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Century-old Antarctica food on display in new exhibition

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Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Century-old food from Antarctica - some of which still smells fresh - will be on display at Canterbury Museum in Christchurch from Saturday as part of a new exhibition Breaking the Ice: The First Year in Antarctica.

The exhibition, created by Antarctic Heritage Trust in partnership with Canterbury Museum, tells the story of Carsten Borchgrevink’s Southern Cross expedition (1898-1900) through objects the explorers left at their expedition bases at Cape Adare.

This collection of artefacts includes some of the expedition’s uneaten provisions: bottles of chutney, chocolate-covered lime juice nodules and packets of coffee. Perhaps the most remarkable piece of preserved food in Breaking the Ice is a whole Huntley and Palmers fruitcake, which was likely left at Cape Adare by members of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition in 1911.

The fruitcake made international headlines when conservators discovered it in 2017. Millions of people around the globe read about it in more than 2,500 published stories. The cake’s tin was badly corroded, but conservators said the fruitcake itself looked and smelled almost edible.

The fruitcake and the other consumables in Breaking the Ice were in Antarctica for more than 100 years before they were discovered by Antarctic Heritage Trust staff. In 2016, the Trust brought them to New Zealand for conservation by its team of international experts in Canterbury Museum’s laboratory.

Under the Government permit required to remove the items from Antarctica, they must be returned to the huts after their temporary removal for conservation.

Many of the items are still sealed, and while it is unethical for conservators to sample any of the goods, they said some objects, like the coffee, still smelled fresh.

Lizzie Meek, Antarctic Heritage Trust Programme Manager - Artefacts, says the food in Breaking the Ice is typical of the diet of early Antarctic explorers.

"The food the expeditions took to Antarctica needed to be high-energy and long-lasting. Nutrition was also important - items like the lime juice nodules were probably packed to avoid scurvy. Chutneys and other sauces were a way to liven up the explorers’ diets."

Despite the numerous condiments they packed, the members of the Southern Cross expedition complained their diet was boring. In his account of the expedition, Borchgrevink wrote: "Seal beef and roasted penguin flesh became a frequent repast as we grew frightfully tired of tinned food."

Worcestershire sauce was another popular item on the Southern Cross expedition. Antarctic Heritage Trust staff found more than 30 bottles at Cape Adare, one of which is in the exhibition.

Also on display is the famous long lost watercolour by Dr Edward Wilson, which was discovered by the Trust’s conservators after it was hidden in the hut for more than a century. Dr Wilson died alongside Scott on their return from the South Pole.

The explorers of the Southern Cross were the first people to spend the winter in Antarctica. They also erected the continent’s first buildings, took the first steps on the Ross Ice Shelf, were the first to use dogs and the Primus stove on the continent and recorded the first full year of climate data. The huts they built at Cape Adare are the only example left of humanity’s first dwelling on any continent on earth.

The expedition was plagued with difficulties and controversy and on their return the explorers’ achievements in science and exploration were mostly ignored by the British establishment. However, the expedition’s experience informed future trips to Antarctica and paved the way for the expeditions of Scott, Roald Amundsen, Ernest Shackleton and others.

Breaking the Ice: The First Year in Antarctica opens at Canterbury Museum on 18 May and runs until 13 October 2019. Free entry; donations appreciated.

Image caption: Lizzie Meek Antarctic Heritage Trust Programme Manager - Artefacts condition reports century-old food, including coffee, pea soup and chocolate-covered lime nodules, found in huts at Cape Adare, Antarctica

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