Regency Recipe: Hardtack
Updated: Dec 11, 2022
No, this isn't a sexy recipe about hero tackle - sadly. Instead, as I was encouraged to rewatch the recent adaptation of Austen's Persuasion for the third time (I was told to look for its good points, and I must say my opinion remains unchanged - read more of this here if you wish), I was inspired to re-read my favourite Austen novel instead. As an homage to the Royal Navy, Austen's most mature novel is outstanding. The details delivered of the seafaring life are evident, and as she had two brothers in the navy I'm sure this fed her interest.
As Wentworth is my favourite Austen hero and there's nothing I love more than a man in uniform, I chose to look into what our naval gentlemen might find to eat - and I came across a recipe that reminded me very much of Australian bush bread, which some call 'damper'. The food was intended to fill the bellies of enlisted men - Austen's siblings, an admiral and rear-admiral by their retirement, may have eaten them in the early stages of their career.
Austen's brothers would have called this food 'Ship's Biscuits', or 'tack' (thought they'd not likely use the latter term around their sisters). These biscuits were baked, and baked again. They were baked a minimum of four times in total. the idea being to remove as much moisture from the 'tack' as possible - hence the 'hard' part. The recipe is quite simple - see below:
4 cups of white flour
2 cups of water
4 teaspoon of salt
1. Set oven to 200 degrees Celsius (350 degrees Fahrenheit).
2. Slowly mix the flour and salt into the water in a large mixing bowl. The mixture will get very thick, so use a wooden spoon instead of a whisk.
3. Transfer the dough to a flat, lightly floured surface.
4. Knead the dough by hand to make sure it's thoroughly mixed.
5. Using a rolling pin, flatten the dough to ½ inch thick. Then cut your dough into 3 x 3 squares.
6. Use a skewer or toothpick to poke 3 rows of 4 holes into the top of each square.
7. Transfer the squares to a baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes. Flip the squares and bake for another 30 minutes.
8. Remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack. If you wish, you may bake it three more times - but be warned, this will definitely make it hard.
The tack will keep for months. Ship's Biscuits were an important part of a sailor's diet until the mid-1800s. They were, in fact, mass produced during the reign of Queen Victoria, for this purpose. While tinned meat first hit the market in 1814, it wasn't until 1847 that the Royal Navy added tinned victuals to the diets of its seamen.
Hard tack was - and still is - also used as a survival food for hikers and trackers. It became a source of both income and sustenance during the gold rushes in the early days of colonial America, and while the taste leaves a lot to be desired, there's no denying this recipe is cheap, filling, and keeps for months. It's not so bad with preserves. Would I serve it to an officer though? Hmmm...what do you think?