Living off the land

EADT's country life expert Peggy Cole casts an eye over what the people of East Anglia were eating as war was declared.During the early war years those of us who lived in the country were better off than many others as we were able to grow our own fruit and vegetables and keep chickens in the garden.

EADT's country life expert Peggy Cole casts an eye over what the people of East Anglia were eating as war was declared.

During the early war years those of us who lived in the country were better off than many others as we were able to grow our own fruit and vegetables and keep chickens in the garden. Rabbits were also never in short supply, and occasionally a pheasant or two could be poached, but one always had to be careful never to burn the feathers on the fire in case the farmer smelled them and caught you out.

Eggs were in short supply at the time, so when we were lucky enough to have one or two spare, they would be preserved in a water glass and could last that way for up to a year. I wouldn't have wanted to eat them on their own after preserving, but they were perfectly adequate for baking. Runner beans were also preserved by crushing large blocks of salt and layering it over the beans, this meant the beans would last into the autumn and winter.

Root vegetables were preserved by putting them in clamps covered in straw and soil and apples were stored under the bed, or cut into rings and dried. Fisherman would regularly come by selling herrings which were always cheap.


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Our main diet at the beginning of the war consisted of rabbit stew or rabbit pie and parsley cakes (cooked potato and chopped parsley, rolled in flour fried). Pea soup was an old stand by, it was made using an old ham bone or pigs trotters, and blue peas (which had to be soaked overnight), these were put in a saucepan with any available root vegetables and left to simmer on the stove or oil range all morning before dumplings (or swimmers as we called them) were added about 20 minutes before serving.

Another standby dish was bacon and onion suet pudding. Suet pudding (or steamed pudding as it was also known) was very popular at the time as it would keep you full for a very long time.

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As we were in the countryside there were plenty of blackberries to be had, as well as wild mushrooms. We would also pick bullaces which many cottage gardens had growing around the borders to act as windbreaks. These were preserved and placed in large kilner jars.

Large marrows would be saved until the winter when they would be used to make “Millon Pie”. The marrow was cut up into small squares and cooked with raisins before being put in a dish with a pastry crust on top. This was a real treat, as was “pork cheese”, otherwise known as brawn. This was made by placing half a pigs head and a trotter in a pan with vegetables such as carrots, leeks, turnip, swede or onions, basically whatever was available. The mixture was seasoned with salt, pepper and a bunch of herbs and covered with water. This was boiled until the meat fell away from the bones. The liquid would then be strained off, and kept on one side, the meat would be cut in to small pieces and put into little basins, which were then filled with the liquid. This would set to form the brawn. My father used to love eating this with vinegar and salad - a real poor man's dish.

Cakes in the war weren't like the beautiful creations we see today, they were simply rusks and old fashioned shortcakes, made using any leftover pastry from a pie with a few currants and some sugar added before cooking. We also used to make what we knew as “cakes” by mixing 1lb SR flour, 3oz sugar, 8oz fat, lard or dripping 3-4 oz currants and two eggs (if you had them). The dough would be mixed up using the eggs, and if they weren't available, milk and water, then rolled out, cut into squares, brushed with any remaining egg and baked in a hot oven.

Rusks are one thing which are eaten as often today as during the war, they have formed a staple part of many people's diet for a long time - perhaps because they are so easy and cheap to make, yet very satisfying. My recipe is � lb SR flour, 3-4 oz lard and margarine, good pinch of salt, one egg and a little milk and water. The ingredients should then be mixed together to form a stiff dough which should be rolled out until about � inch thick and cut into 2 � inch rounds. Once cooked, the rusks should be split, then put back in the oven to brown and crisp up.

We therefore did not have a particularly varied diet during the early war years, simply using whatever was available at the time. I believe we were lucky as in the countryside there was always something to eat, whether it was home grown, foraged for, or “borrowed” from the local farmer! However we all learned to make a little go a long way and I can honestly say that we never went hungry.

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