On the Christmas menu in Antarctica

Expeditioners sitting around a table enjoying Christmas lunch
Christmas lunch at Mawson station (Photo: Brian Jury)
Christmas dinner menu 1929Christmas dinner menu 2018

Since the earliest days of Antarctic exploration, the food and festivity of Christmas has been an important morale booster for expeditioners far from home.

One of the earliest accounts of preparing Christmas dinner in Antarctica is by Frank Hurley, the expedition photographer on Sir Douglas Mawson’s 1911-1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition.

Hurley’s expedition party had been hauling sleds across the frozen Antarctic plateau for weeks, battling snow blindness and frost bite with dwindling food supplies.

But Hurley wasn’t about to let a little hardship and hunger dampen his Christmas spirit, or his culinary flair.

After serving a main course of “frizzled pemmican on fried biscuit,” Hurley’s pièce de résistance was an improvised plum pudding, boiled in a sock.

Hurley recorded in his diary that it was prepared by grating some biscuits with a saw, adding sugar, a few raisins, a dollop of snow and three drops of methylated spirits, allegedly for flavour.

The dubious festive creation is said to have turned out “very satisfactorily”.

Dinner concluded with toasts to the King and fellow expeditioners, and a grimace-making concoction known as ‘tanglefoot’, prepared by boiling five raisins in methylated spirits.

“We enjoyed our dinner thoroughly,” Hurley wrote in his diary that night. “Probably because we were mightily hungry, and I never knew a happier and more jolly Christmas, than this one.”

Today’s Antarctic expeditioners might enjoy the kind of comforts that Mawson’s men could only dream about, but crews on station still encounter some interesting challenges.

At Casey research station this year, the Christmas banquet has been put back by a few days to make way for a major scheduled resupply operation over Christmas.

For Chef Justin Chambers, the upside will be a fully-stocked pantry packed bursting with fresh and delicious ingredients.

Justin and his team are busy preparing a mouth-watering banquet that will include all of the traditional roasted Christmas fare, alongside more contemporary offerings like smoked salmon, prawns, and even sushi.

“This will be my take on an Aussie Christmas in Queensland, light and balanced,” he said.

“And of course there will be plum pudding with custard and brandy sauce, pavlova for the sugar and cream nuts, plus heaps of other fancy and deserving treats to fill a few tables.”

The Queensland-based chef traded in a high-flying career cooking for Michelin-star restaurants and touring musicians including Madonna and Queen to work in Antarctica.

He said that working in one of the world’s remotest kitchens is a unique and exciting challenge, but not that different from a modern commercial kitchen back in Australia.

“These days we have a well-stocked freezer and dry store, combination steam-bake ovens that can be pre-set with your own MP3 sound when the cooking is done, wireless internet that lets you Google a recipe while you’re sipping on a coffee in the mess,” he said.

He said some of the main challenges on station are always doing your best job and getting on with everyone on station, which he always takes on with a smile.

Justin said the long periods between resupply shipments can make access to ingredients difficult, which is why a good Antarctic chef still needs to improvise.

“If we don't have an ingredient, we will substitute, improvise or tweak. If there’s no icing sugar, you can throw some normal sugar in Thermomix and blitz it,” he said.

“If there’s no sour cream, you add a pinch of citric acid to some cream and hey presto. I even make sweetened condensed milk from scratch.”