Whenever I’m teaching something like bread or cheese, I start from scratch, go back to the roots and get them to learn what food these products are made from.
‘Class, today we’re going to make some cheese and have a cheese tasting.’
I hear an ‘Eew … a cheese tasting’ from the back of the group, and I’m pleased they think my lesson is going to be posh.
I need curdled milk to show them how to make cheese and bottles of sour milk lurk all around the school. Anywhere where there is no fridge and people hide and drink tea. On the shelves behind the staffroom coffee mugs. In cubbyholes where teachers escape to make a hot drink and hide from break duty or covering lessons for absent colleagues. Anywhere that teachers don’t want to be found. But this sour milk could be really old. Years old, so it’s safer to use fresh milk with a squirt of sour Jif lemon juice, from my friendly plastic lemon, which quickly separates the milk into lumps and liquid.
They’re round my table and ready to start.
‘How do you think people discovered how to make cheese?’
‘Went to the Cheddar Cheese factory.’
‘No, Kevin, don’t be daft. Cheese making is a very ancient process.’
Kevin hasn’t been to my lessons for ages. I should worry that he’s not keeping up with the work done by the rest of the group, but the relief of having a class without Kevin is enormous. The rest of us can get on in a friendly fashion with the usual banter, and don’t have to watch for Kevin’s angry outbursts or wanderings around the room, picking at other people’s food. This must be his first day back after his recent suspension, but he’s not subdued, and he could make this lesson tough going.
I’m into my storytelling – legends and mysteries about food. The ‘did you knows’ and ‘you’ll never believe this’ type of storytelling helps them remember the lesson and quietens them down. They settle and listen, just like nursery school children.
‘According to legend, cheese was invented thousands of years ago when Arab herdsmen carried milk in bags made from sheep’s stomachs and they found by the end of their journey, the milk had turned into cheese. The heat from the sun turned the milk sour. An enzyme called rennet in the stomach curdled the milk and made curds which then became cheese as the liquid drained away. So they’d discovered the art of cheesemaking.’
There are parts of this story which sound ridiculous. Please Kevin, don’t ask why they put milk in a stomach. Or why the Arabs were carrying a stomach bag around. If they wanted milk why not just take a sheep or cow on their travels? But then these ancient people would never have been credited with legends that told how they invented cheese.
Stool legs scrape the floor. They’re getting restless.
‘Let’s make some cheese. Kevin come and hold this sieve and pour the sour milk through.’
I need Kevin beside me so I know what he is doing. Kevin has some nasty habits and it is too dangerous to leave Kevin sitting amongst the stools when he’s in this mood. Someone could get hurt.
He holds the muslin lined sieve over a bowl as the sour milk plops through.
As Kevin pours, I chant the Miss Muffet nursery rhyme. I like doing things that help them remember stuff. It might help it all sink in.
‘Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet
Eating of curds and whey
There came a big spider,
And sat down beside her,
And frightened Miss Muffet away.’
They look alarmed. Miss ain’t normal. She’s talking like a child.
It’s time to be the teacher. To be stern and sensible.
‘Kevin, show the group your curds.’
Kevin tilts the sieve towards the class.
‘Can the rest of you see Kevin’s curds?’
No-one really wants to see anything belonging to Kevin. He might pin them up against a wall later and demand an apology.
‘These are the curds that Miss Muffet might have eaten before they became cheese.’
‘Kevin can you tie the muslin bag with the curds to the tap and leave it to drain over the sink please. At the end of the lesson we’ll have a look and taste it.’
‘I ain’t eating that. It looks like sick. I’m not trying curds even if that Miss Muffet did.’
It’s Liz, the only girl who dares to speak with Kevin around.
I chalk the important words on the board.
Milk, Sour, Curds, Whey, Rennet, Enzyme, Cheese.
‘Please write these words in your exercise books and I want you to describe them for homework. Then we’ll start the cheese tasting.’
Half the class shuffle through their duffle bags for a pencil and notebook. Half of them follow Kevin and sit there doing nothing. Ah well. I’ve rolled out the homework sheets on the Banda machine, so I’ll catch them at the end of the lesson. It’s not worth a fight now. Cheese and curds could go everywhere.
For their cheese tasting I’ve bought large chunks of Cheddar, Caerphilly, Lancashire and Double Gloucester from the supermarket at the cheapest price. Cheese tasting is educational, and they should not have to pay for it, so the cheeses must come from my tiny food budget and we need to be careful.
Sylvia chops all the cheeses into tiny pieces.
Same size pieces.
Pieces that look and taste the same.
I want no squabbling or cries of:
‘His is bigger… smaller … than mine miss. It ain’t fair.’
