The Pemmican Brief
Working as a freelance chef I came into contact with many aspects of the catering industry. Some jobs can be difficult and stressful, some easy and delightful. There is also the bog standard, the interesting, and what might be deemed the glamorous. Sometimes I do what is called ‘food styling’ which is a rather pretentious term for presenting food for photography or film. This can be a very frustrating job; you work all day or maybe several producing food for a scene and eventually it is on the screen for a nanosecond or is cut altogether. After filming it is usually eaten by the crew who would eat a lump of coal if it had a sprig of parsley on it.
But I knew when I got a call from Mark Ball of Keo films with a request to pick my brains it was not going to be boring. He asked me if I knew anything about ‘pemmican’. I had heard of it but that was about all. Pemmican, I learned is an iron ration made from dried pounded meat, rendered fat and dried fruits – mmmmm. It was invented by the Cree tribe of Native Americans and has since been used by explorers in many variations. Kilo for kilo it is a very high calorie food that keeps indefinitely and travels well.
Keo films were planning a re-creation of Scott and Amundsen’s race to the South Pole in 1912. For ecological reasons it would be filmed in Greenland. Apart from not risking anybody’s life and limb, (literally in the case of frostbite) it would be filmed as authentically as possible. Therefore the food they would be taking was to be as close to the original as possible.
Very often what is lost in history is the everyday detail. Mostly the things people write in diaries are the important and interesting events. They may think to record what they had for breakfast but not what each item contained. I carried out research both in books and on the Internet, and although there were countless references to pemmican and its various ingredients nowhere could I find a satisfactory recipe with quantities. Amundsen had experimented a lot with this food, and had even set up a factory to experiment with other ingredients knowing that the original lacked some nutrients and, crucially, roughage. Bearing in mind this was before any vitamins had been identified there was still a lot of guesswork involved. There were tantalising references to adding dried vegetables and oatmeal but no quantities.
The main ingredient of dried meat, referred to as ‘biltong’ or ‘beef jerky’ I discovered was made at a factory not far from me at Newhaven. The other ingredients I needed, to make some samples, could be bought from supermarkets. The ratio of fat to meat was a staggering 60% fat to 40% meat. I made two samples, the original containing just dried beef, beef dripping, dried fruit and honey, and what I called Amundsen’s recipe with added oatmeal and some chick pea flour. Mark came down to try them out. They were not pleasant, a bit like fatty sweet corned beef or a pate gone horribly wrong. Often the explorers had used it to make soup by boiling it up with added water. This was a bit more appetising and not as noticeably greasy as one might imagine. With the oatmeal and chick pea flour in the Amundsen version it also thickened nicely.
Huntley and Palmer who had supplied Scott with biscuits for the original expedition, and who still had the original recipe in their archives were making them again for the filming. There was information that they had been crumbled into this soup to thicken it. We tried this as well and I have to say it wasn’t haute cuisine but it wasn’t too bad either. Mark took the rest of the samples back to Keo film’s head office. He rang me a couple of days later to ask me if I would make the quantity of pemmican required for the expedition. I agreed, not quite knowing what I was letting myself in for..
There were sixteen men on the original Scott team and five on Amundsens, but for the purposes of this film Scott’s team was reduced to eight. This was still thirteen men on a sixteen-week shoot using pemmican as their staple diet. This worked out at 675 kilos of the stuff. It was now clear that logistically this was a major job for me. No niceties such as torn basil leaves, scallop carpacchio or wilted rocket this was 335 x 2kg boxes of solid dripping, beef and fruit.
One learns a lot by default on these sorts of projects. Before this I knew precious little about polar exploration or the effects frostbite. Originally Amundsen had intended to conquer the North Pole, but an American explorer, Robert E Pearcy beat him to it so Amundsen switched his attention to the South Pole, creating a ‘race’ with Scott. As we know Amundsen got there first and returned. Scott reached his destination a month later and died trying to get back, but was still hailed as a national hero. Food was a major factor in their failure; they had scurvy from lack of vitamin C and not enough calories per man to keep up their strength in this hostile environment.
Scott tried to use ponies for hauling their equipment, an animal totally unsuited to polar expedition. When food became short on the Amundsen team they simply killed a dog and ate it unaware that they were also supplementing their diet with vitamin C as dogs synthesize their own. Scott and his team would never have considered eating dog – how British is that? Also, even at the point the Scott team knew they were unlikely to get back alive, they were still trying to carry 20 kg of geological samples.
My first job was to get the ingredients: 165 kg of biltong, 280 kg of beef dripping, 50 kg of oatmeal and chick pea flour and 125 kg of mixed dried fruit. I also had to source 350 ice cream containers. Biltong comes in 60 cm lengths and has a texture somewhere between wood and leather. As it had to be shredded first I soon realised my little food processor would not be up to the job. An industrial food processor would cost in the region of £2000, so that was out of the question.
After a bit of lateral thinking I went down to my local ‘Focus’ and bought a garden shredder for £70. I laid out a large sheet of plastic in the kitchen and set to work. Two days later and suffering temporary tinnitus, I had shredded the beef. I worked out the quantities to make the stuff in 10 kg batches and made a start. It felt a bit like one of those children’s stories where the hero is given some impossible task if he wants to marry the princess. I was beginning to think I had bitten off more dried beef than I could chew.
Day three of weighing, melting, mixing, ladling and labelling and I had a stock of 70 containers – a fifth of the quantity required. Day four the telephone rang and Mark told me to put everything on hold. During the preparations to fly all the equipment out to Greenland, Customs had asked for more details about the food ration. It then transpired that any beef product from Britain was still under stringent rules and this stuff didn’t comply. So all the pemmican I had made and all the beef dripping and shredded biltong I had left was now useless. Not only did I have the task of disposing of it, there was the daunting prospect of having to start all over again with something other than beef. They asked me if I had any ideas. The only other dried meat product I could think of was Parma ham but out of the question owing to cost. I suggested the alternatives of salami and a hard vegetable fat such as Cookeen or Trex that though not an animal fat has the same Kcal as beef dripping.
Within a week I had taken delivery of 280 kg of palm oil margarine and over 100 sticks of Milano salami. My little factory was up and running again. Nine days later I glued the last label on to the last container and 350 of them were stacked onto a pallet in my garage to await collection. I resold the garden shredder on ebay making sure I removed the last shred of biltong from it in case they thought I was a serial killer disposed of the unwanted ingredients, (it was collected by a firm who turned waste fat from fish and chip shops into diesel fuel) and prepared to have a few days off.
The pemmican was shipped off to Greenland without a hitch from customs and the trek and the filming started. I have to say I felt a twinge of sympathy for the participants with their unvaried diet and thought that after this they would never want to see a slice of salami for the rest of their lives.
Unlike some jobs when one actually goes on the shoot itself, I wasn’t needed. My task was done. Just as well – I’m not a cold weather person. In fact I’m sitting writing this looking out over the garden as spring brings it to life. I’m going outside now. And I may be some time.