Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Living Off The Land.

Yesterday’s post on the provisioning of the Australasian Antarctic expedition of 1911 set me to thinking of the extreme difficulty of living off the land in the Polar regions of the world, and staying healthy. As Douglas Mawson pointed out in his narrative, one of the scourges of the early expeditions to the Poles was scurvy, which, as we all know, is due to Vitamin C deficiency from insufficient vegetable matter in the diet.
How to avoid scurvy at the Poles? Well, one could take tons of canned and dried fruit and vegetables as Mawson did, but this was not always possible in the past – and anyway, these could be lost, or could run out if the expedition took longer than expected.
Almost a century earlier than Mawson, Sir William Edward Parry led an expedition to the northern reaches of the globe – the Arctic. The first signs of scurvy had appeared in January 1820. By the middle of summer (June, 1820) he was able to report from Melville Island:

Having observed that the sorrel was now so far advanced in foliage as to be easily gathered in sufficient quantity for eating, I gave orders that two afternoons in each week should be occupied by all hands in collecting the leaves of this plant; each man being required to bring in, for the present, one ounce, to be served in lieu of lemon-juice, pickles, and dried herbs, which had been hitherto issued. The growth of the sorrel was from this time so quick, and the quantity of it so great on every part of the ground about the harbour, that we shortly after sent the men out every afternoon for an hour or two; in which time, besides the advantage of a healthy walk, they could, without difficulty, pick nearly a pound each of this valuable antiscorbutic, of which they were all extremely fond. Of the good effects produced upon our health by the unlimited use of fresh vegetable substances, thus bountifully supplied by the hand of Nature, even where least to be expected, little doubt can be entertained, as it is well known to be a never-failing specific for scorbutic affections, to which all persons deprived of it for a length of time are probably more or less predisposed.

The sorrel to which Parry refers is Oxyria digyna, commonly called Arctic, Alpine, Mountain, Sheep’s or Wood sorrel, and a relative of Common Sorrel, Rumex acetosa. Sorrel leaves can be eaten raw, as in salads, or added to sauces, soups and stews.

From The Master Book of Soups () by Henry Smith, I give you the author’s general comments on sorrel, and one of the many recipes containing it:

Sorrel is no longer used in much quantity, but can be used in all clear soups garnished with root vegetables, including the ever popular Julienne. Julienne at one time was chiefly garnished with wood sorrel, but with modern trends one usually finds this soup garnished with a mixture of any finely cut vegetables. Julienne should not be confused with other soups garnished with vegetables, such as Paysanne (country style), Chiffonade (literally, vegetables in rags).

Purée of Sorrel

3 lbs. sorrel, 3 ozs. Butter, 2 ½ pints seasoned stock, 3 ozs. flour , seasoning to taste

Cook sorrel in a little salt water, strain and press through a sieve. Combine sorrel with boiling stock, add creamed butter and flour and stir constantly till creamy. Taste for seasoning and serve. Cream or evaporated milk may be added if desired. (Yield: 8 portions). 

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