Up on a hill in Cornwall, beside the road from Redruth to Lanner, there’s an ancient pagan well called Figgy Dowdy’s Well. It has a beehive stone roof and steps down to clear water, and used to be a favourite place for little girls to christen their dolls on Good Friday. The iron gate is kept locked to stop people falling down it, but the old rhyme suggests that it used to be locked in earlier days, for a different reason:
Figgy Dowdy had a well
On the top of Carn Marth Hill
And she locked it night and day
Lest they took her water away
She was also known by other names – Maggy Figgy, and Margery Daw – but ‘Daw’ means ‘sluttish’, so all names probably refer to a slovenly-looking woman.
In Nelson’s navy, Figgy Dowdy was the name given to a pudding, whose making was eloquently described in a captain’s table dinner scene in Patrick O’Brian’s novel Post Captain:
‘We take ship’s biscuit, put it in a stout canvas bag –’ said Jack.
‘Pound it with a marlin-spike for half an hour –’ said Pullings.
‘Add bits of pork fat, plums, figs, rum, currants,’ said Parker.
‘Send it to the galley, and serve it up with bosun’s grog,’ said Macdonald.
Alaskans, who still eat Pilot Bread made to the original English Navy recipe, will understand why it was necessary to pound the stuff for half an hour to break it up before mixing it with the other ingredients. What the conversation reproduced above doesn’t say is what the ship’s cook did with it – he wrapped it tightly in muslin and boiled it for a few hours.
Modern English and American recipes tend to use beef suet rather than the fat rendered on board from salt pork, but people in my part of France would have no trouble with the old recipe. Some of them still take advantage of the regulations that allow them to slaughter the family pig at home as long as they aren’t going to sell it to strangers, and the local supermarket always has 10Kg bags of salt for sale in the pig-slaughtering season.
If you don’t live in Alaska and you’d like to make your own hardtack (ship’s biscuit), try Mrs Beeton’s recipe:
1 lb Flour
2 oz Butter
1/2 Pint Skimmed Milk
Melt the butter in the milk, mix with the flour until smooth; roll it out thin, cut into circles, pierce all over with a fork, bake 6-10 minutes. (She didn’t have a thermostat on her oven – bake it rock hard, but don’t burn it.)
If you want to make the biscuits look really authentic, stamp them with a broad arrow (like the old prison clothes) and the letters RC (for the Royal Clarence victualling yard in Gosport).