Sunday, March 24, 2013

Surrounded By Fish



Last Thursday I went to a day-long seminar on food at sea, "Du biscuit et des vers?" sponsored by L'Équipe Alimentation at Université François-Rabelais and the Institut Européen d'Histoire et des Cultures de l'Alimentation (IEHCA). Subtitled (loosely translated) "supplies and suppers on shipboard from the Middle Ages to the present," the seminar presented an interesting look back at how people over the years have been dealing with the fact that when you're in the middle of the ocean, you can't run to the corner grocery for a quart of milk. As the first speaker pointed out, ensuring an adequate food supply is a problem on land too, sometimes, in times of war and famine, but the issues of quantity and storage and logistics are easier to see in the microcosm of the ship's world. Lessons learned there can be taken back out and reapplied on a larger scale. There's not a lot of French documentation or research into the issue of shipboard food management, though (as he said) the British have a long tradition of both making it work, and writing down how that happened. One of the reasons that Britain had a better navy, he said, is because they studied these issues and solved the problems related to resupply and balanced diets, and the Admiralty imposed strict quality requirements on the suppliers, many of whom were specifically devoted to ship's stores and nothing else.
Another reason that it's easier to figure out rationing and such on board (rather than on land) is that it's a closed system, strictly regulated. Sailors have specific recurring duties and set hours for work and sleep, and a strenuous job that requires a good deal of calories to fuel. Hygiene issues and nutritional deficiencies can be more easily identified when everyone's doing and eating the same things. M. Dessaux said that it's interesting to read about how nutritionists have used sailors as test subjects over the years because of the controlled environment, and also to look into "captain's table" cooking (which was generally better than what the common sailor ate) and how exotic ingredients were incorporated into shipboard cooking from island stops and ports of call. One of the first books that mentions French naval supplies is the "Règles (or Rôles) d'Oléron" from 1266, explaining the rules that would apply on ships; the rules date back to 1152, when Elanor of Aquitaine and others were working out naval regulations between England and France (though at that time the two countries weren't always two separate countries, necessarily). The ship's captain was only required to provide one meal daily to the crew, but on the other hand had to keep them well supplied with wine on both the outbound and homeward journeys. Hot meals were generally served at noon, and sometimes in the morning, but since the wood-burning stoves would be visible from far away after dark, cold food was more often served in the evening.

There were two sorts of cooks on the average naval or merchant ship, the ones that cooked for the captain, and the maître-coq who cooked for the crew. Coquo is the Latin verb meaning "I prepare food" and coquus is a cook, hence the name in both French and English. On the Bayeux Tapestry you can see a feast being prepared after William the Conqueror landed in England, and the words HIC COQUITUR CARO ("here the meat is cooked"). Crew cooks didn't have a very good reputation, as another speaker pointed out later. As late as the 1830s they were being described as sweaty and dirty, working surrounded by smoke from the fires and from burning food, with no knowledge of actual cooking, but just enough skill to boil salted meat in a cauldron. To be fair, it must have been difficult cooking over wood on the ocean.

Records from a 1368 voyage by a Genoan ship show that they bought caviar every other day while they were in Constantinople. A French ship in 1355 carried 25 barrels of biscuits, 1 steer, 2 pigs, 2 barrels of wine, a cask each of salted fish and dried peas and dried beans, a barrel of salt, and a basket of garlic and onions for every 25 sailors on board. A 14th-century Venetian ship noted that every sailor got dried biscuits, wine, cheese, and bean soup every day, but two days (including Friday) were meatless for the whole crew, one day a week everyone got meat, and the rest of the time half the crew ate meat and the other half didn't, alternating days.

While I assumed that sailors would take advantage of being in the middle of a seafood-filled ocean to fish and get a bit extra in the way of food, it wasn't that easy, even if you were actually out there as a commercial fishing boat. The weather wouldn't always cooperate, you had your other duties, and if you were making headway then you were going too fast to catch them using hook and line, but a net would slow the ship down. Another speaker talked about the cod fishermen in the North Atlantic, from Newfoundland and France (Brittany) and Iceland and Great Britain, who spent six to eight months at sea between February and August and never left the ship, even in port. Well, the sailors from Newfoundland were allowed to, but apparently more of them died on shore than at sea due to drunken carousing and accidents. And there was a lot of drinking on the ships too, with wine and beer and cider and assorted other alcoholic beverages making up a fair percentage of the supplies, even more so than fresh water. Up until the 20th century most cooking was done by le mousse, the cabin boy, in a smallish box on deck or in the sailor's quarters, in a big pot that everyone would eat out of. An 1890 supply list showed dried pasta, fresh and dried fruit, vinegar, mustard, spices, flour, fresh and dried vegetables, cheese, fresh fish and salted fish, and fresh and salted meat. I was surprised at the fact that cod fishermen would bother carrying salted cod with them, but other than the heads of the fish that they were catching and gutting and salting down in the holds (which they would boil with potatoes, apparently) the crew didn't eat what they caught, unless it was something other than cod in the nets now and then. The cheeks and tongues were taken off the cod heads before boiling, because those dainties were reserved for the captain's table.


