Look, you
want it
you devour it
and then, then
good as it was
you realize
it wasn’t
what you
exactly
wanted (Noah Eli Gordon)

With colonisation, we’ve all grown up with different varieties of fruitcakes. Neatly packaged, with a taste reminiscent of childhood, fruitcakes have turned up when the holiday season is right around the corner; they’ve settled on the kitchen shelves of our grandparents’ homes, vaguely scenting memories of happy times; they’ve been our constant companions on long journeys that never seem to end. The fruitcake’s longevity makes it resurface at odd moments of time, months later, after one has forgotten about its sturdy existence.

Interestingly, conservators from the New Zealand run Antarctic Heritage Trust, have found a fruitcake, preserved for almost a 106 years in one of the most unpredictable and hostile regions known to human kind! While leading excavations in Cape Adare, the northeast tip of Antarctica, the researchers found this ice covered fruitcake wrapped in its original paper, stored in a tin-plated iron alloy box with a logo of the British brand Huntley & Palmers, a firm of biscuit makers, originally based in Reading, Berkshire in England. The firm boasts, “Huntley & Palmers biscuits were exported all over the world and their tins have turned up in the most unexpected places.”

In a statement, Lizzie Meek, Program Manager for Artefacts at the Antarctic Heritage Trust reported, “There was a very, very slight rancid butter smell to it, but other than that, the cake looked and smelled edible! There is no doubt the extreme cold in Antarctica has assisted its preservation.” It is believed that this fruitcake traversed the land of Antarctica in an expedition led by the British explorer Robert Falcon Scott between 1910 and 1913. The cake was found in Antarctica’s oldest building constructed by Norwegian Carsten Borchegrevink’s expedition team in 1899, a place which was later used by R.F. Scott’s Terra Nova expedition in 1911. Along with the fruitcake, 1500 other artefacts have been unearthed from the two huts at Cape Adare. All of these artefacts have been flown back to Christchurch in New Zealand, where a team of international experts are working towards preservation in a special lab at the Canterbury Museum.

The Trust’s team finished a part of the conservation project in July and found tools, clothing and what Ms. Meek described as “badly deteriorated” meat and fish and “rather nice-looking” jams along with the fruitcake. The next phase entails the preservation of the buildings in Cape Adare so that every other artefact can be returned to these buildings, owing to the site’s status as an Antarctic Specially Protected Area.  The statement also emphasised, “Because the cake was one of nearly 1,500 artifacts removed from Antarctica’s first building, there are very strict rules around its handling, and it is now being stored carefully before it is returned to the hut (once the building is restored).” While the preservation of the tin box involves processes like rust removal, chemical stabilisation, coating of tin remnants, de-acidification of the tin label and repairing of the paper wrapper and tin label, the cake in itself remains untouched.

The fact that the fruitcake travelled to Antarctica via Scott’s Terra Nova expedition has been corroborated by the Reading Museum which states in its website that the principle supplier of biscuits for Captain Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic was Hunter & Palmer. The Museum also specifies the special formula used to make the fruitcakes and other biscuits, which were made specifically for the Terra Nova expedition:

flour 80lb, rice gluten 13 3/4lb, wheat meal 20lb, sugar 7 1/2lb, lard 2 1/2lb, salt 10oz, sodium bicarbonate 2 1/2 oz, water 40lb. They were baked to a final water content of 5% and each biscuit weighed 2 oz.

The website also states, “Modern research has shown that the polar party’s daily ration of 4,100 calories was 800 calories short, and their diet was deficient in vitamins, as well as energy-producing elements.”

Perhaps an important question is to ask about the need to carry fruitcakes to the Antarctic weather. Lizzie Meek, the Program Manager of the Trust, has an answer to this question as well. While explaining to National Geographic, she said, “It’s an ideal high-energy food for Antarctic conditions, and is still a favourite item on modern-day trips to the ice. Fruitcake was a popular item in English society at the time, and it remains popular today. Living and working in Antarctica tends to lead to a craving for high-fat, high-sugar food, and fruitcake fits the bill nicely, not to mention going very well with a cup of tea.”

 

Suyashi Smridhi

Suyashi Smridhi

Suyashi Smridhi is currently a student of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi.

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