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Ship’s Biscuit

Ship’s Biscuit was one of the staples of Naval cuisine, at least for the enlisted man (Jane Austen mentions that her mother preserved several hams for her sea bound officer son to take with him…) This type of food, however, would have been no stranger to the sea faring Austen brothers. Made of flour, salt and water, they were baked up to four times, to ensure that any excess moisture was removed, allowing the bread to last indefinitely.

A ship’s biscuit—purportedly the oldest in the world—displayed at the maritime museum in Kronborg, Denmark.

At the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the daily allowance on board a Royal Navy ship was one pound of biscuits plus one gallon of beer. Later, Samuel Pepys in 1667 first regularised naval victualing with varied and nutritious rations. Royal Navy hardtack during Queen Victoria’s reign was made by machine at the Royal Clarence Victualing Yard at Gosport, Hampshire, stamped with the Queen’s mark and the number of the oven in which they were baked. Biscuits remained an important part of the Royal Navy sailor’s diet until the introduction of canned foods; canned meat was first marketed in 1814, and preserved beef in tins was officially introduced to the Royal Navy rations in 1847.

Ship’s biscuit, crumbled or pounded fine and used as a thickener, was a key ingredient in New England seafood chowders from the late 1700s onward.


In 1801, Josiah Bent began a baking operation in Milton, Massachusetts, selling “water crackers” or biscuits made of flour and water that would not deteriorate during long sea voyages from the port of Boston, which was also used extensively as a source of food by the gold prospectors who emigrated to the gold mines of California in 1849. Since the journey took months, pilot bread, which could be kept a long time, was stored in the wagon trains. His company later sold the original hardtack crackers used by troops during the American Civil War. The G. H. Bent Company remains in Milton, and continues to sell these items to Civil War re-enactors and others.

The following video demonstration from Jas. Townsend and Son provides a period look at baking Ship’s Biscuits, along with some historical information and a recipe for creating your own.

Historical information from

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The Baker

Much could not be hoped from the traffic of even the busiest part of Highbury; — Mr Perry walking hastily by, Mr William Cox letting himself in at the office-door, Mr Cole’s carriage-horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; and when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker’s little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door.

The chief art of the baker lies in making bread, rolls, and biscuits, and in baking various kinds of provisions.

It is not known when this very useful business first became a particular profession. Bakers were a distinct body of people in Rome nearly two hundred years before the Christian era, and it is supposed that they came from Greece. To these were added a number of freemen, who were incorporated into a college, from which neither they nor their children were allowed to withdraw. They held their effects in common, without enjoying the power of parting with them. Each bake house had a patron, who had the superintendancy of it; and one of the patrons had the management of the others, and the care of the college. So respectable were the bakers at Rome, that occasionally one of the body was admitted among the senators.

Even by our own statutes the bakers are declared not to be handicrafts; and in London they are under the particular jurisdiction of the lord mayor and aldermen, who fix the price of bread, and have the power of finding these who do not conform to their rules.

Bread is made of flour mixed and kneaded with yeast, water, and a little salt. It is known in London under two names, the white or wheaten, and the household: these differ only in degrees of purity; and the loaves must be marked with a W or H, or the Baker is liable to suffer a penalty.

The process of bread-making is thus described: –To a peck of meal are added a handful of salt, a pint of yeast, and three quarts of water, cold in summer and hot in winter, and temperate between the two. The whole being kneaded, as is represented in the plate, will rise in about an hour; it is then moulded into loaves, and put into the oven to bake.

The oven takes more than an hour to heat properly, and break about three hours to bake. Most bakers make and sell rools in the morning: these are either common, or French rools: the former differ but little from loaf-bread: the ingredients of the latter are mixed with milk instead of water, and the finest flour is made use of for them. Rolls require only about twenty minutes for baking.

The life of a baker is very laborious; the greater part of his work is done by night: the journeyman is required always to commence his operations about eleven o’clock in the evening, in order to get new bread ready for admitting the rolls in the morning. His wages are, however, but very moderate, seldom amounting to more than ten shillings a week, exclusive of his board.

The price of bread is regulated according to the price of wheat; and bakers are directed in this by the magistrates, whose rules they are bound to follow. By these the peck-loaf of each sort of bread must weight seventeen pounds six ounces avoirdupois weight, and smaller loaves in the same proportion. Every sack of flour is to weigh two hundred and a half and from this there ought to be made, at an average, twenty such peck-loaves, or eighty common quartern-loaves.

If bread were short in its weight only one ounce in thirty six, the baker formerly was liable to be put to the pillory; and for the same offence he may now be fined, at the will of the magistrate, in any sum not less than one shilling, nor more than five shillings, for every ounce wanting; such bread being complained of and weighed in the presence of the magistrate within twenty-four hours after it is baked, because bread loses in weight by keeping.

