as the Middle Ages. Both fresh and dried fruits were soaked in spirits and spices for up to a year. They were then added to cakes and meals when fresh food was scarce.

This practice really took off in the Victorian era when the dried, alcohol-steeped fruit was enjoyed in the form of the mince pie and the traditional Christmas pud. In fact, because of a Christmas cake’s high alcohol and sugar content it can last for decades or even centuries - something the Ford family from Michigan, USA, can attest to. They lay claim to an unusual heirloom baked in 1878: a Christmas pudding cooked by their great grandmother that has been passed down from generation to generation and, impressively, is still edible.

An army marches on its stomach

Canning was a technique first developed in France during the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815), when the French Government offered a reward to anyone who could devise an effective but cheap way of preserving large amounts of food for soldiers. French brewer, Nicolas Appert, created a means of sealing food in glass jars which was developed into a process of packaging food in airtight cans made of tinned wrought iron.

The seal of approval

As well as keeping soldiers fed, the great explorers of the age would take canned food on expeditions all over the globe, allowing them to explore farther than ever before. Unfortunately, not all canning methods were safe at the time, as demonstrated by an ill-fated expedition to the Arctic in 1845 led by John Franklin. When the bodies of the crew were recovered, lead poisoning from the solder used to seal canned food was found to have been a factor in their deaths.

Effective food preservation was essential to the war effort.

Making every meal count

In many ways and at many points in our evolution, natural preservation has been the key to human preservation. During The Second World War, eggs and milk were rationed, and their powdered alternatives offered because they had a far longer shelf-life. In the same way salted beef and pork were presented as corned beef and spam - a form of salted ham.

These alternatives preserved themselves in a variety of ways. Powdered eggs and milk are made by rapidly drying out the fresh produce. This process is also known as dehydration, and is today used for making instant coffee and stock cubes. While powdered eggs and milk were scorned by many, they contained the same essential nutrients as their fresh counterparts, at a time when they were not readily available. In fact an adult was rationed to one fresh egg per week. Powdered eggs could be added to cakes and bakes in powdered form, or rehydrated with water to be used in liquid form.

Cold comforts

Freezing prevents microorganisms from accessing moisture in food, which keeps perishables fresh for longer. Subterranean icehouses can be traced back to medieval times and were a popular addition to estates of the wealthy during the eighteenth century when they were used to provide cool storage for most of the year. Up until around the 1950s, ice was imported into the UK from Scandinavia, creating a lucrative trade for entrepreneurs.

The first fridge

In fact, the introduction of the first practical, domestic refrigerators in the twentieth century threatened the lucrative ice shipping business to such an extent that ice companies spread rumours they were unsafe. The public were reluctant to leave behind their iceboxes - non-mechanical cold closets packed with ice - but by the 1940s, the domestic refrigerator had mostly been embraced by consumers who delighted in their practicality and ease of use.

The development of safe synthetics

Of course, there were limitations to what could and couldn’t be preserved and for how long until scientists introduced parabens in the 1930s. These non-toxic, odourless, colourless, and inexpensive chemical preservatives revolutionised the industry because products that once had a shelf life of months could be stored for years, which drastically reduced wastage. Parabens are still widely used today because of their reliability, non-toxic nature and long history of safe use.



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