Monday, 16 September 2019

The Spirits of Erebus and Terror


No discussion of the victualing of the Victorian era Royal Navy would be complete without mentioning the rum ration.

Beer, at a rate of one gallon per day, had long been a part of the sailors diet. The capture of Jamaica by the British in 1655 kicked off the gradual process of substituting rum - initially at a rate of half a pint daily. In 1740, for reasons of health and morals, it was ordered to be served out mixed with water (ie. Grog) in the ratio of 1 part rum to 2 parts water and split between morning and evening. In 1824 the evening serving was abandoned, halving the ration to a gill (0.25 pint), with better food and extra pay to compensate. Part of the reduction was almost immediately reversed by the new Imperial measures which increased the volume by a fifth and the evening serving was reintroduced. This was the regime under which Erebus and Terror sailed in 1845. The ration would be halved again in 1850 and finally abolished in 1970.

The spirits used by the Royal Navy were normally shipped on board at a strength of 5% under proof (54.5% ABV), presumably to mitigate the fire hazard. On Arctic expeditions, where space was at a premium, the rum was supplied at a much higher cask strength and diluted to the standard strength when required.

For my experiment I obtained a bottle of Pusser's Gunpowder Proof rum of the regulation 54.5% ABV, plus a larger quantity of the rather less expensive Lamb's Navy Rum at 40% ABV.
More often than not, I simulated the daily ration of 142ml, ie. an Imperial Gill, of the regulation strength Pusser's with 194 ml of the 40% ABV Lamb's. One half served before lunch and the other in the evening.

Using spirits of the strength common today helps the mind to appreciate the quantities better. The daily rum ration of the 1840s was near enough four 50ml doubles by today's standards. The weekly consumption would amount to four times the current recommendation by the The UK's chief medical officer. Well, they had plenty else to worry about.

Queen Victoria had a taste of 'Grog' in 1842 when she visited 110-gun first-rate 'HMS Queen', the Navy's last battleship driven by sail alone.

On her return to the quarter-deck, her Majesty expressed a wish to see the ship's company at their dinner. As soon as it and the grog were served out, the royal party went below. As her Majesty stepped on the lower deck, the men stood up, and although her Majesty kindly desired that they might be seated, they continued standing during the progress round the deck. On arriving opposite to the table abreast of the mainmast, her Majesty desired Captain Rich to let her taste the grog. The gallant Captain ordered a glass to be brought, but the Queen said, "No I wish to taste it as the men have it." A mess basin was filled from the grog can on the nearest table, and presented by Capt. Rich, on his knee; having tasted it, her Majesty smilingly remarked "that it was very good." (not as formerly stated in the daily papers - that it was very weak,) and taking a second sip, returned the basin.

For my experiment, the jokes I made about reducing my gin consumption to make space for the rum fell slightly flat. I was obliged to go on a reduced ration part way through the week for reasons of health and morals. :-(

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Naval rations: Day 7


The meal to mark the end of the week was salt pork with pea soup. Long boiling of the pork left the meat tender but perfectly flavoursome. It also yielded a tasty but rather salty stock, which, diluted with the water in which the split peas had been steeped, plus some additional water from the ship's tanks (i.e. the kitchen tap), made the basis of the soup.

Some authors have written approvingly of the technique of mashing the peas by putting a round-shot into the coppers "which from the constant motion of the vessel acts as a sort of crushing machine", but that was not resorted to in this case (I used a hand blender).

The only condiment added was a sprinkling of ground black pepper. From the image it can be seen that the 'soup' is not entirely liquid, being more of a thick paste - somewhere in the middle ground between a soup and a pudding. That did not, however, impair the excellent flavour of the dish in any way. Either alone, or with the addition of meat that was easily shredded with the fork, this was a veritable treat and it is not surprising that it was one of Jack Tar's favourites.

Additional liquid would have been a boon with regard to the shards of ship's biscuit employed as croutons. There being no surplus for them to absorb, they softened hardly at all, resolutely maintaining instead their fortress-like resistance to this diner's molars.

However, that is indeed a minor gripe, which was no detriment to the enjoyment of the meal, and will easily be rectified as the embryonic ship's cook gains in experience.

This was the seventh day of dining on the victuals of Queen Victoria's Royal Navy, and it marks the end of this particular voyage of discovery. The stock of lemon juice is almost expended, and although a dose of scurvy would convey incomparable bragging rights among the Arctic aficionados, the call of home has won through.

This may, however, be reckoned as just a preliminary excursion. A sort of training expedition as it were. Certainly, much of the fare reported on these pages will be revisiting the writer's table in the future. But for now, there will be a period of revelling in the comforts of home cooking and all the luxuries of the life ashore.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

Naval rations: Day 6


Day 6 brought the welcome addition of (simulated) Goldner's Patent preserved carrots to the table. The bright, natural, colour and pleasant aroma raised the prospect of a most pleasant meal. It has to be said that these hopes were not entirely realised as, although the flavour of the carrots was all that could be asked for, they were decidedly overcooked. This information will be passed on to the contractor immediately the voyage is completed.


Setting aside that small criticism, the day's dinner was exceedingly well received. The combination of three preserved ingredients, combined with broken biscuits to soak up the gravy, made for a most harmonious gastro-nautical experience.

Friday, 19 July 2019

Naval rations: Day 5


On Day 5 dinner was salt beef again, which this time was properly cooked. It was tender and tasty enough yet it still didn't fare too highly in the flavour stakes in comparison with the excellent preserved meat served the day before. The plum duff which accompanied the beef was this time a triumph - a notable improvement on the ship's cook's previous attempt.

In the absence of a properly sewn pudding bag, a linen tea towel was called to serve in its stead. The specified allowance of nine ounces of flour was thoroughly mixed with an ounce and a half of raisins and three quarters of an ounce of suet. Sugar was added plus a couple of ground allspice berries and a splash of rum before mixing with water to create a sticky mass which was rolled in the wetted and floured cloth.


After an hour's boiling the package was opened and pronounced to the finest example of a (simulated) mid nineteenth century Royal Naval plum duff known to history. In the photos the raisins appear somewhat sparsely distributed, after all they only account for one sixth the mass of the flour. However, the delicious essence of the fruit, was found to permeate throughout the whole to create a very well balanced and satisfying pudding. The quantity was sufficiently generous to provide a slice each to two visitors to the mess table, both of whom pronounced it to be first rate.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Naval rations: Day 4


Dinner today was preserved meat and preserved potatoes once more, but this time enlivened with a can of (simulated) Goldner's Patent Vegetable Soup. This soup is made with carrots and parsnips boiled up in home made beef stock, then pureed. There is a certain amount of overlap, in the recipes of the time, between vegetable soup and gravy soup. Certainly it does look like gravy in the photo below. The can in question is of the 1 lb size, the smallest available. Only 456 cans of this size are recorded on the expedition's accounts, representing just 1 percent of the total of 32,000 lbs of canned foods. I suspect that these small cans were intended as 'medical comforts' for individuals in the sick bay.


Crunched up ship's biscuit served for croutons. This was a good move as the rock hard biscuits are hard work to eat by themselves, but softened by the soup, they were far more palatable. My verdict was "quite delicious, but slightly over-seasoned". Very welcome on a cold day.

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.

The Spirits of Erebus and Terror

No discussion of the victualing of the Victorian era Royal Navy would be complete without mentioning the rum ration. Beer, at a rate of ...