When we think about periods in food, the Second World War is not one that begs to be revisited. It was all tinned meat, semolina and a joyless absence of butter, right? Well, not quite. And despite rationing, many commentators have observed that the population never enjoyed a healthier diet than during that time. The food writer Irene Veal even wrote in the preface to her 1943 book, Recipes of the 1940s, "never have the British people been so wisely fed or British women so sensibly interested in cooking".
During the war, the government issued pamphlets filled out with recipes for nourishing meals on a budget, along with tips for a healthier lifestyle and dietary advice, to help people eat well using the reduced ingredients with which rationing left them. The nostalgic leaflets distributed by the Ministry of Food have now been compiled in a book, Eating for Victory: Healthy Home Front Cooking on War Rations, and acts as a fascinating look at how people survived with the food shortages in wartime Britain, as well as offering tips that are pertinent today.
After the First World War, the government took stock of the food problems faced during the period and spent a great deal of time researching everything from nutrition to food preparation. In the 1930s a British Medical Association study showed that millions of people were deficient of their basic dietary constituents to some extent. The outbreak of war in 1939 meant the government used this information, along with its experience of the First World War, to plan how best to feed the nation.
Rationing was officially introduced in January 1940, with bacon, butter and sugar the first to be affected, before everything from cheese to eggs, cereal and dried fruit joined them. Every man, woman and child had a ration book and food prices were pegged at a standard rate so that poorer people could buy sufficient goods. The pamphlets were issued to encourage families to get the most out of their meagre supplies. The Great War had seen a lot of men being called up and told they were not fit to fight because they were undernourished. The government couldn't afford to let this to happen again.
As well as recipes for dishes including split-pea soup, treacle tarts, potato and cheese flans and pickled herrings, there is advice on how to preserve fruits and tomatoes, how to make the most of the fat ration and how to ensure sufficient vitamin intake. The public was also instructed against wasting anything and was encouraged to add bacon rinds to joints and steaks to help make dripping, or fry them until crisp and use to flavour soup. Similarly, apple peels were simmered in water until soft so that the liquid could be substituted for lemon juice in the jam-making process.
Jill Norman, who wrote the foreword for the book, insists that a huge amount of helpful information can be found on the pamphlets. "This compilation is so different to all the sort of lifestyle-y recipe books we're so used to today," she says. "It's all straightforward common sense, a lot of which has been forgotten."
And with the current economic climate, it is certainly useful to see how healthy meals can be prepared on a shoestring budget, even if some of the options might seem a little on the extreme side. The book also contains leaflets that offer advice on how to replace flowerbeds with vegetable gardens, which was also promoted by the Government. "Those pamphlets are very relevant to the situation today in many ways," Norman says. "People are queuing up for allotments, people are growing vegetables in anything from the back of the garden to a window box. Yes, it's partly because of the economic squeeze but it's also down to a bigger level of awareness of sustainability and, given all the food scares, provenance."
You might be surprised to learn that just about everything here can be found in your local supermarket; our basic food stuffs have evidently not changed all that much over the last 60 years. "Of course there are differences. You wouldn't find as many herrings in the shops these days but you can certainly buy them. Things like Spam are not as widely used but it's still available. There is a strong-tasting tinned fish called snoek which you'd struggle to find. But other than that you'd be able to get your hands on most of the ingredients."
There are a few things worth bearing in mind if you are keen to experiment with a bit of wartime cooking. Rations for butter and margarine were particularly meagre, so their measurements in most recipes are, understandably, very mean-spirited. Norman also recommends double-checking the cooking times, as our ovens are so much more powerful than they were back then.
Finally, don't feel like a cheat for substituting dried egg (a deplorable wartime necessity) for the real thing. "Awful stuff!" Norman says. "Nobody wants to be eating dried eggs, and quite rightly. Some things should be left in the past."
'Eating for Victory: Healthy Home Front Cooking on War Rations' is published by Michael O' Mara Books. RRP £9.99
1½ lb potatoes, cut in thin slices
2oz onions, finely chopped
3oz bacon, finely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
2-3 teaspoons salt
Half teaspoon pepper
Quarter pint stock
8oz shredded cabbage
Grease a cake tin or pudding basin. Arrange layers of potatoes, onion, bacon and parsley in it, seasoning each layer. Add the stock, cover with a plate and steam for one and a half hours. Fifteen minutes before serving arrange cabbage round tin or basin to steam.
8oz self-raising flour
8oz plain flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
Half a teaspoon salt
Half a teaspoon mixed spice
2oz clarified dripping
3oz currants or sultanas
Quarter pint milk
Sift the flour, baking powder, if used, salt and spice together. Rub in the dripping and add the sugar and fruit. Mix to a soft consistency with the milk and turn into a greased 6in cake tin. Bake in a moderate oven for 50 minutes.
NB If hard mutton dripping is used, it may be slightly warmed to make it easier to rub in.
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