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The great military beans fatigue

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Food critic Nigel Barden puts the new rations through their paces

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News

British soldiers are used to surviving for long periods on monotonous rations. But with most of the fighting now in the searing heat of Afghanistan and Iraq, the MoD is creating new hot weather ration packs that rely less on the staples of beans, biscuits, cocoa and custard.

MoD ration pack

"Beans again. Beans for breakfast, beans for lunch and beans for supper," grimaced L/Cpl Sarah Close, a medic on the front-line in Helmand Province last Christmas, as she dipped her spoon unenthusiastically into her ration pack. At least, we consoled ourselves, the red stuff in the bag was piping hot as we both tucked in to yet another "beans in a bag" breakfast from the Ministry of Defence's 24-hour ration pack.

At first, I'd found it rather exciting to rip open the small cardboard box that contained my rations for the day. What emerged from the silver pouches within was a constant and occasionally even pleasant surprise, as the descriptions on the silver packets gave little away.

No restaurant menu-ese here, no lovingly "drizzled" sauces or "cuisson a la modes". Just "beans and bacon", "lamb curry", "tuna". And occasionally the treat of a large Yorkie bar, emblazoned with the legend "not for civvies", though more often than not, it had turned a curiously sickly, pale colour, sometimes crumbled from storage in the heat or being flung from a great height by a Hercules supply-drop.

Beans disguised

However, the novelty of living on ration packs had well and truly worn off by the end of the week that I spent embedded with Delta Company 40 Commando Royal Marines, at one of the forward operating bases in the Upper Gereshk Valley.

Beans are indeed a "rat pack" staple: beans with bacon, beans with burger, and of course the "all day breakfast", a name which cunningly disguises the reality of... yet more beans with bacon. Or burger.

One of the most important requirements is to provide increased variety to troops operating for long periods on rations, which will help reduce menu fatigue
Lt Gen Dick Applegate

L/Cpl Close's comment on sticky toffee pudding - "have you ever tried eating a tank track? That's what they're like" - proved sadly accurate.

I have to admit that my rather delicious mental vision of a light, almost souffle-like pudding, swimming in a buttery and delicious hot toffee sauce did not survive contact with reality - a lump of semi-cooked dough only marginally improved by a sauce that was indeed sticky, but bore little resemblance to toffee.

However, "biscuits brown" promised nothing they couldn't deliver. Quite how they made the flavour and even the texture so brown remains a mystery, but military chefs must have been working on that secret recipe for years.

Haute cuisine it was not, though it did the job. The meals were filling, easily heated on a stove in a pan of water, and bearable for a few weeks. In the bitter cold of a Helmand Christmas, where the night temperatures got down to -7C, we were left shivering and grateful for the cocoa powder sachets that made a welcome hot drink as night fell.

New range

Yet while sweltering in summer temperatures of 44C and above, when British troops spend much of the day sweating in heavy body armour on patrol or sitting in a hot and confined armoured vehicle ploughing its way through the dust and sand, it is clear that sticky toffee pudding, custard-based desserts and hot mugs of cocoa are the last things anyone would want.

Beans
Many soldiers get weary of beans

This is why the MoD has been trying out a whole new range of menus, aimed at troops serving in hot weather, and is planning further trials of those new menus for 2009 for those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They can't come soon enough for one young Army recruit, who complained bitterly on television on his return from the front line in Afghanistan.

"Rations are miserable," he said. "I've been on rations now for - I can't remember how long. The guys here have been on rations even longer than I have. They're fed-up with it."

That was Prince Harry after 10 weeks in Helmand Province.

And the troops' wish for rather more ambitious menus are at last being responded to, not least because of the importance to morale of good, varied food on the front line in places where no army chefs are available to cook up the 10-man ration packs that offer a slightly more interesting menu.

Napoleon claimed that an army marched on its stomach, and he wasn't far wrong. On average, 1.5 million 24-hour ration packs are eaten every year by British forces serving around the globe. "Menu fatigue" can be deeply demoralising. Apart from a phone-call or e-mail from home or a good night's uninterrupted sleep, a decent meal is often one of the few things to look forward to.

