School Dinners: a Labour of Love

I was casting around wondering what to post for this week’s Lens-Artists Challenge, Labour of Love.  And I remembered a wonderful experience I had when I lived in France, when I was part of a small team invited to cook an English school dinner for a local primary school.  Truly, the experience was a Labour of Love, as it was for the charismatic school cook, each and every day. My memories of this special day are entirely positive and happy.

September 26th 2012

‘School dinners, school dinners….

 

‘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).

The school kitchen.

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.

The view from the kitchen door.
Another view from Villeneuve.

* To the tune of Frère Jacques

Lens-Artists Photo Challenge #113: A Labour of Love