This year marks the centenary of the First World War, with events planned throughout 2014. Looking at this dark period in our history from a food perspective is a difficult one, as there are many different accounts and reports to take into consideration. Also the propaganda machine clouds the facts, as the last thing the British Government and military wanted to admit was that some of our soldiers were starving in the trenches.
Some reports claim that it was a stunning logistical achievement feeding so many men on a daily basis. That in the main the men were fed better in the army than they had been at home, consuming 1200 more calories a day. At the beginning of the war this was probably true with a daily allowance of 10oz of meat and 8oz veg’ per man, a luxury compared to what was available in later years. In fact the diet high in protein caused its own problems with digestive issues and other ailments.
Most accounts that I have read say that food in the trenches was scarce, repetitive and constant hunger sat alongside fear and fatigue. I suppose that both ends of the spectrum are true with many grey areas in between. Trying to get a definitive picture is impossible because there were so many variables, such as when in the four year period of the war you look at, where you were geographically, whether there was a battle at that particular time, what rank you held and how supportive your friends and family were back home and so on. The size of the British Army and the efficiency of the German submarine blockade grew in tandem and this was a double blow for the state of the rations. By 1916 the meat ration was down to 6oz per day and later on meat was only provided every nine days.
As the conflict progressed food was prepared nearer and nearer to the front line, putting many cooks very much in danger. Cooks were taught to forage for local ingredients such as nettles, berries, nuts and edible wild plants to try and add some flavour and variety. There are reports of reserve trenches being turned over to vegetable patches and men going hunting and fishing when not on the front line. This was probably as much in the hope of adding some extra nourishment to their rations as to alleviate some of the boredom.
All the men had the same rations and they were also able to supplement army offerings with food sent from friends and family at home, via the postal system. There are accounts of wealthy officers being sent food parcels from Fortnum and Masons as they could afford to do so.
One of the main staples was tins of “Bully”, the name for corned beef from Argentina. If it hissed when you pierced the tin, you knew it had gone off. The French soldiers were of the opinion it was monkey meat. The other staple was Maconochie, which was a thin watery broth with turnips, carrots, pork and beans, named after the Aberdeen based manufacturer. It was not at all popular, but the actual ingredients are not dissimilar to Cassoulet, it must have been how it was preserved in the tin and that most of the time you had to eat it cold that made it particularly foul and reviled. It was even described by some soldiers as a war crime!
The winter of 1916 must have been a real low point. There was a massive shortage of flour so ground turnips were used instead to produce a revolting stomach churning bread. Food transportation was also becoming a big problem, with supplies taking so long to get to their destination most things had gone stale and gone off. The soldiers got round this by crumbling up the hard food and mixing it with water, potatoes, sultanas and onions and boiling it all up in a sandbag to make a sandy stale soup. Following is I hope a slightly more appetising recipe for you from that period in time.
I was recently given a handwritten cookery book that dates from the Great War years. Written in the back of it are these few poignant lines “Frank got home on leave. March 4th. Came to Buxton and we went to Darley Dale Friday 8th until Tuesday 12th. Returned to France March 18th 1918………….”. That is the last entry in the back of this little recipe book.
My recipe for you this month is from the same book and it is for Merry – Go - Rounds. These are delicious oaty biscuits. The hand writing is in the same hand as the note about Frank, perhaps these were his wife or sweethearts’ recipe, we will never know. Very unusually for that time the method that comes with the recipe is very comprehensive, so I have written it as she has done, with only very slight adjustments.
Preheat your oven to 170c. You will need scales, a big bowl and sieve for your dry ingredients, measuring spoons, Big spoon, chopping board and knife, 2 little dishes for your egg yolk and white, rolling pin, round cutter, flour shaker and a couple of baking trays lined with baking parchment.
3 oz oatmeal
½ tsp salt
2oz sunmaid seeded raisins
1 yolk of egg
A little milk
Mix all the dry ingredients together
Rub in the butter
Lightly add the Sunmaid Raisins finely chopped.
Beat in the yolk of egg and a little milk
Add to the dry ingredients to make a dough
Knead until free from cracks and turn out onto a floured work surface
Roll out to ¼ inch thick
Cut into rounds and place onto a greased tin.
Bake in a moderate oven until nicely browned.
This year gives us an ideal opportunity to learn and reflect on the enormous sacrifices that were made. There has already been and continues to be an abundance of TV programmes and books released to mark the centenary. With Lincolnshire having such a close relationship with the military there are many events to choose from locally too. We owe it to all those men and families to join in this hundred year landmark in our history to remember and be thankful.