The other day, I was watching a very interesting BBC programme about Tinned Baked Beans. https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6xaiiz
It reminded me that the evolution of modern tins, as we know them, was spurred on by the demand to feed the Royal Navy. An engineer called Bryan Donkin set up the first cannery, which was in London, in 1812 and produced tinned food for the Navy and Army. Have a photo of an 1812 tinned can:
I have worked in the galleys of many sailing ships and yachts. On many voyages there were 55 seafolk in total to feed.
There would be a predominance of tinned Baked Beans for most breakfast meals . Beans would generally produce copious amounts of wind. Wind is generally considered as being a good thing for sailing ships. Beans and wind jokes are standard British Double Entendres.
More funny is the stuff that Seamen (and now Sealadies and Sea transgenders ) have eaten on the “Rolling Main”
My father’s father was a cook on the Blue Funnel line in the 1930’s to the 1950’s. However, he did not teach me any cooking skills. Of course, learning to peel and boil 30 pounds weight of potatoes was not on the curriculum of the Portsmufff Crammer Skool. We had Latin and French; Shakespeare and Newton; rugby and stripping Bren machine guns.
Fortunately, for the purpose of this blog, during the time I was in Sixth Form, I was invited to be an apprentice cook – the assistant chef – the cook’s arse on the sail training ships Sir Winston Churchill and Malcolm Miller.
Here is me in the galley of the Sail Training Ship Malcolm Miller in 1980:
Cooks are very able seamen. In the days of sail, it was a plum job for an old hand.
If the sh*t was about to hit the fan, as in there was a massive squall a-brewing, then the Captain would call the catering department onto the upper deck. After all, sea cooks are less predisposed to seasickness compared with less stomach – hardy folk.
Below is a great collection of mad sea cooks with whom I have sailed the High Seas
The above photos is of “Super Chef” John Brown. He had done a lot of time in the Royal Navy, including being the personal chef of the First Sea Lord, or something like that. Upon his retirement from the Royal, he was the regular cook of the Sir Winston Churchill. He enlightened me to the ways of making meals for 55 total crew , three times a day regardless of the angle of dangle of the ship, especially as we tossed on the Rolling Main :
For a long time, John would prepare full on Sunday Roast , on Sunday, regardless if there were many crew left standing who were able to eat such a glorious meal , due to the adverse weather conditions.
It was said by many that his most vital piece of catering equipment was the industrial can opener :
He taught me that there were interesting names that seafolk used for food. Large tins of processed pork were called Elephant D*ck:
Tinned steak and kidney puddings , as above, were called “babies’ heads”
Kippers are called “Spithead pheasant”
Finally Kidneys on toast , as below
is called “Sh*t on a raft”
For those of you out there who have an interest in 1930’s Naval cooking, have a link to the Admiralty Manual of Naval Cookery 1936
For centuries before 1936 and tinned food and refrigeration, Seafolk had to eat Hardtack:
I never saw Ship’s biscuits like those above in the stores of the ships I served upon. However, in my adventurous past, I also did some time in the British Army , during which I ingested similar bread substitute called “Biscuits AB” which were supplied in Army “Compo” field rations:
Few people knew what AB actually stands for, so offensive words were created for these rather constipating-enabling delights.
I even went off on a week’s sailing on an Army yacht called Kukri, along with other officer and officer cadets-like gentlemen and ladies.
We had 10 man ration packs, which had some great goodies,
such as the deadly “processed cheese”, a tin of which can be seen on the bottom row of the above photo.
This “cheese” had been battle tested to be flame resistant. During my cooking shift, I tried to grill some slices of this processed cheese on top of a lovely Cottage Pie (the yacht did not have a cheese grater) . The cheese did not melt. It just curled up and went as hard as U PVC.
Sensible Sea Cooks always make sure they have enough food on board for the voyage plan, even if it is tinned, dried or frozen. Annoyingly, there are not many opportunities for shopping out in the English Channel . BUT ,sometimes, there is fresh fish:
Like really fresh fish:
On the old schooners, many funny things were produced out of the cramped galley:
Christmas dinner was easy:
These following two photos are a long story, but they show the scale of achievable catering silliness :
It came to pass that in 2003, I ended up being press-ganged onto the Replica Endeavour as the Cook’s Assistant.
