When Modern Taste Meets Wartime Rationing

BY CLARE HEAL

So, here we go again. Headscarves on – it’s rationing time! When I heard that Cambridge Sustainable Food was re-running the challenge that had proved so popular in 2015, I started thinking about what I’d learned the first time round.

What happy synchronicity that Britain’s surprisingly healthy wartime diet is very similar to the one that anyone who cares about sustainability today should be looking to adopt. I would have loved finding out about the Ministry of Food and garnering tips for the culinary equivalent of make-do-and mend. Yet most of the 1945 recipes were a little – how can I say this politely? – stodgy. And beige. So very beige.

There was no way I was going to be making Woolton Pie on a regular basis…

Events like the rationing challenge work brilliantly as consciousness-raisers, but if they are to translate into long-term behavioural changes, then they need to be more than an exercise in denial. I wanted to teach myself to eat sustainably but not in a way that felt like a novelty or a self-imposed penance. Which meant out with the heavy, wartime approach and in with recipes that would appeal to modern palettes and lifestyles.

If I could distil the first rationing challenge into a single lesson it would be to think of meat and dairy as seasonings rather than the main elements of a meal. Things that can add umami and interest to the vegetables that are the star of the show. Using meat as a garnish, or to bring savoury backnotes, will make a vegetable-based dish sing.

For me this meant taking inspiration from the Mediterranean, Middle East and Asia.  We’re lucky to be doing this in summer, as the choice of British-grown veg is so wide and delicious. It would be a shame not to move away from the ubiquitous imported avocado and make the most of it…

My rationing conforming dishes are as follows, and the recipes can be found by following the links. These recipes aren’t hard and fast, more just suggestions of how to think about using meat and cheese as flavourings rather than the main event. They all serve two.

1. Eggless Gnocchi with Bacon and Chard

2. Summer Leaf Fattoush with Pickled Radishes

3. Tomato & Tarragon ‘Tabbouleh’

4. Szechaun-Style Green Beans

5. Chorizo and Broad Bean Brunchcakes

6. Braised Runner Beans

 

The recipes I’m offering here aren’t a full rationing meal plan (although if you wanted to make them all, they come in well under the weekly rationed amounts of everything with plenty over). As far as possible everything was grown in this country with spices, bulgur wheat(1) and olive oil being the only exceptions (rapeseed oil would be a good, locally-grown alternative for the latter). Oil was actually the thing I struggled with most. And eggs. Only having one egg for the week felt very sad. Fortunately, both of those are things, I think, one can allow a little leeway with once the challenge is over and still remain sustainably minded. Likewise, I’m thinking that the odd imported lemon is probably OK in the long run.

(1) A British grown alternative to bulgur wheat is strangely enough quinoa. Although most quinoa is imported from South America, it is also grown on the plains of Essex, and is sold online here.

 

Biography

Clare Heal is a food writer and private chef. Read more about her and her food on her website