Antarctic Food

It might not have passed your attention that I am a chef - rather a chef in Antarctica than an Antarctic chef, because not much of what I do is unique to here. Past Antarctic chefs - from Clissold (with Scott 1911-12), Green (with Shackleton 1914-16) and Cutland who was a chef on the Antarctic Peninsula in the late 1950's, really were Antarctic chefs in the true sense of the word in that, to a large extent they cooked and served meat that was shot and butchered locally. I, on the other hand do not, and indeed could not due to the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty.

All Antarctic expeditions historically relied on a bulk supply of food brought in from home - dried and tinned foods in the main: in fact many expeditions, Scott and Shackleton's included, relied heavily on sponsorship from household names for their food amongst other things. Huntly and Palmer biscuit boxes, Coleman's mustard - you know the sort of thing. This bulk food was sometimes supplemented with fresh meat, usually in the form of penguin and seal. Blubber-rich, the meat was usually used for feeding men and dogs alike, and formed a day to day part of their diet. Even Cutland, cooking in what we think of as the modern era of polar exploration, used a variety of local game from seals to penguins and cormorants/shags.

Although Shackleton suspected that fresh meat helped combat scurvy, and Scott did not, mankind's knowledge and identification of vitamins - known then as vital amines - was not yet codified. As it happens, Shackleton was right - fresh meat does help combat scurvy as it has some residual vitamin C content.

I'll come back to some of the early chefs in a while - but first I want to dwell a little on what IS similar between their world and mine.

Day to day, certainly here at Halley, not much differs in most people's routine. We all get up at some point, go to work at some point, finish work and go to bed. Unless some particular effort is required outside or from another member of the team, my day revolves around a routine.

But, what does differ in my routine and that of all the men I feed, is what I cook, and so what they eat. I can choose to blow out and make everyone's favourite - steak, and probably something chocolatey. It usually works to cheer people up. And, that is the core similarity between my work and that of all chefs in Antarctica before me - we have the power to vary everyones day and to perk up the mood on base with one simple meal.

Shackleton knew this all too well when, marooned on the sea ice after he lost the Endurance, he ordered his chef, Green, to make hot milk or cocoa to lift the spirits of his understandably terrified crew. I am reading his account of the Endurance expedition 'South' at the moment. Once the ship was lost - (crushed by ice for those of you who don't know the story - Shackleton organises his men to camp one the ice with their three lifeboats until they drift northwards to the edge of the sea ice and head for Elephant Island) Shackleton speaks of little other than the safety of the men, and the arrangements for looking after the cook and his ability to make hot food for the men. Food appears in almost every other paragraph - because here, even if the routine is interesting, food is so essential.

Pressure? Yes, I think that we all feel it at times. I imagine that most chefs feel something of the need to nurture - to feed - but here we have to nurture the mens spirits as much as their bodies. Hence steak and chocolate cake. That we have beef steak as well as chocolate is a good thing. Clissold, Green, Cutland and the rest would be familiar with many of the ingredients I have, and would recognise the same needs in my men as they had in their own, I'm sure of it.

I imagine that earlier Antarctic chefs would be envious that my kitchen is warm enough to make yeasted breads. They - cooking variously on ships and in wooden huts made soda bread, leavened with baking powder which is not really temperature dependent and much quicker.

Interestingly, Douglas Mawson, who had earlier sailed with Shackleton, developed a method of extracting yeast from the air in his own hut in his own second winter in 1913. Tired of eating soda bread, and at risk from a maniacal wireless operator, Mawson decided to make a proper loaf (in adversity, eat toast - it still works for me today)

Mawson sat a pot of flour and water batter next to their stove, and over a period of a few weeks, selected yeast colonies that formed on the surface. Eventually, his method of selection produced a strain of yeast that he was able to use to make a proper, yeasted loaf. Its almost exactly what I do today in my kitchen here at Halley, although I grow yeasts selected from my own honey brought from my bees in Yorkshire, but the principle is the same.

My day to day work hasn't really altered since I first worked in Antarctica in 1996. I usually begin the day with bread and cakes and go on from there to lunch and dinner. I'll admit that I don't bake every day - with only 12 other men to feed I don't need to and it makes sense to make larger batches of cakes and bread because it is more efficient in terms of space, time and energy/water. As an example, this week I have made a couple of large batches of bread (two hundred or so buns), a hundred pieces of caramel shortbread, enough cottage pie to make four dinners, in addition to deep cleaning the kitchen, indenting the freezer, and various other bits which will stand me in good stead when I feel like, or need, to enjoy the sun, go for a ski or just read a book.

