The Wartime Kitchen and Garden, starring Ruth Mott and Harry Dodson, was broadcast in 1993. Although you can still find copies of the book that accompanied the series, you can’t buy the episodes on DVD (or even video!), even though it is possible to buy the sister shows The Victorian Kitchen and The Victorian Kitchen Garden.
That’s a shame, but I have found the episodes on YouTube. How long they will survive there is anyone’s guess, so I am transcribing them as I watch them. In the first episode, we’re introduced to Chilton gardens and Ruth Mott’s country cottage kitchen. We meet Annie the Land Girl, and ‘evacuees’ Joyce and her young son Paul. Once war breaks out, land is brought back into cultivation, and the autumn’s apples and eggs are preserved for use when rationing starts.
With the government about to tell us how to prep for a No Deal Brexit, I found narrator Peter Thoday’s last words very apt:
Episode 1 Transcript
0:51 [Radio: Neville Chamberlain] “This morning, the British ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note, stating that unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock, that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received and that, consequently, this country is at war with Germany.”
1:28 [Ruth Mott] I don’t really know how I felt, because I’d never had anything to do with anything like that before. So you sort of expected something drastic to happen almost immediately, I think. But it didn’t. I was out walking when it was given out, and I went back to find my sister in tears over the sink, because she remembered the 14-18 war, so she wasn’t very happy about things at all.
1:58 [Ruth Mott] It was a lovely sunny day, and I remember it was about 11 o’clock in the morning that war was announced.
2:05 [Harry Dodson] Well it was a lovely day, it was a beautiful morning. And I well remember the evening as well. I know the foreman come busting into my bedroom at midnight, and he said “Well, what do you think about it now chum?” and I said “I don’t think they’ll be a war.”
2:25 [Harry Dodson] I knew from one or two other men and that, how sad it was to have to throw away perfectly good plants. Plants that had been tended for years, and to see them thrown away on the fire heap, or on the compost heap. It was… it was a period of great sadness.
3:03 [Peter Thoday] Harry Dodson, head gardener at Chilton Gardens, relives the moment of heartache that faced many gardeners in 1939. A few miles away, in her country cottage, cook Ruth Mott prepares to cope again with the shortages of the wartime kitchen. Together they will show how the skills of the gardener and the cook fed the nation during five long years of war. Using the advice, recipes and methods of the time, they will return to the days when everyone had to make the most of what the could get.
3:27 [Peter Thoday] At first, people had no idea what to expect. They feared the bombers would come at once. They didn’t. Nor did the shortages. As the troops left for France, many people believed it would be all over by Christmas. This unexpected reprieve gave people a chance to prepare themselves. With government encouragement, storing and preserving the autumn harvest took on a new urgency. Old skills were called up, like drying apple rings.
4:30 [Ruth Mott] Now I’m cutting this into about six or eight rings. This is a nice apple because it’s soft, and so it’ll dry out, ‘coz that’s the object of the manoeuvre. And then we can keep these for the rest of the winter, or quite a long time. We’re going, also, to light a sulphur candle, and turn the jar up over it so that it will fill with fumes. And then that will stop the apples, hopefully, discolouring. They’re bound to go a little bit brown, because of the drying out process.
5:07 [Ruth Mott] Put the jar over the top, and leave it there until the candle goes out. Have a saucer ready, so that when the candle’s gone out you can pop that over the top quickly to keep your fumes in, and then we’ll pop in the apple rings and give them a good shake. We don’t use this method very much today, because it takes… it’s quite a long process.
5:45 [Ruth Mott] That’s enough for that, so we’ll quickly pop the saucer over the top to keep the fumes in, and get our apple rings ready to drop in. We want them to go in, as much as we can, singly. I’m trying to do them like that so I don’t lose too much stuff. And then just drop them in one at a time. That will be enough. Put the lid back on, and give them a good shake to make sure that they get enveloped with the fumes. And then they shouldn’t discolour too much.
6:34 [Ruth Mott] And now we’re going to thread them onto these little sticks, and put them in a very, very low oven to dry out.