Chicken hunt

"Food is vitally important to the morale of our Armed Forces, especially whilst deployed on operations," admits the man in charge of launching the new menu trials, Lt Gen Dick Applegate, the MOD Defence Equipment and Support Chief of Materiel (Land).

"One of the most important requirements is to provide increased variety to troops operating for long periods on rations, which will help reduce menu fatigue."

Maybe unfairly, it struck me in Afghanistan that much of what is currently served to British forces in their "rat pack" appears to have changed only a little since World War II, perhaps with the addition of a few (rather good) curries, and minus the cigarettes and scratchy loo paper (now replaced by a posh pack of tissues).

Prince Harry in Afghanistan
Prince Harry is among those to have sampled ration delights

You will hear Marines and others confessing quietly to a real fondness for "biscuits brown" and a strong stomach for beans, but the tedium of the same menus day after day apparently did drive one front-line unit in Afghanistan - according to a British newspaper - to hunt for local chickens and vegetables in Helmand.

Perhaps spurred on by a sense of competition with the US military, who are also revamping their current rations, the MoD says British forces serving in hot climates are now being issued with special supplements during the hottest months, from 1 May to 31 October.

Chocolate bars have been removed and replaced with flapjacks or energy bars, which keep rather better in the heat, while "biscuits brown" and their equally appalling culinary cousins, "biscuits fruit and pate", have been replaced with pasta pouches such as tuna pasta, which can also be eaten cold (and aren't bad at all).

Many of the hot drinks have also been replaced with energy drinks and fruit flavourings for water, to encourage hydration in temperatures that can reach into the searing 50C in Helmand. Cold breakfasts such as mueslis - for extra carbohydrate and fibre - may also make a welcome change from beans, beans and more beans for breakfast, while fruit puree drinks and fruit cocktail desserts have also been added to replace hot custard-based puddings.

Cooked meals

But the "Multi-Climate Ration Pack" is seen as the longer-term solution, and is now in the final stages of development. The MoD says that trials of the 20 new general menus will run from next summer in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as another six new halal, vegetarian and Sikh/Hindu menu options.

British forces serving at the main bases such as Camp Bastion in Afghanistan or at Basra air station in Iraq do receive cooked meals three times a day, with some rather good curries and occasionally even morale-boosting cheesecake or chocolate eclairs on offer (the meal tents have air-conditioning), so they are not as reliant on rations while based there. But for those working in the harshest, most basic conditions at the forward operating bases, ration packs are crucial.

Whatever the changes, the international meal comparisons are unlikely to stop, with frequent debates among the armed forces as to which nation has the best rations. Having survived on American MREs ("Meals Ready to Eat", or as they were cruelly nicknamed, "Meals Rejected by the Enemy") for a short period while embedded with British forces during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I can safely say that the US love of peanut butter is not one I would share on a long-term basis, although its system of providing each meal pack with a small heater is an ingenious idea.

The US is currently overhauling its own MREs to create "First Strike Rations" for soldiers on the move. They include items such as barbecue pork and black beans and that American staple - chewing gum. Meanwhile, to the envy of some, the French and Italians often have wine in their rations (albeit only a small bottle), a rather civilised idea that, sadly, the MoD apparently has no intention of taking up.

Ration packs may never live up to the variety of "real" food or even supermarkets' chilled ready meals, partly because they have to remain edible with no refrigeration in high temperatures, sometimes for years, as well as being able to withstand being dropped from a great height from a Hercules or helicopter if necessary.

But it is clear that the MoD must have been listening in to L/Cpl Close and many others' conversations as they tucked in to yet another bean-based breakfast in Helmand Province.


