Wednesday, 15 April 2020

UN Patrol Combat Ration Pack: Halal Menu 2, Chicken with Lentils

Today has come once more, so let's have a look at a United Nations Patrol Combat Ration Pack. This one is Halal Menu 2: Chicken with Lentils. There are also beef and vegetarian options.

UN ration packs are similar to British and US rations, but slightly larger, with one more drink and an extra sweet. They're assembled in the UK from components that are made by a network of little companies that I've never heard of, with names like Britannia Superfine, AIB, and Malton Foods. I imagine warehouses on industrial estates, scattered around the country so that if the Soviets drop a nuclear bomb on one location there is always another.

The cookie bar is much like the rest of the pack. Edible, competent, not quite up to the standard of commercial food.

Having said that you may have heard of Malton Foods, or at least one of their brands. They're based in Yorkshire and own Westlers, who make canned hamburgers that are sold in pound shops. Westlers hamburgers are infamously bad. I've tried one; it was like eating a blood clot.

I have to admit that I know absolutely nothing about the history of UN patrol rations. Are they actually used by the United Nations? Are they just one of many different rations, or the one main ration? I haven't found any convincing photographic evidence of UN forces using them - the internet has lots of photos of patrol rations, and UN troops, but no photos of UN troops eating the patrol rations - but then again perhaps the UN changes its suppliers every few months.

The ration pack has around 2000 calories, which makes it a twelve-hour ration if you're doing heavy manual work, a whole day if you're sitting in front of a computer waiting for Doom Eternal to download because Britain is gripped by a viral outbreak.

As with all military rations UN patrol packs aren't really practical as civilian food - they're too bulky, too expensive - and they're not even much use for long-term survival, because they only last a couple of years, but they're fun novelties. They have water purification tablets! Sadly they don't have a hexy stove.

The bulk of the food, main meal at bottom-right.

The trail mix and flameless ration heater, plus paperwork.

What do you get? There's the main meal, which is essentially a meat stew or a meat-free pasta. There's also some trail mix, a cinnamon bun, some boiled sweets, a cereal bar, some fake chocolate, a couple of soft drinks, sadly no coffee or tea. The ration also has chewing gum and enough water purification tablets for six litres of water, and there's a flameless ration heater.

US and Polish MREs tend to have a second main meal item, e.g. some tortillas or snack bread, or hard tack crackers in the case of Polish MREs, but the UN patrol pack has a single main meal plus lots of pudding. Overall the variety is interesting but only one thing stands out as being particularly tasty. Which one? Read on.

It's the trail mix. The tropical fruit and nut mix. Not hard to mess up. It's peanut-heavy, and there's only a tiny bit of banana, but the ratio is pretty good and I enjoyed it. Not too sweet, not too dry. Let's wash down the trail mix with a drink.

The apple protein drink is weird. It's a powdered milk drink, but apple-flavoured. Once I got used to the concept I actually quite liked it. Imagine apple milkshake. It looks like spit, but it's nice.

Let's try the fake chocolate, the Chockablock Bar:

The packet describes it as a candy bar with chocolate flavouring, which is an admission that it's not real chocolate. Purely on its own merits the bar is edible, but compared to actual chocolate it's no good. The kind of greasy cheap fake chocolate you might get as part of a fairground prize. It gave me a renewed appreciation for the real chocolate in Lithuanian MREs, viz:

It's not as if real chocolate goes off quickly. Top Youtube personality Steve1989 has eaten chocolate bars from the 1950s, and apart from some bloom they were perfectly fine. Still, let's wash down that disappointment with the cinnamon bun. I wasn't sure whether to eat it straight from the packet or heat it up, so in the end I ate one half cold and microwaved the other half for ten seconds.

It's not bad, but it was very stodgy and didn't have much filling. I had to chew and chew before it went down. The stodginess is probably a side-effect of making the bun shelf-stable. It could be improved by dunking it in some coffee, but as mentioned earlier the UN meals don't have coffee. Perhaps the soldiers are expected to carry a flask around with them.

I have to say I don't think of UN soldiers roughing it in trenches - they did during the Korean War, but that was a long time ago - so perhaps they're expected to source hot drinks from the mess, with patrol packs for rare occasions when the barracks are too far away.

In the 1990s and early 2000s UN soldiers famously used food rations as a means of paying for child prostitutes, in which case I would be unsure whether to use the Chockablock Bar or the cinnamon bun. The Chockablock Bar is dire, so I wouldn't miss it, but I would feel guilty about using it to pay for sex; the cinnamon bun is slightly too good to give away. Furthermore living standards in the Third World have improved over the last thirty years so I imagine that prostitutes in war zones demand more than just a cinnamon bun. Here in the UK women demand more than just a cinnamon bun before they will have sex.

