‘School dinners, school dinners….

…Iron Beans, iron beans

Sloppy Semolina, sloppy semolina

I feel sick, get a bowl quick.’*

Do you remember this cheery ditty from your days eating school dinners?  Only if you’re British, I suppose.  And most right-thinking French men women and children would be quite prepared to believe that all English food is just like that.

Not the mayor of Villeneuve d’Olmes, where Découverte de Terres Lointaines has taken its Yorkshire exhibition this week.  Back at the planning stage, he’d told us about their school caterer, M. Feliu, who uses almost entirely organic or local ingredients, and who likes to introduce the children to the cooking of other countries every time the excuse arises.

We met M. Feliu at La Freychède.  We worked together to produce a menu (Cheap. Tempting to the young French palate. Three courses that work with the kitchen facilities to hand.  Conforming to nutritional standards).

This is what we came up with:

Crudités with beetroot chutney

Macaroni cheese with green salad

Blackberry and apple Betty with custard.

Yesterday was the day.  I turned up at 10.00 with my English friend and colleague Susie to find the work almost done.  All we had left was to churn out batons of carrot, black radish and cucumber for the first course, which was not, let’s face it, Awfully British.  But it had to fit in with other considerations as above.

11.00: The prepared and cooked food was heaved into insulated containers, and transported by van to one of the local schools.

11.30. Ditto with van number 2.  This batch was sent off to Villeneuve d’Olmes, with me following.

12.00. Children arrived at the canteen.  One of the helpers, Pascale, spoke good English.  ‘What’s your name?’ she’d say to each child in English.  When she had her reply, they could go in, and sit down at one of the circular tables, tinies in one room, and juniors in another.  I joined a table of lively 7 year olds.

One of the staff told me the rules that the children expect to follow:

  • Take turns to serve the dishes of food to everyone at table.
  • Wait till everyone’s served before beginning to eat.
  • Try everything.
  • You can have the portion size you choose.  Once it’s on your plate though, you have to eat it.

Everyone accepts this and we all sat together, eating and chatting.  The children chomped their way through all the crudités, they even enjoyed the chutney, whose sweet and sour taste is not an automatic choice round here.

Once cleared away, bread appeared on the table – this is France after all.

Two more children served the macaroni cheese and the salad.  Most of us came back for seconds.

We sang ‘Happy Birthday’ – in English – to a birthday girl.

I gave an impromptu talk on the food on offer.

The blackberry and apple Betty was served.  Yum! How could it fail?  Gently cooked fruit with a crunchy crust of soft breadcrumbs crisped in golden syrup and butter, with obligatory custard, of course.

Then the children cleared their tables, stacking dirty plates and glasses neatly for washing up, before going off to play.

I was so impressed.  The children here learn that the midday meal is so much more than a pit- stop.  The expectations, reinforced daily, are that this is a moment to spend with friends, a time to share, to think about the needs of others, and to appreciate the food on offer.  The occasion lasted well over an hour.

* To the tune of Frère Jacques

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12 thoughts on “‘School dinners, school dinners….”

  1. Very fetching outfit Margaret! We were discussing school dinners recently as my mother confessed that she hated tapioca so much she put it in her blazer pocket – my grandmother was not best pleased. But Andrew reminded me of the coloured metal water jugs that sat on every table and which quickly became the receptacle for any unwanted food. I can’t see your French children doing that.


    1. COLOURED metal water jugs? Posh…. We had the roof of the gym outside a convenient window. Said building was demolished a few years ago. It really doesn’t bear thinking about, what must have been found…


  2. I once had an unfortunate incident with tapioca at a school dinner table, which I’ll not describe here in case anyone of a sensitive disposition is reading it 🙂 I also remember our school’s macaroni cheese, which was the stuff of nightmares. I wouldn’t mind sitting down to a plate of that lovely looking Betty though! Did you make proper custard?


    1. Was your school mac cheese made with organic pasta, cheddar, gruyere, parmesan, finshed off with a juicy tomato topping? No, thought not. It was good: it was popular. Nah, Bird’s Custard I’m afraid. We talked of proper custard but it was both unrealistic because of the method of delivery, and inauthentic too.


    1. I’d heard about that blog and even looked at it a couple of times. Mmm, those meals don’t look good. As in England, school dinners here vary enormously (always 3 courses though). Villeneuve’s are the standard to aspire to.


  3. Three-course meals!?! In the US we got one compartment tray — the same kind as used in prisons — with a main dish, a soft roll, a vegetable, and a tiny dessert. Some days were better than others.


  4. “it’s too late, I’ve done it on my plate”, oh I remember that song well. Absolutely no need for it on your day though, it all sounds wonderful and very civilised. I am sure we could learn a lesson or two.


  5. We only had two courses but we sat down round a table and one of us served the others. We didn’t start until everyone was served nor did we clear until everyone was finished. I always did well when it was semolina as I was the only one who liked it. A lunch sitting took about 45 mins follwed or preceded (depending on sitting) by a 45 min break. We returned to class refreshed and ready to learn.


    1. Actually, apart from chucking unwanted food on the gym roof when no teachers were looking, our lunchtimes were also civilised – and we also had circular tables to aid conversation. But I beg to point out that we are on the older side, and times may have changed. Bet you didn’t like spam fritters by the way.


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