Before my new job starts I visit my school in the summer holidays, happy to check that everything in my cookery room is shipshape and tidy. Cleaned, shiny, polished corridors always give schools an air of excitement – fresh, new beginnings after the summer break. Jim, the caretaker, unlocks my door. At twenty three he might think I’m a bit young to be head of department, in charge of two cookery rooms, yet I’m the only teacher and determined my department will expand and I’ll get new staff and students to join me.
Hot, humid summer days may account for the stifling heat inside the room but not the smell. Something, somewhere is rotting or even dead and we need to find it. Twelve cookers line the sides of the room and the hobs are congealed with dark brown sticky spills and lumps of dried food. What was the last teacher cooking and where has she gone? There’s no farewell helpful list or a ‘Hello and good luck’ note. An eye level gas grill beside her empty desk shows evidence that someone must have left after a massive fry up. Blobs of beige grease hang from the wire mesh of the grill pan and drip onto the unidentifiable burnt bits in the pan below. I open the oven door in hope which turns to despair. This cooker has gone through a roasting marathon. Even the glass door is splattered with a thick brown layer of entrenched fat.
‘Jim, when do these ovens get cleaned up before I start?’
My arm sweeps around to encompass the other cookers which all seem to have joined in the fun and are as filthy as ones that might be left in a student squat.
He looks sheepish, opens the windows to let the air in or out and heads for the door.
‘The teacher has to do it. I’ll let you get on – just put a note on my door when you leave.’
‘But Jim – who taught here last and why did she go….’
Too late – he’s disappeared into his sparkling corridors and down to the caretaker’s hideaway.
From now on let’s call her SHE WHO RAN AWAY. And add AND LEFT ME WITH THIS SH.T.
But onto tracing the smell – I can’t have classes arriving to this putrid stink.
Imagine the ‘Ugh, Miss, Vile smell’ comments or “I ain’t sitting in that!’
A door from the cookery room opens to a huge stockroom which will perhaps shed some light on the cooking history of this department and hold the clue to the rot. The high ceilinged room is stacked high with enough equipment to supply the magical Divertimenti cookware shop in Marylebone Lane.
What has She Who Ran Away been cooking?
On the very top shelf just under the ceiling is a row of long, shiny fish kettles with lids – big enough to hold some large, unaffordable salmon. So is she cooking for weekend weddings?
Next along are black, cast iron griddles with dark handles – the sort you would see in a stately home kitchen for cooking batter pancakes and Welsh cakes.
And then there’s the tins. Sets of tins for a class of twenty. Huge bread tins, large Christmas cake tins, Swiss Roll and Sponge flan tins as well as the heavily used and slightly battered Victoria sandwich tins. Then piles of beautiful moulded tins to make eclairs, jam tarts, fairy cakes, tiny Yorkshire puddings and small flans. Hanging up are metal rings for pastry flans – plain for savoury and fluted for sweet. Do not put your pastry in the wrong ring! Then a pile of pointy tins that look like piping bags, which turn out to be used for cream horns.
Was this woman running a private bakery as well in her spare time!?
Then there’s the essential saucepans, frying pans and a row of pressure cookers along with metal colanders and sieves. And stacks of steamers to cook suet puddings, treacle sponges and Christmas puddings.
She Who Ran Away has been teaching a marathon of baking dishes and their history can be traced from the encrusted bits of cake, bread dough and burnt pastry that now needs to be cleaned off before I can begin my cookery lessons.
And if I ask Jim who is going to clean up all this equipment I might get a “The teacher has to do it’ answer.
So tomorrow I’ll drive back in my Mini Traveller, leaving leafy Hampstead behind and my friends lazing on rugs on the Heath drinking wine and eating picnics with baguettes and Brie. And I’ll be sweating in my rubber gloves and overall and box of caustic soda, and pack of wire wool to begin the filthy task.
The teacher has to do it!
But this still doesn’t account for the smell.
When I visited the school recently the wonderful new cookery rooms still had a stockroom. And inside were my giant colanders, well proved frying pans, lots of baking tins and copies of my first textbook Finding Out About Food which I wrote using my lessons from the school.