Everyone has a plate, a wooden cocktail stick to spear a chunk of cheese, one Jacob’s Cream Cracker and a glass of water to sip between tastings to clean their palate. And a tasting chart to fill in with a mark out of ten for each cheese.
And there’s a pot of sharpened pencils for those who turn up to school with no writing tools.
This is a serious event and I want them to learn different flavours, and open their minds to new tastes and textures.
After several of these tasting lessons, I reckon the outcome for this class will be exactly the same as other groups.
‘Which is your favourite cheese, class?’
‘What about all the others?’
‘We don’t like ‘em, we only like Cheddar.’
‘What cheese would you choose to crumble onto cheese on toast?’
‘Why don’t you like the other cheeses?’
‘Because we like Cheddar.’
I pass round the first plate of tiny pieces of a creamy, inoffensive, mild cheese.
‘This Caerphilly cheese is moist and salty and the Welsh coal miners need a salty cheese to replace all the salt they have lost in sweat when they are working in the underground mines. So Caerphilly is really popular in Wales.
When you’ve finished tasting this cheese, eat a piece of cracker and take a sip of water to clean your palate ready for the next taste.’
If we get past this first tasting hurdle, we’re on our way. Maureen and Alan munch and gaze at each other and look like two cows chewing the cud. They are not thinking about cheese.
Kevin jumps up with enthusiasm. Oh no, what now?
‘Got any more biscuits miss? To clean my palate?’
Sylvia, my right hand woman and helper, instinctively snaps the remaining crackers in half. I can see where this is going. Kevin and the rest of the boys think this cheese tasting is lunch. And if they fill themselves up on cheese and crackers, there’s more time to spend down the betting shop.
Next on the tasting plate is Lancashire cheese.
I point to the large wall map which shows chunks of cheese dotted around England and Wales. Quite what’s happened to cheeses from Scotland or Northern Ireland, I don’t know. The National Dairy Council is keen for me to promote cheeses in school and has sent booklets and coloured charts to decorate my room. If the class is good, we’ll go on a trip to their headquarters near Oxford Street for a milk and cheese demonstration. But only if they are good. Really good. And if I can persuade Kevin not to come.
‘Lancashire cheese comes from the north of England. It’s much colder there and this cheese is used a lot in cooking.’
‘Is it near where you come from, miss?’
‘No, Len, I come from just north of Watford, the Midlands. Not the north.’
They don’t get this adult tease. North of Watford is an unknown land to many Londoners.
Back from another diversion, they pass round the crumbly, white lumps of Lancashire. A delicious, mild cheese.
‘This is crumbled onto cheese and potato pie and baked in cheese pasties.’
‘Don’t like that miss.’
I shouldn’t ask. I know Cheddar will be in the answer somewhere.
They fill in their tasting charts and we move onto the deep orange Double Gloucester, and finally golden, solid, reliable Cheddar.
‘Now in groups, add up the votes on your charts please.’
They busy themselves giving the sums to the person who can add up. Kevin sits munching the spare cream crackers. No one wants his votes.
‘What’s the favourite cheese then from this tasting?’
‘Cheddar!’ they shout. How could I have guessed?
I’ve got a surprise before they go. From the fridge I take out a wedge of pungent, Stilton cheese with its nobbled, crusty rind, and creamy inside which is mottled with blue veins. It’s called the King of Cheeses, but I reckon it can’t kick Cheddar off the throne.
‘Can you see the holes in the rind where the mould is injected? They do this on purpose and the mould grows and spreads through the cheese and gives it a special flavour.’
This is a perfect piece of Stilton. Delicious.
‘Do any of you want to taste it?’
Even Kevin reels back in horror.
‘Why would we eat mouldy, stinky cheese?’
I don’t know and I don’t care. It just means more of these special cheeses for the rest of us. And I’m not even going to show them the slice of pongy Brie, its creamy goo seeping through the paper, that I’ve bought for my lunch. It smells like the boy’s toilets, and tastes heavenly.
They pack up ready to leave and I hand them each a red National Dairy Council book on cheese making, their Banda-ed homework and the recipe for next week, Cheese and potato pie.
But I’ve forgotten Kevin’s curds. The whey is still dripping out through the muslin bag over the sink.
‘Does anyone want to taste these curds?’
Their looks speak the silent answer. ‘Na, thanks, looks like sick.’
‘Alright, well you might want to pop in later and see how I’ve made the curd into Yorkshire curd tarts.’
Tarts, tarts. I know Len likes tarts, so he might be back, even though he’s left his sheet of homework on the window ledge.