The pudding was Jack's favourite, a spotted dog, and a spotted dog fit for a line of battle ship, carried in by two strong men.
'Bless me' cried Jack, with a loving look at its glistening, faintly translucent sides, 'a spotted dog!'
(Patrick O'Brian, The Ionian Mission)
The article below is the one I had published in issue 10 of the Guild of Food Writers award winning magazine Fire and Knives. Very generously the publishers have allowed me to post it here for your viewing pleasure. Its quite a long one, so maybe get a cup of tea (or glass of grog) before you start...
Patrick O'Brian's unfinished 21 book series concerning the adventures of ship's captain, Jack Aubrey, and his particular friend and ship's surgeon, Stephen Maturin, set during the Napoleonic Wars has gathered a large and devoted following. O'Brian's writing is famous for the accuracy of his depiction of all things naval and nautical, a literary quality not always found in historical novels, and a wit that is rarely matched.
The books hold a very dear place in my heart, so much that I spent most of my third year at university, when I should have been reading Plato, Thucydides and Virgil, working my way through all the copies I could find in the local library. Not only do they satisfy the desk-bound office worker's lust for romance and adventure on the high seas, there is also a rich seam of material to satisfy even the most committed gastronome.
But how? Because these tales of blood and thunder, of fleet actions and hand to hand combat, might appear to hold little draw for this particular crowd? Well, the whole series is an absolute treasure trove of food history: drunken dinners at sea; banquets ashore with oriental despots; all manner of familiar and unfamiliar food and drink feature. The series has even inspired its very own cookbook, Lobscouse and Spotted Dog, and it seems the menus at one or two of London's smartest restaurants (more of which later).
The books feature descriptions of food and feasts beloved of those who are familiar with them. Whether a soused hog's face, leg of mutton, a sea pie, halibut with anchovy sauce, a spotted dog (for the uninitiated, this is essentially a spotted dick), plum duff, burgundy, port, or a bottle of Chateau Lafite liberated from a defeated French ship, these conjure such scenes of plenty that it is impossible not to read them and feel the pangs of hunger strike.
Captain Aubrey hosts meals at sea consisting of codlings, partridge, four 'removes' of game and figgy dowdy, all washed down with an '85 Chambolle-Musigny, bosun's grog and port. He attends dinners ashore with Turkish rulers, where they dine on lamb stuffed with saffron rice (a recipe for which you can find in the Moro cookbook!). He and Steven have gigot en croute with French officers during the Peace of Amiens, loin of veal at the Grapes, their favourite London inn, and they even manage a civet de lapin when in Paris' notorious Temple prison.
So for those of us in the know, it is no accident that some of most enjoyable scenes in Peter Weir's admirable film adaption of two of the Aubrey / Maturin books, Master and Commander and The Far Side of the World, revolve around the dining table. Captain Aubrey entertains his fellow officers with an edible floating archipelago in the shape of the Galapagos Islands, with tales of Lord Nelson, and terrible weevil-related puns ("in the service, one must always choose the lesser of two weevils").
O’Brian uses food to help define his characters. Jack Aubrey, whose fictional exploits were inspired by the real life actions of one Thomas Cochrane, is very much the unreconstructed dashing and heroic figure of old. A man ruled by his animal passions: to fight, to love, to eat and to drink. He is a man of appetite and "given to worshipping his belly" (Patrick O'Brian, The Mauritius Command). Jack and Stephen's first meal together is a memorable moment in the books, setting the wheels in motion for one of the longer-lasting literary friendships.
Not only that, it also introduces us to some of their very favourite foods, ones which will reappear time and again throughout the books: for Jack it is a dish of soused hog's face and for Stephen it is bolets (ceps or porcini to you and I). Stephen is a naturalist and very much taken with all types of fungi, whether it is gathering a basket full of bolets, blewits, chanterelles and Jew's ears in The Mauritius Command or tucking into a pheasant and truffle pie in Post Captain.
From this account, you might think that life in the navy was all beer and skittles, but O'Brian does not neglect to inform us of the realities of life at sea beyond truffles and claret. Indeed, O'Brian's scrupulous reputation in matters of historical accuracy means it is possible to tentatively draw some conclusions, which can be corroborated by primary sources from the period.
As the books show, the Royal Navy actually took great pains to ensure its sailors had enough to eat and drink throughout their long and dangerous voyages. Evidently, the food for the rest of the ship's crew did not extend to venison and vintage burgundy, but the sailor's daily ration of a pound of bread, 1/2 pound of salt beef, 1/4 pound of salt pork, dried peas, oatmeal, butter, and cheese was designed (within the limitations of the time) to provide enough to sustain them for their extremely physical roles. And, in relation to their daily allowance of two pints of grog (three parts water to one part rum), at least some consolation for the loss of their liberties.
For the poorer crewmen, this regular supply of food was an improvement from the uncertainties on land, and there are records of Lord Nelson writing to the Duke of Clarence to express his concern over the plight of agricultural labourers in his native Norfolk.
