Food has become more of a global and personal focus in the context of the global Covid-19 pandemic. Some food supply chains are threatened, and for a variety of reasons thousands more people are now food insecure.
For generations bread has been known as the staff of life. In some form or another bread is a staple in the diets of most societies across the globe, and it is definitely an essential in our household.
When the lockdown period commenced here in South Africa, there was a shortage of wheat flour in the local shops and because I bake most of the bread that we eat, this shortage focussed my mind on how central wheat is to my sense of self sufficiency. What an illusion that self-sufficiency is! The global wheat supply chain is complex and I understand there may be interruptions in the trade going forward and in a further complication, some wheat-producing regions have had bad harvests.
As a home baker I am fortunate to be able to access locally grown and milled stoneground wheat flour from a relatively small-scale enterprise. But the growing, harvesting and milling of wheat at an industrial scale, and its distribution and retailing add up to an entirely different matter.
Although wheat is grown in several regions in South Africa, including parts of the Western Cape illustrated in the above photo, South Africa is a net importer of wheat and so we are vulnerable to the challenges facing the international supply chain.
Covid-19 is often compared to a war, and World War 2 in particular is frequently invoked as a kind of metaphor for fighting the virus that is depicted as a merciless enemy. There are several leaders out there who in this situation like to pluck more than a few fibres from war leader Winston Churchill’s mantle with which to adorn themselves.
In the light of the wartime comparisons I was interested to come across a newspaper article published in Britain during World War 2, which dramatically illustrates how food and particularly wheat was such a precious and vital resource during the war when food shortages and rationing shaped civilian lives. I found this article in a Millenium Supplement in an English newspaper, The Ross Gazette (6 January 2000) when going through my late mother’s substantial collection of newspaper clippings and old photographs. Ross, now known as Ross-on-Wye, is a small town in Herefordshire where my mother grew up.
Below is the article in full; it tells of two tragic airplane crashes that occurred near Ross during the war. What attracted my attention in the story of the second crash, was that the pilot – of a bomber that had lost its way on a training flight – was about to make a forced landing when he “realised he was over a field of growing corn (an extremely precious commodity in wartime England). He attempted to make height but struck an oak tree in the churchyard”. (In Britain the term “corn” refers to grain, most usually wheat.) Had the pilot not heroically tried to avoid landing in the corn field, one wonders whether the plane might have landed intact with no loss of life.
Sadly, not only did the pilot and the navigator lose their lives in the crash but so too did two civilians who witnessed the crash: the organist at the church collapsed and died while she was hurrying to the scene of the crash, and the vicar who assisted at the crash site, died while he was cycling home afterwards.
Here is the paragraph from the above article that refers to the pilot trying to avoid landing in the corn field.
The shortage of food for civilians during times of war is not always understood by those who have not experienced it. Recently I phoned a friend of my late mother who lives in England. She is in her late 80s and she currently lives under lockdown at home, and neighbours assist her with grocery shopping. She said rather acerbically that although the pandemic and living under lockdown is hard it is not nearly as bad as it was during and after the war; “We were hungry during the war, and for several years afterwards too when food rationing remained in force. Nowadays people don’t realise that,” she told me.
When she and my mother first came to South Africa as school teachers in 1954 they were stunned at the food they found widely available after the privations back in Britain. Although the war ended in 1945, shortages of food and other commodities continued. Petrol rationing was lifted only in 1950, and rationing of food was completely lifted only in 1954. My mother used to recall how during her first weeks in South Africa, she bought a pound of butter just because she could. She had not seen butter available in the shops since the beginning of the war.
During World War 2, as in other wars, civilians had a very intense relationship with food – or rather its lack. Rationing commenced in 1940 and the allowance of food per individual was very little indeed. Consequently, people were encouraged to grow their own food to supplement their rations. Parks and private gardens became transformed into vegetable allotments, and these allotments contributed substantial amounts of food across Britain.
The Dig for Victory campaign was started as early as 1939. I found this promotional advert reproduced in the supplement in The Ross Gazette.
Also in the newspaper was a copy of an wartime advert that was published in support of the ‘National Food Economy Campaign’.
The text exhorting gardeners to regard their spades as anti-submarine weapons, probably because German submarines (U-boats) were deployed to prevent supply ships from reaching Britain, reads:
To assist with food production on farms with so many men away in the armed forces, the civilian Women’s Land Army (WLA) was formed to place women to work on farms and in related work such as vermin control and land reclamation. In 1944 more the 80,000 women, who were known as ‘land girls’ were in the WLA. Initially the ‘land girls’ were volunteers but conscription was later introduced. Below is a clip from The Ross Gazette supplement featuring a ‘land girl’ from Ross. The photo was used on a recruiting poster during the war.
