Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Tools of the Trade: A Morning Egg

Preserving food for long sea voyages has been a conundrum for man every since we first started making, well, long sea voyages. One of the most brilliantly simple ways to preserve a very nutritious form of food was invented - or discovered, if you prefer - by French scientist Rene Antoine Ferchault de Reaumur in the 18th century. Cleverly, Reaumur coated eggs with simple varnish and found that they were good for up to two years.

Admiral Smyth discusses the process in The Sailor's Word Book, and it would be folly for me to try to paraphrase:

Reaumur varnished them all over, and thus preserved eggs fresh for two years; then carefully removing the varnish, he found that such eggs were still capable of producing chickens. Some employ, with the same intention, lard or other fatty substances for closing the pores [on the shell], and others simply immerse the egg for an instant in boiling water, by which its albumen is in part coagulated, and the power of exhalation thereby checked. Eggs packed in lime-water suffered to drain, have after three years' absence in the West Indies been found good; this does not destroy vitality.

An egg "found good" after sitting around in the heat and humidity of the Caribbean islands is almost a magical thing. It is interesting to note that Reaumur was born in the thriving port town of La Rochelle on the Bay of Biscay. One wonders if his experiments with the preservation of eggs did not stem, at least in part, from concerns or requests by seafaring relatives. Whatever the case, sailors made Reaumur's methods their own and, particularly on smaller vessels that could not accommodate live animals, that meant a morning egg at least now and again.

Header: Egg by Edward B. Lintott via Old Paint


Timmy! said...

I am curious as to what he used to varnish the eggs, Pauline? And did the varnish have to be removed in order to crack the aggs?

Pauline said...

From what I can tell, it was the same type of varnish that was used to preserve oil paintings at the time. And yes; it did have to be removed prior to opening the egg. The thing that really gets me is the "still capable of producing chickens" part. Wild.

irwin said...

Talk about a missed opportunity-I don't remember Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin having varnished eggs! Or did Killick remove the varnish in advance?!

Pauline said...

Yes! That's what we'll assume, irwin; the varnish was neatly removed before the captain or the doctor ever saw the eggs. Then, of course, once they were comfortably aboard the dear Surprise they could keep a coop of chickens, at least for the officers.

Mary Jean Adams said...

Irwin said exactly what I was thinking. I suppose it's because nobody would believe it if they read about varnished eggs in a novel. (Truth is stranger than fiction.) I think I'm going to take the part abour producing chickens with a grain of salt though.

I'm surprised there was no mention of pickling eggs. I've never had one, but they are fairly common around here. I've never been intrigued enough to try one though. I'll take mine fresh, and without the varnish.