Could you survive on an ancient sailor’s diet?

Food on a Christopher Columbus voyage included wine, olive oil, sea biscuits, and salted meats. Salted flour was used for making bread aboard, along with olive oil, vinegar, cheese, dried chickpeas, dried lentils, dried beans, salt fish (usually anchovies and sardines), fishing tackle, (fish for fishing while aboard), honey, rice, almonds, and raisins.

Eating Aboard

Olive oil was used for cooking chickpeas, lentils, beans, and salted meat. The bread they cooked was usually “baked” in the hot coals of the fire pit. Sailors  would use the knives they carried for cutting rope and sail cloth to cut or pick-up large pieces. The primary drink was wine and next, water. Both were kept in barrels on board. The water quickly went stagnate, so wine with alcohol kept better for longer. There was no coffee or tea to add to the water.

Lord Nelson often fed his sailors with suet and  dried fruit. The suet could have been used in a main meal, or the ingredients could have been combined to make a steamed suet and fruit pudding similar to Spotted Dick (pudding made with suet, dried fruit, usually currents and raisins served with custard).

The average whaler’s diet consisted of salt beef, salt pork, watery tea or “coffee” (sometimes made from roasted peas), potatoes (while they lasted), beans, flour (often vermin-infested), molasses, “duff” (steamed or boiled bread pudding)  and dried sea biscuits.  The cooks job on a whaler was considered to be the worst aboard  both in status and pay. Cooks often horded whale oil cooking grease known as “slush”, in a stash to be sold to  to soap makers at the end of the voyage. The profits made became known as the cooks “slush fund”.

To vary the steady diet of salted meats and sea biscuits (hard tack) sometimes sailors were issued fishing tackle to obtain fish in order to break the monotony of a salted meat diet. Rats, which were present in most sailing ships, although not part of any ship’s official diet, were known to make their way into many a seaman’s mess.

Ship’s biscuits (referred to as hard tack) were an important part of a sailor’s diet.  Often home to black headed maggots called ‘bargemen’, which turned into weevils they were favored by quartermasters and ship’s captains for their ability to last. Usually consisting of just flour and water ship’s biscuits were baked at least twice, sometimes four or five times to drive as much moisture from the crumb as possible. What was left behind was a hard, barely edible biscuit requiring soaking in beer, coffee, milk, water, broth, or wine to make more palatable.

Here’s our twist on the sea biscuit

4 cups (500g) flour
1 1/2 cups (300ml) grape juice or sweet wine
2 Tbsp anise seeds
2 Tbsp cumin seeds
1/2 cup (100g) unsalted butter
1/3 cup (50g) cheese, grated (use a tasty cheddar for extra bite)
20 bay leaves

Grind the anise and cumin. Mix the flour with the juice, then stir in the anise, cumin, butter , and cheese. Shape into small balls and flatten by pressing a bay leaf into each. Arrange the cookies on a tray, bay leaf down, and bake at 350F (180C) for half an hour. If you want to increase the spice content, add poppy seed, cinnamon, ginger, or black pepper. Makes about 20 cookies.

These tasty sea biscuits make a great accompaniment to a hearty onboard stew.

Try out the recipe and send us your feed back

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