After all that talk of eating fish, I decided to follow suit and have some for lunch. I went to Le Bouchon Tourangeau off Place Plumerau in the old part of town, not far from the campus, and chose a salad of leeks in vinaigrette for my starter (kind of bland, unfortunately), and a filet of sea bream (daurade) for the main dish. I forgot to ask how it was prepared, so ended up eating the very delicious beurre blanc (white wine and butter sauce) it was served with. Yes, I could have scraped it all off to the side, but damn it was good. I did, however, regret that decision later. The house-made sorbets were quite tasty, with little chunks of pear in the one and diced lemon rind in the other that gave the lemon sorbet a nicely bitter edge, which contrasted well with the sweet pear.



I could imagine being served a similar meal - except for the sorbet, probably - on board a transatlantic ship in the early 19th century, which was the topic of the next presentation. At first, they weren't strictly passenger ships, but generally merchant vessels whose captains were open to negotiation about sleeping space in the holds, or in the cabins if there were any. A guide published in France around 1810 gave instructions on how to find such a place if you wanted to emigrate to the United States, and what you could expect on board, and what you needed to take with you. Eventually there were three types of ships making the crossing: merchanters who would allow passengers if the holds weren't full (or they had a big enough bribe), bare-bones passenger ships with varying levels of comfort depending on the price of your ticket, and ships for rich people (where there might also be bare-bones accommodation belowdecks, but we won't worry about the little people will we? and please pour me another glass of champagne). If you had a lot of money, you could sleep in a cabin and eat at the captain's table. For less money, you could sleep in a cabin and eat with the crew. And if you didn't have much money at all, you slept in the holds and brought all your food with you.
In 1818 the first-class passage between Le Havre and New York City was 700 francs, which I have probably inaccurately calculated at approximately 200 euros maybe? More or less. A lot less than I'd pay to travel the same route today. That's something that's still on my to-do list, however. And for 700 francs the food and wine was included, served on nice china with clean utensils, though dinner was still early, at 4pm, because the only light in the dining area came from a sort of skylight affair; I think by this point they weren't worried as much about hiding from enemy ships. The people who ate with the crew had to deal with the stews of salted beef, but that would still have been easier than hauling all your supplies for the six- to eight-week voyage on board yourself. According to an 1842 notice at the emigration office at Le Havre, if you were planning on crossing in the cheapest category, every person over the age of 5 in your party had to have at minimum 20kg of biscuits, 7 hams, 2.5kg of rice, 55kg of potatoes, 2kg of flour, 2 kg of butter, and 2 litres of vinegar, each. Plus everything to cook on and cook with and eat with. Things got a little better in 1855 when Napoleon III made a rule that the captain had to provide the utensils etc. even for this category of passenger, but it would have still been a massive amount of baggage. No shoving that amount of potatoes into an overhead bin, that's for sure.

Cheese has been part of the ship's stores since the Middle Ages, but for a very long time - up until the refrigeration issue was solved - none of it was French. Listings back as far as 1470 talk about fromage de Flandres or fromage de l'Hollande or fromage de Bergues or a cheese called tête-de-mort, all of which refer to the wax-coated Dutch Edam. Tête-de-mort (also spelled tête-de-maure or tête-de-more) is still a popular cheese in Haiti, a relic of colonial times. Gruyère and Roquefort and Brie made it onto the captain's table in the first days of a voyage, and there was Gruyère on the listing of a 1673 French naval supply run for the royal galley. In the 1850s, Napoleon III decided that it was time that the French developed a cheese suitable for long sea journeys, and he installed a working farm and research laboratory at Saint-Anjeau to make a durable form of Cantal (with a cooked curd, not the uncooked curd of the current Cantal cheese). That didn't work, but research continued through the Third Republic, and various cheeses were sent off on six-month journeys and tested upon return to see how they held up. With the rise of secularism, people started questioning why meat-free days had to stay a tradition on shipboard - one of the reasons for the cheese, which replaced the meat on Fridays - and at about that time the refrigeration issue became less of a problem, so research into a true French "sea cheese" was dropped.

What, you thought this post was going to be entirely about fish?

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