A 120-year experiment
How canned food and other meals pass the test of time in the permafrost of the Taymir2 october 2022
In 1900, polar explorer Baron Eduard Toll set off on the Zarya schooner in search of the mysterious Sannikov Land. In search of the ghost island, he wintered off the coast of the Taimyr, where he laid down several food stores in the permafrost. They were supposed to be used during luge expeditions across the peninsula, but one depot at Cape Depot remained unused. Toll and his companions went missing in 1902 and the place of their deaths has never been found. But the food they left behind was found 70 years later.
The existence of a food warehouse left behind by the Russian Polar Expedition of 1900–1902 was revealed by diaries found at one of Toll's camps in 1903.
'Here I told to bury a box containing 48 tins of canned soup, a sealed tin box containing 6 kg of breadcrumbs, a sealed tin box containing 6 kg of oatmeal, a sealed box containing about 1.6 kg of sugar, 4 kg of chocolate, 7 bars and 1 brick of tea. The hole was marked with a wooden cross,' recorded the Arctic pioneer.
In 1973, an expedition from Komsomolskaya Pravda managed to find both the cross itself and the products buried beneath it. In half a century, they have transformed from a mere warehouse into a veritable treasure trove: scientists have been incredibly excited to discover how food is preserved in the permafrost. The first, right on the spot, was a case of 1900 rye breadcrumbs, which tasted just as good as the modern ones.
The sealed tin cube with oatmeal was taken by an expedition to Moscow, where it was opened on 6 November 1973 in the editorial office of Komsomolskaya Pravda. The head of the first Soviet drifting station, Ivan Papanin, the first Antarctic captain Ivan Man, the legendary polar navigator Valentin Akkuratov and other distinguished guests tasted the Toll's porridge and were amazed at its wonderful taste.
The biggest intrigue was how the canned goods survived in the permafrost. In 1974, specialists from the USSR Ministry of Food Industry went to Cape Depot and excitedly unearthed gleaming metal tins with the inscription: 'Food tins for the troops. Shchi with meat and porridge. A portion for lunch. Weight 1 pound 70 zolotniks. Diluted with 2/3 of the amount of water in the canning tin, heated to a boil and simmered for no more than 10 minutes. F. Asiber's canned food factory in St. Petersburg.'
Forty-eight tins of shchi with meat were the main gift of Toll to posterity. Only some of them were sent to Moscow for research: the rest were left for the future, to continue the unique experiment that Toll had inadvertently started. And at the same time, they laid out a selection of modern products nearby to test how they would stand the test of time.
The Research Institute for Storage Problems of Rosreserve examined the Toll canned goods thoroughly and was amazed: not only did they not spoil but they retained their full nutritional value and useful substances. And so the idea was born to make Cape Depot a site for experiments in long-term storage of food in the permafrost.
The Taimyr became a 'food testing ground': during expeditions in 1980, 2004, 2010 and 2016, products from old stockpiles were removed from the storage facility for study and new ones were placed in a variety of packaging: stew, flour, cereals, alcohol, sourdough, baby food and sports nutrition... And in 2016, they even laid down a dried blood-processing product, albumin.
During the latest expedition in 2022, scientists placed new product samples in the permafrost, which will be extracted in 2028, 2034, 2040 and 2050. And from the soil, they retrieved the 1980 Kis-Kis butterscotch candies, the 2004 Slava porous chocolate and the 2010 Babaevsky deluxe chocolate.
'All the samples are perfectly preserved, only the chocolate has gone a little "grey," which is caused by the so-called migration of fats, which is inevitable with temperature changes. According to the preliminary assessment of the scientists, all the nutritional properties of the products are normal,' said Vladislav Ovchinsky, head of Moscow's Department of Investment and Industrial Policy.
The experiments at Cape Depot help to understand how the composition of food changes and how long it can be stored at low, unregulated temperatures.
Today, as Russia embarks on the massive development of the Arctic, such knowledge is particularly relevant. So scientists intend to continue the experiment of storing food in a giant natural refrigerator—the permafrost of the Taymir.