While we sometimes moan about the very early ups in our job (4AM quite often), it is nonetheless a very varied job and there is never a chance to be bored. The favourite part of my job is creating a new display. Our latest project is a pirate display for schools, it’s something we’ve thought about for many years and finally decided to turn our attention to as we reckon it’ll be great fun. One of the aspects that we’re going to cover is the kind of food that sailors and pirates might have to live on. In the age of sail when everywhere was a long way from everywhere else, access to constant fresh supplies would have been difficult and voyages could be very long. They needed to find ways to store food long term. Until tinned food was invented (by the French) in the early 19th century, one of the most important foods was ships biscuits (which became known as hard tack later one). These were basically 4oz unleavened rolled sized savoury bread biscuits that had been baked to within an inch of their lives, to drive out all the moisture.
You might have seen in one of my earlier blogs that I love baking, and I often bake my own bread, it’s something I’ve done since I was a child in my mums kitchen, helping to shape and bake milk bread rolls. The process for making ships biscuits is very simple. My recipe was derived from Jas Townsend’s brilliant blog about baking & cooking in the 18th century, which I found originally on the Jane Austen Centre’s website:
I’m not going to go into the history of the ship biscuit here as Jas does it so well, I recommend watching the video. This page is more about my experimenting with having a go at making them.
The recipe he gives is a little loose by modern standards which outline every ingredient to the nearest gramme but I’m used to making bread so this didn’t phase me. I started by measuring out 2lb of wholemeal flour, to which I added half an oz of salt. This is about the same amount I’d normally use to make the same quantity of leavened bread. If you were baking them purely for show, I suppose you could use more to help preserve them longer, although they will last a long time on their own. Normally at this juncture I would be adding dried yeast to just over a pint warm water and mixing it in. I think I added about 2 thirds of a pint of cold water to make, as Jas suggests a stiff dough. The amount you will need will depend on your flour, different flours will need differing amounts. Normally in bread making, you don’t want too tight a dough or the bread won’t rise very well and you end up with a dense loaf.
I’m lucky enough to have a Kenwood Chef with a dough hook attachment. I used to knead all my dough by hand and I know how to do this well but in all honesty its so much easier with the machine, I let the machine knead the dough for a few minutes, until it had all come together and formed a cohesive dough that I could roll out.
I had already greased a couple of baking trays, so the next step was to divide the dough into 8 equal portions. Although I used 2lb of flour which would have yielded the suggested 4oz portion (there are 16oz in a lb), as salt and water had also been added the pieces weighed more than this. I kneaded each piece a little more, formed it into balls and rolled it to about half an inch thick and placed them on the baking tray. I then pricked the top as Jas suggested. I didn’t have the lovely wire fork that he used so my tool was a cake decorating tool. The heat range that he suggested cooking at worked out between 130 to 160 C on a fan oven like mine, so I chose 130 C as my oven seems to bake quite hot. I then baked them for 3 hours, checking them regularly.
The final result was a little surprising as the biscuits had risen slightly in the oven. Happy in my ignorance I hadn’t thought this possible without yeast or some other sort of raising agent. I don’t know the science behind this but I put this down to natural yeasts in the environment. I used to make sourdough bread, which is closer to bread that was made in medieval times. Bakers would either keep a piece of the dough from the last batch as a starter for the next or they would use yeasts skimmed off during the ale brewing process. You can make your own sourdough starter, which uses the natural yeasts in the air but it is a slow and in my experience unsuccessful process (my starter I used regularly came from my teacher). I was therefore aware that there are natural yeasts around but didn’t expect the biscuits to rise at all as I’d not left the dough for any great length of time.
Once baked the biscuits were left to cool. They are extremely hard and made a dry knocking noise when tapped. Wel was keen to try one to see what it was like, he picked the fattest biscuit. He tried eating it with his teeth but this wasn’t possible so he cut one in half and then tried dipping it in soup. This sort of worked but the biscuit was still very hard. Jas mentioned that they were dipped often in sack (fortified wine), brandy or wine or ground up like flour and I can quite understand why. It was not an enjoyable eat and we didn’t finish eating the whole biscuit.
The biscuit we chose was still a little moist in the middle. For my next batch I will roll them thinner and bake them on a slightly higher temperature to ensure that they cook all the way through. I will probably bake this lot again, which fits with the term biscuit which means ‘twice baked’. Their final weight was still more than 4oz but this may be because I made them too thick and they still contain some water but overall I was pleased with our experiment.