A hot and soothing drink in the winter, a refreshing drink under the summer sun… In daily life, the consumption of liquids is as frequent as it is essential. A glass of water, a cup of coffee or tea, some fruit juice, some milk… the list of liquids that accompany meals is as long as their history… During the 1914-1918 war, a time of shortage of drinking water, a time of limited access to products for which consumption had become current since at least the 19th century, such as coffee or beer in Belgium, the population had to find alternatives. With herbal teas made from wild flowers and the manual preparation of coffee substitutes, the war introduced new needs as well as new habits. Powders made from chicory, barley, rye and corn, to give but a few examples, are now sold in organic food stores as very healthy alternatives to the beverages marketed by the agri-food industry. However, these products conceal a history of substitution that has left traces in the collective memory of the Belgians. Their consumption during the years of the war was the result of a need, since they could hardly be described as appetizing.
What would the customs of the Belgians be like without a "coffee break"? Without being able to open the tap and find drinking water? Without being able to turn on the kettle or the coffee maker? Without a beverage in school lunch bags to enjoy during recess? And the animals that feed us… How would they survive without water? Looking back to the life marked by the war 100 years ago, access to water sources, the basis for most consumable beverages around the world, was directly dependent on the movement of military troops and the location of German control posts. Often, the battles and passing soldiers left behind water sources that could no longer be used, even for animals!
The struggle to find drinks was a shared effort between homemakers who, working on substitutions, had to turn their eyes towards their gardens and nearby forests, and official institutions such as the CNSA (National Relief and Food Committee, created at the time of the German occupation in August 1914) and the Commission for Relief of Belgium (the CRB, created under the direction of the American, Dutch and Spanish ambassadors at the same time as the CNSA, with the aim of securing international aid to help feed the "poor little Belgians").
The search for a taste that children would like
For the Belgian population, the place of beverages as part of the wartime menu was marked by the art of substitution. For the CNSA, the products that they distributed to the population and to the institutions that prepared food for children and for the destitute, also experienced changes with regard to their composition. For example, each child receiving the School Soup also received, in addition to a plate of soup, a beverage and a "couque" (a kind of cake or bread) for the morning recess period. Depending on the availability, this was often milk, cocoa or torrealine (a coffee substitute made from rye or barley malt). Like most of the charities looking after the food needs of the Belgians during the war, this distribution of drinks followed medical recommendations: "It is essential for the school meal to include a nutritional beverage in addition to the "couque", i.e. milk, cocoa, coffee, etc. It has been observed that when the children do not receive a liquid, the couque becomes very difficult to ingest. Providing the couque alone does not align with the views of the National Committee.." (Letter sent to the CNSA by a school director in Brussels in March 1917)
It has been observed that when the children do not receive a liquid, the couque becomes very difficult to ingest. Providing the couque alone does not align with the views of the National Committee.
As the number of servings of soup, bread and beverages increased throughout the whole of Belgian territory as of the start of the conflict, most of the distributed products saw their quality decrease. The beverages were altered several times; they were either mixed with other substances, such as coffee with chicory or torrealine, or diluted with water with the objective of increasing the quantities. The outcome was a bland taste. Torrealine powder was one of the most widely distributed products in schools, and it did not fail to elicit complaints regarding its difficult preparation, or criticism such as expressed by one school director who, in 1917, said that "the children find it poorly pleasing".
With regard to cocoa, brought from Latin America after this continent's "discovery" and not very well known in Belgium at the start of the 20th century, it had to be distributed in schools with good quantities of sugar in order to make it tasty for children. Meeting this demand was not always easy; requisitions, thefts and attacks on the boats bringing foods into Belgian ports made it difficult to access basic necessity products. For the snack provided to schoolchildren, the less sugar was added to the cocoa, the harder it was for the children to enjoy it – not that that is difficult to imagine! "The cocoa mixture prepared by the Committee isn't sweet enough. Even when prepared with sweet milk, which is generally the case, many of the children make faces and don't empty their bowl. (…) I would also add that cocoa is an exotic product with a relatively high cost price." (1917 letter from a school director, sent to the School Soup Programme).
Despite these difficulties, the CNSA made some adaptations in an effort to improve the quality – and taste! – of the distributed beverages. As such, in certain cases and according to availability, cans of condensed milk were sent to schools instead of sugar. Unlike today, with arguments defending the "unnatural" theory regarding the consumption of cow milk, the economic, nutritional and rational (i.e. related to rationing) food-related manuals at the time indicated that milk was the most important beverage for children, even if it had to be mixed with water in case of shortages. According to this principle, the CNSA therefore provided Belgian children with cocoa, chicory or malt flakes, with these beverages always being prepared with a percentage of milk.
In the garden or in the interminable queues of the Communal Store, alternatives must be found
Have you ever tried herbal tea made from elder flowers, lime blossoms or broom? How about an infusion of cherry stems or apple cores? In general, during the Great War, the water quality was not always easy to certify and it was for that reason that we find a great series of alternative beverages that were suggested throughout the country. Infusions made from wild flowers, decoctions of fruits, herbal teas made from bark, roots and leaves, water to which citrus has been added in order to lessen the taste of the impurities… an entire range of "homemade" products that made up the repertoire of new foods caused by the dynamics of the war. These alternatives, the written traces of which have vanished given their improvised nature, were given a place in certain recipe books of the time. Tante Colinette certainly did not forget them in 1915, "I thought that my kind readers might enjoy hearing about recipes for beverages that are as affordable as they are healthy and tasty. (…) Light beverages are easy to make, and it's a great advantage to be able to obtain them just when the desire presents itself."
