Thursday, March 10, 2016

Emily's Woolton Pie

Want to win the war? Eat more vegetables!

We've done a lot of talking about rationing in Britain and how much worse Emily would have had it than Molly, or just about any middle class kid living in the United States during the war. Something we haven't mentioned in detail is just how often people turned to vegetables for sustenance. The Ministry of Food didn't just encourage people to eat their carrots and potatoes at virtually every meal, they also promoted things like Wheatless Wednesdays and - the horror! - Meatless Mondays, both of which were going to help conserve supplies for the war effort.

This might sound horrifying to my non-vegetarian readers, considering most of us come from societies where meat is pretty much the star of almost every single meal. Remember, this didn't just mean eating a bean and cheese burrito on Monday and calling it a Meatless Monday, this meant vegetables. Lots and lots of vegetables.

And one of the most advertised means of getting these vegetables was named after the Minister of Food himself, and that's what we're making today!

To recap, in Britain, vegetables were one of the few food items that were never rationed during the war. Virtually everything else could be really difficult to get your hands on on any given day, and you had to be smart about shopping with your ration book, if your local grocery store even had what you came there to buy! There were plenty of times where people would go to their local shops and wait in line for ages only to discover that they were out of sugar, or eggs, or milk, and had no idea when they'd get more in stock.

One thing you could count on were the vegetables you grew yourself in a Victory Garden! These were popular in America as well - Molly and her family have one at their house - but the McIntires wouldn't have relied on it as heavily as the Bennetts and other British people would have. Eating a lot of vegetables helped people stay healthy even when other foods were in short supply, and also made them feel like they too were doing their bit for King and Country, although I'm sure people complained about it.

Meatless Mondays (and Wheatless Wednesdays) weren't entirely unknown before World War II. A lot of the recipes people turned to during the 40's had already been pioneered decades before during World War I. Woolton pie, however, was a new creation from the 40's, and it hasn't retained a lot of popularity in later decades, making it something of a relic of war time and not much else.

As we've discussed, the British love their meat pies, and this was meant to be a vegetarian stand in for that traditional family favorite. It was first introduced to the public in 1941, and was originally invented by Francis Latry, the chef at the Savoy Hotel in London. It's called Woolton pie and not Latry pie because Lord Woolton, then the Minister of Food, was one of its major advocates and was hugely popular with the public. That might seem strange, considering he was the one telling people they weren't going to be able to eat much especially exciting, but he was a genuinely good man who wanted to help the population during the war. A former business man, he had a good understanding of how to keep the rationing system fair for everyone, and was a generally charming, likeable man, even if some of the recipes he encouraged people to make weren't. People also liked that he was often photographed eating some of the recipes he promoted, which helped them swallow them in their own homes.

The recipe for Woolton pie comes from the 1940's Experiment, a blog I've shared with you guys before. The creator has been creating wartime recipes and living as though she's got an authentic ration book as a way to lose weight and eat healthier. Every time I visit her blog, I think "hey, this is really cool and sounds like something I should do myself!", but then I remember I'm lazy and no one else in my family would want to embark on this particular adventure with me. Maybe once I've finally got my own place I'll give it a shot!

Woolton pie could have just about any vegetables in it based on what was available from family to family and season to season, but the traditional ingredients are carrots, potatoes, turnips (known as swedes in the UK), and cauliflower. This recipe calls for a pound of each, chopped.

(As a side note, I always leave the skin on my potatoes.)

When available, families would also include a leek or an onion, but these were often rare as the war went on. Onions became especially valued because they added some flavor to otherwise bland dishes. Since I'm not operating in wartime London, I chopped up an onion. For extra flavor, you can also chop up some fresh parsley, which we had on hand, so I did.

The next step can be tweaked a bit depending on your preferences and what's in your fridge. You can either add marmite or stock powder to water, or just pour enough stock to cover your vegetables to cook them. You add a tablespoon of rolled oats to this, bring the pot to a boil, and let them cook for about fifteen minutes, or until the vegetables are cooked. I cooked mine in beef and vegetable stock, mostly because that's what we had in my kitchen.

Once they're cooked, you drain your veggies and add plenty of salt and pepper to flavor them, along with a teaspoon of margarine. This all gets placed into a pie dish, or two! It's a lot of veggies, and I definitely didn't think everything was going to fit in one pan.

Now you're ready to make your crust! There are a couple different ways you can top your Woolton pie. Some recipes call for mashed potatoes, making this basically a vegetarian shepherd's pie, while others want a potato pastry. This one provides instructions for a wholegrain crust with margarine: take 4 ounces of wholewheat flour and 2 ounces of margarine, rub them together until it looks about the consistency of bread crumbs.

Next, you add enough cold water to make a dough, combine everything together, and put it on a floured surface to be rolled out.

