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The ships biscuit otherwise known as HARD TACK by generations of mariners is because of its rock hard qualities. It is made to a similar recipe that local bakers would have used to supply Capt.Cook's ship the Endeavour. The old method was to put the very tight dough between two hessian sacks, put your boots on and tread it to approximately ¼" thick, then cut into 4" squares. When baked and dried well, they were packed into barrels and put aboard ship. These biscuits once sealed into barrels would last for a two or three year voyage. However, once a barrel was broached, they got damp with the sea air and maggoty, that is why sailors always knocked their hard tack first.
During the American Civil War, the American army used to have a biscuit made with flour and water, but instead of the dough mixed with water, bakers used beef stock. That way, the biscuit could not only be eaten as it was, the soldiers used to be able to place it in a billy-can with water to make a soup.
We made some ships biscuits for Whitby Museum, (Captain Cook and Scoresby) and they have had a sample on show in one of their display cases for several years, and it still hasn't gone mouldy!
Your fascinating site reminded me of a biscuit-related enigma which has haunted me since childhood days: the phrase "ship's biscuit". Despite this strikingly anomalous use of the singular, I have always liked to picture generously plural stocks of biscuits stowed in tins, or possibly crates, deep in the hold. Fig rolls would be a healthy choice for a long voyage, although perhaps custard creams might be more comforting. Garibaldi would fit the bill too. Somehow, the more effete chocolate varieties seem ill-suited to a life of rum, sodomy and the lash.
But what exactly was ship's biscuit? Since I am too bone idle to go away and research the whole thing on Google, I wondered what light you might be able to cast on the world of tea-time confectionery in a historical maritime setting.
|Nicey replies: Mary,
A ships biscuit is in fact the ancestral biscuit from which all others sprang and even gave rise to the very word 'biscuit'. As we mention from time to time biscuit comes from two french words 'bis' for twice 'cuit' for cooked. They were so named because biscuit were baked twice a first quick bake to cook then biscuit then a long slow drying bake to preserve it for use as ships rations. Made from simply flour, salt and water, they are not something you want to dunk into your cuppa. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a ships biscuit earlier in the year although I had to give it back to its owner. It really wasn't very appetising and looked uncannily like one of those fake doggy turd things. The biscuits are as hard and rock, and it was not uncommon for sailors to break their teeth on them.
||About thirty years ago when I lived in Germany I was puzzled to discover that THEY DID NOT HAVE KETTLES. This may have been a result of continuing postwar austerity, for what they did have were electric kettle elements of varying lengths (called Tauchsieder - diving boilers) which you plunged into specially shaped tall narrow metal pots. Someone must have realised the intense danger, as well as the energy-wastefulness, of this as they have now been largely superseded by real kettles - indeed many kettles are now made in Germany or by German firms, another example of a fine British idea that we failed to develop properly. However you can still buy Tauchsieder in Switerland. I was shown a selection in the electrical store in Altdorf only a fortnight ago, although I did not purchase one. There was a British equivalent, known as the Travel Boiler, made (probably abroad) by Pifco. Ours (actually my wife's) has travelled faithfully to many continents, but died in Italy, which perhaps explains why I was prowling around the electrical store in a small but very clean Swiss village.|
Since I mentioned Switzerland, Lake Lucerne still has a fleet of early twentieth century paddle steamers (www.lakelucerne.ch). My gradually failing memory insists that these are powered by magnificent Sulzer compound engines, the workings of which can be viewed from a special platform at the centre of the ship, and which were designed with an integral tea boiler. It would be my contention that these can lay claim to be the world's most impressive kettles, although the tea-boilers are no longer used for this (or any other) purpose. I last travelled on one of these steamers over ten years ago - maybe one of your Swiss readers could offer an update on this?
Nice book - recommend for Christmas presents.
|Nicey replies: I had a Czech friend who had one of those travel boilers, which he would reheat tea with. This always made my head spin as I tried to figure out exactly which aspect of this was the most life threatening, death by electrocution, fire, exploding shards of mug, or just really awful putrid tea.
Terrific to hear about the fleet of giant floating kettles, I wonder if they have some kind of toaster facility built in as well. You could steam around Switzerland drinking tea and eating crumpets. I want to go every like that from now on, perhaps we can modify our diesel Peugeot 306 to do this.
|Did you know that Americans also eat fried oreos? The oreo is coated in a pancake batter then deep fried for about 1 minute. Confectioners sugar is then sprinkled to the cookie puff while still warm. After consumption, a visit to both the dentist and cardiologist is in order. I've never tried this so I cannot say how wonderful or nasty this is.|
|Nicey replies: Wifey has heard that they also have an Oreo's cereal which is like lots of little bits of Oreo flavoured gravel.
I must say I'm really enjoying reading your book (although it is smaller than it looks in the adverts!). Great for sampling bite-sized portions during a regular sit down and cup of tea.
I spotted this intriguing device in the latest Lakeland catalogue to fall out of my Saturday Indy -- what you're supposed to do with the rest of the packet is not made clear! Perhaps you could buy several of these and divide your packet into threes (great for those on a diet!).
|Nicey replies: Fred,
Glad you like the book, its meant to be small and cuddly.
Those biscuit boxes look really handy. Some rectangular ones for Custard creams, Bourbons, Shortcakes and Garibaldis would be good as well. A brief case with a moulded foam insert that could hold say 24 of them would be nice. That way you could always travel tooled up with a full selection of biscuits which could be deployed at a moments notice.