Friday, January 30, 2009

How we Ate Then

We just don't know how lucky we are these days and how much it is costing us to be so for in World War II the rations were as follows. The luckier ones were those with big families, for - as today - the more food, the further it seems to go. Just multiply the amount by the number in your family to find out how little you would have to manage on.
per head per week:
Bacon or Ham: 4 oz (100g)
Sugar: 12 oz (350g)
Butter: 4 oz (100g) - later reduced to 2 oz (50g)
Tea (leaves): 2 oz (50g)
Cooking fat (lard): 2 oz (50g)
Margarine: 4 oz (100g)
Eggs: one PER FORTNIGHT, later one per week
Cheese: 1 oz (25p) later up to 2 oz (50p)
Dried eggs were introduced to compensate for the fresh, and later in the war one pack (equal to a dozen eggs) was allowed to be bought once a month.

Just over one shilling (in old money) was allowed to be spent on meat per head per week, and how much this would buy depended upon the cut, so everyone went for the cheaper and tougher cuts. With a large family, this amount of money would buy a good roasting joint, which went much further, but if you fancied a piece of rump steak, you would probably only buy a couple of ounces. Offal was not on ration, but even scarcer than fish, with everyone wishing to make meals using pigs' trotters, sweetbreads, cowheel, tripe, and ox-cheek. Sausages also were not rationed, but often made with very little meat, often offal and other unmentionables, my mother once swore she found a mouse tooth in one sausage.
Fish remained unrationed, but hard to find and often it was only 'smoek' available (and have been told this was whale meat). People would queue hours for the strangest fish, and if at the back of a queue, ending up with only a tail or fish head. Lucky ones might be able to buy a piece of salt cod.

Jams, marmalade, syrups, lemon curd, mincemeat and honey also went on coupons, and the amount allowed of just one (take your pick) varied from 8 oz (225g) a MONTH to 2 lbs.
Bread was of one kind only, the National Loaf, made from a grey wholemeal flour. Possibly full of fibre, nevertheless did not taste or even look appetising.

Fruit and Vegetables were not rationed, but as the farmers were now growing mainly cattle fodder, and probably just potatoes, so civilians were expected to DIG FOR VICTORY and grow their own. As not everyone could do this, one of the worst things that happened in veggie land was the disappearance of onions which normally had been imported to Britain from the Channel Islands and Brittany. An onion became a popular raffle prize, and several women would use one whole onion to flavour a stew, then remove it and cook it in another, and yet another, to try and make it last up to a month.
Any vegetables that were grown on smallholdings were, although not rationed, were allocated to various parts of the country by something called Controlled Distribution, and ration books were marked to ensure everyone got a fair share (albeit small). Any surplus was allowed to be distributed.

Oranges were one of the few fruits that were brought into this country, although usually reserved for pregnant women and children under the age of five. Lemons vanished completely, and bananas extremely rare and enough to alarm any child who tried them for the first time and bit into their skins.
Apples were also in very short supply, usually limited to only one per person (per week if that) and only when in season. Any other fruits were pure luxury and not around until the end of the war.

When it came to milk - again not actually rationed but under Controlled Distribution, the usual amount allowed being two to two and a half pints per person per week, and to supplement this, tins of Household Dried Milk went on sale - each equal to four pints when reconstituted, and for most of the war each family was allowed one tin a month. Barely drinkable by itself, and not that good in tea or coffee, it came into its own in cooking.
Children under two were entitled to National Dried Milk, a creamer version of the Household Dried and tasted more like the real thing. This richer dried milk had a "not for consumption after (use-by)...." date and once past that date could be bought by regular customers, and of course - used.

Cannot remember much about sweets, other than they were rarely to be found, but again rationed and if my memory serves me correctly the 'sweet coupon' allowance was around 4 oz (100g) but whether weekly (which I doubt for I used to be desperate for a sweet and buy Ovaltinetablets to suck instead) or monthly. Don't think sweets came off ration until the end of all rationing which I believe was six or so years after the war ended.

Strange as though it may seem, many of the foods eaten in wartime and perhaps disliked because of this reason, are now coming back into fashion. Of course they are now relatively much dearer than in the old days, purely because of 'fashion', but practically all offal is now in demand, also ox-cheek (which makes a wonderful stew). Fresh tuna, the most hated fish in war-time, now is much used by chefs, and eaten nearly raw to boot.