Now, I'm not the biggest fan of making pastry in general, but I have to say, this pastry was one of the most frustrating pastries I've ever had the pleasure of working with. Man, can I say pleasure even ironically?

Because margarine is generally much softer than butter, the dough was super wet, and super, super fragile. You're not supposed to handle pastry too much, or use too much flour if you want something light and flaky, but that just flat out was not an option with this dough. I would roll it out flat, and then it would weld itself to the roller. I'd add more flour, re-roll it, and it would rip when I peeled it off the counter. I'd add more flour, and it would stick to the counter like glue.

Finally, I got it so it wouldn't completely disintegrate when you picked it up, but it took a lot of finagling and honestly, at some point I basically decided I was going to be as rough with it as necessary to keep it in one piece, so I wasn't expecting it to be especially light and flaky.

I draped it over the top of the pan, cut four vents in it, brushed the top with some milk to glaze it, and got ready to put it in the oven. 

This bakes in the oven for about 20 or 30 minutes at 356 degrees, basically until your pastry looks cooked. I put a baking sheet under my pie dish just to make sure nothing exploded and leaked everywhere like the last pie I made, but nothing came close to bubbling over or dripping. This isn't shocking because it's not like there was gravy inside, but it was still good to see.

The recipe recommends serving it with a thick gravy, but I didn't have anything to make one with, and just had it by itself. As it turns out, even after being manhandled for a good fifteen minutes didn't stop the pastry from being super fragile: it totally disintegrated when I tried to cut it out of the pan.

I went into this with an open mind, but definitely with a set of expectations. I mean, come on, this dish is notorious for being kind of bland, and definitely isn't as satisfying as a classic meat pie!

And I'll say right off the bat that no, this isn't as satisfying as a good meat pie, and yes, I think I'd get sick of eating this week after week, especially when you remember that most of your meals would use mock ingredients and very little spice or flavor. But honestly? I liked it. I would definitely eat it again, and I think I could even eat this for dinner and not mind that I didn't have anything else so long as I had a decent portion of it. The vegetables were tasty, and the crust was better than I expected it to be, even if I think I'd probably prefer the mashed potato topping. It kind of reminded me of the beef and barley stew I made forever ago, which kind of turned into a barley and vegetable porridge in the fridge when I went back for leftovers. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that an authentic war time recipe actually tasted pretty good, and wasn't too difficult to make, either! It's also definitely something you can make in advance, and the leftovers would keep for a while, meaning you've got a lot of flexibility with it. Always a plus!

It's often noted that Woolton pie - along with other vegetable heavy, bland wartime recipes - was tossed aside basically as soon as the war was over. Considering rationing didn't end for several years after the war, I'd be surprised if this was 100% true, but I'm also not necessarily shocked to know that it was almost immediately overshadowed by its meatier cousins. That being said, it really wasn't as bad as people were making it out to be. Not by a long shot! I'm all for eating meat, but we - Americans, but also globally - do eat a lot of it, and cutting back sometimes to focus more on veggies and other healthy ingredients isn't a bad thing. I might not be eating for victory when I make Woolton pie today, but I'm still eating something where I don't have to feel guilty about going back for seconds. And I did want them!

Although I'm still not sure Meatless Mondays would go over well in my house...


  1. Well, it certainly looks good! Very interesting history as well.

    1. I really liked it! Would definitely recommend. :)

  2. I enjoy making Woolton pie, as it's an excellent way to use up leftover bits from the refrigerator. That said, I often cheat. Not only do I add meat scraps (minuscule bits of meat scraped off of stock bones) to the filling, I usually top it with slices of cooked potato, covering the pie with scales rather than pastry.

    1. That sounds interesting! I'd only seen mashed potato topping variations. Might have to give that a try.

  3. Cute pictures of Emily! Meatless Mondays would not go over very well in my house either. But I could see maybe making this as a side to go with a roast or some chicken. I'm not completely sure of the historical accuracy of this, but I remember reading somewhere that the British used their vegetable consumption to their advantage during the Blitzkrieg. According to what I read, they had some sort of new radar that was able to detect enemy planes with increased accuracy, but they wanted to keep this new advancement secret from the Germans. They put out propaganda stating that the pilots in the RAF ate so many carrots that they were able to see in the dark, hoping that this would ease the suspicions from the Germans. That supposedly is where the myth comes from today that carrots help you see better!

    1. That's all true! I talked about it in the Wartime Eggless Christmas Cake post, because carrots are one of the unique ingredients in it!:

      The Carrot Museum is also a great resource, if you're interested in reading more about it:

      So feel free to pass that one around with confidence that you're telling the truth!

    2. Oh, ok, cool! I must have missed that post!

  4. Surprisingly, I wasn't a fan of this one. Sorry! It just seemed to be missing something, and I'm not opposed to meatless dishes. Glad you enjoyed it and that it helped the war effort.

    1. Well, if the Nazis take London, we'll know who to blame!