Happy Centenary Birthday to the Women’s Institute.
2015 marks the 100th Birthday of the Women’s Institute and rather aptly they are celebrating with a centenary Fruit Cake. WI members were asked to submit their recipes in for judging by the WI Education Committee and after much tasting and deliberation the winner was announced as Julie Clark from North Yorks West Federation. So well done to Julie, it doesn’t get much more competitive than a good WI Bake Off, I know from experience!
The WI actually originated in Canada and the idea was brought over here in 1915, with the aim of creating a network of country women across Britain. The government wanted to encourage rural women to get more involved in the home growing of food and to increase food production and preservation during the First World War.
The first WI in Britain was launched in Anglesey in North Wales, followed by Singleton in Sussex. The movement grew rapidly and by the end of 1916 there were forty scattered across Britain. Lady Denman had been appointed Chairman, whom the WI residential college is name after. Now the organisation was called the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI), with Federations grouping individual WI’s together geographically. In 1919 their monthly magazine “Home and County” was launched and the first WI market opened in Lewes in East Sussex.
The 1920’s were a time of continued growth and development for the WI, reflecting what was happening in the lives of women generally in society at that time, especially with the progress of the Woman’s Suffrage Movement. Locally a Mrs Margaret Winteringham was made Honorary Secretary to Lindsey (Lincolnshire) Federation and she was elected as the first ever English born female MP. She was MP for Louth in 1921 and only the second woman to be elected to Parliament.
Between the First World and Second World Wars the WI passed a number of important resolutions and championed many causes important to the wellbeing of rural communities, such as improved water supply to remote villages and better midwifery care for pregnant women. This is still at the heart of the movement now, with different worthy causes or resolutions being voted upon each year.
As the Second World War loomed the help of the WI was once again called upon by the government. Lady Denman was asked by the Minister of Agriculture to become Director of the Women’s Land Army, which she accepted whilst still continuing in her role as Chairman of the NFWI. As before in 1915, country women were encouraged to increase their home grown food and also to preserve more fruit and vegetables. The Ministry of Food allocated sugar to the NFWI to be distributed to WI Preservation Centres in order to make jam and to can produce which would otherwise go to waste. All the produce then went into the nation's food supply and their contribution was invaluable to the war effort.
In the 1940’s Lady Denman stood down as Chairman with Lady Diana Albermarle taking over from her. I have a small linen covered WI book called Traditional Fare of England and Wales, dated 1948. It is a treasure trove of recipes generously given by members from their own family records. The forward is written by Lady Albermarle, she writes “These recipes have been collected by members of the Women’s Institutes of England and Wales to keep on record the traditional art of the English housewife. At the present time such recipes are in danger of being lost owing to the passing of so many country houses as centres of family life and it is felt that an attempt should be made to save them from oblivion………”. Nearly 70 years ago she and the WI saw the importance of preserving local recipes and regional dishes and the role they could play in doing so and I for one am grateful for that foresight.
When I am invited to talk to local WI’s about the history of cookery books, I always take a selection of WI cook books from different Federation areas, going back to the 1920’s. In my opinion they are one of the most valuable resources for local food history. These publications contain contributed authentic family recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation. These recipes have stood the test of time because they work and make use of produce that is plentiful and at its best for that particular area. I have collected books from all over Britain, but am of course especially interested in the local Lincolnshire publications. They provide a very good indicator of current tastes and trends at the time of publication and what we were actually making and baking in our own kitchens, offering cooking snapshots of particular points in time. For example my 1968 “What’s Cooking” edition of Lindsey Lincs WI cook book, has a whole chapter devoted to Lincolnshire Plum Loaf with 16 variations of recipes contributed by different members. The latest edition, which is undated but I’m guessing is about ten to fifteen years old has no such chapter and only one recipe for Luxury Plum Bread from Hannah Nicholson of Nettleton and Moortown WI and one Plum Bread recipe from Greta Farr of Winthorpe WI – so thank you to you two ladies! There are still recipes for fruit cakes, tea loaves etc. but only two specifically naming Plum Bread.
You always get some degree of crossover of recipes into different areas as people have always migrated, especially in times of depression. When public transport and the car became accessible to the masses we became more mobile and transient than ever before. That is why the older WI books, from a time when many women were born, lived and died in the same village give a far more accurate portrayal of dishes synonymous with a particular area. I feel our culinary heritage is such an important part of our social history that it is vital that we preserve it and more importantly continue to make and enjoy our local dishes.
The WI is now the largest voluntary women's organisation in the UK and currently has 212,000 members in around 6,600 WI’s. They continue to play a unique role in providing women with educational opportunities and the chance to build new skills, to take part in a wide variety of activities and to campaign on issues that matter to them and their communities. Happy Centenary Birthday WI, here’s to the next hundred years.
This month’s recipe is for Grantham Gingerbreads adapted from my Wrawby WI book, dated 1948 and produced by The Lindsey (Lincs) Federation of Women’s Institute in Brigg, price two shillings and sixpence. My copy is a second edition and had been updated for the days of austerity, taking out some of the more extravagant recipes from the first edition which came out in 1929 and replacing them with more economical ones. These biscuits are very quick and easy to make and I get 24 good substantial, thick chewy ones from this recipe. If you like a thinner daintier biscuit then roll them out thinner and cut with a fluted cutter. If you do that, remember to reduce your cooking time accordingly. They are a very plain old fashioned biscuit, but have a lovely flavour and ideal for a picnic or packed lunch in warm weather.
Grantham Gingerbreads (sold especially at Spring Fairs in Lincolnshire)
Scales, 2 Big Bowls, sieve, measuring spoon, fork, butter knife, wooden spoon, little saucepan,2 baking trays, cooling racks, optional latex gloves
1 lb plain flour
½ lb dark brown sugar
1tsp baking powder
2 heaped tsp ground ginger
2 local free range eggs medium
¼ lb slightly salted butter
Pre heat your oven to 170c fan
Grease two baking sheets
Sieve together twice the dry ingredients including the sugar to get any clumps out
Melt the butter
Crack the eggs into the dry ingredients and stir together
Pour the melted butter into the dry and mix with the spoon to bring it together. With your hands gather the dough together in a smooth ball. (This is when the latex gloves are handy)
Then form it into a long sausage shape with your hands.
With the butter knife, cut the sausage in half and then half again so you have four big fat sausage shapes of biscuit dough. Then slice each quarter into six, so you will now have 24 slices of dough all together.
Shape the slices into walnut size balls and put 12 on each sheet, well-spaced apart.
Press the biscuits down with a fork or your hand to flatten them a bit to just under a cm deep.
Bake at 170c for approx. 12 minutes. They should be cooked without being brown, so keep an eye on them. They will feel quite firm to touch when they are done without being too dark.
Take off the trays straight away and let them cool on the racks.
Sadie Hirst is a member of The British Society of Baking and Select Lincolnshire. Sadie is regularly invited by local organisations with her talk “Off the Beeton Track”, which looks at historic cook books and authors. Sadie would love to hear from you email@example.com and you can follow Sadie on Twitter at Sadie Hirst@RJHirstfamilybutchers. All of her previous Target recipes can be found on www.rjhirstfamilybutchers.co.uk