Today when I went out to buy groceries, the local shop had a full stock of wheat flour, including wholemeal flour that I rely on to bake bread. When I made bread this afternoon I reflected on how it adds a sense of security to my life. For me bread is the ultimate comfort food.
I made two loaves today using commercial yeast, shown above when the loaves are shaped but prior to the second rise. I also make sourdough bread with starter that I first made about three years ago and have kept going ever since. Making sourdough bread takes time but it is satisfying both as a process and a product. Lately, because I could not get wholemeal flour for a time, I have been making sourdough bread with predominantly white bread flour.
I baked the sourdough loaf in a casserole dish – in imitation of a Dutch oven – at a high temperature, initially with the lid on as the captured moisture assists with a good rise and a good crust.
I realise though that making bread is not for everybody, even though living under lockdown might provide one with sufficient time. So I decided to share not a recipe for bread making, but a recipe for another of our favourites: biscotti.
Before the outbreak of the pandemic, we were booked to go away on holiday in mid-May to three nature parks in the more northern parts of the country, including spending time in the northern section of Kruger Park. Had we been going, this week I would have been baking a few loaves of biscotti to take with us, as the dried almost rusk-like biscotti are excellent to take on a journey. In fact their durability as a travel food is thought to date back to the times of the Roman legions, when biscotti was a staple for the soldiers even in times of war.
And for us, in former times on camping trips, waking early and enjoying coffee with a couple of biscotti to dunk while watching the sky lighten as the sun rises was to experience a most perfect combination. Even though we have had to cancel our planned holiday, we can still have biscotti.
This recipe is adapted from one I saw a long time ago on the Martha Stewart website. It contains nuts and dried fruit. I have made it egg-free, which is useful if one is vegan, allergic to eggs, or simply trying to use eggs more sparingly. If preferred 2 eggs can be used instead of the linseed (flaxseed) replacement.
Fruit and nut wholemeal biscotti
2T – ground linseeds (flaxseeds) as egg replacement or 2 eggs
¼ tsp – vanilla essence
¾ cup – whole wheat flour, spooned and levelled
½ cup – all-purpose flour or white bread flour, spooned and levelled
1/3 cup – sugar (can reduce amount slightly to taste)
1 tsp – baking powder
¼ tsp – salt
½ cup – nuts almonds/walnuts/pecan (no need to chop them)
¼ cup – raisins (or dried fruit of choice)
If using ground linseed as an egg substitute, in a small bowl, mix 2T ground linseed (flaxseed) with 5 to 6 T water. Whisk with a fork and set aside for at least 15 minutes.
Preheat oven to 180°C (360°F). Cover a baking sheet with baking paper and/or sprinkle liberally with flour.
In a medium bowl, mix together flours, sugar, baking powder, and salt; stir in walnuts and raisins. Set aside.
If using eggs, in a small bowl, whisk the eggs and vanilla essence. If using the linseed mixture instead of eggs, mix the vanilla essence into the mixture.
Add the wet ingredients to the flour mixture and stir with a spoon or palette knife until just combined, then use floured hands to press the mixture together.
On the lightly floured baking sheet, with floured hands, pat the dough into a loaf at least 2.5 cm (1 inch) thick, 6 cm (2 ½ inches) wide and about 18 cm (7 inches) long. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes and remove from oven and cool completely on baking sheet.
When ready to do the second bake, preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F).
Place the cooled loaf on a board, and using a serrated knife, cut it into about ¼ inch-thick slices, cutting through the nuts as you go.
Place the slices in a single layer on baking sheet. Bake the slices, turning them once halfway through, for 25 to 30 minutes, then leave oven door open to dry them a bit more.
Cool the slices on a wire rack before storing them in an airtight container.
These biscotti keep well in a sealed container and make an excellent gift. They are best enjoyed with coffee or tea, as in the picture below when we were camping in Botswana.
A pair of blue cranes on the stubble of a recently harvested wheat field in the Western Cape
Carbonaro, Giulia. 2020. Can we compare the COVID-19 pandemic to a world war? CGTN, May 8th. https://newseu.cgtn.com/news/2020-05-08/Can-we-compare-the-COVID-19-pandemic-to-a-world-war–Qhw25Ig9Fe/index.html; Mason, Amanda. 2018. What was the Women’s Land Army? https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/what-was-the-womens-land-army; Wikipedia. 2020. Biscotti. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biscotti; Wikipedia. 2020. Rationing in the United Kingdom. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rationing_in_the_United_Kingdom
Posted by Carol