I am very likely one of very few people who has ever reached for a book because of its appearance of studied dreariness. I cannot recall the particular second-hand bookshop it was – there’ve been so many. (I recently went to a new ‘produce market’ and returned with second-hand books instead of Welsh chilli chutney, locally decanted olives or other irresistible and distinctive offerings)
I really have get across to you how very dull this cookbook appears at first sight. A border of colours from the Belgian national flag frame a bible-black cover of thick boards in a vain attempt to relieve its bleakness – and, stereotypes apart, there is the title.
The pages are of thick ‘rag paper’ and an initial scan of the contents page does not relieve the impression of dullness: ‘A Brown Sauce for Fish’, ‘Stewed Prunes’ and ‘Semolina Fritters’. True, ‘Fish and Custard’ may have suffered in translation but at this rate ‘Starvation Soup’ at least sounded not totally without some immediate interest.
Nevertheless this austere background made what turned out to be the unexpectedly engaging contents and historical context of the book more striking.
It was published in London (Heinemann) and New York (E. P. Dutton & Co.) in 1915. On the 4th August 1914 the Kaiser’s army had broken the neutrality of the small state heralding the start of the First World War. To the German request for free passage of its army Albert, King of the Belgians, had reply that ‘Belgium was a country, not a road’. According to the country’s constitution the King took personal command of the Belgian Army and engaged the invading army providing valuable time for the French and British to muster their forces. The depth of the popular sympathy for the ‘bullied’ little country and its king is perhaps not easy for us to imagine now but one can find much evidence for it. Stories of the invading army’s atrocities against people and property made daily headlines. In September, Belgian trawlermen sought refuge in Swansea and apparently confirmed the newspaper stories. My great uncle was apparently named after the ‘plucky’ warrior king and, more concretely, in the panic that immediately followed Germany’s invasion it is estimated that 240,000 Belgian refugees were taken in and accommodated in the UK for period of the war.
In response the War Refugees Committee was formed and, in an unprecedented mobilisation, a series of local volunteer committees were set up to organise accommodation for the refugee families that were sent to towns and cities around the UK. (It was fundamentally the same local organisations and volunteers that went on to provide relief for fighting and wounded British soldiers later into the war, and represent some of the experience and contribution of women in the Great War.) Integration of the refugees was largely without problems as with the commencement of hostilities there was plenty of war work in the arms and related industries. This chapter of wartime history was somewhat overlooked until recently. (Such a significant social phenomenon found its way into popular literature, Agatha Christie’s Belgian refugee detective Hercule Poirot appears in her first novel The Mysterious Affair at Style in 1916.) Currently some local authorities proudly detail their efforts to welcome and support the Belgian refugees on their official websites (as an example here is link to Glasgow). Swansea’s efforts may be taken as typical, if modest, and are detailed in the article below (Alban, 1975). Not only did the council and businesses support the continuous stream refugees (the major portion had arrived by July 1916 when the total was 726) but records show the majority of the money raised in Swansea was from collections from ordinary people in works and factories. One aspect where Swansea might not be typical was the post-war return of the displaced people. The usual rubric states that the refugees for the most part returned home (by 1921 only 10,000 remained in the UK) while Alban asserts the warmth of the Swansea hospitality meant many decided to stay here after the war – surely, not the usual Welsh flannel(!). Certainly the Belgians who returned found a devastated country. Personally speaking, as a bookoholic, I am struck at the disaster that was the burning of the library of the university at Leuven (Louvain) – then the Catholic University of Leuven – in August 1914, a tragedy in terms of quantity and quality that was much reported at time.
The Belgian Cook Book.
Vegetables. Nearly all these are at their best (like brunettes) just before they are fully matured.
The letter of commendation at the front of ‘The Belgian Cook Book’ states that it was sold in aid of the Belgian Relief Fund. Heinemann offered an undisclosed ‘generous percentage’ towards the charity, however this relief was probably not for the UK refugees but the Belgians who remained in their country. This was a country whose self-sufficiency in food was not great in peacetime and in wartime what national produce there was mostly fed the occupying German army.
A shelf of provisions should be valued, like love-making, not only for itself but for what it may become.
Some argued, such as Winston Churchill, that feeding the population was the Kaiser’s problem; however, others disagreed. The American publication of this book suggests that sales were supporting what would eventually be known as the Commission for Relief in Belgium.
Organised as a private initiative, by a certain well-organised London-based American mining engineer called Herbert Hoover, it sourced and distributed food supplies to the people of Belgium from soon after the Kaiser’s army occupied the country to the end of the war. It is estimated that his Commission for Relief in Belgium in total shipped 5.7 million tons of food (most notably flour) to 9.5 million civilians. This was a notable public achievement of someone who was to become 31st President of the USA and the story was recently the subject of an US Exhibition at the In Flanders Fields museum at Ypres.
