‘What spirits?.. What salt?.. What coffee?’

On October 18, an officious customs officer comes on board Dulcibella at Bensersiel:

… the customhouse officer (fancy such a thing in this absurd mud-hole!), marched down into the cabin, which was in a fearful mess and wringing wet, and producing ink, pen, and a huge printed form, wanted to know our cargo, our crew, our last port, our destination, our food, stores, and everything. No cargo (pleasure); captain, Davies; crew, me; last port, Brunsbüttel; destination, England. What spirits had we? Whisky, produced. What salt? Tin of Cerebos, produced, and a damp deposit in a saucer. What coffee? etc. Lockers searched, guns fingered, bunks rifled.

Customs duty (‘Zoll’) was a big deal in Germany in the late 1800s. The creation of a common internal market – the ‘Zollverein’ – and the sharing of resulting revenues between the German states was one of the key engines of Prussian power. So this customs officer – Herr Schenkel – is yet another symbol of the Brits growing unease about Germany’s growing influence and power. It’s also an early sign, I’d suggest, of English waspiness about Germany efficiency and European ‘red tape’.

We have to presume that whisky, salt and coffee were all taxable items in those days that had to be declared. But if we’re going to correctly replay this book in every detail – and generally that’s the aim – we’ll need to know exactly which brands of whisky, salt and coffee we should be carrying on our trip.

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Cerebos salt: ‘See how it runs’

The salt is easy. The brand is named – Cerebos – and you can still pick that up in UK supermarkets. Sailors would have loved it at the time because it was distinguished as a ‘pouring salt’ and contained an anti-caking agent, so the dampness of a small boat cabin might not affect it too badly. I’m not sure I can be bothered to carry a pack of salt all the way though Germany in September/October, so instead I bought Lloyd (notDavies) a tobacco tin with a Cerebos advert printed on the front. Even better, club member Matron has offered to fill it with his ‘Bothy Flake’ pipe tobacco. I’m not sure if we need to declare that to a customs officer when we get to Bensersiel.

I imagine Carruthers and Davies would have had real coffee on board, although that might have caked up a bit down in the galley. The alternative would be to keep a jar of instant, or some ‘Camp’ coffee. Instant – or rather ‘powdered’ – coffee would have been a relatively new invention.

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Symingtons specialised in dried & powdered foods including instant coffee and ‘pea flour’.

A little light research reveals that a company called Symingtons was a bit of a specialist in this area of dried & powdered foods. So perhaps a tin of Symingtons coffee might be on board. Certainly, a tin of Symingtons pea flour would have been a must-have for every budding British adventurer. Symingtons pea-flour – a kind of precursor of the cup-a-soup – was used a lot by the British Army in the Crimea and Scott took several tins to the South Pole (for all it did for him).

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“Pattison’s Sepoy mutiny 1870” by Pattison’s Whisky – This image is available from the National Library of Scotland.

Finally, we come to whisky. I can’t help feeling that Davies’s brand of choice would have been Pattison’s. It was heavily marketed as a ‘patriotic’ whisky by two dodgy brothers, who even employed talking parrots to push their wares. And thanks to over-production in the 1890s there was a lot of it about.

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Pattison’s whisky – fuelling the naval arms race…

Sadly, the company went bust in the early 1900s and the two Pattisons were jailed for fraud. The distillery, though, is still there and producing a whisky called GlenfarclasSo Glenfarclas it is that we’ll need to pack in our bag for the great adventure. Fingers crossed we won’t have room for salt, coffee – or cup-a-soups.

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