I could not resist carrying on the British Naval Tradition of madness in the galley
I started rather mildly with my interpretation of how to write up the menu board. I was told that previous incumbents of the post of Cook’s Arse had made dazzling displays on the black board of the meals’ offerings. I have limited drawing skills and I just really could not be bothered to spend time on doodling artwork of meat and vegetables. However, it came to pass , one lunch time , that Jane the Cook and I had prepared Pumpkin Soup.
Millie, the Captain’s Secretary, came and asked “ What is the Soup? “ I replied “ Orange”. Because it was of a very orange colour. And that is what I wrote on the menu board.
Below is a photo of Millie, other crew and a fish :
To carry on with the silliness, the soup continued to be named by colour – brown soup, red soup, yellow soup, green soup and white soup . No blue soup though ( see below about blue food)
Eventually it came to pass that the Captain invited me to take some money to act the part of the Ship’s Cook.
I was now let loose to exponentially escalate daftness in the catering department- a great British tradition.
I even had a willing apprentice in learning the ways of lunacy in the galley. Below is Will, my own Cook’s mate:
I don’t think Will and I had a single “boring” day, but I will only type up the highlights of my months on board as a two and a half ringer ship’s catering officer. The ship was a moving museum and spent a lot of time alongside- for the tourists. But when we did set sail for a different port, the ship’s crew had to put up with whatever Will and I would get up to in the galley.
Some of the stuff we knocked up, on the Rolling Main, was just interestingly British. Interesting for some of the younger crew, for sure, who had never seen “odd food at sea”
Shallow Fried Tinned Corned Beef Fritters
Of course , we did the same with battered Elephant’s Di*k
After a few days at sea, the fresh vegetables would have been nearly all eaten. BUT we had tinned, frozen and dried foodstuff
Back when I was in short trousers and under the pupillage of the Obi-Wan Kenobi’s of the aquatic catering multi – universe, I was shown the Force contained within instant mashed potato:
Cooking is like magic. Some believe that it is truly magical what some cooks can produce from the galley when the sea state is such that most vessels have run way into ports. Tricks used in stage magic include misdirection and the power of suggestion.
To the potato powder, one needs to add water, milk , butter and pepper. But it would still be missing something compared with mashed potato which is made from an hour’s worth of peeling potatoes. One just needs to add 10% real peeled, boiled and diced potato. This gives the odd chunky bit in the mixture, as if the whole 15 kilograms was NOT from powder. To add the power of suggestion, I made Will place a few real potatoes in sight of the salivating customers as they shuffled past the serving station; salivating because I had fried some onions and wafted the aroma to go around the ship. There was sometimes no onion, whatsoever, in the actual meal. The smell of fried onion oozing from the galley throughout the ship and exuding through the vents out onto the upper deck, would make the seahumans slobber like Pavlovian dogs . Actually, even now, I am salivating at the memory, as I type!!
I turned to Will , with a stern looking face and in a frowning voice grunted:
” Will, you did not peel those potatoes . “
He replied : “ Yes, my Liege. I did not peel those potatoes.”
Not all the crew were taken in. The old and the wise could tell the difference, but they were not at all fussed, since they had grown up on “fake” food.
A week or so later. Cottage pie. Peeling fifty carrots is tedious. Tinned carrots can be purchased pre-diced and in catering sized tins at a very low cost. Just leave two unpeeled carrots in view
“ Will, you did not peel those carrots . “
He replied : “ Yes, my Liege. I did not peel those carrots.”
Back to the coloured soup. Obviously, I made extreme use of soup powder. One just needs to add some chopped up , but still chunky, tinned tomatoes to the Red soup. The Brown soup ( oxtail flavour) can be seriously enhanced by added left-over animal bits from previous meals, even if the animal is not closely related to oxen.
But good cooks will make the best use of high quality “leftovers” . One soup was actually the previous dinner’s beef gravy, made from the juices of some massive topside joints.
