Lord Nelson - Food Historian

Nelson’s Grub: Food on the HMS Victory

We think of the Britons of the past as being a rather slovenly and unoriginal bunch – whilst our ancestors might not have had the same kind of creativity that the French might have had, our food is often a great deal more complex and interesting than most give it credit for.

If you’re wondering what truly traditional English grub might consist of, then you need look no further than the pantry of the great man himself – Lord Horatio Nelson. Whilst food for the sailors was never usually that fancy, records have been discovered detailing the kinds of food that the great man might have enjoyed.

Despite being at sea for months at a time, Nelson was fortunate enough to be of a high enough rank to demand whatever food he wished - for himself and his men. As such, he didn’t think twice about making special requests before entering the heat of battle, especially if he felt that the vittles would give his troops the edge they needed to secure victory.

Nelson’s flagship, the Victory, was kitted out with one of the most advanced kitchens in the Royal Navy. The stove was a huge Aga-style contraption, with enough space for massive pots that would serve the 820 or so men aboard the ship. Despite these huge pots, there was only enough space for 8 to 12 men to eat in the galley at any one time. But just what did these intrepid sailors eat on a daily basis?

Back in 2015, an anonymous donation was made to the Norfolk Nelson Museum. The letter, written by Lord Nelson himself, requested a list of ingredients, suggesting that he was planning on getting the Ship’s chef to prepare some kind of fruit and suet pudding – perhaps a treat for his men who he had been working especially hard.

When the men weren’t getting treated, however, they were forced to get by on a diet that was rather plain in comparison - yet nutritious nonetheless. The daily ration for a sailor aboard the Victory was a loaf of bread (or equivalent sized biscuit) as well as 1 gallon of beer, or 8 pints to you and I. This was supplemented with a daily 2lb meat ration of either salted pork or beef. Three days a week the men had to get by on a basic supplement of oatmeal and cheese. These meals were rotated on a schedule that stayed more or less the same throughout the men’s time aboard the Victory.

The only break in this monotony came from Nelson’s obsession with protecting his men from bouts of scurvy. After losing most of his teeth to the disease as a child sailor, he was determined that no man on in his ship would suffer the same fate. Because of this he often gifted his men with limes, oranges and lemons to stave off the illness. Oddly, he also put large orders in for onions, thinking them to also have antiscorbutic properties...they don’t, but I’m sure his sailors would have been glad to have had them nonetheless.

Essentially toothless, as he was, Nelson’s diet was specially formulated to make it easier for him to masticate. He would usually dine on chicken, specifically the wing meat or liver; he’d pair this with macaroni and some well cooked vegetables. For additional flavour, he would ensure that the ship always had a good stock of ketchups, vinegars and pickled goods – a soft meal for a mostly soft mouth, but certainly not unpalatable!

Although Nelson may seem like a man who has been essentially resigned to the history books, his legacy lives on in his victories, his impeccable taste and a certain plinth in London.

On Modern Food and Where We Go Next

Sometimes I feel like modern food leaves a lot to be desired.

I suppose it’s simply a matter of perspective, but I often find myself gazing at a plate of food from the hottest new restaurant and find myself more confused than appetised.

When did a simple thing like dinner get to be so complicated? And if we’re eating oddly dissected, de-constructed meals now then what on Earth are we going to be eating in 50 years time?

The development of fine dining in our country has accelerated at an alarming rate in the last 40 years. To think that it wasn’t that long ago when vaguely grotesque TV chefs (I’m looking at you Two Fat Ladies…) were reproducing War time classics and frying up lumps of liver – it’s perhaps symptomatic of the current state of our Restaurant scene that I’m now looking back on those morbidly absorbing hours of television as the halcyon days of British cuisine.

Looking rationally at the situation it’s not hard to see why we’ve ended up where we are. For centuries, English cuisine was defined by what he had in our larders. Although our Summers might be mild enough, the simple truth was that we used to be a rather unimaginative bunch. Meat and two veg (one of them being potatoes) was the staple meal for thousands of Brits for centuries – so it’s no surprise that, given the advances of technology and exotic imported goods, we’d want to cut loose a little bit.

