Today is the birthday (1814) of Henri Nestlé (born Heinrich Nestle), a German-born Swiss confectioner and the founder of Nestlé, now the world’s largest food and beverage company. Nestlé’s contributions to the company he founded were rather modest although he was one of several inventors of condensed milk. His chief contribution, however, was his method of dehydrating milk.
Heinrich Nestle was born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, the eleventh of fourteen children of Johann Ulrich Matthias Nestle and Anna-Maria Catharina Ehemant. Nestle’s father, by tradition, inherited the business of his father, Johann Ulrich Nestle, and became a glazier in Töngesgasse. His brother, Gustav Edmund Nestle, was later Lord Mayor of Frankfurt am Main. The Nestle family has its roots in western Swabia, predominantly in boroughs of the Black Forest such as Dornstetten, Freudenstadt, Mindersbach, Nagold, and Sulz am Neckar. In the Swabian dialect, “Nestle” is a small bird’s nest. The name Nestle also has different variations, including Nästlin, Nästlen, Nestlin, Nestlen, and Niestle.
The recorded Nestle family tree began with three brothers (thus the three young birds in the nest being fed by their mother on the family coat of arms) from Mindersbach, called Hans, Heinrich, and Samuel Nestlin. The father of these three sons was born around 1495. Hans, the eldest, was born in 1520 and had a son with the same name, who later became mayor of Nagold. His son Ulrich was a barber and his fifth son was the first glazier in the family. For over five generations, this profession was passed down from father to son. Additionally, the Nestles provided a number of mayors for the boroughs of Dornstetten, Freudenstadt, Nagold, and Sulz am Neckar.
Before Nestlé turned 22 in 1836, he had completed a four-year apprenticeship with J. E. Stein, an owner of a pharmacy. Although the exact date is unknown, at some stage between 1834 and 1839 he moved to Switzerland. At the end of 1839 he was officially authorized to perform chemical experiments, make up prescriptions, and sell medicines in Lausanne. During this time, he changed his name to Henri Nestlé in order to assimilate better into the French-speaking society of Vevey where he eventually settled.
In 1843 Henri Nestlé bought into one of the region’s most progressive and versatile industries at that time, the production of rapeseeds. He also became involved in the production of nut oils (used to fuel oil lamps), liqueurs, rum, absinthe, and vinegar. He also began manufacturing and selling carbonated mineral water and lemonade, although during the crisis years from 1845 to 1847 Nestlé gave up mineral water production. In 1857 he began concentrating on gas lighting and fertilizers.
It is not known when Nestlé started working on his infant formula project, although by 1867 he was able to produce a viable powdered milk product. His interest is known to have been spurred by several factors. Although Nestlé and his wife were childless, they were aware of the high death rate among infants, and he was aware of Justus von Liebig’s work in developing an infant formula. Malnutrition among poorer women, leading to poor lactation, plus the limited availability of fresh cow’s milk in burgeoning cities, made a replacement for mother’s milk desirable to prevent infant mortality. These days, baby formulas (Nestlé’s in particular) have come in for severe criticism quite simply because natural mother’s milk contains so many beneficial ingredients that cannot be replicated in formulas. But in Nestlé’s day infant formula was literally a life saver.
Nestlé combined cow’s milk with grain and sugar to produce a substitute for breast milk. Moreover, he and his friend Jean Balthasar Schnetzler, a scientist in human nutrition, were able to perfect a process that removed the acid and the starch in wheat flour which were difficult for babies to digest. Initially called “kindermehl” (child flour), his product had an advantage over Liebig’s “soup for infants” in that it was much easier to prepare, only needing to be boiled prior to feeding, and it soon proved to be a viable option for infants who were unable to breast feed. People quickly recognized the value of the new product and soon Farine Lactée Henri Nestlé (Henri Nestlé’s Milk Flour) was being sold across Europe.
In 1867 Daniel Peter began seven years of work perfecting his invention, the milk chocolate manufacturing process. Nestlé was the crucial partner that Peter needed to solve the problem of removing all the water from the milk added to his chocolate and thus preventing the product from developing mildew.
Also 1867, Charles (US consul in Switzerland) and George Page, two brothers from Lee County, Illinois, USA, established the Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Company in Cham in Switzerland. Their first British operation was opened at Chippenham, Wiltshire, in 1873. In 1877, Anglo-Swiss added milk-based baby foods to their products; in the following year, the Nestlé Company added condensed milk to their portfolio, which made the firms direct and fierce rivals. In 1905, the companies merged to become the Nestlé and Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Company. This was the beginning of a century of mergers of various food companies that eventually made Nestlé the largest food corporation in the world.
It rather amuses me that the name Nestlé survives despite the fact that Henri had no children and he sold his company in 1875 to unrelated business associates who retained his name. Since then there has never been any association between the company and the family. Furthermore, Nestlé was just a Frenchified version of Henri’s German name which no one else bore. Yet now it is a household name. After retirement Henri lived with his family alternately in Montreux and Glion, where they helped people with small loans and publicly contributed towards improving the local infrastructure. In Glion he moved into a house later known as Villa Nestlé. He died of a heart attack in Glion on July 7th, 1890. He was buried at Territet Cemetery in Montreux.
While it may seem craven I am going to point you to the Nestlé website for a recipe today. This is the link to their condensed milk recipes. You should find something you like and it would be a suitable way to honor the founder of the company and its milk products.