6:56 [Ruth Mott] Well you want a very low oven, as low as you can get it. Just a bit below what we call ‘milk pudding temperature’ or just about one or two, just to keep it every low. Because they want to dry out very slowly, which will take them about six to eight hours as a rule. You know when they’re done when they feel like leather, because they’ve then got no moisture left in them at all. And then they’ll probably have crinkled a little bit, but when you get them out you can sort of just straighten them between the hands, and then you must let them cool off, and then you can pack them into a tin – it need not be air tight – for using at a later date. And then you’ll soak them then, so that you put the moisture back in, so that you should have a nice apple that will make a puree or something.
7:54 [Peter Thoday] If no bombers appeared over the skies of Britain, U-boats certainly prowled the coastal waters. Their presence brought home to the government and the country the fact that 60% of Britain’s food was imported. Onions flourish in the warmer climate of France and Spain. They were an early casualty of the restrictions on imports. They quickly disappeared from the shops, but the country estates had always grown and stored their own onions.
8:29 [Harry Dodson, stringing onions] From now on, it’s fairly straightforward. You want, as near as possible, a couple of onions the same size. Then you wind the tops round like that. They need, really, about three inches of pretty sound top. Well then you just put them round, twist them like that. They never seem to go quite where one wants them, but that often happens. It comes right in the end. You want to keep the rope going even, and the next ones will come so they fill in that hole. A lot of people have got the idea that these are tied on. A good garden fashion, good old kitchen gardeners, I’ve never seen any of them tie them on. It was always used by this method. I’ve been chattering and not paying too much attention to what I was doing, and one or two of the old boys wouldn’t have been very proud of this string. But it’s not so bad.
9:53 [Peter Thoday] Among those evacuated during the first days of the war were mothers with young children. Joyce and her small son Paul arrive from London. Ruth, like so many others, must learn to share her kitchen.
10:12 [Peter Thoday] With the gardens depleted of young men, a new workforce filled the gap -volunteers of the Women’s Land Army. Straight from typing pools and shop counters, the girls were interviewed, given a brief training, and sent wherever they were needed.
10:39 [Anya Medlin as Annie] Oh, hello. Is this Chilton gardens?
10:43 [Harry Dodson] It is, yes.
10:44 [Annie] Oh, hello. I’m Annie Medlin.
10:45 [Harry Dodson] Pleased to meet you. I’ve been expecting you. If you put your bicycle there, I’ll take you straight into the gardens where your labours will be required.
10:57 [Harry Dodson] The girls had to go wherever they were asked to go. My uncle had them, and he had one or two very good ones, and he spoke highly of them. And I don’t doubt that many, many men found them extremely useful and would have been very, very hard pushed to have kept up with the gathering of crops and that sort of thing, without the aid of the Land Girls.
11:20 [Harry Dodson] We’ve got a few summer crops all from it, and then we cloche up some autumn crops again.
11:30 [Peter Thoday] A pool of tractors was created to help bring land into production. At Chilton, the derelict orchard is to make way for vegetables.
11:52 [Harry Dodson] If you decided to be registered for food production, or elected to turn your gardens and glasshouses over to food production, you were expected to turn out a minimum of 75% food stuff. I think it was pegged at that because it was understood that that would about be the maximum that some of these gardens would be able to turn out, because of the sizes of the paths and that sort of thing.
12:32 [Ruth Mott] [Putting up the blackout] Try to keep it straight, and behind those. That’s it.
12:40 [Peter Thoday] As the months of enemy inactivity dragged on, the nightly blackout became a more and more irritating restriction.
12:49 [Ruth Mott] Don’t let any light out. I think we all liked to draw the curtains the other side of the black out, so that your room looked cosy and it didn’t look so dreary. Because blackout really was a dreary looking thing. And then of course when you came up to bed at night, you still had to have your blackout up. So you felt shut in with it all the time.
13:29 [Peter Thoday] The biggest grumble was reserved for the plans to introduce rationing. Within days of war breaking out, a Ministry of Food was set up. It was given powers to control the purchase and distribution of all food supplies. Its main instrument was the ration book, issued to every man, woman and child in the country.
13:54 [Ruth Mott] Well first of all, we were told where to go and collect your ration books. And they were dished out in our local village hall. And you went and collected them and then you brought them home and you decided who you thought you would like to register with.
14:11 [Tracey Godsmark as Joyce] Mrs Mott, do you mind if I read your newspaper?
14:12 [Ruth Mott] No, not at all.