Let's try out the other drink, and also have a look at the accessories:

What is guava? I have no idea. The drink had a nondescript fruity flavour, and even after stirring a lot it still tasted a bit chalky.

The accessory pack has a complete set of cutlery, not just a spoon. They're less robust than the classic brown US MRE spoon, tougher than the thin plastic spoons that comes in Lithuanian MREs.

American MRE toilet paper is only useful as wound packing or as a means of lighting things (when dipped in petrol). UN toilet paper is much better; you could in theory wipe yourself with it.

I was tempted to write "srebrenica massacre", and "do not like" but I'm not sure how to spell "srebrenica".

Let's cook the main meal. The flameless ration heater is a small rectangular pad of heating material. As with other FRHs you're supposed to expose it to water. I did so and initially nothing happened, but after a minute it suddenly activated - it was very effective, bulking up and sending out a cloud of steam.

The main meal reminded me a lot of the stew in the Lithuanian MREs I have tried. Similar taste and consistency, larger bits of meat, but still relatively runny.

As with the Lithuanian main meal it's tasty but thin, and it also suffers from the lack of an accompaniment - chips, or potatoes, or rice or something. It feels odd to eat meat stew by itself. Polish MREs have a similar problem, but much less pronounced because they have masses of meat, viz:

Now that's a meal. Let's wash the chicken and lentils down with a boiled sweet:

It's a generic boiled sweet. Mine had melted a little bit and was hard to unwrap, so perhaps the meal had been stored on a warm shelf. Who knows.

In summary the UN Patrol Combat Ration Pack is similar to a Lithuanian MRE, minus the hardtack crackers, plus an extra drink and a cereal, with vastly inferior chocolate. The apple protein drink is pleasantly surprising and I liked the fruit, and of course the UN does a huge amount of positive work that never appears in the media because nothing goes wrong and no-one dies. We only remember the bad things.

Quality-wise it's on a par with Lithuanian rations - more stuff, none of it horrible, but not quite as good - but not as good as Polish rations, which have an excellent main meal albeit that it's inedible if you're vegetarian. This might be why the UN doesn't just use Polish rations instead. In contrast American MREs are all over the place, but they tend to have more variety. And that's about that.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Trangia 27-1: Worship the Living Flame

Let's have a look at the Trangia 27-1, a portable camping cooker made of space-age aluminium, or at least it was space-age in the 1920s, except that there wasn't a space age in the 1920s because no-one had been to space yet.

Not that we know of, anyway. It's conceivable that someone standing on top of Krakatoa when it erupted in 1883 might have been blasted out of the atmosphere, but they wouldn't have survived the journey unless they were encased in a block of stone, in which case they wouldn't have survived very long in space. At the end of 2019 I decided I would do some camping and hiking, because there's a first time for everything and I'm not getting any younger.

And the countryside will always be there. International air travel will always be there. What could possibly go wrong? So I bought a bunch of camping gear, some dried food, a load of compressed toilet paper, powdered soup, powdered lemonade, water purification tablets, other stuff. My plan was to test it out to see what was worth taking, and thus by a quirk of fate I ended up with a stockpile of food and compressed toilet paper just as Britain was hit by a viral pandemic. Did it save me from rioting mobs of bandits? Sadly not, but luckily I found an unguarded terminal that still has an internet connection, so here we are.

That was the plot of a sci-fi short story I once read. The forcefield. It was Great Lost Discoveries 1-3 by Fredric Brown. In the story a man invents an impregnable personal force field; he decides to test it out by standing on top of an atomic bomb; he survives, but he's blown into space, where he suffocates and falls into the sun.

Fresh from the box it's all shiny and new, but it doesn't remain shiny and new for very long. It's a lot like people in that respect. Expose them to fire, they lose their lustre.

What were the others? Man invents invisibility; tries to sneak into harem; finds that invisibility is no use in the dark. Man invents immortality serum; becomes ill with incurable disease; takes serum just before he falls into a coma; doctors realise that he's going to remain in a coma forever, so they just bury him. I think the lesson is that if someone offers to make you the star of a short sci-fi story, you should decline.

Trangia has made Trangias since the 1920s. The classic Trangia burns alcohol, although there are adapters that allow the use of pressurised gas and petroleum-based fuels. Methylated spirits work well, but I have also tried alcoholic hand sanitising gel, which doesn't smell as bad when it burns. The important thing is that it should be more than 60% alcohol.

Hand sanitiser is particularly useful because you can take it in airline hand luggage. 100ml is enough for a few cups of tea and some soup, although ironically the viral pandemic means that it's now easier to get hold of meths.

