Bermuda research helps recreate typical shipboard diet

By Grace Tsai

Research | November 2, 2020

Reading time: 6 minutes

*From the archives. This article first appeared in MARITimes 2018 Vol 31 No. 1

In 2015, Grace Tsai and José Luis Casaban travelled to the National Museum to study and document more than 100 animal bones from the Warwick, an English galleon that sank in Castle Harbour during a hurricane in 1619. The goal of the study was to identify the faunal remains, understand the butchery patterns used to prepare shipboard meat, and deduce which cuts of meat were brought and eaten on board.

The Warwick assemblage data was combined with archaeological information from other 16- and 17th-century wrecks, and information from historical documents, to replicate shipboard food in what is now called the Ship Biscuit & Salted Beef Research Project (SBSB).

In August 2017 the SBSB team, aided by data gathered since 2015, recreated the salted beef, pork, cod, ship, biscuit, wine, beer and other typical shipboard provisions. Care was taken to replicate the items as precisely as possible, including gathering ingredients from their original 17th-century sources when feasible.

For example, the salted beef was made using recipes from John Collins’s 1682 treatise, Salt and Fishery.

John Collins’s Salt and Fisher (1682), describing a meat curing recipe

First, a grass-fed, hormone and antibiotic-free steer was acquired, and butchered into 4lb pieces following the faunal analysis results and backed up by instructions within the historical recipe. The cuts of beef were then laid in a barrel with a thick blanket of French bay salt. The salt, imported from the Bay of Guérande in the South of France, is produced in salines and gathered by hand as it has been for centuries, and was acquired for all of the salted meats and fish.

Each layer of beef had a thick layer of salt between them to thoroughly cure the meat. After 12 days of dry salting, the beef was removed, excess salt was shaken off, and the meat juices that had gathered at the bottom of the barrel were removed and boiled. Meanwhile, more brine was made using natural untreated aquifer water that was saturated with bay salt until an egg could float in the solution.

The beef was put back into the barrel, and the cooled meat juices and brine were poured into the barrel until it was filled to the top, so that all the pieces were submerged, completing the pickling process.

Like the beef, every food item produced was researched extensively and prepared with care and precision to mimic the food that would have been on 17th-century ships.

The food items were placed on Elissa, a 19th-century tall ship docked in Galveston, from August 19, 2017, to October 21, 2017, except for the beer that was made at a later date and stored in a shipboard environment onshore.

Meat being dry cured in the salted beef barrel in August 2017

Each food item had samples for laboratory testing removed regularly, which was then prepared as the sailors would have eaten the food. For example, in the case of beef, the meat was desalted in shipboard fresh water and then boiled. The food items were subjected to laboratory tests including microbiological, nutritional, and flavour profile analysis.

As of March 2018, the analyses are still underway but preliminary results are available. It was hypothesised that the salted and dried items would grow few if any, microbes because of their high salt content or intense drying and heating. Further, it was thought that the shipboard water (originally sourced from a natural aquifer) would grow pathogenic bacteria, and that the beer and wine would primarily grow the yeasts that helped in their fermentation.

Most of the results were unexpected. Not only did the salted beef grow several different taxa, including three entirely new species, but the salt itself grew at least eight different taxa. It is unclear how long cooks on ships normally boiled meat, but it was discovered that it took 30 minutes of full boiling for the salted beef to become sterile, so anything less than 30 minutes of boiling meant ingestion of more microbes, both good and bad.

While the beer and wine grew several microbes, they did not grow on the MacConkey Plain agar, a substance used to scientifically test culture growth in a controlled setting and that is used to test for common pathogens such as E. coli. This suggests that bacteria growing in these beverages have no effect, or possibly beneficial effects, on humans. The water samples taken from the barrels grew easily on the MacConkey Plain agar, which confirmed our hypothesis for water.

Flavour profiling was done by Ph.D. student Kayley Wall at Texas A&M University in Dr. Chris Kerth’s laboratory via Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry, a technique that captures the volatile compounds in foods, which translates to their aromas. Interesting results have come back so far. For example, in the case of the beer, there was the presence of pyrazine, ketone, and furan functional groups (along with esters, benzene, aldehydes, alcohols, and acids) when it was first put on the ship.

However, the pyrazine, ketone, and furan functional groups were present in significantly fewer amounts at the end of the sample collection, but ethanol had a marked increase. It is possible some of the ketones were reduced to alcohol, which would explain the increase in ethanol. Although running each sample takes about 30 minutes, the analysis of the results takes significantly more time. Nutritional analysis is underway, but the results are not yet available as these are pricier and take longer to process.

Within the past year, the SBSB team has teamed up with a local brewery, the Karbach Brewing Company, on a joint collaboration to recreate a modern replica of the experimental shipboard beer for a beer tasting fundraiser in which proceeds will go towards the cost of nutritional analysis. The beer, named Nautic Ale, will also be available in select locations in Texas aside from the fundraiser.

Cheers! Checking out the modern version of a 1577 beer recipe, now called Nautic Ale are (from left): Michael Paylus, Grace Tsai, Alan Ward, and Brian Starr.

Thanks to Karbach Brewing the nutritional results have been expedited significantly and should be available very soon.

The SBSB team is most intrigued by the microbiological results found thus far. Currently, the evidence suggests that the sailors consumed a large variety of both good and bad microbes, much more so than modern humans living in Western society are exposed to in their diet. This may be significant looking at the broader impacts of the study because key mechanisms of the human body are controlled by the microbes that live in the gut.

Studies show a relationship between the gastrointestinal microbiome and diseases including obesity, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and certain types of cancer. In particular, it appears that traditional foods harbour more diverse microbiological populations, and that people who have a more diverse taxa in their gut have a smaller chance of getting common Western diseases.

C. Clemente et al. measured differences in diversity within the gut microbiome of the average individual living in the US in a sanitised Western environment, with that of indigenous Yanomami in Venezuela, who practice a foraging lifestyle, and noted that the Yanomami had 50 percent more microbial taxa compared to US residents in the study.

Martinez et al. ran a similar study comparing fecal samples from non-industrialised regions in Papua New Guinea (PNG) with those from the US and found the PNG samples had greater bacterial diversity, lower inter-individual variation, different abundance profiles, and bacterial lineages undetectable in US residents.

Likewise, comparisons between the gut microbiome of European children and children in Burkina Faso, Malawi people and amazonian Amerindians, and Hazda hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, collectively imply that there is greater diversity within the gut microbiome of less modernised countries, much like the microbiological results seen in food from the SBSB project.

Further studies made the connection that communities practicing pre-industrial foodways have a lower frequency of obesity, diabetes, gastrointestinal diseases, and many other chronic non-infectious diseases. although the SBSB project results are still preliminary, it is possible that studying the past preservation methods and foods will help understand modern health and diseases.

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