The theme of the series of the BBC's Great British Menu television cookery contest is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Normandy landings, and contestants are hoping for a chance to cook at a banquet for real-life veterans of the famous British assault.
Although it's doubtless proving a fascinating historical exercise for the young chefs involved, I'm finding it difficult to stomach. This is not only because the presentation props in the 1940s dishes are so poignantly authentic (real Normandy sand, billy cans, canvas back-packs) but also because it seems to gloss over the real culinary hardships endured by the British troops during the entire war.
My late father took part in the D-Day landings at Sword Beach, having been called up to the Royal Engineers while a 21-year-old student at Glasgow School of Art. We started to record his memoirs on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, and one of the recurring themes of his six-year experience was how bad the food was. Even at 81, he hadn't forgotten the anguish of almost constant hunger. Ration packs didn't seem up to much for our boys, whether in Algeria, Italy, Belgium, Holland or France (where, following D-Day landings, Dad's 930 Port Construction Unit helped build the Mulberry Harbour off Arromanches; hungry work). He talked of having half a pack of tack biscuits to last him for days; of his unit drooling over the generous ration tins of butter and jam in one American camp they came across, and begging to be given a taste. He and his mates seemed to quite enjoy the tinned bully (boiled or bouilli) beef in their packs, though; amazing what hunger can do.
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One of the more delicious-looking beef dishes in last week's heat of the Great British Menu was made with Glasgow fillet. The programme didn't explain why the cut was so named, and I immediately smelled a rat. I made it my mission to find out. My local butcher told me that in Glasgow the cheap shoulder cut is called feather steak or faux fillet; only in other parts of the UK is it known as Glasgow fillet. He reckons this was because it looks like an expensive fillet steak but costs less than half the price, so it was easy for unscrupulous butchers to fool unsuspecting housewives; presumably Glasgow had a bit of a reputation in that regard, and the Beeb didn't want to upset us by saying so. Another more upbeat view from Scotland's top meat supplier is that wartime Glaswegians were simply so much more resourceful than the rest of the UK in how to make the most of their precious rations.
The Glasgow fillet is chuck tender braising or stewing beef, taken from the opposite end of the beast from the fillet or sirloin. It's almost always used for long-lasting stews and slow-cooked casseroles and doesn't stand up to pan-frying or grilling.
When raw, it's hard to tell the difference , until you put it to a hot flame. Only then would you realise you'd been diddled: it simply turns chewy, tough and inedible. When slow-cooked however it's tender and tasty. Since cheaper cuts are back in vogue as we re-embrace austerity cuisine, it's just as well to know the difference. What a pity the D-Day boys didn't have the choice.