Beekeeping in Britain peaked during the sugar rationing of the 1940s until there were one million hives in the UK, with their honey spread among a much smaller population than the 250 000 hives in existence today. The reasons are obvious – when your government, like a strict nanny, is allowing you only a limited amount of sweet stuff then there’s an incentive for finding alternative sources.
The Ministry of Food leaflets from the time encouraged this kind of creativity. Read today, recipes for dried egg, one-pot meals (sponge steaming in a tin in the middle of a pan while vegetables boil in the water around it), and potato biscuits have a retro chic. The leaflets are illustrated with drawings showing women with tiny waists and frilly pinnies tied round them. As the slogan across every other page says, ‘All spoons are Level. All recipes for Four’ – they sound like metaphors for a more straightforward age, a time of neat nuclear families and simple, tasty, nutritious fare.
If you read more carefully, the occasional detail reminds you of the less attractive features of the austerity years: recommendations for a pound of potatoes per person per day or for keeping cheese in an airy place to harden it and make it more economical to use; one whole leaflet dedicated to herrings…
So you might wonder what the 1940s Ministry of Food’s honey biscuits would be like. Today, I found out.
The recipe calls for:
2.5 oz margarine (the wartime ration was for 4oz margarine per person per week)
1 oz sugar
2 tbsp honey
6 oz self-raising flour
1 tsp cinnamon
pinch of salt.
The instructions are simple:
Cream the margarine and sugar. Add the honey, work in the flour, cinnamon and salt. Roll out until ¼ inch thick. Cut into rounds, place on a baking sheet, and bake in a moderately hot oven for 10 minutes.
The recipe is said to make approximately 45 biscuits.
I found I needed a little more fat in order to bind the dough together (when I discovered this, I thought of my counterpart from 70 years ago, panicking having already used up more than half their weekly ration of marge) and I failed to roll out the dough as thin as ¼ inch, which meant I made far fewer biscuits. However, what I made were delicious.
I took them round to my friend’s house to eat over coffee, and we sat in her garden, scented with honeysuckle, and talked as we ate. She is a Preshevo Albanian so when we talked about war, hers was a lot more recent, and it had fewer frilly aprons in it. I found myself feeling a surge of affection for Austerity Britain, its beekeeper enthusiasts, its kindly ministry advice, its tasty biscuits. Even, perhaps, its herrings.
My book, Travels in blood and honey; becoming a beekeeper in Kosovo is available on Amazon