The set comes with the base, the windbreak, the gas burner, two pots, a pan, and a claw for holding pans. There's enough space inside the stove for some extras - in this picture I have packed water purification tablets, tent guy ropes, a third-party gas burner, some MRE beverage bags, and (underneath it all) a sponge.

The Trangia is available in two sizes. 27 for one or two people, 25 for two or three, and also with different finishes; the pots and pan are available in plain aluminium and non-stick, and for a while they were made in titanium.

There are other options. The hexy stove pictured above is impractical for international travel because airlines won't carry hexy tablets. A simple screw-on gas canister burner claw is smaller than a Trangia, but you still have to buy a couple of pots and a windbreak. I opted for the Trangia because it comes as a set and it's a conversation starter.

Counter-clockwise from bottom-right there's the alcohol burner, the simmering ring - you use it to control the heat output and also put out the burner - and the cap, which has a rubber seal so that you can carry the burner with fuel inside. Bear in mind that the burner gets very hot, which won't do wonders for the rubber, and also that airlines will not be happy if you try to carry a meths-filled burner anywhere in your luggage.

The gas burner hose passes through a hole in the base unit. Older Trangia stoves don't have this hole, so you'll need to cut one yourself (or elevate the stove somehow).

Voila, the assembled stove. The windshield has claws that fold inwards to carry the pots.

The claws fold outwards to carry the pan. It's worth buying a thicker, non-stick pan. This is what happens if you don't use the simmering ring - the flame is so hot that it burns the outside of the food before the inside has a chance to cook, at which point the oil catches fire.

A third-party kettle. Trangia also sells their own kettle, and a larger pot, and a bunch of accessories, but this kettle stood out because I like the colour orange.

Of course you can just eat cold food, but I wanted a way to generate hot water so that I could wash my feet, at the very least, and from there it made sense to bring along a cooker. Other options include Swedish SVEA stoves, which burn lantern fuel, and Kelly-style vertical kettles, which burn wooden detritus that you find lying around the forest floor.

Willem Dafoe was born William Dafoe; he adopted Willem as a stage name because his dad was called William and he wanted to be slightly different.

How does the Trangia work? Let's make a cup of tea. Bear in mind that all of the aforementioned stoves are intended for outdoors use. They give off a lot of smoke and noxious fumes. For this blog post I opened all the windows and doors, and on one occasion I ran outside and shouted "IT WAS THE OFFICIAL SHIP'S DOG" because that's what it was. It was the "off. dog".

That was the twist. There was a misprint and all the people on the spaceship thought they had lost the offog, but there was no offog, it was the official ship's dog. It's good that I can still remember all this. It means that the fumes didn't affect my mental well-being.

It's vitally important that you use alcohol fuel. Alcohol, ethanol, rodsprit, "denat". If you use petrol or kerosene it'll either explode or you'll have a massive sooty flame that burns out quickly.

Lighting the burner is awkward if you have the windshield up because you have to reach in from the top. The flame is hard to see in daylight at first so be careful not to burn your hands.

After a short while flames start to emerge from the little holes surrounding the opening. I haven't done any scientific tests, but apparently if you add a bit of water the flame is less sooty.

Putting it out at the end is a fine art. The design of the burner is such that simply pressing a pot against the top of the burner doesn't put it out - you have to throw the simmering ring on top of it without burning your hand, which involves a bit of luck. If the simmering ring is already attached to the burner you have to somehow push the disk shut.

The end result. Tea. If I was actually camping I would use coffee, because it doesn't leave behind teabags.

Teabags have plastic in them, see. As a consequence I have a stockpile of three-in-one coffee sachets, which again I bought before the pandemic and now can't resupply because Amazon has run out. The procedure for rice, boiled eggs, soup, porridge etc is similar, but I also have this:

It's a home-made pot cosy, fashioned from some aluminium insulation and duct tape. It's particularly useful for rice. After boiling the rice I carefully shove the pot into the cosy - again taking care not to burn myself, because aluminium conducts heat like a mutha - and let it continue to simmer. This saves fuel. A chap in the UK sells these things for £5.99 or so, with a clasp so that the open end closes up, but I had some aluminium insulation lying about.

The official Trangia 27 kettle is tiny, small enough to fit inside one of the pots.

It has enough space to carry the burner and some accessories.

Officially the capacity is 600ml, but you'd have to fill it dangerously high. It's enough for two cups of coffee.

And that's the Trangia. It feels surprisingly robust for something so lightweight, so it should hopefully outlast the current viral pandemic. Right now I could murder a plate of fish and chips, or at least hold it captive in my basement dungeon. I would hold it captive and feed it salt and vinegar. I would command it to rub tartare sauce all over its body and threaten to squirt lemon juice over it if it refused.