We should never dismiss a food 'just because...' for if a food has been eaten, one century or another, it can presumably be still eaten now, and with pleasure. There is no 'food only to be eaten by the poor' for all food is good food, admittedly some maybe better nutritionally than others, on the other hand there is expensive food 'only eaten by the rich'.
What the landed gentry DO like to eat is quality food, and much of it home-made, such as preserves, pickles, cakes, pies, biscuits, and a thousand other things we can easily make ourselves. So we - who love to cook - never need feel deprived, for we really can have it all.

Reading about 'the way we lived then' shows how 'the way we live now' is becoming so similar. People used to discuss whether it was better to spread the ration books over several stores, in the hope of buying vital extras, or register the whole family at the one grocer's shop, in the hope that being a 'regular', a scarce item, often kept under the counter, might end up in the shopping basket. There were arguments about whether it was better to use a small corner shop or a large one.

As mentioned before, at the end of six years of war, the British were far healthier than they had been at the beginning. Prior to the war, the average housewife knew very little about nutrition (other than they should cook and eat balanced meals), and ask one what a calorie was or what was protein, and they would stare back blankly. But by the end of the war, housewives were angrily writing to the Ministry of Food to complain that the shops were not providing the energy-giving, body-building and health-giving foods that the family required. In some ways this can shame us now, for how many of us bother to work out we buy the correct amount of nutrition? Perhaps we feel if we buy and eat enough, we will take in enough nourishment, but that brings us back again to the fact that we can still eat a lot less and get the full amount of nourishment we need/ In other words, buy less which then leads us to spending less. If we can really cut down the amount we buy, then money saved could go towards buying better quality food and still have money left over. A win-win situation don't you agree?

Now on to the promised recipes, and maybe others if time allows.
Dried Apricot Jam: makes 5 lb (2.5kg)
1 lb (500g) dried apricots
3 pints (1.8ltrs) water
juice of 1 lemon
3 lb (1.5kg) sugar
2 oz (50g) blanched almonds, split
knob of butter
Put the apricots in a bowl, add the water, cover and leave to stand overnight. Next day, put the apricots and the soaking liquid in a pan with the lemon juice. Heat gently until beginning to boil, then simmer until soft, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and stir in the sugar and almonds. When the sugar has dissolved, return to the heat, add the butter then boil rapidly for 2 0 - 25 minutes, and keep stirring to prevent the fruit from sticking to the base of the pan and burning. When setting point has been reached, remove from heat and scoop off any scum that has risen to the surface. Pot in hot, sterilised jars, cover, label and store in the normal way.

Time-saving Apricot Jam: makes approx 3 lb (1.5kg)
3 x 425g cans apricot halves in syrup
2 tblsp lemon juice
1 lb (500g) sugar
Drain the apricots, reserving the syrup. Put the apricots into a blender or food processor with half a pint (300m) of the syrup, the lemon juice and the sugar (if using a small blender do this in batches). Blitz until smooth, then pour into a saucepan and boil gently until thickened. Pot up the jam in the usual way.

Apricot and Apple Chutney: makes 7 lb (3.5kg)
1 lb (500g) dried apricots, soaked overnight in water
4 lb (2kg) cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped
1 lb (500g) onions, sliced
12 oz (375g) raisins
1 lb (500g) demerara sugar
1 pt (600ml) distilled vinegar
1 level tblsp salt
1 level tblsp ground mixed spice
Drain the apricots and coarsely chop. Put into a preserving pan with the rest of the ingredients and simmer gently for about an hour until the mixture has thickened and no excess liquid remains (if you can draw a wooden spoon over the base of a pan and it leaves a clear path with no liquid flowing back, then it is ready). Pour into hot sterilised jars and seal immediately with vinegar-proof air-tight lids. Store in a cool, dry, dark place for 2 - 3 months before eating.

This final recipe could possibly be made using no-soak apricots that have been soaked overnight in water and a little sugar added to make a syrup. If using this method, you will need to adjust amount of fruit and water to equal that of the canned. As it can be eaten hot or cold, again a dish that can be cooked in the oven when on for something else.
Crunchy Apricot Pudding: serves 4
2 lb (900g) canned apricots (rain and reserve syrup)
4 oz (100g) butter
pinch of salt
1 tsp cinnamon
half tsp freshly grated nutmeg
6 tblsp runny honey
6 slices toasting bread
2 oz (50g) cornflakes
Put 5 fl oz (150ml) of the apricot syrup in a pan with the butter, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and honey, and heat gently until well mixed. Halve or quarter the apricots.
Toast the bread and cut into half inch (1 cm) cubes, then put this in the spiced syrup with the apricots and cornflakes, tossing everything together lightly.
Spoon into a greased ovenproof dish and bake at 180C, 350F, gas 4 for 30 minutes. Serve hot or cold with cream or ice-cream.