Elephant & Castle
Time Out rating:
Time Out says
Posted: Thu Mar 11 2010
‘The Ministry of Food’ is the Imperial War Museum’s new exhibition covering the 14 years of food rationing in Britain that began in 1940. It explains how our food imports were reduced by enemy attacks on our merchant navy, and how we had to reinvent the ways that we grew, transported and consumed food.
‘Food security’ back then was not the abstract concern it seems today: drastic action had to be taken. The British had to be encouraged to switch from bread (made with imported grain) to potatoes as their staple starch, with the help of propaganda from the popular cartoon character ‘Potato Pete’.
Cane sugar – also imported – was tightly rationed. Consumption of most meats and all dairy had to drop drastically, and vegetable growing on spare plots was officially encouraged.
The British public, while recognising the national interest, were usually not impressed with the resulting austerity dishes. With less awareness of vegetarian cooking or world cuisines than we have today, ersatz dishes had to be created which mimicked traditional British cooking.
Kitchen Front is the new name for the café at the Imperial War Museum, run by the estimable Company of Cooks caterers. Founder Mike Lucy has bravely decided to put authentic war-time austerity recipes on the menu, for people who are curious to know what the dishes of this era tasted like.
Salt was the dominant flavour of ‘Mrs Harwood’s lentil and cheese pie’. It tasted floury and bland – my grandmother used to make the same dish. I couldn’t fault it for authenticity. It came with a dollop of sludgy green pease pudding, just as it might have been in the war years.
The baked potato, though, was quite good, served with a fishy filling and a proper 1940s salad – English lettuce, rings of spring onion, no dressing.
Sweets include scones filled with ‘mock cream’ made from margarine beaten with caster sugar, tasting exactly as you’d imagine it to, ie nothing like cream at all.
The dishes wonderfully illustrate the constraints cooks of the time worked under. Just to show Kitchen Front can also produce more appetising dishes, the cream-filled Victoria sponge was far superior, if a little meagre with the jam (sugar rationing made jam a very rare treat).
Don’t let the two-star rating put you off trying the caff’s curious wartime dishes such as beetroot and chocolate cake. Just be warned that for a more fortunate generation brought up on meat, sweets, fats and deftly used spices, the drabness of austerity cooking can come as a bit of a shock.
Kitchen Front Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road