Whatever meat it may have been, the salt beef was certainly abomin- able. It could, perhaps, have been made eatable by long soaking in the steep tub, but no meat for the messes was ever soaked for more than twenty-four hours. The salt pork was generally rather better than the beef, but the sailors could carve fancy articles, such as boxes, out of either meat. The flesh is said to have taken a good polish, like some close-grained wood.
Sea Life in Nelson’s Time
Before I’m thought to be making a case that I’m most assuredly not making let me stipulate that the diet provided to British sailors was grimly monotonous and in some cases provisions were spoiled. As I was taught some time ago while attempting to become competent in operations research, “the plural of anecdote is not data.”
By the standards of the time, the British sailor had a much more wholesome diet than he would have expected in most trades earning the same wage and the food was not necessarily the stuff of which horror stories are told, despite the quote from our old friend John Masefield above.
We mentioned in an earlier post that we’d be serializing Janet MacDonald’s Feeding Nelson’s Navy, consistent with Fair Use restriction.
Salt beef was one of the staples of the diet of the British sailor. Admiralty regulations dating from 1733 allotted each sailor four pounds of beef, salt or fresh, each week. Now in practice there were fairly elaborate substitution rules at play that we’ll talk about at a later date.
So what was salt beef? If you’ve ever been to a St Patrick’s day celebration or eaten in a New York deli, you’ve had it: corned beef.
But, as any eater of corned beef will tell you, all corned beef isn’t the same. If the vendor followed Admiralty standards, and there were a lot of incentives for them to do so which we’ll cover at a later time, this is how salt beef was made.
The meat did not include either hide or bone. Offal, such as organs, heads, feet, and shins, was excluded. The remaining meat was cut into four-pound pieces. The four pound quantity is somewhat metaphysical as the butchers were instructed to cut prime sections of meat into slightly smaller pieces and other pieces into slightly larger pieces.
The resulting pieces were rubbed with a salt and saltpeter mixture, laid in a bin and covered with dry salt. As the salt drew water out of the meat, the brine was poured back over the cuts and more salt added. This was done twice a day for six days.
At the end of this time the meat was packed into barrels. A layer of meat was laid down, then a layer of salt, another layer of meat, and so on until the barrel was full. The barrel was allowed to stand for several days and the resulting brine drawn off by means of a bung in the bottom of the keg. After draining for 24-hours the barrel was refilled with strong brine. The brine was sufficiently salty that the pieces of meat could float. At this point the barrel was sealed and ready for issue.
Because the beef was packed in brine, not salt, when it was drawn from the barrel it was wet, not coated with salt crystals. If the brine had leaked the meat was rotten, not hard. Salt beef becomes tougher the longer it is stored, but the idea of it nearly being petrified at issue is most likely an Urban Legend.
The overwhelming majority of salt beef originated in Ireland, primarily in Cork but also Limerick and Waterford. The merchants there festablished a grading system for their product to ensure high quality.
There is no doubt that there were sharp practitioners among the contractors who supplied salt beef to the British Navy. But there is also no doubt that generally the salt beef was of good quality and of the correct weight.