Ship's Biscuits in the SCA

Lord William "Cookie" Barfoot

A basic stable for sailors and travelers through out the ages has been the twice-baked bread. Infamous for its tooth chip- ping attributes, the biscuit, as I will be calling it here for simplicity, has been moving through out history. The Egyptians packed Dhourra cakes, a flat brittle loaf of millet, with them on their travels. The conquer- ing arms of the Roman Legions had Bucella- tum, a hard bead made of flour, sea salt, water and oil. The Romans went as far as making different kinds of biscuit for when in the military was in camp (Panis militaris Casternsis), marching (Panis militaris Mundus) or out to sea (Panis Nauticus).

Let’s us also remember those raiders from the North the Vikings. The Norse traveler, like the Romans, had a verity of travel bread. The verity of baked goods these hungry travelers had to consume included baked flat breads on to small round loaves with a hole in the middle of them much like the modern bagel or doughnut. Holes like this help the loaves cook and dry out evenly and as a bonus, gave the Vikings a conven- ient way to store and carry the bread by hanging it on a line or wires of iron or bronze.

The first account, though at this point un- confirmed at this point, of what we might picture as the typical Ship’s Biscuit would be in 1189 when Richard the Lionhearted supplied his ships heading for the Crusades with "biskit of muslin.", muslin being a ground mixture of wheat and rye.

At any rate, the idea of the Ship’s Biscuit is a simple one. You want bread that will withstand the rigors of travel at sea, will still taste the same a year from now as it does today (notice I did not say it had to say it had to taste good) and will hopefully not mold quickly or become too infested with critters. A very popular way of preserving bread was to twice bake it or bake it for a very long time at a low temperature. This drives out moisture, which makes it inhospi- table to bacteria, makes the beard very tough and reduces the weight of the biscuit. These properties make the Ship’s Biscuit ideal for long voyages.

The ingredients of the typical Ship’s Biscuit remain very simple: flour, salt and water. Salt, besides being a great preservative, is probably the only thing that adds flavor to these dried loaves. The flour came from a verity of sources, usually the cheapest ones around. This included, but not limited to ground barley, rye, peas, bean, wheat and rumors have it ground up bone. And for water, well, water is wet and fish live in it.

I have one note about ingredients and those wacky Romans. The Bucellatum that I men- tioned earlier also often included olive oil, herbs and because it is almost universal that h’officers have to have better food than we Sea Dogs, honey or rose water. I guess those Romans just had to have to eat fan- cier foods than the rest of us.

These three basic ingredients are combined to make stiff dough for this unleavened bread, rolled out, sometimes folded over and rolled out multiple times to make layers (think cracker like, which these are the predecessors of) and then baked as four times to drive every last bit of moisture out. This simple way of making these basic biscuits could be easily scaled up to, say, make enough to bread to feed a navy that needs to defeat an armada. Victualing yards could produce thousands Ship’s Biscuits a day using teams of bakers, specially made presses and very large ovens.

There is not a lot of to talk about the nutri- tional value of Sea Bread. The one thing these belly filling loaves have is a high calo- rie content. The Mary Rose Trust did a simple break down of the kilo calorie (kcal) of the pound of beef, biscuit and the gallon of beer the sailors in the English Navy was issued almost daily during the 16th century. The salted beef had a daily intake of 1000 kcal per day, biscuit at 1500 kcal/day and beer at 2000 kcal/day. That means even if all the beef was gone or to spoiled to eat, as long as you had beer and biscuit sailors could still get substantial amounts of calo- ries a day. And to this old salt, a diet of beer and biscuit sounds a mighty toothsome and could live off of that for some time.

I have a quick note on what to call your daily bread for those of you in the Modern Middle Ages. The term “Hard Tack” comes from the 19th century, with “tack” was slang for a coarse cut-rate food and “hard” was slang for something not soft. Some more period terms would be “Sea Biscuit,” “Ship’s Biscuit,” “Biskit” or “Biscuit,” “Ship’s Bread,” “Hard Bread,” "tooth dullers," "sheet iron," "worm castles" or "molar breakers," and oddly enough, “Bread”. The word biscuit comes from a 14th century Middle English word bisquite meaning twice baked bread. For you globe traveling types there is also Biscotti in Medieval Italian (yes, just like those little cookies you get with your cappuccino), Zwieback in German, and Beschuit in Dutch and Bizcocho in Spanish.

There are thousands of recipes out there for Ship’s Biscuit. The one I found below is one of the best and easiest ones I found:

Ship’s Biscuits
1 cup whole grain flour
1 tsp. salt
about half a cup of water, give or take

Blend the flour and salt together and add enough water, while kneading, to make dough. Roll out 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick, cut into squares or circles, and prick holes with a fork (actually my tool of choice is a chop- stick, the big holes seem to work better), being sure go all the way through the dough. Bake at 350 degrees for half an hour, flipping once midway through. Let them cool overnight. The next day, bake at 300 degrees for half an hour, or until the bis- cuits are completely hard and dry.

Stupid Biscuit Tricks
(From Biscuits, Bugs, & Broadsides by Mark Hilliard)

Finely chopped meat scraps fried with pounded biscuit.

Equal parts biscuit pounded fine, boiled beef cut into small pieces, and boiled potatoes, seasoned with lots of black pepper. There are many variations of this traditional Liver- pool dish.

Plum Duff
Beat a bag of biscuit into crumbs with a belaying pin. Add a handful of dried cur- rants (raisins will do), brown sugar, a little slush (Collected grease skimmed from boil- ing meat, drippings, or pan liquor of pork and/or beef), a spoon of ground cinnamon and a pinch of salt. Tie the bag shut and boil for several hours. Drain and serve warm like bread pudding or cold like raisin cake.

*For sources, contact the author.