A bakery in Antarctica: David Mantripp Guest Blogger

We’re delighted our new friend, David Mantripp, guest blogs this piece he wrote after discovering The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning, particularly Wendy’s cooking stories from Bellingshausen, the Russian Antarctic station. David in Switzerland self-describes as a former aerodynamicist, former glaciologist, polar addict and sort of photographer. He wrote us days after the book was released, mentioning baking bread while stranded for six weeks on a tiny Island halfway down the Antarctic Peninsula. I asked him if he’d write about it. Thank you David for generously sharing this story and your great images – we’re thrilled the book is evoking memories and inspiring creations. Enjoy this trip to a micro outpost kitchen he revitalized one unforgettable Antarctic Christmas.

A bakery in Antarctica David Mantripp

Quite a nice day. Nice enough to evacuate us, but the one remaining available aircraft is busy elsewhere, and we seem to have slipped down the priority list again. Spent most of the day making currant buns, quite successfully, especially considering that the oven is only a tin box standing on two primus stoves.

Damoy Hut, Wiencke Island, Antarctica, 20th December 1987

Damoy Hut, restored and repainted, 2012 photo: David Mantripp

This extract from my notes written during a unexpectedly long stay at the small British Antarctic Hut on Wiencke Island were brought to mind on discovering the blog The Antarctic Book of Cleaning and Cooking, and the recently published, and quite gorgeous, book of the same title by Carol Devine and Wendy Trusler.

The book – and blog – focus around the experiences of a volunteer team dedicated to an environmental project organized by Carol Devine in collaboration with the Russian Antarctic Expedition. The objective of the project was to clean up the environs of the Russian Bellingshausen base on King George Island, something on the level of the mythical Augean stables. And within pages describing the project and its participants, personal anecdotes, and the historical and present background of scientific research in Antarctica, are interweaved dozens of delicious recipes concocted by Wendy Trusler in a makeshift kitchen.

BAS ship RRS John Biscoe off Damoy Point Photo: David Mantripp

Back in 1987, I was a glaciologist employed by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) embarking on my first visit to Antarctica. I was to lead an airborne survey of the Ronne Ice Shelf, as part of an ongoing project to chart its depth and flow. BAS operated out of a logistics base on Anvers Island, called Rothera, which in those days did not have a permanent airstrip, and was cutoff from ship access by sea ice until mid to late January.  So summer field staff were taken by ship as far as Wiencke Island, at the end of the Neumayer channel, where BAS had a small transit refuge known as Damoy. From there, ski-equipped Twin Otter aircraft ferried them onwards to Rothera, with around 6 to 8 passengers per flight. The ski-way at Damoy was quite precarious, running along a ridge about 200 feet above sea level, and could only be used in excellent visibility conditions, and temperatures below freezing.

I was delivered to Damoy together with around 30 colleagues by the research ship RRS John Biscoe on the 5th of December. We expected to remain there for a few days, before being collected by Twin Otter and flown further south to the British base at Rothera. Indeed, for the majority of the people in our group, this is what happened. But not for Clem, Alan and me. You can read more about that story here.

When the ship deposited us at Damoy, it left us with plenty of food. We even had some fresh vegetables, plenty of bread, and quite enough for the time we expected to be there. And if that ran out, well there were also some sledging rations, albeit slightly past their sledge-by date (and missing most of the good bits, like chocolate), and then, on the highest shelves, there were some very venerable looking tins the contents of which were unclear. And there was a great abundance of the near-universally loathed dried skimmed milk, Nespray. I say “near”, because as I recall one or two of the geologists claimed to like it, but there’s no accounting for taste. Or, indeed, geologists. Many of these tins (including the Nespray) are actually still there!

Damoy Hut, 1987 photo: David Mantripp

Food shelf, 2012. Most of these tins were there in 1987, many were there many years before! Photo: David Mantripp

Damoy is a nice place, and was very popular with BAS staff. In fact it’s a regular fixture on the tourist ship trail these days, although it’s not always easy to get ashore. In December the temperatures are quite moderate, not dropping below -10°C, and it never really gets dark. It has a fantastic view over the Neumayer Channel, with Anvers Island and Mt Français in the background, and hosts a large population of Gentoo penguins. When the weather is good it’s simply stunning. When it’s not so good, the hut offers a cozy refuge. Getting around was not always simple though, as the snow was deep and quite soft. We had a few sets of ancient snowshoes, the ones that look like tennis rackets and inevitably pitch you headfirst straight into the snow, and a single, geriatric and very bad-tempered snowmobile. Not that there was all that far to go – either up to the ski-way, taking care to keep to the marked trail, or out to the penguin rookeries. Otherwise the island features deep crevasses and sheer cliffs.

Gentoo penguins on Wiencke Island, 1987 photo: David Mantripp

As the days passed, our numbers dwindled, and so did our fresh food supplies. And visits from the aircraft also diminished in frequency. And by the 10th of December, just the three of us remained. We’d joke about ending up spending Christmas at Damoy – this had happened to a previous group, one just one legendary occasion in the distant past.

Damoy skiway, inbound photo: David Mantripp

Damoy skiway, outbound photo: David Mantripp

Just me, Alan and Clem at Damoy – been here a week now, with just the 3 of us since the 10th … Clem and Alan are quite eager to stay here for ages, which is understandable. .. but they could be a little more tactful in their glee!! [note: Alan was due to stay for 2 years at Faraday Base, Clem was quite happy to delay his relief cook tasks at Rothera. On the other hand I was seeing the window for my long-planned and complex fieldwork vanish.]

