Boil in the backpack: Are the forces' new rations fit to serve?

The tomato and basil soup was actually rather delicious, though eating a liquid course out of a boil-in-the-bag receptacle requires some dexterity. The beef and cassava was also pretty tasty, with the Brazilian tuberous root providing considerably more texture than mushy potatoes, though the meat was a tad chewy to say the least. The best one could say about the Thai green curry, however, is that it had a kick as fierce as the donkeys on the frontline in Helmand, where this particular delicacy is heading.

For these dishes were all courtesy of the Ministry of Defence, part of a much-needed revamping of the ration pack that has sustained soldiers since the Cold War.

As the rest of the world moved into the 21st century, long-suffering troops in combat were still dining out on meals devised by their grandfathers – dishes such as Lancashire hotpot and corned beef hash. It was no coincidence that many troops used the very same slang for the latter as they do for rubbish – "gash".

Furthermore, eight years after the British began fighting once again in lands where temperatures can reach 50 celsius, soldiers had grown all-too weary of opening up their daily box of food to find burst melted Yorkie bars coating the entire contents in a sticky slime. They may have been wittily packaged with the politically-correct slogan "Not for Civvies" instead of "Not For Girls", but they were a delight only to ravenous ants. Meanwhile, for the Royal Marines training in arctic Norway, the chocolate confection froze to teeth-shattering consistency.

To add insult to injury, units could often end up with boxes of identical meals, a monotonous nightly diet of pork casserole just to emphasise the Groundhog Day effect of fighting on the front line. An army may march on its stomach, as Napoleon observed, but a meal can also provide the only comfort or diversity in a spartan world.

"Food takes on a disproportionate importance in theatre [operations]. The US concept is feeding is fuel. But for us Europeans it is about social interaction, sitting down, and shooting the breeze," says Lieutenant Commander Neil Horwood, who has been on a two-year mission at Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) to dramatically revamp the ration (or "rat") packs provided to those boiling on operations or freezing on exercise. Determined to democratically bypass senior commanders in favour of the boots on the ground, he sent a team to Afghanistan's most remote bases, organised polling sessions with those returning from battle and sent out thousands of questionnaires asking precisely what the men and women wanted in rations packs. The squaddies dutifully responded – vodka, porn and cigarettes. "A couple wrote long letters. They obviously had too much time on their hands. One guy even sent some sand to get me in the mood," explains Lt Cdr Horwood.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the diverse military spectrum, one young female lieutenant attached to the notoriously well-to-do Household Cavalry suggested to a sergeant hosting a Q&A session that it would be a jolly idea to have houmous and peppermint tea. He replied to "ma'am" that he was creating a ration pack, not a hamper, and might he suggest sucking on a Polo.

The team's task was monumental. Not only did they have to contend with such varied tastes but they had to produce nutritionally-balanced boil-in-the-bag breakfasts, lunches and dinners that contained 4,000 a day calories to sustain a soldier in combat, had a shelf life of four years and did not cost the British taxpayer too much.

But Lt Cdr Horwood was determined to go one better. The rations were not just fuel for fighting but a way of boosting morale, alleviating boredom and providing some home comforts. "[Before Iraq and Afghanistan] my predecessors were making meals for people who were going on exercise for two weeks. I have customers who eat these for prolonged periods and can get menu fatigue," he explains. "Ten alternatives were not enough to sustain interest for six months. We were very determined to make changes. The pack did not reflect the fact that soldiers coming from Generation Y are used to global food. I wanted them to be able to pick up their rations and find something they would order on a Friday night from a takeaway. We said, tell us what your Mum is sending over or what you are taking on exercise. We can't promise to include it but we can promise to try."

The soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen responded convincingly. Drop the "gash", the treacle pudding that had the consistency of a sickly sweet brick of compacted cotton wool, as well as the oatmeal and dried biscuits that many simply slung out, unaware that they were the vital source of carbohydrates.

Keep the miniature Tabasco bottles that had spiced up generations of bland meals, the hot chocolate that had staved off hypothermia on exercise, and bring in variety. Baked beans were all very well, they said, but not every day.

