Waste Not, Want Not – Recipes from the First World War
Buried among the documents that have survived in Stokesay Court’s WW1 hospital archive I came across a sheaf of 4 large, double sided printed pages headed:
…WASTE NOT, WANT NOT…
ECONOMY WILL WIN THE WAR
As I started to read them in detail, I realized that these recipes themselves, together with the ingredients they used, provide a fascinating insight into the diet and culinary habits of the time. The four sheets in the Stokesay archive are entitled: “Delicious Stews”; “All About Soups”; “Eighteen Very Cheap Dishes” and “Thirty-four ways of Using Potatoes other than as Vegetables”. There were other leaflets in the series including “Stocking your Larder from your Garden”, “How to use potatoes”, “Wartime dinner dishes”, “Vegetables: How to Cook Them” (this apparently contained recipes for vegetable curries).
From the contents it would appear that they were published in response to increasing food shortages and so probably in 1917 or 1918. According to the National Archives, in April 1917 Britain had only six weeks supply of wheat left, and bread formed a staple part of most diets. The Government’s response was to trial a scheme of voluntary rationing, with the aim of reducing the consumption of foods in short supply, and to try to show how to avoid waste when cooking. These sheets were published by The Department of Food Economy, Ministry of Food and appear to fit that description.
As an illustration, the introduction to the “potato” sheet contains the following: “the great national need of the moment is to save bread by using our unprecedented surplus of potatoes – over 2,000,000 tons – to take its place. This is the immediate duty of everyone – to learn how to make potato-foods to take the place of bread-foods and use them……. People who have once used potato-bread …., never wish to return to the bread which is made solely from flour”. The advice continues: a potato should “NEVER be peeled before it is cooked. People who cut the peel from a potato before they cook it, actually throw away 85 per cent of its flesh-forming and vital elements.”
There is plenty advice on cooking and economy. Examples include “you must ‘make do’ with what you have”; “Milk has become scarce, and should be kept as far as possible, for the children”; “Everyone wants to economise….. in order to have money to help our men in the trenches……… food that is badly cooked does not nourish the body. …….. not only may we buy cleverly and cook what we buy appetizingly, but we can be extravagant or we can be saving of fuel. ……. In this leaflet you will find useful hints for fuel saving as well as recipes for savoury dishes”.
Each leaflet concludes with the following: “IMPORTANT NOTE. Do not look at these recipes hastily, and say ‘too expensive, too elaborate’. Study them, and you will see how delicious they are. You can always simplify them to suit your own requirements. They provide dishes for six persons. Less is required for smaller families.”
We decided to try out a selection of these recipes to discover for ourselves the truth of these words. Our panel consisted of Jackie who looks after our teas and one of our tour guides, Andrew, and myself. Jackie is a wonderful cook and prepared each dish with great care. We tried out: Sheep’s heart hot pot, Potato bread, Caraway seed and treacle buns with ground rice, Oat biscuits and Bran coffee.
The first thing that struck me was the absence of sugar in the cooking. Surprisingly perhaps this brought out the underlying flavours and made me question whether sugar is really necessary in most things. However, it also has to be said that all of the dishes tasted rather bland for modern taste. Possibly attitudes to seasoning were different too. Salt and pepper, mace, nutmeg with the occasional recommendation of a clove of garlic, a bayleaf, celery, parsley were used to provide flavouring. I particularly liked the suggestion accompanying a recipe for Farmhouse Soup that “A teaspoonful of marmite is an improvement”.
Lamb’s Heart Hot Pot – (heart kindly supplied by a local farmer)
Cooked with vegetables, Jackie used suet and/or lard as fat in all of the recipes. The meat was first fried in suet and then cooked with the other ingredients for around four hours on a low heat. We all enjoyed it. Although it tasted a little bland, the main seasoning being pepper, this did not detract from our enjoyment and we felt that coming home to a dish like this after a hard day would have cheered everyone who ate it. The meat was tender enough, if not “melt in the mouth”. It smelt good too.
Potato Bread rolls: mashed potato, a little wheat bread flour, baking powder and an ounce of lard.
This was surprisingly like bread, if a little more spongy. We all thought it smelt a little yeasty even though it didn’t contain any. Jackie commented that “you could march on these”, Andrew thought they would be nice grilled with cheese. I agree. They were pleasantly chewy, and filling. General verdict: very nice
Oat biscuits. Made from rough oats, flour and water, no seasoning
These were delicious. They were slightly coarser and rather more chewy than modern oat cakes. Jackie thought they might have benefitted from using finer oats but I was happy with them as they were. They would be great with cheese.
Caraway seed and treacle buns with ground rice.
There were mixed views on these. Jackie in particular was not impressed. They were very bland and had a cloying texture. To some extent they were redeemed by a faint taste of lemon peel and an aftertaste of cumin. They definitely needed a spreading of butter to relieve the dry texture. This was the only recipe where we felt sugar would have helped – Andrew wanted to put jam on his. The black treacle failed to sweeten them. However, we all felt that if you were very hungry, they would be perfectly acceptable fillers.
Bran coffee: a mix of black treacle and wheat bran, roasted in the oven for two hours. The granules were then boiled for 10 minutes and sieved.
Jackie used slightly more granules than stated in the recipe to intensify the flavour. The result was a pleasant surprise. Both Andrew and Jackie thought it tasted like a malt drink, not unlike ovaltine. Jackie thought it had a slightly bitter flavour to start and then the malt flavour took over. We all felt it was a pleasant, soothing hot drink which would be nice for anyone wanting something to help relax.
We all felt very full at the end of the tasting session, although none of us had eaten a full portion of anything, except Andrew who finished everything except his potato cake and asked for more stew. An army could march on the potato cakes!
I asked our tasters for their overall comments:
Jackie thought the recipes were sustaining, would probably have provided a welcome meal and a filling one. She found them straightforward and easy to use with easy to combine ingredients. She needed to be mindful that there would be enough flavour and texture, and to present them in an appetizing manner. Most of them followed familiar principles but she found the bran coffee challenging as it was completely unknown.
Andrew thought that given how unappetizing some of the recipes sounded, they were in fact surprisingly nice. He thought they would go down well after a long working day, were surprisingly tasty and certainly filling.
I agreed with them and was struck by how much I was surprised to find that the absence of sugar allowed the other flavours to come through and I didn’t miss it at all.
Booklets of the recipes are available to purchase for £4.99 from Shropshire Regimental Museum and by post from Stokesay Court with the addition of £1.00 for post and packaging.