The Wartime Kitchen: Preserving and Pasta Bake

Though we could never replicate wartime conditions we have learnt the importance of preserving our gluts, from beans to rhubarb, and in particular tomatoes. We had failures with the dried beans, not dry enough before storing and residual moisture led to fungus; the beans met their end in the compost heap but we did eat some of them before they bowed out. This revealed how important preserving was during the war, and certainly we have lost many of the preserving techniques used before the advent of the freezer. Some of those used in the UK during WWII are fascinating and little frightening from a culinary point of view.

Preserving should be the cornerstone of any UK cook.

Eggs kept fresh by coating them with a thin layer of lard (though this technique was not widely used due to the waste of lard). This sealed the eggs for longer but eggs stored for long periods were stored in metal buckets, in crocks, under water with isinglass or waterglass mixed in. Isinglass is made from  the dried swim bladders of fish; it's a form of collagen like the stuff some people pay to have pumped into their lips and cheeks to make them more youthful. Waterglass is a sodium silicate, and today is used in everything from detergents to water treatment, to adhesive and construction. So basically, you had eggs that tasted of fish or where preserved in something that sets the shells harder than concrete. Many did choose to pickle eggs. Frankly, neither one of us likes pickled eggs and we have access to chickens.

The Canadian Women's Institutes donated canning machines to the WVS (Women's Voluntary Service) for sharing in communities that largely preserved their gluts of fruits and vegetables in kilner jars, it easy to forget how big this company was and how ingrained in our national psyche was the need to stock the winter larder. 

Less appetising than the eggs was the simple homemade preservation of meat. The Ministry of Food showed through pamphlets how to home cure and preserve pork and lamp chops for up to six weeks. You first cooked them, then placed them in a deep dish before covering them completely with fat. Yum!

Dried tomatoes last a long time in air tight jars and freezer bags. They are a great addition to sauces. Intense taste.

Thankfully, back in September we chose to preserve out tomatoes in three ways, bottling, drying and freezing. The first two have now been consumed, though bottled tomatoes can last some time, we felt we should eat ours in the first six weeks. This was our first time doing this and there is a lot of concerns around canning vegetables, with the rise of fear mongering about salmonella and botulism in home preserving. For the record, we have never had a problem with this and any seals that failed on our kilner jars meant that we did not eat the produce inside. Sometimes a little common sense goes a long way. If you are not sure that something is right after preserving, do not eat, use your nose and your eyes. 

The best of both world for freezing and preserving tomatoes for a larder or freezer.

We have now moved into eating our frozen produce. Though we are following a wartime garden plan, we want to show how it can fill your freezer (the modern larder) as well as your cupboards. It would be pointless to ignore the freezer, however it should never have replaced our ability to preserve. If we still retained and practiced what many of our grandparents and great-grandparents did without a second thought, we would not end up with millions of tons of food going into landfill each year and neither would there be mass hysteria around sell by or use by dates. We would know what food should look like, at the start and the end of their useability. 

We have been posting up on our Facebook Page the meals with our tomatoes and have been asked time and again, what's in the sauce? The answer is simple: in the frozen tomatoes there is nothing but tomatoes. These were washed, cooked in a pan with a little olive oil until they melted down, then left to cool, bagged in sandwich bags and frozen. We did over 150lbs of tomatoes this way and it took only one afternoon on a Sunday, spent milling between the cooker, the radio and a book. 

When we did a recent Pasta Bake, the ingredients were incredible simple:

Tasty, mostly from the garden and nutritional.


Pasta shells/enough for two (practice your own portion control, we eat well and do not apologise for it when we are outside working most days).
Half an onion
A hard sausage/salami
Garlic clove
Olive oil
Dried Oregano
Grated cheese
One bag of frozen tomato sauce
Tomato puree
Whole cherry tomatoes

Boil the pasta shells until cooked and set aside. In a large pan, that can be used in an oven too, fry your diced onion in a little olive oil, as they start to soften add the sausage which should be cut into small cubes. Small enough so they can sit easily into one of the pasta shells. Our sausage was bartered for and the closest sausage to is salami. Add sliced garlic and keep on a low heat. In another pan start to melt your tomato sauce, remove from sandwich bag first! When melted, add puree to thicken and some pepper. You may notice that some oil has gathered in the bottom of your onion, sausage and garlic pan, spoon this out and discard. This avoids an oily sauce. Add a little puree to the pan and coat the onions, sausage and garlic in it. We have access to our own puree but shop bought will work just as well. Add the pasta shells to the onions, sausage and garlic, coat the pasta thoroughly. Pour over the tomato sauce and mix together, making sure all the meat is well distributed through the dish. Pop in some cherry tomatoes on top of the pasta and gently push down so that they are still showing. Grate cheese on top, a hard cheddar will do. Sprinkle oregano on top and add more pepper is you wish. Now bake in an oven, around 200c for 30 minutes or until the cherry tomatoes have popped and the cheese has turned golden. Serve in bowls.

In our dish, the only things we bought were the pasta, olive oil, pepper and cheese. The rest came from the wartime garden or was bartered for. We can learning a lot from preserving our own and bartering, jars do cost but last a long time. For us it has been trial and error, we lost pickles to loose seals, we lost beans to too little heat when preserving but at each step we have learnt. You may ask, why do it? Until you have tasted your own pickled onions, chomped into your own preserved beans or slapped on a thick slather of homemade rhubarb chutney onto a doorstop of home baked bread, you simply won't understand. For everyone who has preserved their own for winter, they will be sat reading this, nodding and smiling. There are tastes in the world you would die to taste once more, and none of them ever came from a freezer centre.

You can view more on our #wartimegarden plans on twitter and through the following links:

Wartime Garden: Harvest Festival

Digging for Victory: The Guardian Blog

Dig For Victory Leaflet No1: Grow for Winter as well as Summer

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