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Bury St Edmunds writer Nicola Miller explores the front line of Army catering

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After spending the day watching chefs compete at the Exercise Army Sustainer (EAS) competition at Prince William of Gloucester Barracks in Grantham, it became clear that the famous saying, ‘an army marches on its stomach’ barely scratches the surface of the relationship troops have with their food and the people that cook it.

The EAS is an annual field catering and culinary art competition which tests and showcases the professional expertise of Army chefs of all ranks, both regular and reserve, and those from NATO and industry. I was invited by Lt-Col Jane Cattermull and shown around by Maj Iain MacDonald and Maj Alan Lester.

The test of a good Army chef is the ability to turn basic field rations into meals interesting enough to both keep up the morale of troops and provide suitable nourishment.

An Army marches on its stomach
An Army marches on its stomach

Almost anyone can take local and seasonal fresh produce and produce something decent, but what could we do with Spam and tinned stewing steak?

Soldiers from the Defence and National Rehab Centre (DNRC) produced a compressed meatloaf with Spam and Spam onion gravy, followed by pineapple syrup sponge and custard. I love Spam in an unironic, non-hipster way, partly because of its sweet-saltiness and its fascinating wartime history.

Spam has gained high status in places like Hawaii, Guam, and South Korea; basically anywhere that American troops were based and where it was traded and given to locals – although it is also used by the British Army and there was a wonderful historical display of British Army canned rations in one of the field kitchens, where chefs were steaming ‘cannonballs’, meat and suet puddings.

Sadly, the DNRC chefs told me that Spam was becoming expensive to buy, although I’m sure there are plenty of troops who’d be glad to see the back of it. I was happy to eat this meatloaf, even though texturally, it was not meatloaf as you or I might know it. But as Army personnel explained, meal names offer comfort in themselves, even if they’re not strictly accurate, and meatloaf says ‘home’.

Then there’s the issue of menu fatigue during field exercises and deployment: the Army has had to look at the suitability of certain meals (beans and sausages for breakfast, for instance) in hot climates such as Afghanistan, and is making changes such as providing sports-style drinks and salt and sugar-enriched energy bars instead of perishable chocolate. As I was told many times, opening your ration pack becomes the highlight of your day when emails and phone calls home are in short supply and you have sand, relentless heat and camel spiders to contend with.

The Royal Army of Oman was invited to take part this year as part of the field kitchen section. Each team had to cook with given ingredients and to do this they either constructed equipment using items salvaged from the field or were given identical army-issue catering supplies: I saw smokers made from beer kegs (filled with mackerel wrapped in leaves) and ingenious turf-covered ovens, where pots of pears and chocolate ganache slowly blipped in the heat. There were vegetarian and vegan meals on offer, too. The Omani soldiers made spiced beef patties and two delicious puddings: a khataifi and a khabeese Omani with saffron sauce which I’d have been delighted to eat in a restaurant, let alone a damp field in Lincolnshire. Little packets of Iftar dates were also on offer. The soldiers were fasting, which is quite a feat of devotion when you consider the arduous nature of their professional lives.

The pride these soldiers took in their cooking moved me so it is a shame that everyday catering in barracks these days is often provided by companies such as Sodexo (and even sadder that some fast-food businesses are making inroads on base). Fitness is becoming a problem under the pay-per-meal system, I was told. Highly-trained army chefs only really get to use their specialist skills in the field.

n I am researching Army catering for a book, so if you are or have been an Army or Navy chef, or want to talk about your experiences of food whilst serving, please do get in touch at nicmillerwriter@gmail.com

PAR 3 : A wide variety of competition classes ranged from field catering and improvised categories, where judging criteria emphasise the nutritional composition of the meals, to the static classes which were designed to promote and demonstrate higher culinary skills.