Monday, 30 November -0001


As the Women’s Institute celebrates its first 100 years, its recipes are a valuable, delicious record of a turbulent century

The story of the Women’s Institute has had food and cookery at its heart from the outset. When newly widowed Madge Watt arrived in Britain in 1913, this indomitable lady found a society ready and waiting for a new movement dedicated to the needs of women. Drawing on her experience as founder member of the first WI in Canada, Madge spoke out on the important role countrywomen could take in growing food for the war effort. Madge’s words resonated and the first Women’s Institute was set up in September 1915.

The nation’s cooking skills have always been important to the WI. The voices that speak through these recipes show common sense and reflect their time perfectly. Let’s not dismiss them as quaint. They can help us re-evaluate our own attitudes to food and its place in society.

The WI Cookbook, by Mary Gwynn; photography by Jan Baldwin (Ebury Press, £20).

Chicken Pie (pictured above)

Even before the war, a chicken was a luxury for most people, and one to be enjoyed only occasionally. Birds were killed for the pot once they stopped laying so were likely to be tough old fowl that needed long slow cooking.

Serves 6

1 good quality free-range chicken, about 1.5 kg
stock vegetables (a carrot, onion, celery stick, leek, all cut into chunks)
a bay leaf 
6 peppercorns
a sprig or two of fresh thyme
50g butter 
1 medium onion, chopped
50g plain flour
50ml single cream or full-fat milk
3 tbsp chopped flat-leaved parsley
100g smoked ham, shredded
350g puff or shortcrust pastry made with butter
beaten egg, to glaze
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the chicken in a large pan to fit snugly with the stock vegetables, bay leaf, peppercorns and thyme. Pour over enough cold water to almost cover and add a large pinch of salt. Bring to the boil and then cover and simmer very gently for 45-50 mins until the juices run clear when the thickest part of the leg is pierced with a skewer. Cool in the stock for a really good moist finish. Strain the stock and measure out 600ml.

Preheat the oven to 200C/ fan oven 180C/gas mark 6. Melt the butter in a large non-stick pan and add the onion. Cook gently for 3-4 mins until soft and pale. Add the flour and stir for a minute to cook. Off the heat gradually whisk in the stock, then return to the heat and simmer, stirring until thick and smooth. Stir in the cream, parsley and seasoning.

Remove the chicken meat from the bones, discarding the skin. Tear into pieces and mix with the ham in the base of a 2-litre ovenproof dish or roasting tin with a wide lip to hold the pastry. Pour over the sauce (you can make the pie to this stage then cool and chill overnight). Place an egg cup or funnel in the centre to support the pastry. Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured work surface to a rectangle 5cm larger than the dish. Cut a strip of pastry about 1.5cm wide and place along the edge of the pie dish.

Brush the pastry edge on the dish with cold water, then lift the pastry over and settle it gently over the filling. Pinch around the edges to seal and make a hole in the centre to allow steam to escape. Chill for 15 mins to allow the pastry to rest, then brush with beaten egg and bake for 45-50 mins until crisp and golden. Serve.

Cream of Broad Bean Soup

The 1970s was the era of the dinner party. One of the WI Home Skills’ series of books, Dinner Parties, promised recipes that would ‘help you eat your way around the calendar’. Shops were increasingly full of imported products and consumers became used to luxuries such as strawberries all year round. As part of Summer Menu No 2, Broad Bean Soup was advised, as if the weather was cold, it could be served hot.


Serves 8 

700g shelled broad beans
sprig of savory or thyme
1 small onion
50g butter
35g flour
2 litres stock of your choice
8 tbsp double cream
chopped parsley or chervil
salt and pepper

Cook the beans in boiling salted water (just enough to cover) with the savory or thyme for 3-5 mins. Drain and reserve the liquid. Refresh the beans under the cold tap and drain well again.

Meanwhile, peel and chop the onion finely. Fry in melted butter until soft. Stir in the flour and cook for another 2-3 mins. Add the stock and bring to the boil. Season and simmer for 10 mins.

Reserve a few beans for garnish and add the rest to the soup. Simmer for a few minutes, then pass through a vegetable mill.

Just before serving, remove the outer skins from the reserved beans and add, with some of the cooking liquor to the soup. Mix the cream and parsley or chervil together in a bowl. Bring the soup back to the boil and pour a little onto the cream mixture. Stir well, tip back into the pan and reheat gently. Adjust seasoning and serve.

Cooking this recipe today…
Follow the original recipe but don’t salt the cooking water for the beans. Drain it off and use it to make up the stock to 2 litres. Omit the cream and parsley or chervil for a lighter soup.

Victoria Sandwich

The quintessential British cake, a good Victoria sponge still remains a staple of many WI meetings. Recipes for sponge cakes have appeared in WI publications going back to the earliest days of the movement, and reputations have been made and destroyed with cakes such as this one. The WI rules when judging are precise: only raspberry jam for the filling; a dusting of caster, never icing, sugar to finish, and a 20cm diameter. Good flavour should be at the heart of the cake’s success, so use finestquality butter and fresh freerange eggs – if you have your own hens, even better.


Serves 4

3 medium free-range eggs, weighed in their shells (around 170g)
the same weight of the eggs in softened butter or soft margarine, caster sugar and self-raising flour
homemade or good-quality shop-bought raspberry jam

Preheat the oven to 180C/fan oven 160C/gas mark 4. Grease and line two 20cm sandwich tins with baking parchment.

Cream the butter/ margarine and sugar together until very pale and fluffy. Beat the eggs then gradually add to the mixture a tablespoonful at a time, beating well.

Sift the flour and gently fold into the mixture with a metal spoon. Divide the mixture equally between the prepared tins and level the surface, making a slight hollow in the centre to allow the cakes to rise.

Bake for 25-30 mins on the same shelf in the oven until well risen and golden. The cakes should have shrunk from the sides of the tin and spring back when touched.

Remove the cakes from the tins and turn onto a wire rack to cool. When cold, sandwich them together with jam and dust with caster sugar.

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