One dinner was roast chicken. Lots of chickens. Many chickens leads to much chicken bones. OK, time to confess. There were two “waste” bins in the galley area. One was for plastics, bottles and nasties, which are not to be dumped in the sea. The other one was for food stuff which could be fed to the fish. This binful was created from food preparation or customers’ left over scrapes. HMMMMM. Lots of bones:
Ok, so when the rest of the crew had left me and Will alone in the galley, we looked in the food waste bin. There was a pile of bones which had come off the customers’ plates. We picked a pot load of these bones out of the bin. We shoved them into a large saucepan, with some seasoning and herbs and boiled them to make one of the most flavoursome chicken stock I have ever made
The next day’s lunch included Yellow Soup. It was all slurped up.
Some words of warning. Avoid Tinned spinach.
I tried adding a tin of the stuff to some Brown soup. It was quite horrible. However, I would be pleased if anyone out there could comment on their successful use of tinned spinach.
Of course, Will and I were open to suggestions for food. Captain Blake once asked us to make some nibbles for tea time when we got to Aarhus, Denmark. We found a recipe for Welsh cakes. Co-incidentally, the relief Captain, Di Davis, then came on board for a visit , He was most impressed with the scone-like cakes, and they brought back memories of his childhood (with a name like that , he obviously originated from Wales ). He loved them so much that he asked to take some to the Danish friends that he was staying. Ok, so a Welsh Sea Captain , takes some Welsh cakes , made by a mad Chinese Cook , cooked on an Australian flagged ship ( known for a geezer called James Cook) to his Danish friends . Well, it makes sense to me.
Also part of the inspiration for this rather long blog is my love of Brussels Sprouts. I am typing this on Xmas Day, a date which is renowned for the greatest daily consumption of Brussels Sprouts.
One of the crew said he did NOT like Brussels Sprouts, or indeed any other type of cabbagy stuff.
HMMMM. Catering crew can get rather bored. After all, we only have to feed the crew three times a day and leave our galley spotless before we knock off.
Dear readers, most of you will recognise these thingies:
Recipe ; Flash boil the Brussels sprouts:
Time it so they are cooked, but still very crunchy. Dunk into cold water to stop them overcooking. Dunk into melted chocolate. Roll the brown blobs in crushed hazelnuts. Serve cold with whipped cream.
So Will and I had conversations with other crew on what coloured soup or more solid food that they would not eat. Things blue was a definitive reply from many.
Recipe: Open a large tin of fruit cocktail. Into a separate large bowl , whip cream. Add Chocolate flake to the cream. Add Blue food colouring to the cream. Will misjudged how much food colouring to add. It was seriously as blue as a pair of American Jeans. The lady crew members licked the bowl clean, regardless of the funny colour.
I have many fond memories of adventurous catering including frying eggs at a 20% angle. Another trick with eggs : one can make 50 perfect boiled eggs all at one go. Don’t drop them in one by one. By the time, one has got to 50, with care, nearly 50 seconds have elapsed. And then one has to try and fish them out. Just put all the eggs in a knotted muslin cloth – boil in a bag, as it were.
By far my favourite memories involve peeling potatoes.
On one short trip , we were joined by Master and Commander Charles Bull, who had organised our visit to Harwich. He had joined the Merchant Navy as a very young person. During his career, he was in charge of very large ships. He had come on board for a bit of a laugh and this voyage actually was the last entry in his Merchant Navy Discharge Book. It was mid morning. I had come on deck with a large pot of unpeeled spuds. Charles eagerly joined me.
He had done the potato thing when he was very much younger, as had I. It was a lovely summers day for sitting on a ship’s deck, having a jolly peeling session and a very amusing chat. Bit like being in a knitting circle, except it is much more “manly”.
Some of you folk out there know I have this thing about keeping sail training going in the UK. I have peeling potatoes on the open deck of a tossing ship, as part of the Theroy of Change, of being on a sailing ship. Some of you folk out there know I am involved in a sailing ship called Zebu . We plan to be ready for young , new sea folk by Summer 2020.
Obviously, we will encouraging a continuation of British Maritime traditions, such as manning the yards, dipping the flag and cooking the oddest things at funny angles.
The Endeavour actually had a replica 18th Century cooking pot
I never used it, but here is a story about one time that it was used.: