Monday, February 21, 2011

Tools Of The Trade: Eat Hearty

"You see those weevils, Stephen?” said Jack solemnly.

“I do.”

“Which would you choose?”

“There is not a scrap of difference. Arcades ambo. They are the same species of curculio, and there is nothing to choose between them.”

“But suppose you had to choose.”

“Then I should choose the right-hand weevil; it has a perceptible advantage in both length and breadth.”

“There I have you,” cried Jack. “You are bit – you are completely dished. Don’t you know that in the Navy you must always choose the lesser of two weevils? Oh ha, ha, ha!”

~ Patrick O’Brian, The Fortune of War book 6 in the Aubrey/Maturin series

Of course weevilly hard tack, or ship’s biscuit, is part and parcel of the mythology of the Great Age of Sail. My mother has been known to quip something about extra protein but the problem was the weevils were pervasive and grew to be enormous beetles. O’Brian has one of these popping up in a soup at Jack’s table during an important dinner, much to the Captain’s chagrin.
The stuff was essential on any long voyage as it would keep quite literally for years, weevils not withstanding. It was an important element in ship’s cooking as well, being used as a thickener in both sweet and savory dishes. The usual recipe for lobscouse, for instance, calls for about three cups of ship’s biscuit ground into crumbs. Hard tack was also found in Dogsbody, Brews and Dunderfunk just to name a few. It was easy to make in bulk and the ingredients were almost embarrassingly cheap. Then there was the fact that it was a good source of fiber in an otherwise largely carnivorous diet. No wonder it turned up at just about every meal a sailor of any persuasion – merchant or pirate, Navy or privateer – would sit down to at sea.

Here then is an authentic recipe for ship’s biscuit from Britain’s Chamber’s Encyclopedia of 1882, virtually unchanged from the 18th century. For those of you who crave the authentic, it might be worth giving it a try. By land, though, I’ll stick to soft tack and butter; might as well get it while you can.

Sea biscuit, or common ship’s bread, is made from wheaten flour (retaining some of the bran), water and common salt. The materials are kneaded together, either by manual labor – that is, by the hands and feet of the workmen – or by introducing the materials into a long trough or box, with a central shaft to which a series of knives are attched, and made to revolve rapidly by machinery.

The mass of dough so obtained is then kneaded and thinned out into a sheet the proper thickness of the bread, by being passed and repassed between heavy rollers. The sheet is placed below a roller with knife-edged shapes, is readily cut into hexagonal or round shapes: the cuts are not complete but are indentations, and the slab remains in one piece. These slabs are placed in an oven for about 15 minutes and are then placed in a warm room for 2 to 3 days to dry thoroughly. The more modern ovens are fitted for continuous baking, the bread being drawn through in sheets on endless chains. These ovens have a capacity of 2,000 pound of bread a day.

Header: Study from Master and Commander by Munin of Munin’s Sketch Blog


Le Loup said...

I have made & carried hard tack. Excellent for carrying on historical treks.
Good post.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I believe that hard tack is basically the same stuff as the Sailor Boy Pilot Bread that is still so popular in the remote villages up here in Alaska:

Pauline said...

Ahoy Le Loup and Timmy! Hard tack isn't going away any time soon, regardless of how good or bad in may be on an individual basis.