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The French origins of canned meat

Plate of duck confit with green salad

Author Keith van Sickle says if you want a little French flavour – reach for the tinned food section…

Last year my wife Val served canned meat for Thanksgiving dinner. You might think this horrified our guests, but in fact it was a big hit. That’s because the canned meat was French confit de canard (duck leg confit) and it was delicious. We have always loved confit de canard but Val pooh-poohed the idea of getting it out of a can. We would see it at our weekly market in St-Rémy-de-Provence, where we live part of the year, and she would turn up her nose and say it was better at our local butcher.

A Surprising Discovery

But then one day we had French friends visit us in California and they brought a can of confit de canard as a gift. We had it for dinner and it was a revelation, as good as in a top French restaurant. And don’t tell our St-Rémy butcher, but it was better than his.

I suppose this is because the duck comes from southwestern France, where they raise the most delicious ducks in the country. Or maybe it’s because the French are masters of canned foods, having invented canning under Napoleon. But whatever the reason, we always have some duck confit in the cupboard and it has never failed to delight our dinner guests. And it’s so easy! You just open the can, excavate the legs from the liquid fat, and heat them up. And if you save the fat from the can, you will have an excellent supply of the world’s best cooking fat. Eggs scrambled in duck fat, potatoes roast in duck fat…I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. You might think all that fat would be bad for you, but the French claim that duck fat is actually healthy and easy to digest, and as Val likes to say, “I choose to believe it.”

Duck confit is not the only French meat that you can buy in a can. Think of pâté, foie gras, rillette, even escargot, they are all readily available.

The origins of canned food

It’s thanks to a Parisian confectioner, chef and distiller that we have canned food today. Nicholas Apper (born 1749) entered a contest to find a way to conserve food for army and navy use, inspired by the chance to win a 12,000 Franc award – a lot of money in 1810 when he won the contest. It took him 14 years of experimenting with glass containers, wire and sealing wax. He boiled food for varying lengths of time, preserved all sorts of food and finally submitted his entry. He spent his winnings to opeb the first commercial cannery, the House of Appert which was in business until 1933.

Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Silicon Valley and Provence.  He is the author of One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are We French Yet? Keith & Val’s Adventures in ProvenceRead more at Life in Provence.

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