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Ship's Biscuits

THE NAVAL "HARD TACK"

There has always been a need for nutritious, easy to store, easy to carry and long-lasting foods in the Royal Navy. Nuts, fruits, vegetables, live game and fish fulfilled a limited role, but the introduction of cooking and baking various cereals provided a more reliable source of food for travellers, especially at sea. Egyptian sailors carried a flat brittle loaf of maize bread called dhourra cake. The Romans had a biscuit called buccellum

King Richard I (Lionheart) left for the Third Crusade (1189-92) with “biskit of muslin” - mixed corn compound of barley, rye and bean flour. At the time of the Armada in 1588, the daily allowance on board ship was 1lb of biscuit plus 1 gallon of beer. It was Samuel Pepys in 1667 who first regularised naval victualling with varied and nutritious rations.

Biscuits remained an important part of the sailor’s diet until the introduction of canned foods and bread. Preserved beef in tins was officially introduced in 1847, although tinned items had previously been used in arctic exploration. Canned meat was first marketed in 1813. In the mid-1850s with improved design and new baking equipment, it became possible to bake bread on board ship.

Biscuits have always been made to a large and varied recipes e.g. seed biscuits, fruit biscuits, long biscuits etc. The essential and common ingredients were flour and water, Most flour used today is milled from North American wheat or similar hard grain cereals. It would be difficult to produce an historically authentic biscuit from modern refined flour.

Recipe

To produce a similar plain ships biscuit, a medium coarse stone-ground wholemeal flour should be used.

Add water to 1lb wholemeal flour and 1/4oz salt to make a stiff dough. Leave for 1/2 hour and then roll out very thickly. Separate in to 5 or 7 biscuits. Bake in a hot oven approx. 420 degrees F for 30 minutes. The biscuits should then be left undisturbed in a warm dry atmosphere to harden and dry out.

Biscuits are still purchased for the Ministry of Defence for use in operational ration packs but not for general messing.

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© Royal Naval Museum Library, 2000 

The information contained in this information sheet is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available