Burritos, BBQs and the Antarctic sunshine 17/02/2020


As we enter the last week of our time at Port Lockroy, it seems this has been the season for visitors coming to stay, and for familiar faces to drop by.  We started with Sophie and Lizzie, here to carry out an artefact survey in the museum, completed just before Christmas. And at the end of the year, visits from last year's team members Gui and Heidi, before Heidi joined us as the fifth member of the 19/20 Port Lockroy team.

Over the past month or so, we've hosted Geoff and Nathan of the UKAHT conservation team, as they travelled around the peninsula visiting various historic bases, and Callum, an electrician from the Falkland Islands, who stayed to upgrade the electrics in the nissen hut.  We also had a flying visit from Kirsty, of last year's Port Lockroy team, on a wild and windy morning, with just time to step ashore for hugs before her ship's landing was called off.

This past week, we've caught up with Adele, a Port Lockroy team member and conservation assistant with several seasons under her belt, now part of a ship's expedition team, and said goodbye to Nathan and Geoff.  After completing their work at Port Lockroy and Damoy, and packing up a considerable amount of equipment to return to the depot in Stanley, they treated us to a night off from cooking duty with a meal of spicy tofu and vegetable satay with stir fry noodles (depleting the last of the island's soy sauce reserve in the process).

Our penultimate visitor for the season arrived as they left.  David, an LPG specialist from the UK, spent just a few days with us to overhaul the gas system in the nissen hut and upgrade our cooking equipment.  Luckily, he took unusual living conditions and working in a remote location in his stride, having previously spent several seasons at other Antarctica bases with BAS, and even had prior experience of working in Post Offices on tiny islands, once running the Post Office on Tanera Mor in the Summer Isles, in north west Scotland.

The prospect of a new oven this season has been thrilling, especially as the existing model was getting particularly clapped-out.  As someone who has only ever owned old banger cars (so old, they could only take cassette tapes in the stereo), I understand some machines develop their own unique quirks with age, however it was getting more and more tricky to bake, roast and reheat meals. Now the new oven has been installed, and fully tested with a round of Fray Bentos pies, it seems we were right to be excited. 

When we give talks on ships and chat with visitors to the museum, we're often asked about what we eat and where our food comes from, so with the rest of this post I'll try to answer some of the frequently asked questions.

When we first arrived on Goudier Island, a plentiful supply of tinned and dried food to last around six weeks had been left for us by the previous season's team.  Our first cargo delivery, scheduled to arrive after a couple of weeks, contained all the food allocation for our season plus enough to leave a similar reserve for the following year.  After a dicey situation with sea ice that would have seen us pushing our reserves to the limit, the ship arrived as scheduled, not just bringing us our stores, but also providing a hot lunch to keep us sustained through the rest of the day as we stowed the cargo.

The expedition ships that visit Port Lockroy are our foodie lifeline, bringing us gifts of "freshies" (fruit and vegetables), loaves of bread, hunks of cheese, cartons of fruit juice and bottles of wine, (and resupplying soy sauce) that help liven up our daily diet, and form the basis of a trade/barter system with our neighbouring bases and visiting yachts.  An overabundance of peaches and plums, ginger root, and lemons were shared with the Chileans; a festive cake, onions and garlic, yet more ginger root, and cabbages were sent to the Ukranian base; and every single yacht is currently being gifted a substantial number of fresh eggs (and ginger root).

We've also been invited onboard for meals, ranging from breakfasts of tiny pastries and fresh coffee, filling lunchtime burritos, late afternoon BBQs outside in the Antarctic sunshine, to a la carte dinners in grand dining rooms (or the crew mess, where the smell of penguin guano we exude doesn't detract diners from their experience).

Food is so important here, not just for our basic sustenance, but as something that can build morale or elevate a situation to become an event.  It's something that's been true through the history of Base A, and even further back into the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration, where expedition rations were minimal and monotonous, and every endeavour was seasoned with hunger.

Fit for a FID: how to keep an Antarctic explorer in prime condition is a book in our nissen hut library that sheds a light on food consumed in British Antarctic bases at the time of Base A's heyday. It's filled with a selection of recipes compiled by Gerald Cutland of the Falkland Islands Dependency Survey (FIDS), Britain's Antarctic agency from the end of WWII onwards, and forerunner of BAS.  Typed up on an old typewriter at Wordie House (Base F), he writes it as a guide for future FIDs taking their turn at the Esse stove on galley duty.

The mainstay of the cookbook are the tinned meats and vegetables, powdered eggs and milk, and preserved pickles and sauces familiar at the time from years of post-war rationing in the UK, though he provides advice for making use of fresh meats and other resources found locally: seal, cormorant (Antarctic shag), penguin, and the occasional fish, though with the liberal use of Bovril to hide the stronger flavours of some meat.  Fresh omelettes of penguin eggs were a welcome change from the monotony of dried egg powder, and seal brain fritters were considered a particular delicacy. Cutland draws the line with preparing penguins, however: "...I have an awful feeling inside of me that I am cooking little men who are just that little too curious...". 

Recipes in the book can no longer be reproduced (nor would we want to), but it provides us with a snapshot of the conditions in which the first occupants of Port Lockroy lived and worked, often for a couple of years at a time.  It's a reminder that we're so privileged to be able to spend a season here, and to be part of that continuing story. And to just enjoy watching the seals, shags and penguins we share the island with.

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