Thursday, January 9, 2014

Recipes from Heard Island and McDonald Islands

What do intrepid explorers eat when visiting remote Antarctic islands? If you guessed canned food, you're right! This week is an ode to that very non-gourmet meal: tinned, processed and frozen. And also botulism.

Uh ... yum?

Yes, botulism. I know what you're thinking: Wow, Becki, that's a really appetizing way to start a food blog entry! Don't worry, no one here has botulism. But I think about it every time I buy imported canned food, because I am one of those people who Googles every unlikely thing that might harm my children and then obsesses over it for unnecessarily long periods of time.

This week it was the canned corn beef, which is shockingly expensive--like six bucks a can expensive, and I needed two of them. Happily, I found canned corned beef at the grocery outlet for about half price. Sadly, I noticed after I already bought it that it was imported from South America, and then I started to wonder if the particular South American nation it hailed from had the same food safety standards that we do, and then I learned that said South American nation also had a recent case of mad cow disease that they tried to hide from the world and that gave me something else to worry about.

Curse you, Google.

Anyway, buy American corned beef for this meal. Unless you aren't unreasonably paranoid to the point of it probably being clinical.

So now I guess we have to stop talking about botulism and bovine spongiform encephalopathy and start talking about why I had to buy corned beef. Because our nation du jour is Heard Island and McDonald Islands, which is another one of those tiny, uninhabited places. This particular island group is an Australian territory located about two thirds of the way from Madagascar to Antarctica, though it is technically in the Indian Ocean. It's roughly 144 square miles and is home to the only two active volcanoes on Australian territory. Historically it was a big sealing settlement, furnishing more than 100,000 barrels of elephant seal oil to the world over a period of about 25 years, until the sealers wiped out all of the seals. Today the seal population on the islands is protected and most species are bouncing back. Those seals are the only mammals that are tough enough to call the islands home, besides the occasional human.
Satellite image of the southern tip of Heard Island. (Image source: NASA)
With the holidays so recently behind me, I actually didn't have a lot of energy to go chasing down scientists and other people who'd spent time on Heard Island and the McDonald Islands. Fortunately, I found a book that provided me with some details about what past visitors have eaten there in the past, this one: Unique & Unspoilt: A Year Among the Natural Wonders of Heard Island (edited by Bernadette Hince). The book details a year-long expedition to Heard Island in 1953, and lists rations and a few dishes that the visitors ate during their time there. 
There were no recipes of course, so I tracked down some Australian versions of the dishes and rations listed and came up with this oh-so gourmet menu:

Bully beef stew
(This recipe comes from Mouths of Mums)
  • 2 cans corned beef
  • 2 beef stock cubes
  • 2 potatoes
  • 2 carrots
  • 1 cup frozen corn
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder and a small amount of water

Australian Whole meal biscuits
(From a website called "The Discount Travel Site")
  • 1 1/4 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • Pinch salt
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 2 oz butter
  • Pinch baking soda
  • 1/2 cup warm milk

Pineapple Betty
(This is an old recipe published on
  • 1 1/2 cups crushed pineapple
  • 1 cup soft bread crumbs
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup pineapple juice

The good news is, food out of a can is easy to prepare. Here's how to make the stew: 

First peel and dice the carrots and potatoes. Make sure the carrots are cut into suitably large chunks so you don't have to eat them.

Now boil the potatoes and carrots with the stock cubes and enough water to cover until they are almost cooked through. 

Now, I also put my beef in at this point because of the whole stupid botulism thing (botulism toxin is destroyed by high temperatures) but my beef disintegrated, so I don't recommend this if you are reasonably sure your corned beef is botulism-free.

Next, mix the flour with the baking powder and add enough water to make "doughy chunks." What you're doing, really, is making some very basic dumplings to put in the stew. 
 Now add the corned beef and the frozen corn and heat through. In the last five minutes, add the "doughy chunks" and let them cook until they're puffy. All done!
Meanwhile make the biscuits. First, preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Sift together the whole wheat flour with the all purpose flour and salt. 

Add the sugar. Now melt the butter and stir in the warm milk, then blend with the dry ingredients until you get a nice soft dough. 

Roll into a 1/4 inch thick sheet and cut into rounds with a biscuit cutter. Transfer to lightly greased baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes or until golden.
Now make the dessert, which is super simple: just mix the pineapple with the bread crumbs, sugar, cinnamon and juice. 
Transfer to a buttered baking dish and dot with pieces of butter. Bake in that same 375 degree oven until golden.
Now you're eating like the king of Heard Island and McDonald Islands, of which there is no actual king so interpret that how you want to.

Here's what we thought: the stew looked downright nasty. I'm not going to describe it, because you've seen the picture. But it looked gross. When Martin saw it he made a sound that I can only describe as a mortified grunt.

But it didn't taste bad. It was actually pretty decent tasting, in fact. Definitely not something I would expect at a four star restaurant, or even a two star restaurant, but perfectly edible. Martin went back for seconds so there you go. The biscuits were also perfectly pleasant, especially with a little honey though they didn't need it since they were already sweet. And the pineapple Betty was fine, too, in fact as far as desserts go it was quite a nice switch from all that rich chocolate stuff we've been eating for weeks.

So yeah, it was fine. And you have to admit it at least made for an entertaining entry, I hope. And no one got botulism, either.

Next week: the Holy See (Vatican City)
For printable versions of this week's recipes:

1 comment:

  1. Well, what a place! Get the feeling some what though, in Amsterdam, the weather being bad enough here at the moment.


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