All that I have gleaned so far about the cookbook’s author (or Mr Brian Luck, for that matter) does not add up to much; her first initial was ‘M’ and she gave her address as in ‘London SW’. I have accentuated the dreary first impression of her book in order to give you some idea of the unexpected glint of ‘cheerful humour’ in Mrs Luck’s introductory comments with which I have peppered this piece.
Savouries; If you serve these, let them be, like an ankle, small and neat and alluring.
One could imagine the Mrs Luck liked visiting the West End theatres, particularly the popular musical shows. She introduces the book with good intentions by giving cheerful admonitions from the Biblical scriptures, but readily stumbles into deliciously naughty confidences as might be whispered by P.G. Wodehouse’s ‘Good Aunt Agatha’ to a delighted and wide-eyed niece.
The good cook must learn about food what every sensible woman learns about love – how best to utilize the cold remains.
Her intended audience was clearly the young wife managing on a slender budget with perhaps only a maid-of-all-work for assistance. I have tried to help those small households who cook, let us say, a leg of mutton on Sunday, and then see it meander through the week in various guises till it ends its days honourably as soup on the following Friday. And if on Wednesday you find that you have to eat the same part of the very same animal that you had on Monday, do not, pray, become exasperated; treat it affectionately, as I treat my hat, which becomes more ravishing every time I alter it.
Mrs Luck did a good job; she complied about 500 recipes submitted by, I assume, most UK-based Belgian refugees. She enlisted the patronage of the King of Belgium’s sister Princess Henriette, Duchess of Vendrôme who wrote from her château in Cannes. She was apparently an outdoor, active type, the so-called ‘Sporting Duchess’ probably was not that familiar with the interior of a kitchen personally (tellingly she does not deign to contribute a recipe). The Walloon and Flemish cultures that make up this assorted country are both represented: so, for instance, we have both Leeks Liègoise and Waterzoei.
Be sure that your soup has a good foundation, and avoid the Italian method of making consommé, which is to put a pot of water on to warm and to drive a cow past the door. [Mrs Luck clearly has had an unhappy experience with Italian soups.]
There is an eye to the austere times but many of the recipes are peacetime favourites of the refugees who contributed them and of their families. All recipes are credited but some contributors chose pseudonyms such as Paquerette, Pour la Patrie or just A Belgian at Droitwich.
Because your dining-room furniture is Early English [i.e. mediaeval], there is no reason why the cooking should be Early English too.
The recipes are good bourgeois cookery of the times, where one less chose – as we do so often nowadays – the recipe and searched the supermarkets for the ingredients, as one found what was good that day and resourcefully cooked it fresh and made it last as it would stretch. Elizabeth David vividly describes such a household during her student days at the Sorbonne (I recommend the complete passage as an antidote to the idea that Ms David had no sense of humour). The 1930s Parisian family with whom she lodged were completely focussed on food:
‘Twice a week at dawn Madame [the mother], whose purple face was crowned with a magnificent mass of white hair, went off to do the marketing at Les Halles, the central markets, where she bought all the provisions, including flowers for the apartment. … She would return at about ten o’clock, two bursting black shopping bags in hand, puffing, panting, mopping her brow, and looking as if she was about to have a stroke. … their food was lovely without being rich or grand. Above all, as I see it now, it was consistent, all of a piece, and this of course was due to Madame’s careful buying [the family was also supplied from their farm in Normandy]. … So what emerges from those days is not the memory of elaborate sauces or sensational puddings, but rather of beautifully prepared vegetables like salsifis à la crème, purées of sorrel, and pommes mousseline.’
Elizabeth David, French Provincial Cooking. Penguin, (First published 1960).
Looking again at Mrs Luck’s collected recipes the unpromising ‘Fish and Custard’ is in reality is a moulded fish crème and ‘Mutton Collops’ (see my attempt below) are tasty escallopes. Once the book’s unpromising presentation and translation into ‘Anglo-Saxon’ English are overcome, one can relish an accessible and authentic culinary record of an extraordinary time. It is available online at various internet ‘filleted book depositories’, but with its old-fashioned typesetting, splattered cover and textured paper I now treasure it – like so many tatty old books in my possession – not only for its contents but as an evocative artefact.
Game is, like love, the best appreciated when it begins to go.
I added a very little mustard powder to the flour.
Without quince jam (how did that happen?) I used some stewed greengage, or should I say reine claude. The almond essence was a good alternative from the usual vanilla.
A very full bibliography of Belgian refugee history from Brent Heritage Services.
J.R. Alban, “The activities of the Swansea Belgian Refugees Committee, 1914-1916” Gower, the journal of the Gower Society. Vol.26 (1975), p. 80-84.