My school food budget of £50 a year is so small that I’ve asked for donations of autumn fruits and vegetables for our preservation lessons. London gardens spill out their windfall apples and pears and we get plenty of beetroot and onions from the pickings of allotments. The keener students bring in blackberries and crab apples gathered in weekend forays round Epping Forest and from the derelict building sites around the area.
As the class shambles in, the tables are piled with boxes of apples in various stages of dilapidation. There is a donation of a large sack of very small onions.
They settle on their stools.
‘These lessons are about preserving things so that they will last longer. How are we going preserve these apples and onions so that they last over winter?’
Silence. They don’t care.
‘Come on, what shall we do with them?’
‘Put them on the compost heap, miss – them apples look rotten.’
Terry is good in the school garden so he should know.
He’s right – we need to remove the battered and bruised fruit but I must inspire thriftiness in this throwaway world.
‘We’re going to use the apples to make apple chutney and pickle those small onions in vinegar.’
It is clear from the grumbles and shuffling that they’d rather do scones like last week.
‘Hurry up – you have to make a choice! Apple chutney or pickled onions?’
They divide by sex. Girls choose chutney, boys the onions. This separation often happens. They are not choosing what they want to cook. The boys and girls just don’t want to work with each other.
On a school training day we’re told to mix up boys and girls and make them sit next to each other and work in mixed sex pairs. That weekend I’d gone for a drive in Mark’s smart company car round Richmond Park past herds of deer. The females huddled together and the giant stags patrolled the boundaries. No one made them mix up unless it was rutting season.
In the classroom girls cook in clean, organised workplaces and boys create a messy nest of ingredients and equipment which soon spills onto the floor and gets kicked under the tables.
Big boys preparing tiny onions make me laugh as they peel away the withered, brown skins, then top and tail the onions and put them in salted water. Gradually the tears flow.
‘What’s up Terry – does this lesson make you sad?’
Terry rubs his fists into his eyes. His whole face is pink and blubbery.
‘Class – don’t wipe your eyes with oniony hands – the juice gets in and makes the crying worse.’
They blink at me, tears dripping onto their chopping boards.
‘Me nan peels her onions under water so she don’t cry.’
Bill dumps his onions in the butler’s sink full of cold water. A stream of dribble runs from his nose and plops in the water. Pickled onions and snot – now how are we going to make that safe to eat?
Squeals come from the girls who are peeling and chopping the pile of windfall apples. Liz has cut through a slug and its innards ooze onto the table.
‘Err miss – look at this thing!’ She can’t identify it as a slug.
‘I ain’t using them apples – they’ll poison me.’
Some girls gather in disgust to watch the slug shrivel in green slime. Liz prongs it with her knife and holds it up for all to see and share their revulsion at using this less than perfect fruit.
‘OK. Throw those apples away and clean down the work surface to remove the mess. We’re still going to use the rest.’
‘Miss, I ain’t eating food that has creepy things in it. Why do I have to do this lesson anyway?’
Liz slings her apron on the table and stomps out of the room. It’s her usual trick in lessons so she can meet her boyfriend at the school gates. He might not find the smell of vinegar, onions and rotten apples so attractive this time. But Liz wants to make babies and thinks school, and my lessons in particular, are rubbish.
Apple chutney is a compote of apples, onions and sultanas simmering in vinegar and brown sugar and the girls stir the spicy broth as it softens and thickens.
The boys have salted their onions and now pack them in hot Kilner jars and pour in hot, spicy, malt vinegar.
The fragrance of cooking wafts into the school corridors and attracts wandering staff and students who sniff the air and go Ah! like the Bisto ad.
Biff is a frequent visitor to my room. He gets sent out of most lessons to drift around the school in search of mischief and sources of entertainment.
‘Miss – this room always smells lovely – when can I do cooking with you – please let me in.’
‘One day – maybe – now get on your way. I expect the headmaster is waiting to see you.’
Steaming apple chutney is piled into jam jars, with a circle of waxed paper on top and covered with cellophane and an elastic band.
The labels on the jars are designed to impress for the highest marks.
Alice’s Amazing Apple Chutney 1973.
Paul’s Perfect Pickled Onions.
Maybe some are still maturing in a secret east end cupboard somewhere, waiting for discovery. And maybe, like Lea and Perrin’s Worcestershire sauce, they will become a mass produced delicacy found on future supermarket shelves.