The process of biscuit-baking, as practiced at the Victualling-office at Deptford, is curious and interesting. The dough, which consists of flour and water only, is worked by a large machine. It is then handed over to a second workman, who slices it with a large knife for the bakers, of whom there are five. The first, or moulder, forms the biscuits two at a time; second, or marker, stamps and throws them to the splitter, who separates the two pieces, and puts them under the hands of the chucker, the man that supplies the oven, whose work of throwing the bread on the peel must be so exact, that he cannot look off for a moment. The fifth, or depositer, receives the biscuits on the peel, and arranges them in the oven. All the men work with the greatest exactness, and are, in truth, like parts of the same machine. The business is to deposit in the oven seventy biscuits in a minute; and this is accomplished with the regularity of a clock, the clacking of the peel operating like the motion of the pendulum. There are 12 ovens at Deptford, and each of them will furnish daily bread for 2040 men.

By referring to the plate, we see the baker represented in the act of kneading his dough the bin upon which he is at work contains the flour: on his right hand is the peel, with which he puts in and takes out the bread: at his back we see the representation of the fire in the oven, and in the front is the pain in which the yeast is fetched daily from the brewhouse; and by the side of the flour-bin on the ground is the wood used to heat the oven.

From The Book of Trades, or Library of Useful Arts published by Jacob Johnson, in 1807, with the original copper plate engraving.

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The Regency Dessert Course

When the dessert and the wine were arranged, and Mrs Dashwood and Elinor were left by themselves, they
remained long together in a similarity of thoughtfulness and silence.
Sense and Sensibility

In the 18th and 19th century, a formal dinner was looked upon as more than a fine meal. It was a sort of grand show. The finale of the meal–dessert–was the most elaborate and expensive course of the dinner; and it required a knowledgeable confectioner to create the spectacular dessert displays of the day. The dessert fare included biscuits in great variety and macaroons served for dipping into sweet wines and liqueurs. Sugar biscuits that were closely related to meringues and gimblettes de fleurs d’orange that were large knotted biscuits were popular.

The most fashionable dessert–ices–were presented in little serving cups known as tasses à glaces and came in a variety of flavors including: pistachio, barberry, and rye bread.

The table was decorated with sugar-paste (pastillage) sculptures in forms such as cherubs and architectural shapes that recreated a garden or exotic locale in miniature. The display might decorate the dinning table throughout the dinner or grace a special dessert table in another room. This centerpiece was known as a plateau. It was generally placed on a mirror to increase the light and would include such items as temples and all the features usually found in a garden such as decorative pattern hedges (parterres) and flowers all created in sugar.

The sugar-paste sculptures might be made by pressing the sugar mixture into elaborately carved wooden molds or by carving. Thus the confectioner would own an array of molds and special carving tools.


In addition to the table centerpiece decorations, each guest would find a tiny molded-sugar basket filled with bonbons or ‘jeweled fruit’ beside their place setting. Even the place card might be a sugar sculpture, often in the form of the coat of arms of the guest.

The confectioner’s expensive and ethereal sugar-paste art began to be replaced by durable unglazed porcelain, known as biscuit, which looked
very like sugar-paste. The French Vincennes/Sèvres porcelain factory began producing biscuit table figurines around 1751. By 1790, the Danish court owned a collection of 850 pieces of porcelain meant to decorate the dessert table ranging from the ubiquitous pavilions, statues, and urns to cascades and warships.

The Prince of Wales had a separate confectioner’s kitchen in his Brighton Pavilion and kept three confectioners on his staff so that he could entertain in the finest style.

Sharon Wagoner is Curator of The Georgian Index.
Visit this site for a historical tour through Regency London!

Suggested reading: Feast: A History of Grand Eating by Roy Strong

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Biscuits & Marmalade

“She looks much as she used to do, is netting herself a gown in worsteds, and wears what Mrs. Birch would call a Pot Hat. A short and compendious history of Miss Debary!”
~Jane Austen
25 November, 1798

Martha Lloyd, by kind permission of private owners collection.In 1807 Jane Austen’s dear friend Martha Lloyd spent several days visiting the Debary family. Jane feared for her friend, writing, “The living of which he has gained…I cannot help thinking she will marry Peter Debary.” It would seem there was no love lost between the Austens and those whom Jane referred to as “the endless Debarys”. Fortunately, Martha would instead marry Francis Austen, though Jane would not live to see it. One thing Ms. Lloyd did retain from her friendship with the Debarys is the following recipe for Scotch Marmalade.

Scotch Orange Marmalade
Each lb. of oranges requires 1 1/2 lbs of lump sugar. Quarter the oranges, then take off the rind and cut part of the white substances from it. Put the rinds into boiling water and boil them quickly for an hour and a half or two hours. Slice them as thin as possible. Sqeeze the pulp thro’ a sieve adding a little water to the dregs. Break the sugar fine. Put it in a pan, pour the pulp on it- when dissolved add the rinds, then boil the whole for twenty minutes- a little essence of lemon may be added before it is taken off the fire, in the proportion of a small teaspoonful to twelve oranges.
Donated by Miss Debary

Take two ozs of lard or butter [1/8 cup or half a stick of butter] and 2 lbs [8 cups] of flour. Mix them well together with a little cold water. Work or knead them very well. Roll your biscuits very thin and prick them exceedingly. Bake them on a tin in a very quick oven, (looking constantly or they will scorch).
Donated by Mrs. Dundas.

For great recipes for both biscuits and marmalade, visit

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