The result is 38 new ration packs – contained in mixed boxes to avoid monotony. Of these, 20 are regular and 18 cater equally to vegetarian, Halal (often given to the Afghan National Army when working alongside the Brits) and Sikh and Hindu tastes. The Ministry of Defence is also researching Kosher meals.

Today's ration packs include beef ravioli in mushroom sauce, chicken sweet and sour, vegetable korma, chicken tikka masala, lamb tagine, stroganoff and paella. Tuna, salmon and mixed bean pasta lunches have replaced the oily tins of "pate" that appeared to date from the bully beef years, while a light lemon sponge and fresh fruit salad have usurped the treacle terror. Many of the baked bean breakfasts have been substituted with porridge or muesli with skimmed-milk powder. Nuts, cranberry cereal bars, dried fruits, ginger biscuits, Oreos and Jammy Dodgers have all been added, while tea bags have finally replaced the truly criminal powdered version.

The variety is impressive, but the true test of the new packs will be whether they are enticing enough to tempt troops working in heat that naturally suppresses the appetite. I have often had the dubious pleasure of dining out on Cornbeef Hash while embedded in Iraq and Afghanistan or on (ironically freezing) pre-operational exercises on Salisbury Plain. Of course, anyone who has ever eaten a "rat" pack knows that they are best served al fresco – preferably when frostbite and trench foot have begun to set in, exhaustion has brought about hallucinations and you are so famished you would eat your toenails.

Nevertheless, one must truly appreciate the constraints of having to produce as many 1.5 million individual 24-hour ration packs as well at 1.2 million 10-man packs a year. "They have to have a long shelf life. It can take months for them to get out there (to forward bases) and there needs to be a decent reserve in case they get taken out by a RPG (rocket propelled grenade) on the supply chain," explained Lt Cdr Horwood.

The ingredients have to have enough taste and texture to survive being hermetically sealed in silver retort pouches and pressure-cooked to sterilisation. There are countless other factors at play. To avoid heat exhaustion, troops must guzzle dozens of litres of water – often the foul-tasting purified version when bottled supplies run out. So the packs contain a host of drink powders as well as salty pretzels to encourage more liquid consumption.

Hygiene is also a key factor in areas where there may be no real washing facilities. Powdered soups that left mugs encrusted, have gone in favour of the boil-in-the bag version. Instead of cutlery, each pack has its own disposable spoon (an idea inherited from the American MREs (meals ready to eat) which is also biodegradable. Dental cleaning gum is included for oral hygiene, while hand wipes – devoid of the alcohol that makes skin crack in extreme temperatures – have been added. "They want to eat something that doesn't get their mess tins dirty. It is a duty of care. If they go down with food poisoning it could compromise the mission and put people's lives in danger," explained the naval officer.

Nine months from conception to creation, Lt Cdr Horwood was ready to serve his new meals to possibly his most daunting audience, the Chiefs of Staff, the most senior men in all three services. "They were genuinely surprised how good they tasted. The First Sea Lord absolutely loved the curry," explains the officer. Nevertheless, undoubtedly giving away the number of years since they were last forced to endure food in a box, the heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force admitted that they yearned for long-gone pleasures such as steak and kidney pudding and condensed milk.

More importantly, the new meals were sent out to Afghanistan last month and are receiving good reviews.

Personally, I cannot say the warm mushy pasta (apparently best served cold) had me in raptures, but many of the meals were a truly tasty triumph of ingenuity over adversity.

Nevertheless, when Lt Cdr Horwood proffered the boiled sweets, insisting they were a vast improvement on their predecessors, which had an uncanny knack of inducing lockjaw and a stroke-like lopsided grimace, I declined politely. Some things are above and beyond the call of duty.

The modern menu

Breakfast

Pork sausage omelette and beans

Lunch

Mexican tuna pasta

Main meal

Chilli con carne
Pilau rice
Choc chip cake

Treats and sweets

Tabasco Red sauce
Fruit and nut mix
Mixed fruit grains
Apple and peach purée
Oreo cookies

Drink powders

Cherry isotonic
Orange and cranberry
Lemon energy drink
Hot chocolate orange
Tea and coffee

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