Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Ahoy there! Wine, women and war

Sweethearts and wives (may they never meet). Naval Toast for Saturday

Patrick O'Brian is dead now. He wrote the book of the film 'Master and Commander' which was the first of a series of 20 volumes about Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin. O'Brian spent the last 50 years of his life in the South of France. Now you might think stories about seafaring during the time of Bonaparte would be dry, boy's own type tales but not at all! The relationship between Aubrey and Maturin is touching, the humour bawdy, the technical details of the sails and workings of tall ships fascinating and the ship's routine, along with the intensely male hierarchy on board, gripping. It has the same appeal as epic tales like Lord of the Rings; you enter a different world, a different era and via them, you travel.
O' Brian was also a translator, interested in language for it's own sake. Through the books you would learn the provenance of phrases like 'in the doldrums'. This is when a sailing ship, which after all depends exclusively on the wind, would get 'stuck' in certain parts of the ocean, particularly near the equator, sometimes for months, making no headway. Times like this would be frightening, stores would run low.
Britain is an island and has always been a seafaring nation. Many of our common phrases come from the navy and ships.
I learnt also from these books the difference between navy and marines. Marines are soldiers on ships, navy are sailors who sail the ship.
Running through these novels are descriptions of food, meals and banquets. Aubrey has a grumpy manservant 'Killick' who serves him 'toasted cheese' and coffee. We sometimes meet the cook and his gleaming copper pans which would be tidied away in preparation for battle. The men would always be given a good meal before battle for it could last for hours and required much physical effort.
The days started early in the navy, men would be scrubbing the decks at first light and the main meal of the day, dinner, took place at noon.

The food had to last for months until the next port. The seamen rarely had fruit or vegetables which is why they got scurvy, from a lack of vitamin C. However by Nelson's era, the Royal Navy had begun to understand that scurvy could be easily cured by fresh food particularly citrus fruits.
The naval diet consisted of rum rations, salt beef, portable soup and hard tack. At the start of each voyage, the purser would gather the victuals for the journey. Hard tack or ship's biscuit would be baked four times to render it as hard as possible; as it ages, it softens. It was supposed to last for five years. You'd have to tap it for weevils before eating. This was an era before tinned goods. The ship might also have a butcher for the animals on board. In desperate times, the crew would resort to 'millers', also known as rats. During shipwreck, it was known that to drink seawater was fatal.
The captain's table would have better food. Captain Aubrey adored steamed suet puddings and other hearty English dishes.

My menu for 'munjy' Saturday night

A portable soup (an early form of stock cube): Blind Scouse ( a vegetarian Lobscouse)
Ships biscuit

Stargazy pie with herrings (pilchards being out of season)
Pease pudding

Boiled Baby

Maybe some breadfruit, if I can find it. (Wing Yips?)

I don't need to give guests lime juice (the origins of the word 'limey' as British sailors sailing over to the New World ate limes to prevent scurvy) because as land lubbers, I imagine they have had recent access to citrus fruit.

I may add cheese to the menu but I'm having difficulty sourcing the correct type of cheese. Valencay, a French ash covered goat's cheese in the shape of a pyramid, legend has it that the shape was inspired by Napoleon's trip to Egypt. Napoleon was rumoured to have liked 'Epoisses' on a cracker. Mimolette was another cheese used on ships for it preserved well. The Royal Navy ate Suffolk or 'flet' cheeses ( skimmed with cream removed therefore very hard like an old Parmesan) or Cheshire cheese if you were officer class. (link)

Of Food in the Navy, Samuel Pepys wrote - "Englishmen and more especially seamen love their bellies above anything else and therefore it must always be remembered in the managing of the victualling of the navy that to make any abatement from them in the quality and agreeableness of the victuals is to discourage and provoke them in the tenderest point, and will soon render them disgusted with the King's service more than any other hardship that can be put upon them."


  1. Looking forward to pictures of the stargazy, Marmite.

  2. You can usually get breadfruit at Brixton market. hope it goes well!

  3. I second the Brixton market suggestion - there's always breadfruit there.

    I have a book of English words and phrases that have come from the navy, if you'd like it.

  4. I'm trying to think where you can get breadfruit close to you - I'd suggest having a quick trawl around Harlesdon, but you definitely will at Shepherd's Bush market if Brixton is too far.

  5. Oh, and if you want ideas for breadfruit, let me know....

  6. Herring stargazy? Now that's something I have to try. Fun menu :)

  7. Ah Patrick O'Brian...I dealt with his books when I used to work at HarperCollins...memories! Really interesting entry - I really enjoyed reading it - can't wait to see photos of the meal too! xxx

  8. I know it's a bit of a schlep for you but bread fruit are everywhere in Peckham.

  9. You could do worse than to invest in a copy of the brilliant 'Lobscouse and Spotted Dog' - written, I think, by two enterprising Americans who went through the whole O'Brian canon and recreated the recipes. One of my favourite recipe books...

  10. Ajax I did use their book, fantastic. I put a link to it in the post above...after the meal

  11. Will look at link. Love the books and desperate to know what "Boiled Baby" is.


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