The National Loaf as a basis for meals in WW2
Bread was the basis for many meals in Britain during the rationing and austerity of World War Two, but the only bread available was what was called the National Loaf. This page describes it and gives the background to its introduction. The page then describes some of the main ways that this bread was used in meals. Highlights are the personal recollections and experiences of bread-based meals in wartime.
The 'National Loaf'
Bread was not rationed during the Second World War although it was afterwards between 1946 and 1948 with even more severe shortages. However, there was no white bread. The only bread available was called 'The National Loaf' which was introduced on July 21, 1942. It was unrefined and what it contained depended on what was available: sometimes barley meal, oatmeal or even potato flour as well as wholemeal wheat flour. Initially, it consisted of 85% wheat flour and 15% other grains. However, as the war progressed and shortages became more severe, the percentage of wheat decreased resulting in changes in taste, texture, and nutritional value.
Bread was not rationed, but the national loaf was part of the government's rationing policy of sharing because everyone had to have it if they wanted bread, there being nothing else.
Bakers, bakeries and bakers shops were required by law only to sell their 'national loaves' when they were a day old because stale bread did not cut to waste like fresh bread. My mother, even until her dying day, decades after the end of the war, still insisted on keeping her bread for a day before using it. Old habits die hard, but we had to admit that she could always cut her bread into really thin slices.
The National Loaf was grey in colour and denser in texture than white bread. It was not well received by adults who had grown up on white refined bread, but, being unrefined, it was more healthy although I'm not sure that they realised it at the time. Being born in 1939, I knew nothing different and didn't object to it at all.
The 'English disease'
In Germany before World War Two, we called constipation the 'English disease' because white unrefined bread was the norm in England. 'Black bread' was our norm. There were any number of variations, but the inclusion of unrefined rye and barley were common.
A German professor who wishes to remain anonymous
Eagerness for the return of white bread
It was not until about 1949 that white bread was permitted to be sold to the public. My mother joined the queue at the local bakery at six o'clock in the morning to see the first WHITE loaves come out of the oven!
After the war when rationing was slowly phased out, the National Loaf was sold alongside white bread for a while. It was eventually discontinued in 1956.
Meals based on bread
The use of bread for any meal was only limited by what to put on it or how to cook it, but it must be borne in mind that extras like flour, eggs and fat for frying were not the store cupboard basics that we have to hand today. They were rationed, and difficult decisions were needed for the most efficient way of using them. Also the bread was always stale as it was sold that way. If you try to use these recipes today will you have to keep your bread for at least a day to ensure that it is stale.
Sliced bread, sandwiches and toast
There was of course the standard bread and 'something', but do realise that butter and margarine were rationed. Butter was a rare treat and I understand that adults away from farm supplies in rural areas relied almost entirely on margarine so that the meagre butter ration could be given to the children. Even margarine had to be spread very thinly. Margarine came as a solid block. There were of course no domestic fridges, but if there had been, the margarine would have had to be left out in a warm room to soften for spreading.
Usually the 'something' on or with the bread was often neither butter nor margarine, but was limited to what could be grown in the garden, allotment or local farm. Jam was a favourite, and being home-made, was particularly delicious - although even that was limited by the sugar ration which was meagre even though the source was largely local grown sugar beet. Lettuce, tomatoes and other salads were also used as were some vegetables. Runner beans were in good supply in the late summer and when sliced and cooked added moistness to the bread. Cheese was not a favourite in sandwiches because it was dry.
Toast was also popular in winter, toasted at a coal fire with a toasting fork, but it tasted best with some of the precious butter or margarine.
Bread Soup was also popular. Small pieces of bread were added to the water that vegetables had been cooked in and a lump of home-made dripping was added along with part of an onion if available. The bread provided the substance and the thickening.
Bread pieces could be used to thicken and eke out meat stews. Dumplings could also be made from stale bread if milk and eggs were available for mixing.
Bread pancakes could be made by mixing soaked bread in a mixture of milk, eggs, and flour, then frying the mixture in dripping.
A breakfast of fried bread for children
My mother made me a complete slice of crisply fried bread for breakfast every morning, fried in dripping. The fat couldn't have been healthy, but she thought it was because when she took me to the clinic as a baby, the nurse had said, "Give her something to cut her teeth on, mother" - and my mother carried on the practice, as probably did countless other mothers throughout the country.
I didn't complain because I really liked the fried bread. It was served by itself and followed by an apple while they were in season.
A Christmas treat based on fried bread
At Christmas and Easter, my family had bacon and fried mushrooms with the fried bread. I assume that the mushrooms were picked from the wild, even though my mother would have bought them. Certainly no mushrooms today ever seem to have the same flavour. The bacon addition must have been just after the war in the late 1940s when my father was back home, as I can't remember any meat in our family during the war. I suppose we must have had some, but all our protein seemed to come from eggs and cheese.
Bread pudding was a delicious dessert or 'afters' as we called it. It was made with slices of stale bread - usually left a couple of days to allow it to go stale - soaked and the layered with a mixture of milk, eggs and sugar - and spices or dried fruit if available or left over from the before the war. It was baked in the oven until it formed a soft consistency, crisp on top.