Damoy Hut, Wiencke Island, Antarctica, 12th December 1987

The “Damoy Three”, 1987, photo in Damoy Hut, 2012 Photo David Mantripp

With every regular early morning radio call to Rothera we expected to hear news of our imminent pickup, but as the days went by, the only news was of the three Twin Otters ferrying my colleagues out to their work sites, and of apologetic noises regarding the weather and the “Damoy Three”.

By this point, the supplies of bread had long since gone. Although one of Clem’s duties at Rothera, in theory, was relief cook, as far as he was concerned Damoy was an unexpected vacation and we’d cook whatever was in the boxes. But I had time on my hands and wanted bread, although I had no idea how to bake a loaf. We did have some self-raising flour, and included amongst the row dog-eared spy novels on the bookshelf, a cookery book. Not just any cookery book, either, but a wildly inappropriate one, direct from the kitchen of a major London hotel (the Savoy if I remember correctly). Which was fantastic if you wanted to create a Parmesan soufflé with quail’s liver in a loganberry glaze served with a fresh rocket salad in balsamic dressing! But apart from substituting quail with penguin – which a hasty check of the Antarctic Treaty totally ruled out – we were short of a few ingredients. However, the book would serve to inspire my greatest triumph two weeks later.

There was also the minor issue of an oven. Although Damoy hut was a nicely equipped refuge with deluxe bunkroom sleeping 18 (very snuggly), in did rather lack an oven.  No problem: Clem swung into action and rigged up an old tin box suspended over two Primus stoves. So we had an oven, and even better, it had 4 settings – OFF, Left Only, Right Only, and Full Blast. We found a stand-in for a bread tin, and we were indeed cooking with gas (well, paraffin to be precise). The next issue was the aforementioned paraffin. There wasn’t that much of it left, and we’d had to drastically ration the use of the heater. Which was ok, it wasn’t all that cold, and we had lots of warm clothes and sleeping bags. But it wasn’t quite so good for getting bread dough to self-raise. The solution was obvious: the warmest place was inside my sleeping bag, so the bread tin joined me for a few hours while I read one of the dog-eared spy novels.

And the bread tin went into the oven, on FULL BLAST, and some time later it came out, containing a freshly baked and really quite tasty loaf.  This was quickly eaten, and a production line started.  Soon after I started to get more ambitious.  I decided to branch out into currant buns, which was made possible by the contents of one of the mysterious tins, along with a touch of sugar. It seemed to work. And so the Damoy Bakery was established.

The two primus stoves used to heat the “oven” – 1987 photo: David Mantripp

On the 23rd of December, we had an unexpected visitor: the World Discoverer tourist ship, heading for the nearby, disbanded Port Lockroy base.  Tourist ships were very few in those days, and the World Discoverer was quite luxuriously appointed. We managed to raise them on the radio, and once they’d got over the surprise – they were not aware that there were any other people in the vicinity – they invited us on board as a bit of unscheduled entertainment for their passengers. I was delegated to give a talk on Antarctic science, and as a reward we were invited to the evening barbeque. The contrast with our simple life at Damoy was quite extreme! They eventually managed to load us back into a Zodiac and send us back to our hut, along with some barbeque leftovers, a few cases of beer and a couple of bottles of spirits, including a bottle of vodka.

Once I had recovered from the after effects of the World Discoverer’s mulled wine, the vodka inspired me to contrive a Christmas special: puff pastry mince pies!  I found a full set of instructions in the Savoy cookbook, and although I didn’t have the ingredients for puff pasty, or indeed mincemeat, I wasn’t going to let minor drawbacks like that stop me.  The mincemeat was easy: the remains of the currants along with some assorted dried fruit marinated in vodka overnight. The puff pastry was more of a challenge, and I don’t remember exactly how it was solved, but we arrived at some kind of approximation involving lots of layers. And therefore, to celebrate our extremely unlikely Christmas Day at Damoy, we had the best home-baked mince pies on all of Wiencke Island.

Nasty weather yet again. Morale in hut very low, not helped by shrinking supply of paraffin: we can no longer use the heaters. Stayed in sleeping bag most of the day … No baking today in order to conserve paraffin. The penguins are looking very miserable. Damoy Hut, Wiencke Island, Antarctica, 30th December 1987

The saga did not stop there. In fact, we broke all records and celebrated New Year at Damoy. But the bakery was closed down. Finally, just as we thought we’d suffer the humiliation of being pulled out by ship, on the 2nd of January a Twin Otter managed to land on the strip and fly us to Rothera. And eventually, on February 2nd, I made it out to the Ronne Ice Shelf.

And that was pretty much the end of baking for me.  I did, once, try to bake a loaf when I got home, but the absence of the fragrant hint of paraffin, and the easy availability of far better bread in the shop two doors down kind of dampened my enthusiasm. But now, many years later, Wendy Trusler’s irresistible Antarctic recipes have reignited it. Mmmm… cinnamon buns first, I think.

Damoy Hut, restored and repainted, 2012 photo: David Mantripp

Inside the hut, 2012 photo: David Mantripp

Shelves with old tins, 2012. Note the “grd. Cloves”: I believe I used these in the mince pies! photo: David Mantripp

 

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