Local food historian Helen Harding, of Discover History, looks at the history of the ship’s biscuit

THE Tudor period was a period of greatness for our seafaring ancestors and one of the most famous ships of this time was the Mary Rose.

If you were one of the crew at this time then your diet consisted of meat being eaten for four days of the week and fish making up the other three.

In the first few days of the journey fresh meat would have been used, but to preserve further supplies for the rest of the journey, meat would have then been heavily salted and stored in barrels.

Beef was a popular choice and the English were famous for their love of eating it.

Sailors would get a kilo of meat to eat each day. Another choice would have also been pork whilst cod was the preferred catch that was served boiled as a fish stew.

Fruit and vegetables also made up their diet and it was either available fresh or dried to preserve it. Dried peas for instance were part of a sailor’s ration.

Cheese, butter and milk were part of the diet though it would have gone sour quickly. Bread was also part of the diet, however there were also problems in keeping that fresh too.

Food would have been served on a wooden square plate known as a “board”. It’s from this that we get the expressions “bed and board” as well as “three square meals a day”.

Sailors drank beer and had a ration of a gallon of beer each day! As surprising as it sounds, beer was by far better to drink than the water as it was both cleaner and healthier.

It contained vitamin B as well as lots of calories to keep them going. The beer taken out to sea was made in Royal breweries. The officers on board would have much preferred wine that either came from France or the Mediterranean.

With any fresh food spoiling so quickly, the ship’s biscuits was a valuable supplement and replacement.

These weren’t a new innovation. Ancient Egyptian sailors carried a flat brittle loaf of millet bread called dhourra cake. The Romans had a biscuit called bucellatum. King Richard I left for the Third Crusade (1189-92) with “biskit of muslin”, which was a mixed grain compound of barley, bean flour, and rye.

Worcester News: The classic ship's biscuit was made from just two ingredients – flour and waterThe classic ship's biscuit was made from just two ingredients – flour and water

The classic ship’s biscuit is made of just two ingredients; flour and water, with some salt as an optional extra. 

As the biscuits would soften and become more unpalatable with time due to exposure to humidity and other weather elements, bakers made biscuits as hard as possible.

For long voyages, these biscuits, also known as hardtack, were baked four times, rather than the more common two, and prepared six months before sailing and sealed in airtight containers.

Un-moistened hardtack was inedible and said to be “nearly dense enough to stop a musket ball”.

Sailors on board the Mary Rose were entitled to eight biscuits a day.

With insect infestation common in improperly stored provisions, soldiers would break up hardtack and drop it into their morning coffee.

This would not only soften the hardtack but the insects, mostly weevil larvae, would float to the top, and the soldiers could skim off the insects and resume consumption.

Some men also turned hardtack into a mush by breaking it up with blows from their musket butts, then adding water.

Royal Navy hardtack during Queen Victoria’s reign was made by machine at the Royal Clarence Victualling Yard at Gosport, Hampshire.

They were stamped with the Queen’s mark and the number of the oven in which they were baked, each oven making about 60 hexagonal shaped biscuits per batch.

The hexagonal shape meant a saving in material and time and made them easier to pack than the traditional circular-shaped biscuit.

Hardtack remained an important part of the Royal Navy sailor’s diet even after preserved beef in tins were officially introduced to the Royal Navy rations in 1847 and was still a major part of the diet of soldiers during the American Civil War in the 1860s.