Next day I arrive in school. The early morning drive has been hot, very hot and the room still smells of rot. I need to get on – there’s a street party tonight and Mark and I need to bring bottles of wine and a plate of food.
Overall and rubber gloves on I fill the deep butlers’s sinks with scorching hot water and stir in the caustic soda crystals just like my grandmother taught me. Then pile up the dirty baking trays, cake tins and saucepans on the draining boards ready for soaking. Sodium hydroxide is dangerous stuff – used for stripping paint off pine chests of drawers – so I need to be careful but there is a joy in watching burnt bits of food float off from the trays into the water.
The next task is to explore the ingredients in the storeroom. She Who Ran Away clearly did a lot of baking. Two large plastic rubbish bins each contain catering sacks of plain and self raising flour and the shelves are stacked with packs of Tate and Lyle granulated, caster, icing and brown sugar. There’s a row of huge screw top glass jars filled with bright red glace cherries, vivid green stems of crystallised angelica, currants, sultanas, raisins, mixed peel, desiccated coconut and almond flakes. And tiny bottles of red, green and yellow food colouring and essences of vanilla, almond and rum.
And the spices for Christmas baking – cinnamon, ginger, cloves, allspice and whole nutmegs like my grandmother grates on the top of rice puddings. I open the ground ginger hoping for a memory whiff of baking brandy snaps and ginger biscuits but the brown dust has lost its spicy magic long ago.
She Who Ran Away has also left me large plastic containers of black treacle and golden syrup both with sticky screw on lids, huge catering tins of red jam, peach slices and a massive jar of Heinz Salad cream. There’s a pile of small tins of Carnation condensed milk. Was she running a sweet factory making toffee and fudge? What the hell was going on in this kitchen?
In the corner a cardboard tray of eggs gently warms in the summer heat. How old are they? Are they safe to use? I’ll have to do the jug of water test and see if they float – bob to the top and they’re in the bin along with the old pots of spices.
That only leaves the fridge just behind my desk. This strange gas powered contraption rumbles away, working overtime to manage its cooling job in the August heat. Surely it will have been emptied before the summer holidays? But no. On the top shelf there’s a metal jug with a pastry brush stuck rigid in some yellowy brown glob. Looks like her egg glaze pot for sausage rolls, cheese straws or Cornish pasties. The shelves below are packed with blocks of lard and a large plastic tub labelled Catering margarine which smells of fish oil and is flecked with crumbs and smears of jam. In the bin to join the old spices!
It’s time to put the kettle on and test the Typhoo tea bags and dried milk left in the store room. And a cup full of glace cherries, angelica, sultanas and almonds as a lunchtime snack.
The afternoon passes quickly scrubbing through the mountain of cookware which emerges stripped clean from the caustic bath. The eclair and jam tart tins are really beautiful moulded metal kitchen pieces and will last us for many years. As I brush the pastry bits from the cream horn tins, I secretly wish that She Who Ran Away would come back and share her cooking legacy or at least give me her recipes and tell me what she was making. She may have left a pile of Cooking is Fun books, but a real life pastry cook could teach me a lot of things I don’t know and have never made.
But the smell of putrifying something or other is still there.
The drawers and the smell
Another day of my summer holiday spent cleaning up, but it’s a later start. Our street birthday party lasted well into the early morning and both Mark and myself are nursing headaches.
Today’s job is to label and sort the drawers and cupboards under each student’s worktable. Each drawer is lined with paper and I’ve drawn the equipment outlines. At the end of each lesson I march round and check – it’s like the card game Memory. If anything is missing they must search the sinks and bins and no-one leaves till all the equipment is accounted for. I can’t have cook’s knives hidden in duffle bags.
But still there’s the rotting smell. Where’s it coming from? The sniff test round my room leads to my desk drawer. Inside are the putrid remains of an unidentifiable sandwich. She Who Ran Away must have gone off in a hurry, leaving her lunch. But there’s other smells around. Jim comes to help pull out cupboards from the wall and we expose an array of left over baking bits and the skeleton of a dead mouse. The cleaners can sort it – I’m done – my room is ready for the cooking marathon and it’s the weekend and it’s hot. Mark and me will go for a trip to the seaside in his posh car, eat crab and chips and breathe in the ozone packed air.