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The history of the countryside diet and the decline of self-sufficiency

Before supermarkets, people had no choice but to grow, forage or hunt their food and appreciated it all the more for that, says Lindsay Waddell

A pre-World War I gardener was an expert in cultivating plants and vegetable crops as the most economic way to live

Some time ago, I was watching my favourite gardener, Monty Don. He was doing a tour of some European gardens and one thing which struck me from one of his conversations was the fact that, in many countries in that part of the world, they still view flowers and grass as luxuries they cannot afford.

Instead, they are still growing their own vegetables, in the plots dotted around their dwellings. A chef, who was visiting the area with Monty, was viewing scores of Kilner-type jars with all manner of fruits preserved in them — exactly like we used to do not that long ago. It was in stark contrast to our own country, although Covid lockdowns have reversed the trend a little. Wind the clock back to our grandparents’ or great grandparents’ days and more or less everyone who was able grew their own produce — if they had a garden, of course. 

The lack of gardens was more or less limited to the Victorian slums, which had been constructed to house the influx of people from the countryside looking for work in the industrial cities. But the vast majority of country dwellers who persisted with rural life were fortunate to have, in many cases, substantial gardens in which they grew all manner of vegetables in order to feed their families. 

There were no deep freezers and, for many in the countryside, there was no electricity until after World War II. Sustainability was the name of the game, and if you did not grow it, very often you had no money to buy it. Fruit was very much a seasonal thing, with any surplus being bottled in the aforementioned Kilner jars or preserved as jam for use during the winter months.

Rearing a pig on scraps used to keep a household in protein for months — now it’s seen as a hobby


Fodder crops

Root crops were readily available, certainly where I came from in Scotland; turnips were grown widely as livestock fodder and potatoes simply as food for the masses. I recall a very large hessian sack of spuds sold for £1, though that did not stop the rural gardener growing his own and storing them for the winter. Carrots and beetroot were lifted before the frosts arrived, stored in dry sand and taken out when required. It’s a practice I learnt from my father and still use to this day. Potatoes and turnips were stored for months in ‘pits’ — or ‘pies’ as they were called in the south. Tons and tons would be tipped in a long row, covered with a good depth of straw and then topped with earth to insulate the contents from the worst of the winter. So what has happened to our love of gardening and preserving? 

The reality is that, despite everything we are told about the finances of the nation, we are so well-off that most of the population do not need to grow their own food. Gardens have become places of pleasure where trim grass and flowers, decking or patio hold sway. 

In the old orchards I now see tons of apples lying to rot every year as the owners have no need or inclination to collect them; it is easier to go to the supermarket where just about everything that used to be grown can be bought for just a few pence. Many of the old village shops have gone. They died because of a lack of interest — those who toiled quietly in their plots gave up and the next generation could afford whatever they needed so had no interest.

Despite there being fewer grouse this year, the birds were just £5 a brace on opening day

Protein is no different. The mass rearing of animals and birds has meant that food is relatively cheap compared with our ancestors’ days. I still recall, with some sadness, seeing the household pig being taken to his death before what seemed like endless quantities of black pudding and cuts of pork appeared on the table. The dry-cured hams and side hung on the hooks for months until the last remnant was cut from the bone. My mother made bridies or pasties from white hares, as they were more common than rabbits after disease had struck, and they were excellent. 

One old keeper told me starling pie was not uncommon on their dinner table — and he said it was very good. Oddly enough, when I mentioned this to a friend, he told me he once asked an Italian chef friend what his favourite meal was. It was a variation of that very dish. 

Rook pie was another seasonal delicacy that graced many a table, but I wonder just how many would even know how to make one now? We don’t have the rooks in the uplands so it’s not one I can try, but I did once eat it courtesy of a kind farmer’s wife when I was a single keeper lad — and as a young and hungry worker, I enjoyed it. 

Hunting for rabbits near Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex, in 1908, when game for the table was a countryside staple


Illegal eggs

Lapwing eggs, as well as those of most of the gulls, were also a welcome meal for those with access to them. Now, of course, they are illegal to collect, unless you are lucky enough to obtain a licence from Natural England to collect a few gull eggs. 

I like game, so I visit our local butcher fairly often. Game is inexpensive when compared with other proteins. With a Kenwood mincer, I can produce pasties, burgers or meatballs from any of the less easily cooked items of game which, mixed with a variety of herbs from the garden, are excellent.

I do wonder when or if game will ever become popular with the general consumer, who seems to have lost touch with the real countryside. Grouse were £5 a brace on the opening day of the season this year — it’s not long ago that they were double that or more. 

There is no glut this year, so how do you explain the low value on the opening day? It remains to be seen if pheasants and partridges end up with any real value. Somehow I doubt it, yet in my youth I recall they made £4 or £5 a brace. 

The really sad thing is many of those in the countryside are now no different from those in the city when it comes to an appreciation of game and food in general, as they simply do not appreciate the work that goes into producing it.