FOOD lovers and ship enthusiasts across the country are longing for a return to cruising.

Ordinarily, hundreds of thousands of people would pass through Southampton each year, attracted by the mouth-watering food served on-board the city’s many cruise ships.

Liners and cruise ships are renowned for their extensive menus, highly skilled chefs and attentive stewards, but it has not always been the way.

Food fashions

Sea travel has always offered a leisurely pace and the chance to sit with fellow passengers and enjoy good food in elegant surroundings.

The trials and tribulations of passengers who once voyaged uncertain seas on unreliable vessels is very far removed from the luxurious surroundings boasted by today’s cruise ships.

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Travel by sea was, until the advent of the steamship in the 1840s, not something to be undertaken lightly. It was not uncommon for a passage to take weeks and the relatively small size of the wooden ships meant that there was little room for passenger comforts.

Little was known about food preservation and the meals on-board ship were boring and unwholesome.

Salted meat was carried in wooden barrels, but did not always keep properly on a long voyage.

To ensure some fresh supplies, cows and chickens were often carried to supply milk and eggs, and the animals themselves used for fresh meat as the voyage progressed.

The practise of keeping animals in pens on deck persisted on early steamships such as Brunel’s Great Britain.

As the years rolled by and iron replaced wood and steam took over from canvas sails, so improvements were made to the meals served on-board ships.

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There was a time when the poorest of passengers even had to supply and cook their own food but now a chief steward was responsible for obtaining supplies. He was given a sum of money to spend for each person, though because he had more to spend on first-class travellers, they got more expensive food.

Fruit market

Southampton, like other big ports, used to have a fruit market and other shops that specialised in the provision of food, drinks and other necessities to passenger ships. The food provided on-board ship was much more seasonal half a century ago than it is today when victualling of ships is an international business, and fruit, vegetables and other goods are flown in from all parts of the world.

The provision of fresh water to liners berthed in Southampton was for many years a particular problem.

The great Cunarders, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, drew so much fresh water for their on-board tanks and so quickly that the local mains pressure dropped.

This meant that some local businesses suddenly lost their water supply.

Modern ocean-going vessels have on-board desalination plants which treat sea water, so the ships are less reliant on water supplies being available in port.

In the floating community of a ship, a third or more of the crew are devoted to the care of the passengers. For example on the legendary 1930s liner Normandie, said by many to have been the perfect ocean-going ship, the head chef had an assistant, two under-chefs, 72 cooks, 76 kitchen men, 12 pastry cooks and confectioners, three dairymen, 12 bakers and eight butchers.

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In contrast to today’s cult of celebrity, most chefs onboard ship remained anonymous, with few exceptions.

Union Castle sometimes named the chef on menus, as did Cunard, but the French Line always did, reflecting the country's famous love of food.