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Black Sails 2014While you can bet a treasure chest of gold, diamonds and pearls that the food served on the set of the pirate drama series Black Sails (the fourth season is currently filming in Cape Town), is nothing but the best, the menu aboard ships in the Golden Age of Piracy in the  early 1700s was anything but nutritious, appealing or even edible!  Pirates lived in cramped, miserable conditions and suffered from debilitating diseases, with the majority of them dying before the age of 30 as a result of warfare, the gallows or indeed a very poor diet.

Shipboard food was limited to what would keep in the course of prolonged voyages. Bread came in the form of hardtack or ‘ship’s biscuit’, rock hard squares of flour-and-water dough that after a few weeks at sea was inevitably infested with weevils. Beef was salted or dried and so tough that sailors often carved it into buttons and belt buckles. Beer, ale, and rum were the choice of drink since all kept better than fresh water.Occasionally pirate fare was far worse. Pirate Henry Morgan and his crew, stranded in 1670, were forced to eat leather satchels, while female pirate Charlotte de Berry’s crew, shipwrecked and in desperate straits, turned to cannibalism, eating two slaves as well as de Berry’s husband.

On the other side of the doubloon though, there was William Dampier, once described as “a pirate of exquisite mind.”  As well as a buccaneer, Dampier was also a naturalist, author, world traveller and adventurous foodie.  Over a thousand entries in the Oxford English Dictionary are attributed to Dampier, many of them having to do with food. Dampier gave us such terms as barbecue, cashew, kumquat, soy sauce and tortilla.  Dampier was certainly an adventurous eater, sampling flamingos (“the flesh is lean and black yet very good meat”), armadillos (“tastes much like land-turtle”), locusts (“very moist, their heads would crackle in one’s teeth”), sea lions and Galapagos tortoises, the flesh of which he compared to chicken.  He also recorded what may be the first recipe for mango chutney, noting: “When the mango is young, they cut them in two pieces, and pickled them with salt and vinegar, in which they put some cloves of garlic. This is an excellent sauce, and much esteemed.”

Other than hardtack and salt beef, the closest we may get to a genuine pirate dish today is salmagundi, a concoction of meat, fish, vegetables, and fruits and which some refer to as a precusor to day’s “Chef’s Salad”.   For those adventurous enough, try this recipe from 1712: “Chop into small chunks turtle meat, chicken, pork, beef, ham, pigeon and fish. Marinate with spiced wine and roast. Add the meats to boiled chopped cabbage, anchovies, pickled herring, mango, hard-boiled eggs, palm-hearts, onions, olives and grapes. Add pickled chopped vegetables and garlic, chilli pepper, mustard, salt and pepper, and serve in a mound upon a large dish.”

The second season of Black Sails launched on HISTORY (DStv 186) on Tuesday, May 24 at 8.30pm. The series stars Toby Stephens, Luke Arnold, Hannah New, Luke McGowan, Tom Hopper and a host of South African actors such as Sean Cameron Michael, Louise Barnes and Fiona Ramsey.

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