It’s shoe box sized, adorned with a union flag and contains the British military’s latest weapon against the Taliban.
Dip carefully inside the cardboard box and you will find plastic pouches full of something which is certainly recognizable as food: cold curries or other spicy substances, and garish packets of Oreo cookies.
This is the first update of the military’s ration packs since the cold war era – out go traditional brown biscuits and corned beef hash and in come chicken tikka massala, chili con carne, yellow chicken curry, chicken arrabiata and beef and cassava.
Yesterday the Guardian was led into a small terrapin hut at a secret location in Kent, where the army unveiled the new MCR – multi-climate ration – 24-hour pack and was met by a not unpleasant smell of sample rations being cooked.
And, while the army is never going to win a Michelin star for its mess halls, the warmed food certainly did not taste bad.
The packs have been designed to provide the 4,000 calories a fighting fit squaddie is recommended to consume to operate in tough war zones.
Adaptability is of key importance: sometimes troops will be able to warm the food through but other times they will have to take their curries cold. So how do they taste cold? Amazingly, it worked. Somehow the food scientists have found a way of making cold beef and cassava in a plastic pouch taste good. It’s different from the hot stuff, but delicious and there’s none of that weird, claggy-palate feeling you get from a petrol-station pasty, more the voluptuous richness of a really premium pie filling.
All laid out, the packs look a little like a British version of astronaut food. The old packs contained chocolate bars – not the best idea in 50 degree heat – a nonspecific tinned “paté” and canned treacle pudding.
Captain Paul Cunningham, the Navy officer responsible for the new packs, admits that many of these items are not the kind of thing modern soldiers would ever encounter in civilian life. A lot of the more institutional sounding items were simply being discarded as inedible, which compromised the nutritional balance of the pack.
In the new packs – which are being forwarded to frontline troops for testing from today with feedback forms – there are also halal, vegetarian and Sikh and Hindu ranges, and if that sounds like the menu at your local gastropub then Captain Cunningham is pleased. “The modern soldier’s taste is different, far more international. My customers are 18- to 21 year old boys in Afghanistan and they particularly like these spicy tastes.”
In the large, multinational bases in Afghanistan, troops eat well-balanced meals created by chefs from raw ingredients but when they move up to the forward operating bases or out into more remote areas they may have to survive on ration packs like these for up to 50 days.
Paul Carpenter, brigade catering warrant officer, 16th Air Assault Brigade, has just returned from Helmand where he was responsible for getting food to troops on the ground. “Recognition is important, he says. One day they can be eating in Colchester, the next in Afghanistan and we want them to feel they’re getting the same quality.” Other items soldiers will recognise will be energy bars, the Oreo cookies and dental chewing gum.
The history of military cuisine is long and sometimes brutal. While Napoleon observed “an army marches on its stomach”, it took another half century and the disasters of the Crimean war, when supply lines collapsed and more soldiers died of disease and want than enemy fire, for the lesson to hit home. The 19th-century celebrity chef Alexis Soyer not only produced model recipes for simple nourishing food for soldiers, he set up field kitchens at his own expense and designed a camp stove that remained in British army use well into the 20th century.