Sunday, November 13, 2005
1916 Trench Cake - Remembrance Sunday
This posting is perhaps as good an example of 'baking for Britain' as you can get. The recipe is from Elizabeth Craig's book 'Economical Cookery', first published in 1948. Ms. Craig was a prolific writer of cook-books from the 1930s through to the 1960s. The necessary restrictions practiced during both World Wars meant that she was in a position to be quite an expert on economical cookery. The recipe entitled '1916 Trench Cake', is no doubt included in this volume as the enormity of both World Wars would still be fresh in the minds of most people, and of course rationing was still in place post-World War II. The cake contains no eggs, and has a modest amount of cocoa powder to add a touch of luxury (and extra calories) to a fruit cake which was destined for the boys on the front line during World War 1.
225g plain flour
2 teaspoons cocoa
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
75g brown sugar
1 teaspoon vinegar
1/4 pint milk
Suggested extra flavourings - nutmeg, ginger, grated lemon rind (I used a pinch of ground nutmeg and 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger)
1. Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. Grease and line your cake tin (don't use anything too large as the above quantity of ingredients makes up a fairly scant volume of mix - my tin was 18cm diameter and this was a bit too big).
2. Rub the margarine into the flour. Add the other dry ingredients and mix well.
3. Add the soda to the vinegar and milk, and then quickly add to the dry ingredients. Beat well and then turn into the tin.
4. I found my cake was baked in about an hour, but the recipe suggests up to 2 hours.
All parcels sent from home to the trenches in France must have been much appreciated for the contact they gave soldiers with loved ones, but one can imagine how much a young man must also have enjoyed a chance to vary his rations with something as modest, but otherwise unobtainable, as a slice of home-made cake. Food served to soldiers in the trenches generally consisted of bread (stale by the time it reached the front line), hard biscuits (inedible unless soaked), bully beef (similar to corned beef), tinned butter, tinned jam, tinned pork with beans (beans with a piece of pork fat on top). Soldiers may have been able to buy food locally to add to these rations. Those who could afford it had hampers sent out to them from Harrods or Fortnum & Mason(!), but such luxury was beyond the means of the average Tommy.
The army recognised the importance of postal deliveries to troop morale and packages sent from home could expect to reach soldiers in France or Belgium within two or three days, and a week to ten days reach the front line. A fruit cake, well wrapped, would travel well and stay fresh. Such was the comradeship between the men, that the contents of any parcel would be shared out. Cigarettes were handed round, new socks passed onto a man whose own had fallen to pieces, and a cake like this would have been divided up and shared.
To test the keeping power of this recipe I baked the cake last Sunday, and stored in wrapped in foil within a plastic cake box. Unfortunately when I came to taste it I did find it a little dry, but this may well be the nature of the cake. The margarine rubbed into the flour didn't combine too well with the other ingredients, so the sponge was speckled with paler flecks. The small amount of cocoa powder helped the colouring, and the dash of spice lifted the flavour. However, my real reason for baking the cake was not to test the recipe, but as a modest act of remembrance.
In memory of my great-grandparents who served in the 1914-1918 war:
My maternal great-grandad Frederick William Smith (father to my grandma), served with the Royal Norfolk Regiment in the First World War in France and was taken prisoner. He died on 18 October 1926.
My other great-grandad on my mother's side was William Holway Pitts. He joined the Territorial Army pre-war and served in the Royal Devon Regiment. As he worked in the Post Office before the war he served behind scenes doing postal duties for the Army. He became a Sergeant.
On my father's side, great-grandad James John Graham Coggin, born 1870, served and survived without injury. When the war started he would have been 44. He was by occupation a baker and confectioner, so was in a civilian job that had to continue. At some point in the conflict he volunteered for the army, and we believe he was sent to the Dardenelles / Gallipoli region.
Herbert Sydney Salmon, my father's grandfather on his mother's side, had been in the army and served in South Africa in the Boer Wars. He was born in 1876 so would have been of a suitable age, and taking into account his military experience is likely to have served again.
Fortunately all four men returned home safely.