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Cooks Must Be Inventive On Antarctic Research Bases

January 25, 2009

On Antarctic research bases, chefs rely on imported and often frozen food in order to feed crewmembers.

The 1959 Antarctic Treaty sets aside the continent as a nature reserve devoted to peace and science and bases have, over the years, stopped eating fresh wildlife.

Fresh seal brains, penguin eggs or grilled cormorant were once considered the “delicacies of the Antarctic,” but are now off the menu.

“You have to use what you’ve got in the store. Frozen stuff, tinned stuff and if you’re really desperate the dried stuff,” said Alan Sherwood, a widely praised chef at the British Rothera base on the Antarctic Peninsula.

He said they’re now onto dried onions because they’ve run out of fresh ones.

“You can’t just go out and buy some.”

Supplies are shipped to the Rothera base usually twice a year, in December and March. Sherwood said they occasionally get some rare shipments from Chile.

Until 1994, seals were shot at Rothera for dog food before dogs were banned from Antarctica for environmental protection reasons.

However, staff members in the old days enjoyed recipes for penguin egg omelettes or cooked seal hearts found in a recipe book at the base from the 1950s.

The unnamed author of the cookbook wrote: “Seal brains … I would consider one of the delicacies and luxuries of the Antarctic, and was enjoyed by most members of the base when I was chef.”

The author listed recipes for fried seal brains, seal brains au gratin, brain fritters, and seal brain omelettes and savory seal brains on toast.

The cook must have been a man, given there were no British women in Antarctica at the time.

Cormorants, or shags, were also considered “delicious”.

“My advice is if you see any around, take a … rifle and knock a few off. It is a very meaty bird and one is enough for about six people.”

Many also considered penguin a delicacy. The book said young penguins tasted the best. “Some say it tastes like a fishy version of chicken.”

For a base that can hold up to 100 people at a time, Sherwood has giant freezers and stores with tons of supplies to feed hungry crewmembers. He and a colleague make three meals a day and mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks known as “smoko.”

The weekend lunch menu included pea and ham soup, chicken with pesto, fish in batter, rice, chips, and a variety of salads. Sherwood has worked seven Antarctic summers and in between returns to England to a job as a caterer.

But he particularly enjoys his Antarctic view from the kitchen.

“You look out the window in the UK and you’ve got last night’s empty wine bottles and black bags in a dumpster. Here you’ve got icebergs rolling by.”

Sherwood said the next big meals would be when Dutch Crown Prince Willem-Alexander and his wife Princess Maxima visit Rothera in February.

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