Although the era of food rationing in the UK is usually associated with the second world war, in fact it was first introduced in Britain in 1917, during the first world war.
At the time, German U-Boats were regularly attacking supply ships bringing food to the UK from overseas. So successful were these attacks that at one stage Britain was judged to have enough food supplies to last just six weeks.
At the outbreak of the first world war, Britain was producing only around 40% of the food that it consumed, having become heavily dependent on food imported from Commonwealth countries. With so much of that supply line abruptly cut off, food was suddenly in very short supply. In such circumstances it is understandable how food waste was regarded as indefensible, and so it became a criminal offence, with anyone caught wasting food liable to a fine or even imprisonment.
Since those times, Britain has at least managed to produce more of its own food, although the proportion of food we grow ourselves peaked at 78% in the early 1980s, since when the figure has gradually declined until today we produce less than 60% of the food we eat.
Astonishingly, we now live in a time where the UK’s overall food stocks are even lower than they were back in those dark days of war in 1917 when rationing was first introduced. This is primarily because we have become so dependent on supermarkets, which run on highly regimented lines, relying on having only a few days stock of many foodstuffs at any one time.
And yet, compared to 1917, food waste in modern Britain is not only legal but sometimes seems as if it is actively encouraged, whether it is by supermarket buyers rejecting perfectly edible but “ugly” fruit at one end of the production cycle, or by we consumers at the other, tempted by “buy one get one free” offers into buying more than we need and often ending up wasting perfectly good food.
The recent initiative by the French government to criminalise food waste by supermarkets may well prove to be a modern turning point. Since that announcement, here in the UK we have seen Tesco link up with a food redistribution charity to start to address the 55,400 tonnes of food waste the supermarket giant generates each year. Another supermarket, Waitrose, last year successfully started selling cosmetically damaged apples and tomatoes. And there has also been a rise in the number of cafes and restaurants in the UK and elsewhere serving menus based on food that would otherwise go to waste.
Our food supply is less secure than many of us realise, but these encouraging developments perhaps mark the start of a gradual shift in attitude, echoing back towards that once common perception of food waste as unacceptable, which it surely should be in a world where people still go to bed hungry.
Right, stripey apron time.
I’ve had an excellent supply of French beans from my allotment plot, the Circus Garden, so far this year, using succession planting to ensure a steady supply. The variety I grow is called Safari, which produces long thin, stringless and tasty beans.
I’ve used them here in a simple dish, which is based upon a recipe by Martin Webb, former head chef at Quaglino’s restaurant in London. It’s a wonderful combination of flavours and textures.
French bean and sesame salad
320 g organic French green beans
60 g sesame seeds
30 ml sake
20 ml soy sauce
1 tsp maple syrup
1. Steam the beans for 3 minutes then refresh in a bowl of ice cold water to stop the cooking process. Drain and set to one side.
2. Place a dry frying pan over a low heat and add three quarters of the sesame seeds. Toast for about three minutes, tossing the pan to evenly distribute the heat, until the seeds begin to pop and to turn a light golden brown colour. Tip on to a cold plate and leave to cool for a few minutes.
3. Put the sake, soy sauce, maple syrup and toasted sesame seeds into a blender and process to a paste.
4. Place the beans into a bowl and add the blended paste. Toss to coat the beans in the paste. Finally, sprinkle the reserved sesame seeds over the top of the beans and serve.