Even Samuel Pepys, writing in the 17th century makes reference to this in his diaries: "it must always be remembered in the management of the victualling of the navy that to make any abatement in the quantity or agreeableness of the victuals is to discourage and provoke them in the tenderest point, and will sooner render them disgusted with the King’s service than any other hardship that can be put upon them".
However, we shouldn’t exaggerate; even when the hold was full, the food wasn’t much to write home about, and when it was empty, the sailors resorted to all sorts of unpalatable items. Bottom of the list was the ship’s rat. Yes, the rumours are true; sailors were indeed forced to eat these when times were hard. There are even contemporary accounts of the crew using bait to ‘fish’ for rats in the ship’s hold. There is a passage in HMS Surprise where O’Brian describes how the sailors would call rats ‘millers’, partly to “make ‘em eat better” (HMS Surprise), but also because they would get dusty from their home among the ship’s flour and biscuit stores.
This could be an early example of that modern phenomenon whereby a Patagonian toothfish is miraculously transformed into a Chilean seabass by the simple process of being featured on a restaurant menu, unfortunately though, I’ve been unable to substantiate it.
My research shows that sailors are no longer forced to eat rats, but some things never change, and their attitude to the food served in today's Royal Navy seems pretty similar to that of the sailors of Nelson's era: any deviation from the set routine is severely frowned upon. Just as the chef onboard HMS Tireless, a Royal Navy submarine, reported in a newspaper interview in 2009 that altering the routine from steak on Saturday night and pizza on Sunday would provoke a mini-mutiny, one Midshipman Gardner, an officer on HMS Berwick in 1804, states that men were actually clapped in irons for attempting to mutiny over the state of their food - specifically the scrawny bullocks that had been bought to feed them!
We can agree that the standard 19th century sailor's diet of salt pork and scrawny bullock does not have a huge amount to recommend it to the modern palate, but the same cannot be said for Jack Aubrey's favourites: soused hog's face and spotted dog. Indeed, if you read through the whole series, you could be forgiven for thinking that many of the current food trends that revolve around Britain's culinary heritage and the re-discovery of dishes from our past were partly inspired by these books.
What is remarkable is the newly found popularity of many of the 18th and 19th century dishes depicted by O'Brian; half the menu at both the Gilbert Scott, Marcus Wareing's restaurant, and Dinner, Heston Blumenthal's, could have been lifted from those very pages. Welsh rarebit (toasted cheese is Jack Aubrey's staple supper), pease pudding, salamagundy, roast halibut, mushroom ketchup, duck, trifle, and lemon suet pudding (aka spotted dog minus the spots) all feature.
I even received an email from the Gilbert Scott not so long ago entitled 'Flips and Fizzes in February'; you won't by this time need me to tell you that flips feature in the books, with poor Captain Pullings laid low after indulging too heavily in ‘Admiral's Flip’, a 50/50 concoction of champagne and brandy, in Treason's Harbour.
There are plenty of other dishes featured in the books which Heston and Marcus could do worse than to take inspiration from. Who could resist the quaking pudding, a dessert made with eggs, cream, sherry, cinnamon, ginger and rose-water, fed to Brigid, Stephen's daughter, in The Commodore; the goose and truffle pie ("more truffle than goose") from The Ionian Mission; or the ever-present soused hog's face, which must appear in every book in the series?
Even the humble hog's face has seen its stock rise inexorably in the last few years, with pork cheeks now a regular feature on menus. Yet a whole soused hog's face might be a bridge too far for most restaurants, with sousing usually confined to herring or perhaps mackerel.
This is obviously a situation that needs remedying; Aubrey’s soused hog’s face should rank alongside Proust’s madeleine, Roald Dahl’s krokan ice-cream from Boy and Herman Melville’s Clam Chowder from Moby Dick in the canon of great literary dishes. What better way than to pay homage to Patrick O'Brian's literary genius than to reintroduce his hero's favourite dish to polite society?
A genuine soused hog’s face is something akin to a vinegared brawn, and there is a contemporary recipe for soused pig’s head and feet in Mrs Dalgairn’s The Practice of Cookery, which was published in 1840:
“Clean them extremely well, and boil them; take for sauce part of the liquor, and add vinegar, lime or lemon juice, salt, cayenne, black and Jamaica pepper; put in, either cut down or whole, the head and feet; boil all together for an hour, and pour it into a deep dish. It is eaten cold with mustard and vinegar"
To get the ball rolling, I decided to introduce some friends to a poshed up version made with pigs’ cheeks, and perhaps owing more to that Italian way of cooking meat, agrodolce, than the original recipe. Although a success, my 'rustic' presentation of the whole cheek, which sat quivering on the plate, caused some initial concerns.
However, this is something a more talented chef than I will be able to address before it is unleashed on a paying public, so I'd urge Heston or Marcus to give it a crack. For pudding, naturally it had to be a spotted dog and custard. Alas mine was only big enough to feed eight, and didn't require two men to transport it from the galley. And finally, as any O’Brian inspired feast should, it was a toast in rum: