I am making transcripts for The Wartime Kitchen and Garden, a fascinating series starring Ruth Mott and Peter Dodson, with a voiceover by Peter Thoday. This is episode four (of eight). [You’ll find the other transcripts, and other relevant posts, under the Home Front tag.]
[Content warning: this episode contains images of a cooked pig’s head.]
Episode 4 transcript
00.59 [Peter Thoday] Below the peaches in the glasshouse at Chilton gardens, rows of spring cabbage make sturdy progress. Growing this catch crop of early vegetables allows head gardener Harry Dodson to save the peach trees from being grubbed up as a wasteful luxury.
01:18 [Peter Thoday] A few miles away, in the back garden of the house where she’s billeted, Chilton’s land girl Annie plants marrows on the Anderson shelter. But for many in 1941, this crude structure was more than an extension of the vegetable garden. It was all that stood between life and death.
02:00 [Peter Thoday] Everyone was urged, by the Ministry of Food, to save kitchen waste. Joyce, the young evacuee billeted with Ruth Mott, puts the vegetable peelings in the special pig bin.
02:11 [Ruth Mott] Well, it [the pig] was the most important person about, really, because it ate up all your scraps. And you sort of thought, eventually, that you were going to have a nice meal off of it, and some rashers, and some different things.
02:23 [Peter Thoday] The pigs were killed by an authorised slaughterman, but many housewives had to overcome their squeamishness to butcher the resultant carcass. Brought up in a large country kitchen, it’s nothing new to Ruth Mott. Today she makes brawn from a pig’s head.
02:39 [Ruth Mott] The most peculiar thing about it, really, is the fact that you can use every piece of the pig. I mean, there’s no wastage to pig at all. The only thing you basically can’t use out of the pig is his squeak!
02:59 [Ruth Mott] I like brawn, but I do like to have made it myself. I wouldn’t eat anybody else’s, I like to know that his ear’s been cleaned out properly and his nose has been blown. And, you know, that his eye has been taken out.
03:16 [Ruth Mott] I usually soak it overnight, with a handful of salt, which gets any sort of congestion of blood where it’s been killed, that comes out. Then give it a good wash off. And then put it into the saucepan, with carrot, onion, bay leaves, perhaps a few peppercorns, a sprig of thyme, anything that will give it a nice flavour. And then cover it with cold water and bring it very slowly to the boil. And boil it… it usually will be ready in about three hours, but you can tell, you can put a fork in it, or when it begins to come off the bone, then it’s nicely cooked.
04:13 [Ruth Mott] We’ve got half a tongue, because we only had half a head. So we’ve skinned that, and I’ll chop that up to go into the brawn as well. And with that we also boiled a little bit of shin, to give it a little bit more meat, because pork heads – pig’s heads – are very fatty. So they’re very rich, so you have to put something else with them to try and make it more digestible.
04:45 [Ruth Mott] Well, you just put the head in its right position, and start from the back of the neck. It doesn’t work so well the other way, but then you get this nice stretch of skin. And if you cooked it nicely you should just be able to run your fingers underneath it, and lift it very carefully off. We don’t want to take any fat or any meat off with it, because we want to keep it all as intact as we can. And that is the best way to do it, and don’t let it get too cold before you try to do it, otherwise it adheres to the head and you can’t move it. So you want it, really, almost as hot as you can handle it.
05:36 [Ruth Mott] Now, we know that the stock that’s reducing will be nice, because my hands are sticky. And that tells me there’s a lot of gelatine in the head. So we shan’t have any bother setting it into the basin when we’ve just chopped it up as fine as we need it.
06:04 [Ruth Mott] I love doing it – it’s great! There’s lots of worse things to do than this. The chitlings are much worse than this, I assure you!
06:16 [Ruth Mott] I’m now going to pop it into the bowl, which has been stood for about an hour in very cold water, which seems to make almost like a skin round the bowl, so that it will turn out nicely. And I like mine done this way, because I don’t like too much jelly in it. The jelly’s very nice, but it’s the meat you really want. If you see too many lumps of fat together, just push them around out of sight. That’s it. And then we’re just going to strain some of the reduced stock down into here, and what I do with mine is [pokes finger into the bowl] I do that, so you can hear it glug nicely down to the bottom. And then fill up again, until it comes up to the top of the meat, and then that can go into the larder and set itself. And that should make you a nice meal.
07:32 [Peter Thoday] Lunch time at Chilton, and Annie goes to fetch her sandwich box. She knows there’s a good chance it will contain cheese. It was valued by the Ministry of Food as a source of protein needed for building and repairing muscle tissue. So, while the standard ration was one ounce a week, all those engaged in heavy work were given a weekly allowance of eight ounces. Making sandwiches palatable was a constant headache.
08:06 [Harry Dodson] I know at once period, the landlady said to me, “Do you like beetroot?”, which I did, so I said yes. And I had beetroot, beetroot, beetroot in sandwiches day after day, until I got that fed up with it, first of all I started taking the beetroot out of the sandwiches, and in the end I had to tell her no more beetroot, please!
08:26 [Peter Thoday] Then in June 1941 came one of the turning points of the war.
08:31 [Recording of Churchill] “At four o’clock this morning, Hitler attacked and invaded Russia. So now this bloodthirsty guttersnipe must launch his mechanised army at the new fields of slaughter. We are resolved to destroy Hitler and every vestige of the Nazi regime. From this nothing will turn us. Nothing. We will never parlay. We will never negotiate with Hitler or any of his gang.”
09:09 [Peter Thoday] To help Russia, Britain had to produce more than ever before. Growers were pressed to increase their yield of staple crops – potatoes, and wheat for bread. Blight was the great scourge of potatoes, and Harry makes up a fungicide to combat it. Overnight, he has dissolved copper sulfate in water.
09:30 [Harry Dodson] Now the next ingredient is the soda crystals, which are going to be dissolved in this bucket of clean water. Again, it is rainwater. It gives one a better spread when you start to spray. And then the whole, when it’s mixed together, makes a jolly good prevention for potato blight.
10:13 [Peter Thoday] This old recipe produces a spray known as Burgundy mixture. It’s name comes from its discovery in France, as a treatment of mildew on vines.
10:19 [Harry Dodson] Ah, Annie. Give me a lift onto my shoulders of the knapsack [sprayer] will you, please?
11:02 [Harry Dodson] Thank you Annie. Well I’m on my way, and you can carry on with your hoeing, if you will, please.
11:33 [Harry Dodson] This old knapsack sprayer is very heavy to wear. It’s a burdensome bit of equipment, and it doesn’t fit nicely and comfortable to you. That, coupled with the weight, makes it – after a time – very uncomfortable, and about an hour to two hours at maximum is the length of time that I would care to use it. Again, you would just remember, in those pre-war days, there was no restriction on what poison you were using or anything. There was no law and order that you had to dress up like a spaceman before you went out to do it. So you went out in just your shirt, as I am today, and after quite a short space of time it cut into you quite a bit.
12:25 [Peter Thoday] 1941 proved to be a good year for potatoes.
12:30 [Food Flash recording] “Here’s the man who planted the field. Here’s the girl who lifted the yield. Here’s the man who deals with the clamp, so millions of jaws can chew and champ. That’s the story, and here’s the star – Potato Pete. Eat up. Ta ta!”
12:47 [Music] “Potato Pete, Potato Pete, see him coming down the street. Shouting ‘here’s good things to eat – get your hot potatoes from Potato Pete!’ Now, here him sing as he goes by, all the kiddies know his cry. They love to hear his [indistinct] cry ‘get your hot potatoes from [indistinct]. Put them in the packet, take them home to mum, have them in their jacket or eat them where you are. He might sell out so don’t be late , if you haven’t got a penny you can put it on a plate. Potato Pete, Potato Pete, now he’s going down the street. Shouting ‘here’s good things to eat, get your hot potatoes from Potato Pete’. Potatoes! Potatoes! Big or small, [indistinct] Potato Pete has got them all!”
13:58 [Radio recording] “Appointment With Fear. This is your storyteller, the Man in Black. Here again to being you another placid evening in our fireside series Appointment with Fear.”
14:19 [Peter Thoday] One enterprising collection of recipes gathered together contributions from famous people. Agatha Christie submitted one entitled ‘Mystery Potatoes’.
14:32 [Joyce] Six good-sized potatoes, four tablespoonfuls of cream, a little margarine, 10 anchovies. Bake the potatoes in a moderate oven. Then cut them in half, remove the insides, and mash them with the margarine. Chop up the anchovies and mix them in. Add cream and pepper and salt to taste. Return mixture to empty potato skins, dab on top with margarine and brown in a hot oven.”
15:25 [Radio recording] “Slowly, very slowly, you begin to realise it’s a room you’ve never… [fades out]
15:34 [Peter Thoday] Storing potatoes is tricky. Too cold and they freeze, too dry and they shrivel, too light and they turn green, too hot and they sprout. Clamping was the answer.
15:47 [Harry Dodson] The potatoes were shot up on this wad of straw. They were brought up picket fashion, like the roof of a house. Up to the height of roughly about three foot six. And then a good lot of straw – or bracken in some cases – was placed over that to the depth of almost a foot, and then a foot of soil was packed over that. And they was quite safe in that sort of conditions, right around until February or March.
16:22 [Peter Thoday] An old drain pipe allows the potatoes air to breathe.
16:31 [Harry Dodson] There’s be a gang, special, to do what we’re doing. And they were real masters at it.
16:38 [Annie] Did they build much bigger clamps than this?
16:39 [Harry Dodson] Oh yes, I’ve seen them almost a mile high.
16:58 [Joyce] Mrs Mott, I’ve got the hay!
17:02 [Ruth Mott] Thank you. Oh, that’s nice, that’s Tinker Tailor hay.
17:09 [Peter Thoday] Straw, or hay, were also put to good use in the kitchen, with the revival of another old practice. The Hay Box allowed dishes to carry on cooking after they’d been taken off the stove.
17:22 [Ruth Mott] We’d better get started, I think. Give me some handfuls of… not too much… that’s right. Because we’ve got to pack it a bit in the bottom just to start off with. Although the cushion mostly in the bottom. This is just sort of an improvised one, but it will do the trick. We want to do some that way and that way, because the grass has got a thick end and a thin end and then it will keep it… if we get any air in then it won’t stay nice and hot. One more piece, and then I think I can put the saucepan in now.
18:08 [Joyce] Will it cook?
18:09 [Ruth Mott] Yeah, providing we boil it up well for about three quarters of an hour, so that it gets heated right through, because it will only go on cooking with as much heat as we’ve got here, you see. So we pack that into there. And then if we pack the rest of the hay round here.”
18:29 [Peter Thoday] A tight-fitting nest provides the insulation which conserves the heat.
18:34 [Ruth Mott] You can do porridge and that like this as well. Rice pudding, and anything that wants a long, slow cooking will do fine like this.
18:44 [Joyce] Save on fuel then.
18:45 [Ruth Mott] Oh yes, that’s what part of the object is, and that cooks while you’re gone to bed.
19:00 [Peter Thoday] By late summer, marrows and nasturtiums trail luxuriantly over Annie’s Anderson shelter.
19:24 [Ruth Mott] Oh, that bus is always late.
19:29 [Joyce] I’m so hungry.
19:30 [Ruth Mott] Well you start laying the table, then, and I’ll go and see to this old hay box and see how we’re doing over here.
19:38 [Peter Thoday] A wartime instruction book lists the advantages of the hay box” the cheapest cuts of meat are rendered tender. No nourishment is lost. No food can be overcooked or burned. And the flavours are much improved by the slow cooking.
20:07 [Peter Thoday] For Ruth and Joyce there’s a hot dinner to look forward to. Rice pudding, and mutton dressed up as mock venison. But that night there’s no illusion about the news.
20:18 [Radio recording] “Japan’s long-threatened aggression in the Far East began tonight, with air attacks on United States naval bases in the Pacific. Messages from Tokyo say that Japan has announced a formal declaration of war against both the United States and Britain.”
Here’s the episode’s recipe written out in a more easily readable fashion:
Agatha Christie’s Mystery Potatoes
6 good-sized potatoes
4 tablespoonsful cream
A little margarine
Bake the potatoes in a moderate oven. Then cut them in half, remove the insides, and mash them with the margarine. Chop up the anchovies and mix them in. Add cream and pepper and salt to taste. Return mixture to empty potato skins, dab on top with margarine and brown in a hot oven.”