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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

1940s Weekend at Tanfield Railway

Updated: Feb 17

Tanfield Railway near Gateshead (NE16 5ET) is the world's oldest railway still in use. Originally built to transport coal from the local pits to the docks on the River Tyne for onward shipping, today the railway offers visitors 'an unforgettable journey on a vintage steam train with unique Victorian carriages and lovingly restored locomotives'. Steam trains run every Sunday & Bank holiday until the end of October for you to enjoy a six-mile round trip through beautiful rolling countryside and a spectacular wooded valley. Afternoon Tea on the train is even available until late October.

When the Tanfield Railway - or 'waggonway' as it was known at the time - was built in 1725, it was a revelation. Its massive engineering was unlike anything else at the time and a clear signal that a new industrial age had arrived. It was first laid down more than a quarter of a century before the first railway officially sanctioned by government, over 75 years before the first steam locomotive and a whole 100 years earlier than the Stockton and Darlington Railway. In 2025, the Tanfield Railway will be the first railway to celebrate its tricentenary.

For several years, albeit interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Marley Hill Engine Shed site has hosted a 1940s weekend involving many local military history enthusiasts. In September this year (2022), Tastes Of History were invited to deliver a two-day cooking demonstration in keeping with the World War Two theme. We chose, therefore, to recreate healthy Home Front dishes on wartime rations following official WW2 instruction leaflets.

Rationing Despite the physical and emotional stress many had to endure, the health of the nation was surprisingly good during the austere war years. As strange as may seem infant mortality declined and the average age of death from natural causes increased. One reason was the change in eating habits forced on the British public by the war. For the poorer sections of society rationing introduced more protein and vitamins, while for others it reduced their consumption of meat, fats, eggs and sugar. Many doctors and nutritionists today would champion any regimen that reduces cholesterol and increases the amount of fibre in our diet. With the link between food and health now generally recognised, perhaps it is a good time to look once more at the wartime recommendations.

Rationing in wartime Britain was a necessary evil but the government of the day went to great lengths to ensure everyone had enough to eat. Lessons had been learnt from the problems encountered during the Great War and plans for rationing and distribution had already been drawn up by the outbreak of WW2 in 1939. An extensive programme of cookery teaching and of education in nutrition was undertaken by means of leaflets, books, radio broadcasts and demonstrations. Some eighteen million people listened to the early morning five-minute BBC radio programme The Kitchen Front. The following recipes have been recreated from official Ministry of Food leaflets. Metric measurements are favoured but the Imperial equivalents are given. Please note, the cooking temperatures given in degrees centigrade are specifically for modern fan assisted ovens as most households now use these. For non-fan assisted ovens, a rule of thumb is to add 20 degrees to the temperature quoted. Thus, a Hot oven is 200°C for a fan assisted oven, 220°C for a non-fan oven, 425°F or gas mark 7.

Girdle Scones With eggs rationed to one per person per week, when they were available, recipes that dispensed with their use became more important. One such is for simple Girdle Scones:

Fritters As an alternative to girdle scones, why not try bacon fritters for a breakfast treat? It is worth noting, however, that this dish calls for 2 oz of bacon which, in 1942, equates to half of a person's typical weekly ration.

Fish and Potato Pancake Ministry of Food Leaflet Number 7 offered cooks ten menus for high teas and suppers. The leaflet states: 'A good high tea or supper should include either a raw salad or a correctly cooked vegetable dish and one of the body-building foods such as cheese, egg, bacon, meat or fish. These can be supplemented with a vegetable body-builder such as peas, beans, lentils or oatmeal.' The recipe for Fish and Potato Pancake comes from Menu 7 on said leaflet and would have been accompanied by coleslaw with rock buns for afters.

Creamed Sardine Pie Also taken from Ministry of Food Leaflet Number 7 is this recipe for Creamed Sardine Pie. It formed part of Menu 6 to served alongside a green salad and followed with bread, margarine and jam. We found this was somewhat of a 'marmite' moment for those sampling the dish. Perhaps it was the grey colour that put some people off, but those who partook discovered a very tasty sardine dish.

Woolton Pie Named after Frederick Marquis, 1st Lord Woolton, the Minister of Food in 1940, ‘Woolton Pie’ was an adaptable dish of vegetables. It was one of a number of recipes commended to the British public by the Ministry of Food to ensure a nutritional diet despite food shortages and rationing.

Potato Pastry The recipe for Potato Pastry is one used by Marguerite Patten, a Home Economist who worked for the Ministry of Food demonstrating how to make the ration work to feed families healthy, nutritious meals. She was also one of the broadcasters on the BBC's The Kitchen Front and would go on to author several cookery books based on her experiences.

Syrup Loaf Our Syrup Loaf seemed popular even though its texture is more bread-like than cake. This is largely due to the use of plain flour with a little baking soda, which produces a denser loaf, rather than self-raising flour more likely to be used today. To modern tastes so used to highly sugared products, the amount of syrup used seems meagre but remember sugar and its derivatives were in short supply. Indeed, Ministry of Food Leaflet Number 21 extolled all to stretch the sugar ration 'by making full use of other sweetenings such as saccharin, honey, syrup or treacle, jam, marmalade, sweetened condensed milk and dried fruit.'

Only six recipes, but ones that represented the efforts people had to go to create healthy, nutritious meals while cooking on the ration. Do get in touch if you have any questions or would like further information on rationing, wartime cooking or other WW2 related topics. Bon appétit!


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