A WWI Christmas Meal in England, and an Author’s Culinary Research

It’s my pleasure to turn the blog over to author Charles Todd today. Charles Todd is a mother-son writing team, and we publish their mystery novels on our William Morrow hardcover list. They’re here today to tell us a little bit about what they eat when they travel through the United Kingdom researching their novels, as well as what a British family may have had at a typical Christmas supper during World War I. Their most recent book, The Walnut Tree, is a wonderful and suspenseful read set in WWI England about a wounded soldier and a Red Cross nurse who tends him.

THE WALNUT TREE by Charles ToddQuite a few people have asked about the food we’d had on our recent research trip to Scotland. It was delicious. There’s salmon of course, fresh off the North Atlantic and served not as steaks but as grilled slices across the middle, and swimming in an herb sauce or a butter/dill sauce. We had it often. With it were a variety of familiar veggies, carrots and potatoes and broccoli, but also with roasted parsnips. One night we had crusty roasted potatoes. If you’ve never had them, you’ve missed a treat. There was pork and lamb and chicken as well, roasted or grilled. The soups were wonderful—a vegetable barley, an onion and leek, potatoes and leek, carrots and coriander, sometimes with ginger as well, green peas with mint, tomato basil, and a variety of chicken soups. Rocket figured largely in appetizers, and the goat cheese with currant jelly and olives was delicious. And combinations you wouldn’t expect, like haggis in a shell pastry on a bed of rocket. We saw haggis for breakfast once, but mostly it was an appetizer, and we can attest to the fact that it’s really tasty, like scrapple mixed with sausage. Lots of mussels but not much shrimp, and they were of the small variety. Haddock. Cod. There was only one crab dish, more as a cold salad. Beef was available as roasts for Sunday dining and as steaks. Sandwiches came in amazing variety, not just hamburger and club. We had grated real cheddar with tomato, ham (and not the deli kind, real slices from roasts) with cheese, and one of my favorites, which varied at each restaurant, brie with currant jelly on a toasted roll.

Desserts were lovely. There was the usual Crème Brulee, but sometimes with blueberries or raspberries or chocolate added. Raspberry tarts with fresh raspberries, and a raspberry concoction in a deep glass like a sundae glass, with cream and raspberries swirled. Sticky pudding is just that, a rich dark pudding reminiscent of Christmas pudding, but without the fruit, and poured over it a lovely caramel sauces. To die for. We saw apple pie only once, and one night had ice cream mixed with Drambuie—Drambuie originated on Skye. There were tarts and pastries, of course, and once or twice cheese cake, and several smaller pastries that came in squares that were rich and delicious. One of our favorites was Millionaire’s Cake, with a thin layer of shortbread, next layer a rich caramel, and the top a thick dark chocolate. Short bread cookies were often served with ice cream.

For breakfast there was the usual tomato, baked beans, and mushrooms so familiar to anyone who has traveled to England, but also haggis and blood pudding, along with scrambled, poached or fried eggs. Yoghurt, of course, but more European than American in style, and wonderful porridges to which we added brown sugar, butter, and milk. Think thick oatmeal. Not to forget the flat tattie cakes on Skye. To drink there were the usual ales and stouts, Guinness and so on, but a wild variety of whiskies. We visited a brewery and a whiskey distillery. There’s Old Grouse, Macallan, Glenlivet, Glenfinnan, Black and White, Traquair, and even a Japanese brand. And whiskey is seldom drunk neat or over the rocks, but cut with a little water. Wines were good and available for dinner. Tea is very different in England, and this was true in Scotland as well, something about the water that makes it less acidic. Coffee is very good, according to the coffee drinkers, and Starbucks is there for those who live on it. One night on Skye, we had an ale cut with cider and currant liqueur. Very refreshing after a long day of climbing hills and castle stairs and walking miles on cobblestone streets. And if all else fails to tempt you appetite, as we were leaving Stirling we spotted a MacDonald’s. We expected to gain several stone, given the excellent food, but all that exercise keeps the pounds away.

We did think, enjoying all this largesse, about the war years of 1914 to 1918, as described in The Walnut Tree. When Lady Elspeth returns to England from France, there’s really no real shortage of food. An excellent harvest has made a difference. But by the time winter comes, many items are growing scarce. The wealthy were accustomed to multi-course dinners, while the middle class had enjoyed plentiful choices. Even the poor could buy potatoes and cabbages and onions and a scrap of meat to give them flavor. This changed dramatically. Sugar was hard to find, because it was imported, and honey was the only substitute. Wines were scarce, and of all things, spices. As the war went on, wheat for bread was short, meat was whatever the butcher could find, and usually tough, because there was an army to be fed.

By the time Bess appears on the scene, even tea was in short supply because it was imported. Rutledge, at the end of the war, finds only a small slow improvement. People made gardens anywhere that ground could be plowed, planting mainly easily grown vegetables like potatoes and parsnips and cabbage and carrots. People kept hens for their eggs and for meat. Pigs could eat scraps and forage. Sheep as well, and their wool was needed for blankets and uniforms. Cattle were higher maintenance; they had to be milked, and the dairyman had gone off to war. Greengrocers and butchers were hard pressed to make a living, and the flourishing flower business in the Isles of Scilly died because it was so difficult to get them to market in places like London. Kent had orchards, and so did the Vale of Evesham, providing fruit for jams and preserves, if there was enough honey. They were sometimes dried for winter use. It was such a different world, one that some people still remember from World War Two when rationing was essential.

And it went on in Britain for years after the war was over, a stripped-down economy that was only just beginning to have enough of anything when Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953. We find this hard to believe today, but people had all kinds of medical problems from the lack of proper food and vitamins and protein and fruit. A very bleak existence, especially when the outcome of war is so uncertain, with no assurances that there would ever again be enough to eat. I’m always reminded of a line from Gone with the Wind, where during and after another war, Scarlett swears she and hers will never go hungry again, whatever it takes to put food on the table.

READ AN EXCERPT of The Walnut Tree.

BUY The Walnut Tree on BN.comiBookstore IndieBound Amazon.com

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