Life in Halley I – The Food

My first days around Halley are spend knowing the base and getting used to a completely different lifestyle. Once again, I’m in that new house experience again… For someone that spend most of its life running around from place to place, this is a familiar feeling. Things as simple as prepare some toast or a cup of coffee became extenuating when you have no idea where they store the spoons even. Yes, the first days are gone opening random drawers and pissing everyone off to be able to do most elementary things.

Food wise, Halley is pretty much like living inside a very good restaurant. All the basic meals – that means lunch and dinner – are prepared by a team of professional chefs (yes, that type of luxury) and served at very specific times. Between these, and only in the Summer, we also have two other very Antarctic exclusive meals: the “Smokos”. There’s one in the morning, around 10h30, and the other one is in the middle of the afternoon, around 16h00. These meals are also prepared by the chefs and they are something between a second breakfast and and an early lunch. It can be just a bowl of porridge with honey, a bacon sandwich or some cinnamon rolls. As for the name, nobody really knows what it means actually. It goes back to the years of the first British Antarctic expeditions, right by early XX century. Actually it makes some sense since in the Antarctic Summer we work around 9 hours and half and it is still pretty cold out there. Specially for someone that spends most of the day outside hammering stuff, a tea break mid morning and half way through the afternoon is very pleasant… along with a piece of carrot cake or a couple of sausages.

With all of this, we are only on our own for breakfast. Some of the food around here is typically British, something that I was quite accustomed from my Cambridge days, but not just so. Once in a while the chef team goes full ethnic and we get mexican, indian or even a chinese dinner. And, truth be told, some of the dishes that I’ve eaten around here would put a lot of “typical” european restaurants to shame. Food around here is not just something to get by with, as one might thing given the situation, on the opposite actually. Conservative minds might think that having professional chefs catering a scientific station is an excessive luxury and a waste of resources. But the way I see it, good food makes people happier and happier people work better. Simple. It is one of the most obvious and smart investments that BAS could make in my honest opinion.

Another mystery that surrounds life in the poles is actually the food, or in this case, where we are getting it from. As for Halley, its actually pretty simple. During the Summer, the station receives several visits from the Ernest Shackleton. In each one of these visits, part of the ship’s cargo is glorious food. Given our predicament, most food is preserves: tins and ultra-freeze stuff. On those loads we also get some fresh food (most of it comes from South Africa and sometimes from the Falklands), mostly fruits and vegetables that can endure the long journey, such as potatoes…lots of them actually, carrots, oranges, apples and turnips.

Inside the station’s kitchen there’s a large pantry with a built walk in industrial refrigerator and freezer that, by the end of the season, become quite full. In my ignorance, before I got here, I though that the station’s freezing unit was just a windowless room. It seem weird to spend energy when outside was colder than a comercial freezer. But it is actually very simple: the temperature here varies a lot. There times around here when we had jumps of 10 degrees during a single day. Besides, during the Winter we can get to -45ºC easily, which apparently can ruin some of the food. Since frozen food needs to be under a constant temperature we only have two choices around here: the good old electric freezer or bury the food under a couple of snowy mounds, since snow, unlike air, can keep its temperature to a nice -20ºC for most of the time. Since its not very practical to go outside with a shovel whenever we need an extra garlic clove for the stew, the convencional option was considered instead.

Logically, freshies are the first ones to go, trying to take enjoy them while they still look fresh. Once we get on our own in the beginning of the Winter, we still have a couple of months of unfrozen fruits and vegetables around (wrinkly two month old carrots are not exactly fresh…) but as we go through the season all the “fresh” food left needs to be prepared for freezing, that is, peeling potatoes, carrots, onions, etc so that they can go into the freezer unit inside little plastic bags. Since that moment, somewhere around May or June, and until we get a visit from the first plane, somewhere around November, all the food around the base is either frozen, dehydrated, pickled or lives in a tin.

Its not a good idea to store all eggs in the same basket. As a precaution, there’s food all around the base, literally. We have a storage unit about 50 meters from the modules with the biggest cache. In one of the perimeter edges there are a couple of containers with even more food (that has frozen in the meantime, but hey, its still food) and somewhere around the other edge there another cache of more food buried under the snow. After all we are surrounded by ice. It would be foolish not to take advantage of it.

I don’t expect to go hungry as long as I’m here. Worst case scenario we always have the penguin stew…

 

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