It is not easy to find out anything about the lives of earlier - that is pre 1960 - chefs here in Antarctica. Few left memos, few recipes exist. The one clear exception to this is Cutland - Gerald to use his first name. A candid and effective writer with a sense of humour, he wrote a book - more than a cook book - that was designed to keep his fellow winterers in good health and which was also gives a unique insight into the life of the average polar explorer in the late 1950's. Subtitled 'how to keep a fat explorer in prime condition", Fit for a Fid was present only as a manuscript at BAS bases until four or five years ago when it was published by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust.

At the time I was asked to write a foreword for it, and I was glad to be able to contribute to it. Since arriving here at Halley, I have been re working the book - adding further historical references, sketches and recipes. Our recent technical difficulties have rather put paid to that for now, but I will be getting back to it as soon as things are a little more stable here.

As with all previous expeditions - well, almost all - our food arrives by ship. Once a year, around Christmas this year, the RRS Ernest Shackleton will push her way though the pack ice in the Weddell sea and tie up to the ice cliffs that form the northern boundary of the ice sheet on which we live. Depending on how far away the edge is, vehicles will drag large sledges of supplies from food to fuel between 20 and 40 km from the ship to the station.

As you would hope, we carry a fairly large stock of food to cope with all manner of contingencies, including the risk of fire, or if we have to abandon the station for any reason. I spent a portion of this afternoon trying to get onto the top of my emergency food sledge container. The contents include a few bulk supplies of items like flour, sugar and macaroni that we have in huge quantity. More importantly, it contains a couple of hundred days worth of food for the wintering team which is designed to get us through the winter if we lose the base. It makes sense. The reason I needed (and failed) to get onto the roof was only because I couldn't find a ladder to get me up there - a case of try harder and make more time tomorrow….

On top of the roof is our emergency cooking and kitchen gear. This consists, I hope, of Primus stoves, Tilly lamps, plates, cutlery and other bits and bobs that will allow us to live and cook in tents if we should ever lose the main kitchen here (I should add that as I have set a kitchen on fire live on BBC tv the possibility is always there) we can cook in pairs or threes in tents. It is how we usually live when travelling off base, so it is well within our means.

The Primus stoves that we DO cook on when away from base, travelling in the field, and the Tilly lamps that we use to light/heat the tents are fabulous, simple pieces of equipment. I used them both in the kitchen here a few weeks ago when we had our technical breakdown. The smell, sound and atmosphere that they generate is calming in itself - the heat and the food they provide almost secondary. On the day we lost the coolant system that keeps the generators going, we ate packet winter rations - OK. The second, we had a pot roast sirloin of beef: the third duck breasts with lentils and wild mushrooms.

Unlike Clissold, Green and Cutland, I now have an almost fully functioning kitchen with electric ovens, lights, mixers and even an extraction fan or two. I don't envy them - Green especially - for having to cook seal blubber and penguin on a stove fuelled by even more seal blubber whilst drifting on the ice towards what must have seemed like madness/death and hopelessness. Although few of Shackleton's men left written accounts of that time, Hurley's photographs show just how hard it was for all of the men, not only the chef.

I am sure that I am better off as a chef for having my modern conveniences.

And yet, as a group of men, working in adversity, in the dark and cold, trying to keep our station, and each other going through what was an epic loss of heat, light, power - I don't think that I have ever made food that was more gratefully given, and received that during this past few winter weeks. It's something I need to remind myself of constantly and what makes me feel even more grateful to be here with the men I am. I hope that my fellow, long gone, Antarctic chefs were just as well looked after and their efforts just as gratefully received. Surely they were.

Next week, we plan to celebrate 100 years since Shackleton left England to sail south to the Weddell sea in an attempt to cross Antarctica. The loss of his ship, Endurance, and the ultimate survival and rescue of his entire team of men is one of the greatest adventures ever documented, against huge adversity. In our own way, we will spend a night reading aloud from his account, cherishing a meal cooked and served in our own heated, lit and exceptionally comfortable station.

We will, I hope, in our own way, pay tribute not only to the chefs of Antarctica, but to the appetites they fed, for without good mouths to feed, there is no need for good chefs.

Gerard Baker