Christmas is today the biggest food event of the year, and things were little different in the 1910s, when abundant courses and elaborate French cuisine were de rigeur. But wartime from 1914 made things tricky, and put a new moral emphasis on economy.
Imports were restricted by naval warfare, and food producers were fighting at the front. Shortages soon appeared, and the Ministry of Food Control was set up in 1916. Initially advocating voluntary rationing, it was forced to introduce compulsory rationing in the last year of the war.
From popular magazine The Bystander, here are some of the Christmas recipes Britain enjoyed during the First World War.
Oysters were eaten in astounding quantities during the 19th century: supplies were bountiful, and they were known as a cheap meat alternative for the poor. They were so popular in fact, that by the end of the 19th century oyster stocks had collapsed, and native oyster beds became exhausted.
By the 20th century oysters had become an expensive delicacy, as this wartime recipe from December 1914 shows. This festive starter, a delicate ‘oyster soufflé’ calls for six oysters:
Put 4 oz. of whiting or sole through a sieve. Make a panada of 1 oz. of butter, 1 oz. of flour, and a quarter of a pint of milk. Stir into this two yolks of eggs and the fish. Beat the whites very lightly, and stir well. Add half a pint of fish stock (made from the bones), one tablespoonful of cream, and six oysters cut up, steam slowly for one and a half hours. Turn over very carefully, pour a rich white sauce round, and decorate the top with a sprinkling of red pepper.
‘Panada’ was a paste made of flour, breadcrumbs or another starchy ingredient, mixed with liquid.
‘White sauce’ was defined as a plain sauce based on melted butter, whisked with flour. Milk is slowly added over a low heat until the sauce becomes thick and creamy.
Celery a la Parmesan
This would be a side dish on modern tables, but during the First World War it formed its own course, emulating the French style of table service. Creamy baked celery with a cheesy crust was a rich platter, worthy of the Christmas occasion, and the ingredients were still relatively affordable. This recipe from December 1914 reads:
Stew some celery in milk till tender, then make a white sauce, into which grated Parmesan should be stirred, and then place the celery in the dish it is to be served in. Pour the white sauce over then a layer of grated Parmesan, then a thin layer of breadcrumbs, and over all put pieces of butter, brown in the oven, and serve very hot.
A boned Turkey
This December 1914 recipe is from a special feature in The Bystander, ‘Four methods of cooking a turkey’. Turkey was emerging as a popular Christmas dish, but it did not dominate the Christmas table as it does today. Other fowl – particularly goose – were also popular.
The following recipe is for what was a particularly elaborate dish, recommended for a special public occasion like ‘a ball supper’. While many of The Bystander’s recipes were intended to be practical guides, it seems unlikely that the magazine’s readers would have followed this recipe in large numbers. We can think of this as early food entertainment; the equivalent of watching modern cookery shows. In this case, variety and interesting ideas were just as important as practicality.
Bone a turkey and lay it with the inside uppermost, cut the meat from the thick parts, and distribute it equally all over the inside, season with salt and pepper. Make some forcemeat with veal, ham, and truffles, put a layer of this over the meat of the bird, then a layer of sliced tongue, then another layer of turkey, then forcemeat, then tongue and truffles.
Roll it up, and tie it with tape, and put it in a well-buttered cloth into a stew pan, with two carrots, two onions, a stick of celery, some parsley and peppercorns, and sufficient white stock to cover it. Let it simmer gently for three hours, strain, and let it get cold; remove the cloth, and glaze it all over; if any glaze is left, cut it into various strips and lozenge shapes and garnish the dish with it. This dish is excellent for a ball supper.
‘Forcemeat’ was a mixture of uncooked ground or pureéd meat, similar to paté, while ‘white stock’ was a clear meat stock (as opposed to brown stock). The glaze in this instance would be a sweet jelly, brushed over the meat while warm and liquid. When cooled, the jelly would be firm enough to ‘cut into various strips’.
Novel dessert dish
Chestnuts were a traditional Christmas ingredient by December 1915, being grown in abundance on home soil – particularly handy for the wartime cook. But this recipe’s dependence on sugar makes it an extravagant dish all the same.
Roast three dozen large chestnuts, peel them, and put them into a stewpan; add 4 oz. of castor sugar and half a gill of water; cook slowly till the nuts absorb the sugar; then pile them up on a glass dish, squeeze over with the juice of a lemon, and dust rather thickly with castor sugar.
A ‘gill’ was an old unit of measure, equivalent to about 120ml.
Another inexpensive pudding
This recipe, which dates from November 1915, is a classic response to wartime shortages and economy. Unlike some of the exciting recipes above, this is a cheap, practical method for cooking Christmas pudding.
Sugar and eggs were both in increasingly short supply, and this recipe uses only one large spoon of sugar, and no eggs. Instead, the inclusion of a mashed carrot brings some essential sweetness and moisture to the recipe – just like in modern carrot cake.
Although fruit, like everything else during the war, has gone up in price, every English household must have a Christmas Pudding, but today, when eggs are so very expensive, it is necessary to be as careful as possible to try and obtain good results with fewer in the pudding. The secret of success is in the boiling, and the longer a Christmas pudding is allowed to boil the richer it will be.
Six spoonfuls of flour, ½ lb. of beef suet, ½ lb. of currants, one large spoonful of sugar, one large carrot to be boiled and mashed finely and mixed with the above ingredients, and the pudding to be boiled five hours. No milk or eggs are to be used in mixing the pudding. Serve with sweet sauce [almond or brandy sauce – popular accompaniments to Christmas pudding].
A 1915 Yuletide menu
The addition of olives with anchovies, and two extra dessert courses, promised to satisfy the most eager Christmas diner. Here is a typical 1915 festive menu:
Clear Ox-tail Soup
Roast Turkey, Chestnut Stuffing
Plum Pudding, Mince Pies
Olives with Anchovies
This article was first published by History Extra in December 2014.