It’s been a long first week back to work for both of us. Those 6:00am alarms had not been missed and their return was not welcome. Having crawled through Monday to Friday, I decided that what we could all do with was a delicious treat at the weekend to pick us up. Surely a dish named after a lauded member of the aristocracy would fit my needs?
Having wrestled my toddler into bed for a much needed nap, (though whether it was her or I who needed her to have one isn’t clear), and waited until her protestations – all of them eloquently well argued and not at all like wordless sirens – died down, I turned to the pages of history to find inspiration.
Lord Woolton was the Minister of Food from 1940 to 1943 and his job was essentially to prevent the nation starving during World War Two when food was scarce and could not be easily imported. At this point, I’ll admit, alarm bells were ringing because I had a sneaking suspicion that my decadent pie was possibly not going to be as indulgent as I had hoped, but I’d picked it now so tough luck to me. “Lunch might be a little bit simpler than I’d planned”, I told my husband. Poor, innocent man; I felt I had to break it to him gently.
In January of 1940, the British government introduced rationing in an effort to ensure food was shared out fairly between all. In order to maintain group poverty at a level where everyone was suffering equally, Lord Woolton’s department distributed ration books, which were small booklets filled with coupons and given to every man, woman and child in Britain. Housewives had to register their family’s ration books at certain retailers in an effort to stop duplication. Certain foods could only be purchased with the coupons and once they were gone, they were gone. Woolton himself described it in 1940 when he told the Evening Express: “I suppose I am going to run the biggest shop in the world.”
From January of 1940, butter, bacon and sugar were rationed. In March, more meat was added to this list. For a nation that was the home of the Sunday Roast and the Full English, (yes, I’ve capitalised these national treasures), suddenly finding that meat was not as available as it had been was staggering. Combine this with the fact that in July of 1940 tea became a victim of rationing too and it’s a wonder Britain had the morale to go through with the war at all.
Subsequent years saw the rationing of foods such as jam, cheese, eggs, tinned tomatoes, sweets and chocolate. Other items were also rationed on a points system. Dried fruit, cereal and baked goods like biscuits and cakes were given out according to consumer demand and how available these items were. People would queue for hours in long lines at the shop only to be told that certain items had run out when they eventually got to the front. Milk was also given out on a priority basis to those deemed most in need of it: children and expectant mothers.
Some foods weren’t rationed. I’m sure that children in the 40’s who could only half remember what chocolate tasted like would have been comforted by the knowledge that seasonal local fruit and vegetables were usually readily available, although any fruit that was imported would have faced dwindling supplies.
It was with this national backdrop that the government came up with the ‘Dig for Victory’ scheme – an initiative designed to get people converting their gardens into allotments in order to become as self sufficient as possible. Many public spaces, such as parks, were also converted. Propaganda posters began to be created encouraging, and at times cajoling, those who were slow to start the process.
Historically, the people of Britain have viewed vegetables with the same level of mistrust and wariness that one might have if a rabid cheetah somehow broke through the back fence and was waiting in the borders of their garden. Oh, we grew them and even cultivated them, but in the past vegetables tended to be cooked until all the green had seeped away and those nasty dangerous vitamins had been boiled out.
To help people adapt to their slimmed down pantries and to encourage them to actually eat all the veg that was now being grown, Lord Woolton and his department devised a collection of recipes to inspire housewives to make the most of the ingredients available to them. Lord Woolton’s Pie, as it became known, is perhaps the most famous of these Ministry dishes.
By now, any lingering hope of a luxurious Saturday lunch was gone and had been replaced with despair when I read that journalist William Sitwell, who had recreated this recipe as part of his article into Lord Woolton and rationing, had described the meal as “grim and dull”. I went back to my husband and told him that as well as being simpler than he was expecting, lunch was also going to be a historical twist on the types of spiritual and energising meat free meals served in 5 star yoga retreats and was therefore, if he thought about it, Very Exciting Indeed.
For the pie filling I chopped and diced just over 1lb of potato, swede and carrot and mixed it with 4 diced spring onions. I tipped the vegetables into a saucepan of water, into which I added 1 teaspoon of Marmite. Food historians might argue this addition was part of the recipe because it was a quick way of ensuring additional nutrients were added to people’s sparse diet during the war; as a member of Team Hate It, I think it was just another way of making the public miserable.
While all this was simmering I began on the pie crust. Now, I am a big believer that if you’re going to advertise something as a ‘pie’, it needs to have a crust on the top, sides and bottom. Anything else is just a stew with a bit of pastry on top: disappointing, deceitful and downright insulting. Lord Woolton must have thought this would be perfect for this meal, then.
The crust consisted of 8oz wheatmeal flour, 1 teaspoon of baking powder, a pinch of salt and 1/4 pint of cold milk (or water, depending on your sadist percentage). I mixed all the ingredients together into a sticky dough and rolled it out into a disk just big enough to disguise a stew as a pie before tipping the vegetables into a dish and covering with the pastry. It cooked at 180 degrees until the crust had turned golden brown.
It’s hard to put into words the range of emotions that flickered on my husband’s face when I presented lunch to him. To his everlasting credit he attempted a compliment when he described it as “simple waste not want not food”, which is exactly what the point of the meal was. It’s easy for me to mock now, but at the time this dish became popular because of how surprisingly filling it was as well as how quick, easy and cheap. If you were a woman trying to feed your children properly under strict rationing whilst also working, being self sufficient and/or running a household alone whilst your husband was at war, I don’t think you could get much better than this.
Additionally, this recipe also allowed me to fulfil a personal goal of eating more vegetables, even if they had been tainted with the poison that is Marmite. In terms of taste, it was unsurprisingly very bland. Because of the lack of any fat it had a thin and quite watery quality to it. The pastry was also underwhelming in flavour, but would have been filling if we’d not given up and reached for the biscuits after a few mouthfuls. Luckily for those living through rationing, this era was also responsible for some of the best puddings ever known to man: custard trifle to use up stale cake, lemon meringue pie to use eggs that were about to turn, and jam sponge made with grated carrot as part substitute for sugar were all welcome additions to the table.
My daughter woke up just as we sat down to eat so I thought I’d see what her verdict was. This is a child who will eat anything that’s not nailed down. I have seen her devour crayons with relish. This Christmas, in her eagerness to get to the chocolate inside, she consumed part of the foil on the outside of a chocolate coin. This time, however, she took one bite of the pie, chewed it round for a bit, spat it out and handed it back to me. Despite its good intentions and the history of its necessity, I couldn’t think of a better summation for this dish.