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HMS Victory
HMS Victory

Feeding Nelson's Navy

Food writer Janet MacDonald is heading for Andover this month to reveal the truth of culinary life onboard ship in Georgian times. It wasn't all unpalatable dry rations and rock hard biscuits full of creepy crawlies!


After coming across the Aubrey-Maturin series of novels by Patrick O'Brian, which are the origin of the recent film Master and Commander, food writer Janet MacDonald got hooked on Georgian Naval history and food supplies:

"Being a food writer I went for the food aspect, and having discovered that no-one had ever seriously worked on it I went in that direction and I'm now doing my PHD on the topic  - and I haven't had so much fun for years!"

Nelson's flagship HMS Victory on show at Portsmouth's Historic dockyard proved a great inspiration for Janet:

"It's very interesting to look at Victory and see the vast cooking stove on her and also to see the very limited utensils. The stove was a combination of an Aga and an open range.  It would have had two big coppers, and I mean big, probably 450/500 gallons, underneath that was one fire and next to that was an oven.

Lord Nelson played by Alex Naylor
Lord Nelson played by Alex Naylor

"There was a second fire at the end of the stove and that had the spit on it which worked with a smoke jack in the chimney which was sort of a big fan - the smoke drove it to make the fan go round.

"Then they had little things called hanging stoves which were like barbeques, you took the coals out of the fire and put them in these little stoves and then you could put a saucepan or frying pan on them."

So what was Admiral Lord Nelson partial to?  Janet's research has uncovered some of his shopping lists:

"All the officers had their own stores. Admirals would have had a lot more because they were expected to entertain.  I have seen a couple of his shopping lists and he was buying a lot of pickles and ketchups and flavoured vinegars. So there would be mushroom ketchup and pickled cabbage because they had meats like ham and tongue.

"Nelson himself would eat either the liver, or the wing of a chicken with macaroni and some vegetables.  I thought about this for a while and then I realised that Nelson by this time had lost most of his teeth, so he wouldn't have been able to eat other meats because he wouldn't have been able to chew it.  He lost his teeth because he had scurvy in his youth.

"The other thing about Nelson is he was very keen on onions, he thought they were antiscorbutic [cured or prevented scurvy].  When he was in the Mediterranean he had a man called Richard Ford who went around buying fresh food and he bought a lot of lemons and oranges and also onions.

"I think (but I can't prove it) that they ate them raw because Nelson put out an order to the pursers telling them not to put the onions in the soup because they were for the men's health."

The food onboard ship would have been the type of food the whole of the Northern Hemisphere would have eaten in the winter:

Onions
Nelson was partial to onions!

"It was a case of what you could preserve without fridges and freezers and tins.  Tins did come in towards the end of the Napoleonic War, but they came in so late that they never actually used them on warships.

"The only way you could preserve food was by keeping it dry, like grain and dried peas.  If it was a biscuit, by baking it very, very dry because then it would keep a long time and, by salting down meat. 

"A lot of the meat they ate was salt-beef and salt-pork, and you tend to say 'oh gosh how boring!' but if you think that bacon is basically salted pork and so is gammon and  ham, and the salt-beef they had then would have been similar to a hot salt-beef sandwich.

"It's not actually that salty, you soak it to get the salt out so it's not that bad! It does get pretty salty flavoured and a little hard the longer you keep it, I've actually kept some for 13 months before I fished it out and cooked it  - and it was a little salty and a little hard, but perfectly tasty!"

If that's whetted your appetite, Janet MacDonald is giving a talk at Andover Library on Wednesday 30th November.  Tickets are £3 including refreshments (!).

You'll need to book in advance through the library on 01264 352807.

last updated: 03/11/05
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