Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Naval rations: Day 3

Here's today's dinner. Salt pork and peas. The pork was certainly tasty, but a bit tough to chew. It looked quite grey when removed from the pickle but when cut up the meat was pink inside. I chopped it into lumps before steeping it in fresh water for 24 hours but it was still quite salty and, after 2 hours boiling, still too solid for my taste. The peas were rather bland but made a good contrast to the pork.

Split peas were specified for the Arctic expeditions because they occupied just a little bit less storage space than whole ones normally issued. They became general issue in May 1856.

I lead a sedentary lifestyle so it is no surprise that the full ration is way too much for me. On the other hand, the real Jack Tar in the age of sail led a working life will plenty of strenuous exercise so it is easy to understand his calorie requirements were much greater.

Overall, my verdict on this dish is good, but could do with a bit more care from the cook, to make the meat a little more tender.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Naval rations: Day 2

Day 2 of my Naval diet experiment provided an historic event: The first can of (simulated) Goldner's Preserved Provisions to be opened in the Twenty First Century. In fact it was probably the first can bearing the Goldner name to be opened for more than 150 years. I must admit I was a little nervous. Would I be greeted with the horrible sight and smell of a putrid abomination? No. the smell was as fresh and wholesome as anyone could have hoped for. The congealed fat at the top of the can did look a bit strange at first sight but it was perfectly good and was more a sign of successful processing than otherwise.

The gravy which accompanied the meat made a small dish of tasty soup. As an accompaniment to the meat, a portion of (simulated) Edwards' Patent Preserved Potatoes was served. As may be seen above, the condiments salt, mustard, and pepper, were laid out, but the meal was tasty enough not to require them. This is the opposite of the case with yesterday's salt beef which really did need the extra help in the flavour department. With some ship's bread and a glass of grog, it really was a most satisfying meal.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Naval rations: Day 1

Day one of my experiment started with a breakfast of hot chocolate, ship's biscuit, and a pint of lemonade made with one ounce each of lemon juice and sugar. Perfectly satisfying although the cocoa was a bit lumpy.

For dinner, the salt beef was boiled for one hour in a net bag carrying a tag with my fictional mess number. It had previously been steeped in fresh water for 24 hours to re-hydrate it.
The beef was served with plum duff . Duff being a mixture of flour, suet, and raisins, wrapped in a cloth and boiled for an hour. There was also an ounce of pickles which worked out as a single onion.

My verdict: The meat was a bit dry but reasonably tasty - a bit like pastrami. The duff had too much flour due to a measuring mistake but although the raisins were sparse, their flavour carried through. Not bad, perhaps just a bit dull. It would have been improved with some gravy. Overall a good start although I had a thick head for most of the afternoon due, I believe, to my not being acclimatised to drinking grog in the morning.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Victualling Victoria's Navy - 5. Goldner's Patent Preserved Provisions

At last! That disreputable cut-price contractor has finally delivered the preserved provisions! The voyage can proceed! Erm, wait a minute, the dodgy contractor is me. These four cans are by far the best reproduction of Goldner's Preserved Provisions that I have achieved so far. Pictured above are two two-pound cans of boiled beef, a two-pound can of carrots, and a one-pound can of vegetable soup.
The chunks of beef were boiled for about ten minutes before being threaded through the small hole in the top of the can. About three quarters of the liquid was then poured in. The meat wasn't fully cooked at this stage - most of the cooking, or more likely over-cooking, occurs in the can.
Here's the sealed up can sitting in a pan of muriate of lime (Calcium Chloride). From the thermometer reading you can see that the temperature is approaching 130 Celsius yet the solution displays no obvious signs of boiling. The original recipe called for sealing the pin-hole in the lid while the can was being heated. I tried this but the jet of steam blew through the solder, so it was allowed to cool slightly first. After sealing, the can was heated again gently to check for leaks, then finished off in a pressure cooker. In the old days the can itself was the pressure cooker. You can be assured that I was wearing full protective gear throughout the more risky parts of the process.

The final step in the process is to keep the filled can in a warm place for at least a week. This was achieved using a plastic crate and a 40 Watt heater. If there were any viable microorganisms left inside, this was their chance to show themselves by bulging out the ends of the can. Pleased to say that there was noting to report on this score. Painted up and labelled, the cans look almost too good to use for anything other than display, but opened they will be, and their contents tasted. Could they be anything other than delicious?

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Victualling Victoria's Navy - 4. Lemon Juice

The essential anti-scorbutic lemon juice is one of the easiest period food stuffs to prepare. That is  just as long as you don't have to squeeze the lemons by hand. The Navy's specification called for an ounce of brandy to be added to ten of fresh juice. Presumably this will have been cask-strength but, in the interests of expediency, I made do with the what I had to hand, which is a paltry 40% alcohol by volume. The final touch is a layer of olive oil floating on the top to exclude the air. Much nicer than the modern chemically preserved version, I think. No scurvy for me!

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Victualling Victoria's Navy - 3. Salt Meat.

British artist Damien Hirst made a name for himself (and quite a bit of money) by preserving parts of chopped up animals in tanks of liquid. My homage to the genre is shown above. Beef on the left and pork on the right. I just need to think of a lengthy and ironic title. No prizes for suggestions, thanks. Anyway, back to my Naval food project...

Prior to the introduction of canning, the main source of protein for seafarers was meat which had been preserved by salting. It is a simple process, which goes back centuries, if not millennia. You start with a lump of meat, cover it in dry salt, then leave it in a cool place for a few days. For the beef, a small proportion of food-grade saltpetre (about 1%) was added to the salt. Supposedly this should help it keep some of its original colour.

Osmotic pressure, caused by the salt, draws liquid out of the meat. This liquid is periodically poured off, and new dry salt added. The dry salting process can continue indefinitely or, as in this case, the meat can be submerged in a strong brine solution. The strength of the pickle can be judged from the fact that there is a layer of undissolved salt crystals at the bottom of the tub. It is important that the meat, which is slightly buoyant at this stage, is wholly submerged so I started off by using a couple of off-cuts from an oak beam to hold it under as a nod towards the use of oak barrels back in the day.

Of course, there are a few ways in which the process described above diverges from its historical antecedents. For the Franklin expedition, the beef and pork was salted in eight pound and four pound pieces respectively. These would have been on the bone while I used British boneless pork leg from Morrison's and Irish beef brisket from Tesco. There are many humorous tales about the salt meat of the Navy. Referred to as 'salt junk' or 'salt horse'. It has been said that after too long in the cask it was hard enough to be turned or carved into durable ornaments. Myself, I don't set much store by these tall tales. I have confidence in the diligent efforts of the Victualling Board. I am convinced that, cooked properly, it will be delicious!

Monday, 20 May 2019

Victualling Victoria's Navy - 2. Biscuit

The biscuit factory at Deptford Victualling Yard, 1901
For centuries, Ship's biscuit was the bread of seafarers. In the mid 1820s the British Government initiated the construction of the worlds first steam powered biscuit factories at Deptford, Gosport, and Plymouth. The machinery was designed by the notable Thomas Tassell Grant of Portsmouth and constructed by the firm of George and John Rennie. Grant's biscuit making apparatus was described in an article in the Mechanics Magazine in March 1835 and with additional detail in 1844 by Dr Andre Ure. Some of the equipment shown in Ure's drawings can be seen in the above photo. Although the descriptions refer to the hexagonal biscuits supplied to the fleet, archive sources indicate that, for the Franklin expedition, square biscuits were specially ordered. The shape was specified to enable them to be efficiently packed in tin cases.

Dr. Ure describes the  meal used to make the biscuits as "a mixture of fine flour and middlings, the bran and pollard being removed". The accounts for the Victualling Department from the 1860s provide more detail, indicating that the mixture used comprised around 87% of the milled grain. As part of my project to replicate the diet of the mid-Victorian Royal Navy, finding a suitable source was a priority.

The first step in my quest for authentic flour was to visit Charlecote watermill in Warwickshire, near Stratford-upon-Avon. Although there are occasional open days, this centuries old watermill is a commercial business milling locally grown grain to produce traditional stoneground flour for artisan bakeries and home bakers. They also have a very good business producing premium chapatti flour for the local South Asian community. My thought was to purchase both the white flour and the middlings mentioned by Ure, and make the mixture up accordingly.

The Miller, Karl Grevatt, was very interested in my project but he explained that he was only set up to produce either white flour or wholemeal, the elusive middlings not being separated from the bran. However he did suggest another source: Redbournbury Watermill in Hertfordshire, about 20 miles north of London.

Redbournbury has a fully restored traditional flour dresser or "wire machine", which is used to extract the different fractions of the meal. On the day of my visit, the mill was working by means of its auxiliary engine. I saw this as an added bonus for the authenticity of my project as the mills in the government victualling yards were engine powered, by Boulton and Watt steam engines. I purchased several bags of their Stoneground Organic 85% Wheatmeal flour, which was almost exactly what I was looking for.

I still felt the need to try to find the 87% wheatmeal of historical record, so I started experimenting with the wholemeal flour I had purchased at Charlecote and a selection of sieves of different mesh. The results were encouraging so I continued with two different flours which I bought from my local wholefood co-operative, five minutes walk from my house. I finally settled on a mixture of Shipton Mill Organic Stoneground wholemeal flour, plus Doves Farm Organic Stoneground Fine Plain English Wholemeal Flour, in the ratio of four to one. This allowed me to sieve the mixture to produce exactly the 87% extract I was looking for.

Shipton Mill is another ancient watermill. They proudly state their use of French burr stones (the best) but don't say whether or not they are still driven by water power. They have the additional prestige of a Royal Warrant as suppliers to the household of the Prince of Wales and their product claims a proportion of Maris Widgeon grain which is a rare heritage variety of wheat, now primarily grown for its tall stems which provide the long straw essential for thatching historic buildings.
For comparison, I also tried "Strong Brown Flour" from my local supermarket. The results were pretty good, so I would recommend it for anyone who wants to make their own ship's biscuits but isn't nerdishly obsessive about the minutiae of nineteenth century milling and flour grading techniques.


Making the biscuits themselves is a far more relaxing activity. There are only two ingredients: flour and water.

To make the dough, a vintage Kenwood Chef food mixer took the place of the steam-engine powered machines of the Navy's Victualing yards. To roll it out I used a trusty wooden rolling pin with two strips of wood as guides to ensure a consistent thickness. 

An improvised "Docker" marked the pattern of holes and I made up some lettering and a broad arrow from some strips of tinplate. The ship names are more for fun than historical accuracy. The originals would certainly have worn the broad arrow but probably the only additional lettering would have been a capital 'D' to signify their place of manufacture - Deptford.

This batch of biscuits were baked with the oven close to its maximum setting of about 250 C (482 F) for 15-20 minutes followed by two hours at 100 C (212 F) to thoroughly dry them out.

And how do they taste? I hear you ask. Well, they are a bit hard to chew, but worth it if you make the effort. Individually, on the few occasions I have tried them, they were delicious. When it's every day I can believe that the story may be different.

Naval rations: Day 3

Here's today's dinner. Salt pork and peas. The pork was certainly tasty, but a bit tough to chew. It looked quite grey when remov...