Below is a selection of your comments:

Ah but you are forgetting on how to vary the taste of said beans very easily - a small jar of Tabasco sauce, sweet chilli or Worcester sauce mixed in makes them far more edible. When I served in the light infantry, every soldier had one of those bottles in his pack to add to the beans, and would happily swap three drops of Tabasco for two of Worcester any day. The newer rations do seem a great idea, and I'm sure would be very welcome (so long as the rice pudding doesn't vanish - lovely with cocoa powder on a cold rainy day).
Mark, Birmingham

A little thought can spice up your rat-pack - literally. Carry a few dried herbs and spices to add to the dish you are cooking, and another trick is to take individual coffee filters and have a "real" brew as a treat.
Megan, Cheshire, UK

I once found that the pasta and meatballs offering is much improved by setting the packaging on fire - gave it a lovely barbecued flavour.
Jenny, London

I have spent many years eating from ration packs (not in this army) and found that the only food acceptable, day in and day out, was a good curry. This was made up of tinned stewing steak or pilchards, curry powder, tube of margarine, tube of jam and parboiled rice. Fresh onions helped (when available). Followed, of course, by a huge mug of hot sweet tea.
Geoff Oliver, Lancaster

I used to love it when my dad came back home with spare rations. I must be in the minority but i absolutely love biscuits brown.
Chris, Edinburgh

I spent many a happy hour munching away through the 24-hr rat packs. I particularly enjoyed the beans and burgers either hot or cold (usually the latter). The biscuits brown and the AB biscuits (garibaldi to civvies) were affectionately known as biscuits hard b*****d and were aptly named. The best way to eat these ration packs was to bung everything in one mess tin, including the rolled oats and chocolate pudding, cook it all and add a healthy amount of curry powder or extra hot chilli sauce (any self-respecting soldier would have a selection of spices and chilli sauce in his bergen/webbing), wolf it down and make sure you weren't too far from the ablutions or had your spade ready. Happy days.
A W Roy, Bacup, UK

The US actually nickname their MREs: Meals rejected by Ethiopia. Our rations are pretty good (I lived on them myself for weeks) but the US ones are inedible. American soldiers will swap tanks for British rations. Incidentally the idea of including a small heater with each pack is a British invention - we've done it for decades. Until recently MREs were eaten cold or warmed up on truck engine blocks.
Peter, Notts

The best thing about MREs when I existed on them was the rather cute (and very necessary, given the standard of the food) 1 inch tall bottle of Tabasco that came in every one, label correct to the smallest detail.
MPT, Lake District

One of the reasons why beans are a staple is its high fibre content and as many of us know, constipation can lead to dulled senses, lethargy, discomfort. The last thing you want in an arid environment is bowel disorders especially as your body water content is continually under attack by the elements. I found the American MREs rather sickly, poor standard and more like a McDonald's happy meal than a daily staple. Maybe my soldiering days came from a time where we were expected to do a job, rather than poncing about wondering what the other side were munching on and being pandered to. Whatever happened to the British soldier...?
Ian Watson, United Kingdom

Mate, guarding a nuclear facility in Germany with no-one shooting at you don't quite measure up with what the lads are doing these days in Helmand. The Army is far more professional & battle-hardened now then it was in the Cold War, and what you say is a deep insult to the lads who are actually out there fighting rather than living in barracks.
Brad Cohen, Staines, UK

It's a little surprising that although 95% of the ration pack is unbranded, Penn State Pretzels managed to wheedle their way in there. Would have thought the army would have avoided such things in order not to be accused of taking sponsorship and such things, since they're widely available on the High Street. The Fruiter juice drinks are a good idea. I discovered a different brand on my Gold DoE expedition in France, amazed that I hadn't found them back home, and they proved very useful, packing down when empty into tiny spaces.
Niamh McBurney, London, UK

I seem to recall that "Biscuits fruit" were basically Garibaldi biscuits - rather good. "Biscuits brown" were ... an experience.
Simon, London

I can remember when the meals in Rat Packs came in tins, not easy-tear silver foil packets. Chicken curry was brilliant, babies' heads (steak and kidney puds) were to die for and the compo sausages fought over. Likewise spotted dick and treacle pud went down a treat. It seems that as in so many ways there has been a few rather large steps backwards. The meal is to sustain and keep body and soul together, not to compete with what is available in just about any town or village in Britain and it also seems that the complainer is taken rather more notice of than is suitable when catering for the troops. As the old old saying goes "If you can't take a joke then you shouldn't have joined."
Dave The Rave, Swindon

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