14:22 [Ruth Mott] You registered with whatever, if your grocer, you had to ask them if they would accept you. Possibly if you were a bad payer, he perhaps wouldn’t feel too happy about taking you. Also you registered with your butcher, and then you just went to those each week and got what you were entitled to. You couldn’t… if you didn’t take your ration this week, you couldn’t put it off until next week and have a double ration.
15:00 [Ruth Mott] The older people told you how lucky you were that rationing was going to be introduced so early, because in the first world war, it wasn’t introduced until 1917, and all of the early part of the war they used to go all over the place to find things if it was in the shops. Because, you went in possibly to the town more than it did to the villages, so this was a very equal way of serving it out, even if it was small.
15:42 [Ruth Mott] Well I think everybody thought they were hard done by. In the country, we thought they did better in the towns, and in the town they thought you did better in the country. I mean, we had access to rabbits, eggs, perhaps a drop more milk, various things like that. In the town, of course, they knew the minute that the fish was in the fish shop. They had the advantage of queueing for cigarettes, which would only be in a very small amount in the village.
16:28 [Peter Thoday] In the glasshouses of estate gardens like Chilton, thousands of ornamental plants had to be destroyed to make way for food crops. But, if like these climbing roses, they took up little space, they could be spared. Harry digs the recently cleared bed to grow early cauliflowers. Glasshouses were a great asset, as they provided vegetables at a time of year when there was a shortage of fresh greens.
17:15 [Peter Thoday] With so many evacuees arriving in the country, accommodation for Land Girls was a serious problem. Many had to put up with crowded hostels, unsuitable bothies, and unsanitary digs. Annie’s lucky. She’s been billeted with a family in the nearby market town.
17:54 [Peter Thoday] Her lodgings have a garden, which she helps look after in her spare time. The house backs onto a railway line, a target for enemy aircraft, so it qualifies for an Anderson shelter. Named after the Home Secretary, Sir John Anderson, the shelter quickly became the butt of wartime humour.
18:14 [Radio recording] “While we was arguing the toss with him, the bride and bridegroom slipped off on their honeymoon.”
“Oh, that’s good. Where’d they spend it? In the Anderson?”
18:22 [Peter Thoday] It was a simple, effective – if somewhat leaky – protection against all but a direct hit.”
18:30 [Radio recording] “Had their honeymoon in the Anderson?”
“Well, it’s the next best thing to Blackpool – plenty of sand and water!”
18:39 [Peter Thoday] A covering of earth was recommended as extra protection. This also replaced the valuable growing space lost when the shelter was erected. Annie spreads compost, before planting trailing marrows.
18:58 [Peter Thoday] The government condemned hoarding, but encouraged stocking up the larder with homemade preserves. Ruth stores eggs for the winter.
19:09 [Ruth Mott] Well we’ve had these eggs given to us because the chickens are laying well at the moment. So we’re going to try and preserve these so that we can use them for cooking. They’ll also make a good omelette, and scrambled egg, but they don’t boil terribly well. So we’re going to pop them into here [a wire basket], having made the waterglass already, and I was always taught to put them in the pointed end down, and then the yolk stays fairly central into the middle. If you do them the other way up, it’s not so easy. And then we can put these into the waterglass, and then we can keep adding to them as we get the odd egg that we’re not going to use, and it’s nice and fresh and we can pop it in. So we hope to get the basket full eventually. We should take the basket to the solution, and lower it in carefully from there, with as little movement as possible, so that you won’t crack any of the eggs. And that should be covered with waterglass.
20:17 [Peter Thoday] The bulk of Britain’s eggs and chicken food was imported. Now, with limited animal feed coming into the country, it was the dairy farmer, not the poultry keeper, who got priority. An egg shortage was clearly just around the corner.
20:50 [Peter Thoday] The war was not over by Christmas, and many people were spending it far from their families. Despite their being goods in the shops, there was deep anxiety about what the New Year would bring.
[Ruth, Joyce and Paul are exchanging Christmas gifts.]
21:14 [Ruth Mott] I’ll save the strong to do up the Christmas pudding.
21:25 [Joyce, receiving gloves] Oh Mrs Mott, they’re lovely, thank you.
21:40 [Ruth Mott] It’s a night light.
[And if you’re worried about Brexit (or other upheavals) and thinking about growing some of your own food this year, check out my new zine – Keep Calm and Grow Food – which is available via Etsy.]