Bite Sized History | Hard Tack (Ship’s Biscuits) & Baking on our Sailboat

Ship’s biscuits, or you might know them as “hard tack,” were probably one of the most notorious provisions on board during the Age of Sail. While we explore this history, and because ship’s biscuits were essentially the only reliable staple bread the crew would have throughout their voyage, I decided to attempt to make our very first batch of bread on the boat, specifically focaccia, because it is simple to make and doesn’t take up too much room.

The ship’s biscuit might sound nice in concept. When I think of biscuits, my mind goes to flaky scone-like biscuits or even sweet baked good, but don’t let its name fool you. These biscuits were more like hardened, stale, flavourless bread or thick crackers. And were simply considered a way of filling sailors’ bellies, less about the joy of eating. Cue Nigella with her sumptuous words…

At their essence, ship’s biscuits were unleavened bread made of flour and water – that’s it! Without even salt! Then perforated and baked until completely dry, the whole way through, to avoid rot. So dry that unless you had an incredibly strong jaw and teeth, you would have to smash the bread with something hard to break it into bite sized pieces that could be sucked on or dunked in the various liquids they served on board to soften it. Yikes! Flavourless, pucks of bread that could literally keep the crew alive.

In fact, the British Royal Navy saw them as so essential; they equipped their dockyards to produce the bread on an industrial scale. But these bakers were not always so honest. Some trying to cheat the Navy by using cheaper ingredients as flour, like horse beans, rye, barley or even peas, but disaster could strike if too much of this alternative flour was used – the biscuits would just fall apart.

But even when ship’s biscuits were properly made, they still weren’t the perfect provision. Because while they were prized for their ability to last incredibly long periods, EVEN YEARS if stored properly, they did not always fair so well. Many tales of them being overrun with weevils, even becoming moldy and mushy over time, given that they were traditionally stored in canvas bags, which could expose them to sea air and humidity.

So, consider the fact that ship’s biscuits were specifically designed to avoid the pitfalls of your more traditional breads…But even with our modern preservatives, bread still goes bad quickly, so it’s no wonder they didn’t travel long distances with what we might consider a more classic bread, though they certainly took some on when they could.

And these problems were not insignificant. The loss of ship’s biscuits could be the cause of significant loss of life on board a ship during this period. John Nevil’s 1697 expedition to the West Indies has even been cited as one such incident.

So, really, without ship’s biscuits, sailors would not have been able to circumnavigate the globe. It was a provision they could not live without. And I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t live without bread either…

King Arthur No-Fuss Focaccia

I really loved this recipe. It was simple and, as the title suggests, no fuss, which is ideal in a tiny galley on a sailboat. Not to mention it was delicious! The oven took its good old time cooking it, but it came out light and airy, and perfectly golden on the bottom, even though the top may have appeared a little pale.

I did not use the flavourings called for in this recipe, simply because I didn’t have them, but I did nestle some olives throughout it and sprinkle it with salt. This combination was fantastic and I will do it again! Maybe even adding some cheese next time!

You can find the recipe I used here- https://www.kingarthurbaking.com/recipes/no-fuss-focaccia-recipe

Sources

Carter, Kevin. (2013). Ship’s Biscuit Recipes. https://savoringthepast.net/2013/06/12/ships-biscuit-recipes/

Duffy, Kelly. (2019). Salt Pork, Hard Tack, and Grog, Oh My! https://sailorsattic.wordpress.com/2019/11/01/salt-pork-hard-tack-and-grog-oh-my/

Macdonald, Janet. (2006). Feeding Nelson’s Navy: the true story of food at sea in the Georgian era.

The Pioneer Kitchen. https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/002/001/002001-4010-e.html

Royal Museums Greenwich. Ship’s Biscuit. https://www.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/rmgc-object-6052

Types of Food in Eighteenth Century England. http://websites.umich.edu/~ece/student_projects/food/foods.htm

USS Constitution Museum. Sailors Eating. https://asailorslifeforme.org/educate/annotated-scenes/sailors-eating/

USS Constitution Museum. Some Notes on Navy Biscuit. https://ussconstitutionmuseum.org/2014/07/16/some-notes-on-navy-biscui/

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