April 26, 2013 6:14 pm

The history cook: Manual of Naval Cookery

Although based in Singapore, the Royal Navy’s Far East Fleet was largely kept afloat by traditional British stodge
Relatives wave off the aircraft carrier HMS Albion, part of the Far East Fleet, as she sets off for Singapore, Portsmouth, 1965©Getty

Relatives wave off the aircraft carrier HMS Albion, part of the Far East Fleet, as she sets off for Singapore, Portsmouth, 1965

Manual of Naval Cookery (Far East Fleet)

Issued by the fleet commander, Vice-Admiral Sir Frank Twiss, 1966

Imagine southeast Asia and highly spiced noodles, laksas and curries spring to mind. But the British sailors stationed there in 1966 were not enjoying this food; instead they were tucking into beef broth and steamed jam roll. The evidence for this can be found in the Manual of Naval Cookery (Far East Fleet), as issued by the fleet commander, Vice-Admiral Sir Frank Twiss.

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Based in Singapore and made up of about 30 vessels, including aircraft carriers, submarines, commando carriers, frigates, destroyers and minesweepers, the Far East Fleet played a role in deterring and suppressing trouble in the region after the second world war. This huge contingent of sea power was supported by a naval dockyard that spread for 21 square miles on the northern tip of Singapore. Thousands of navy personnel serviced the Far East Fleet and the Manual of Naval Cookery was issued to ensure that crews ranging from 30 to 500 were adequately fed.

Providing food in a confined space and at sea involved logistics, routines and hierarchy. The chapter on “galley organisation and messing systems” establishes that the senior cook rating sets the duties of the cook ratings, while the victualling officer is responsible for ordering, storing and maintaining all food supplies on board. Cooks were organised to work in “watches” and followed a strictly prescribed “galley routine”. This “presents a clear picture of each day’s work” and “shows how the work can be done in a systematic manner”. Tropical temperatures made the “risk of food poisoning considerable” and required “scrupulous cleanliness in person, implements and galleys” and rigorous and regular cleaning rotas.

Manual of Naval Cookery (Far East Fleet)©Nina Mangalanayagam

Reading the recipes in the Manual of Naval Cookery is a Lilliputian experience – stock requires 40lb of beef bones, 5lb of onions and carrots, 2lb of leeks, 9 gallons of water and 1oz of peppercorns; white sauce for 100 is made with 8 pints of milk, 1lb of flour and 1lb of margarine.

The food on offer, for the non-officer majority, was institutional and predictable. Breakfast was bacon, sausages, fried eggs, tinned mushrooms or baked beans. Dinner and supper consisted of a soup starter, main course and pudding, with tomato soup, liver and bacon and apple pie typical offerings. (My father-in-law, who served in the 1960s as a chief petty officer in what he colloquially named the “Far Flung Fleet”, recalls that the ships’ cooks were trained “like school dinner ladies of that era – the food was healthy, hygienic and filled stomachs. Occasionally it was good or enjoyable but usually it was bland and boring.”)

Food served to officers was considerably more refined. Seven of the manual’s 22 chapters are dedicated to “ward room”cookery, most of which is of the faux-French-hotel school of catering that prevailed in “smart” establishments in Britain until the late 1970s. Dinner, for example, “may begin with an hors d’oeuvres such as Russian Salad, Cooked Beetroot sliced or diced, Olives, stuffed or plain, Pickled herrings, Grapefruit decorated with glacé cherries, smoked salmon or melon”.

For everyone other than officers, catering was organised by a “general messing” system. Described in the manual as a “central dining system with meals collected from the servery and eaten in dining halls”, this was a relatively modern invention. From the 18th century until the 1920s, crews were organised into “messes” of between 10 and 20 sailors. These units provided for themselves, with a nominated sailor responsible for victualling and cooking. Meals were consumed in the mess, where the sailors lived and slept. By 1966, general messing was the norm on Navy ships but on smaller and older vessels, eating in berthing compartments still took place.

Ironically, in 1967 the man who issued this most stalwart of culinary manuals, Sir Frank Twiss, snuffed out the daily provision of a rum ration for all sailors – a custom dating back to 1655. But in 1966, the grog tradition prevailed – as did the convention of eating British stodge or Frenchified fare in tropical waters.

Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library; “Manual of Naval Cookery (Far East Fleet)” by kind permission from the British Library collection

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2206. Scotch Woodcock

Eggs 3

Anchovy fillets 5

Capers 20

Butter 1oz

Parsley 2 sprigs

Anchovy butter 1oz

Method:

a) With the eggs make up some scrambled egg.

b) Spread some toast with the anchovy butter, and arrange the scrambled egg neatly on top.

c) Place one strip of anchovy fillet crossways on each and garnish with the capers.

d) Place on a baking tray, heat in an oven, serve with a garnish of parsley.

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1215. Steamed Jam Roll

Flour 11lb

Jam 9lb

Water 5 pints

Suet 4lb

Baking powder 2oz

Salt 1oz

Method:

a) Sieve the flour, salt and baking powder together and make up the suet pastry.

b) Divide into 10 2lb pieces.

c) Roll out to 15in x 8in.

d) Spread with jam and lightly roll up.

e) Place the rolls in well-greased dishes, cover with greaseproof paper and steam for about 1 ½ hours.

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