Today, we have a dizzying variety of foods to choose from. If you live in one of England’s metropolitan cities you’ll be able to eat out at all kinds of exotic places. Back in the 70s, Indian curries were seen as a truly alien cuisine. 40 years later and most Brits wouldn’t hesitate to step inside a Thai restaurant or even take a bite out of some fried plantain.

Brit’s aren’t just stepping out of their comfort zones when it comes to eating, they’re also becoming bolder when it comes to running their own enterprises. Where once a middle-class Yorkshire lad, working as a mechanic, would dream of setting up a cleaning business, he now spends his lunch breaks thinking about the extras that he’ll offer at the gourmet burger shop that he’s saving up to open.

These dreamers will be the saving grace of our food industry. Passionate people with hearts as bis as their mouths, all eager to show that they can not only create the simple, effective food that they love, but that they can also sell it to the people of their town. These men and women won’t have the classical training that the top London chefs will have, they’ll have to graft hard to learn their trait but the cooking that they produce will also be free of the pretension that those same chefs are too often burdened by.

Haute cuisine might have never been so belligerently obtuse, but there’ll soon come a time when the pretensions of this culture will prove to be it’s downfall.

History of Cooking in England

We’ve already discussed what kind of food Nelson had on board the Victory during his days in command. At the time the ship was kitted out with what would have been a state-of-the-art Aga-style oven. It might seem a little dangerous to have a roaring fire constantly burning in the heart of a wooden ship, but this was the case nonetheless.

The advancements of cooking technology over the centuries has allowed British cooks to take their once simple concepts and slowly add complexity to their technique, refining the simple dishes until they take on a more concise, focused form.

I’ve taken brief look at the way that us Brits have cooked over the years, what kind of meals we were making and how our changing tools have affected the food that we eat on a daily basis.

Cooking on Open Fires

Stacking up a bunch of dry wood and making a fire to cook might seem like the domain of Neolithic man, but it was a long time until us Brits moved away from this tried and tested form of cooking. The most common meal that was cooked on these open fires wasn’t a healthy one. Game, poultry and cuts of livestock were often cooked using a spit roast.

Spit roasts were easy to put together and dismantle, they could also be easily transported making them perfect for travelling parties of people. From the 16th Century onwards, spit roasts were a common sight in most pubs and boarding houses. The spit would usually be constantly rotated by a young lad who would be paid with a handful of pennies and some scraps. A few of your own pennies would get you a slice of meat and some bread to mop up the juices.

Ovens Make Baking Easier

The first recorded oven was said to be invented by the Frenchman Francois Cuvillies; his Castrol stove burnt wood and contained the smoke that was created by the burning of the logs. By the early 1800s, these early ovens had been replaced by sturdier iron stoves that could be set to different temperatures – allowing would-be chefs to further hone their skills and techniques.

It wasn’t until 1922 that the first AGA was invented and installed by Swedish physicist, Gustaf Dalen. Although it was criticised at first for being inefficient, British housewives liked the design of the cast-iron combination stove/cooker. The AGA cooker became a popular mainstay for wealthy middle-high class families, however it wasn’t to be the oven of choice for the nation.

Gas and Electric Do Battle

The first gas oven was built back in 1802 by Zachaus Winzler, his attempts to create a working gas stove were not completely successful, however. By 1826, the English inventor, James Sharp, successfully patented his gas stove and began mass production in 1836. Despite renowned chef, Alexis Soyer, touting the oven as efficient, the gas stove did not gain popularity for another 40 years or so.

The first electric oven was shown off at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. It had been invented by Thomas Ahearn, a Canadian inventor who felt that his oven could replace the use of their gas counterparts. Unfortunately for Thomas, gas had only just caught on and most of the world was still patiently waiting for electrification. Flash forward to present day and the electric oven is now considered to be superior to gas in every way. The oven doors and elements that make up the standard gas oven are more efficient, and although gas is technically cheaper than electricity, the UK has made up it’s mind as to which it prefers!