Established in Britain in 1915, the Women’s Institute (WI) was set up to inspire rural women to grow and preserve fruit and vegetables during a time of war. One hundred years later, the organisation is known for a diverse range of activities, from campaigning for more Midwives to running a cake stall at the Glastonbury Festival.
Small is Beautiful
In 1990 when I joined the WI, my reasons were specific. I had recently moved to a village near Bromsgrove. I was seeking friendship ( a core value of the WI ) and an education in preserving fruit and vegetables. The Institute was small, no more than 20 members, and at 35, I was the youngest. I discovered age was irrelevant and I was welcomed. I experienced many examples of friendship, particularly the time I was recovering from emergency surgery; the WI helped me get better. In 1993, a talk by a Cookery Judge to my Institute encouraged me to take courses in Preserves and Judging.
In the UK, formal training of WI Preserves Judges can be traced back to 1928, with records in 1932 of courses for WI members at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester. Since 1977, Home Economics ( Cookery and Preserving) and Judging certificates have been taught exclusively by WI members, although the length and content of the current courses are materially different to the ones I completed. I experienced a rigorous series of days making and evaluating the full range of preserves, with frequent assessments, followed by two years of practical judging, shadowing judges and judging as a trainee. To complete the training, a nerve-wracking practical exam.
Your Country Needs You
Many of the recipes I return to frequently were used during the World War years, made popular by The Ministry of Food’s campaign to encourage the preservation of surplus fruit and vegetables. In 1940, the Ministry had a grant to administer a fruit preservation scheme. A poster advertising the scheme read “Let your surplus fruit help the national larder.” An NFWI “Co-operative Fruit Scheme 1941” leaflet gave detailed instructions about setting up and managing a scheme. “This scheme for fruit preservation has been entrusted to WIs as an important national service, and a WI will not refuse to take part in it except for very strong reasons.” The Institutes answered the call and many made jam for the scheme. In Suffolk, 270 fruit preservation centres made 100,000kg of jam in a single year.
Inspiring the Next Generation
Post war, the need to preserve was joined by a renewed desire to preserve gluts of fruit and vegetables from allotments and gardens. In one year from my garden in Worcestershire, I was presented with 180kg of Early Prolific Plums and one Bramley Apple tree was known to produce 500kg. Whatever the garden produces, the lessons I learnt from the WI help me to preserve to a high standard, using traditional recipes and methods. Through my teaching and writing I aim to inspire the next generation to carry on preserving in the same way. Here’s to the next 100 years!