Have you ever tried herbal tea made from elder flowers, lime blossoms or broom?
Alongside these plant-based formulas, and unlike in Spain and Italy where the consumption of chocolate was more widespread than in Belgium, or in Holland or England where the daily lives of the populations could be warmed with tea, coffee was the most successful drink in Belgium, with its consumption already being a habit during the war. This popularity helps to explain the problems related to its shortage.
Grains were largely imported from Brazil, one of the countries that contributed extensively to Belgium's supply during the conflict; the transportation, purchase and distribution were managed up to the Belgian ports by the CRB, and by the CNSA for the rest of the country. Each product was handled in a particular manner. For example, the Chicory Department was checked by the German authorities once each week, with the demand being not to distribute more than 5 g per person and per day.
With regard to coffee, its distribution was much easier to control, firstly because of its very high price, and secondly as a result of the diversity of the locations where it could be purchased. Its sale was not limited to the Communal Stores, and it was roasted even in the private stores that had survived the commercial difficulties of the conflict. Alongside chicory, coffee continued to be the preferred drink of the Belgians, and as Abbot Berger explained in 1915, "it's the stimulant needed to mitigate the effects of the moral and physical depression produced by events; it also provides an excellent stimulus for the renal functions that are most often overburdened or unbalanced by a haphazard diet during times of scarcity.."
[Coffee is] the stimulant needed to mitigate the effects of the moral and physical depression produced by events
In daily life, a few cafés in the Belgian cities and villages continued to serve as meeting places. In their kitchens, Belgian homemakers had to learn to improve, diversify and integrate new products after an increase of basic beverage prices such as coffee and cocoa – that was still considered to be exotic. This led to the popularity of coffee replacement beverages such as torrealine (rye or barley malt) and cerealine (powder based on corn bran).
The novel aspect of this usage left traces in the kitchen recipe books, from the preparation of powders used as coffee alternatives, through to the production of cakes. We therefore find cerealine omelettes or cerealine cakes in all of the recipes intended for middle-class families, written in 1917, in the Almanach Bénard. Similarly, in 1915, Tante Colinette provided all of her readers, devoted to the kitchen and attentive to advice on the correct usage of foods available during the conflict, with the process for preparing your own chicory powder: "You simply have to grate these roots, after having washed and dried them, then roast them in the oven and then reduce to a powder using a pestle in order to obtain an excellent chicory."
Chicory, consumed since prehistoric times, in a powder as a beverage or cooked as a spice or as a vegetable in stews, is one of the tastes with which the First World War is generally associated these days… Eastern and Western Flanders as well as the region of Tournai were the big chicory producers, and it was also in these regions that the largest quantity of torrealine in the country was produced, still under the control of the CNSA and of the German authorities. Along with coffees, it's one of the beverages that is still consumed today – despite its lack of caffeine! – in Belgium, Holland and France, the three biggest producers in Europe.
In the special case of torrealine, and of cerealine, that are almost impossible to find it today, one of the main reasons for their growing popularity was unquestionably the limitations on the wallets of Belgians. Whereas one kilo of cerealine cost 1 franc in 1917, the year in which its sale was extended to most Communal Stores throughout the country, homemakers had to pay 5.20 francs for the same quantity of coffee, and 8.12 francs for 1 kg of cocoa! The integration of these corn, rye and barley powders, not only as ingredients for making soups and cakes, but also as components of beverages resulting from mixtures with coffee, serves to create a particular taste-related image of the 1914-1918 war.
As it was intended only for producing drinks, torrealine did not find a special place in recipe books. This discretion can also probably be attributed to the variability of its basic ingredients – it can be made of rye or barley – thereby making its taste and usages somewhat random.
Officially, this product was called coffee-malt and the authorities had to convince people to use it, especially as one of the powders that was intended to be combined with coffee in order to attempt to offset its shortage. Here's how homemakers found torrealine in the Communal Stores, often after waiting for hours in queues in which the sense of need and hunger were palpable: "The coffee-malt delivered for sale by the National Committee can only be sold in the uniform packaging submitted to the Z.E.K, and the usage of which is authorised by the latter. This uniform packaging consists of a brown paper packet containing 500 g of coffee-malt with, on the front of the package, red printing that reads: Torrealine. Packet of 500 g. And printed in black: Registered trademark. National Relief and Food Committee." (Official order of 1917).
In terms of taste, this tasteless coffee resembled brown-coloured water and, if one had sufficient means, it was drunk hot.
In terms of taste, this tasteless coffee resembled brown-coloured water and, if one had sufficient means, it was drunk hot. Of course, it's true that during periods of shortages, the palate had to be adapted to new mixtures of powders in which the traces of coffee were often imperceptible. The consumption experience was directly dependent on its temperature, especially during the long winters. In any event, whether the beverages were of good, average or poor quality, the biggest concern during the war, in the city or in the countryside, in military camps and in flooded trenches, was to find the means of keeping these drinks hot, so as to warm bodies and souls.