May 132013


On this date in 1787 the First Fleet left Portsmouth to establish a new colony in Australia.   The fleet was made up of 11 ships under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip who was to be governor of the new colony. Apart from establishing Britain’s claim on Australia, the settlement was to be the first of a series of penal colonies designed to relieve pressure on jails in England.  These penal colonies were notorious hell holes and form an important part of Australia’s founding history.  The fleet consisted of 11 ships – 2 Royal Navy armed escorts, 6 convict transports, and 3 supply ships. It is not fully established, but it is estimated that  around 1,420 people embarked at Portsmouth, made up naval officers and crew, marines (some with wives and children), free settlers, and male and female convicts (some with children).  The journey took 252 days and the route was via Tenerife and Rio de Janeiro to the Cape of Good Hope, then to the east coast of Australia. This was one of the greatest sea voyages of all time.  The journey was over 15,000 miles, and although 48 people died, every ship arrived safely.  They headed for Botany Bay but finding it inhospitable, despite Captain Cook’s glowing reports, moved north to Port Jackson which Phillip renamed Sydney Cove, the current site of the city of Sydney.

In the days before refrigeration and canning, feeding people on ships on long journeys was a challenge.  The main staple was heavily salted beef which had to be soaked, and then stewed a long time to soften it and make it palatable.  It was usually accompanied by pea soup flavored with the fat rendered out of the beef.   Classic recipes for split pea and ham soup are a dime a dozen, so I have included here a more exotic pea soup from Egypt. Yellow splits give it a nice earthy flavor.

Egyptian Split Pea Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup zucchini, chopped
1/2 cup red pepper, chopped
1 cup split peas (green or yellow)
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 tablespoons brown sugar
5 cups chicken stock
2 slices lemons
1 cup fresh tomato puree
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
salt and pepper
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
sour cream


Heat the olive oil in a heavy pot on medium high heat.

Sauté the onions, garlic, zucchini and red pepper for about 5 minutes or until slightly softened.

Add the ginger, cumin, coriander, and brown sugar and sauté for another minute.

Add the lemon slices, stock, tomatoes, cayenne, and salt and pepper to taste.

Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and simmer for about 1 1/2 hours or until the peas are tender.

If the soup is too thick for your tastes at this point, add more stock.

Remove the pot from the heat and discard the lemon slices.

Add the fresh cilantro and puree the soup in a blender or food processor.

Add more seasonings if necessary.

Serve with a dollop of sour cream.

Serves 6