The summer term of 1973 brings the final test for my teaching skills – the cookery practical exam. I have to get 60 students to cook an elaborate, edible meal, with hot drink, flower arrangements and all the other silly exam tasks that they throw at us. This feat takes place over several days as each student is allowed their own cooker and sink, which is unheard of during the rest of the year. And I provide all the ingredients. The headmaster has agreed that since it is an exam, the school will cover the cost!
These are some tasks.
‘Cook a two course lunch for 4 people and prepare an evening dish for someone coming back from a fishing trip. Clean a pair of muddy football boots.’
‘Prepare a hot breakfast for a family of four who are going out for the day. Make a packed lunch and some cakes and a drink for them to take with them. Wash and starch some napkins.’
‘Prepare an evening meal for a family with a teenage girl. Make sure that the meal is rich in iron and calcium. Bake some pasties for a packed lunch. Wash and iron a shirt.’
On the day of the practical exam, I switch from helpful teacher to the role of THE EXAMINER and march round the room with my clipboard, watching my students peel and chop vegetables, prepare pastry, bake cakes, biscuits and bread. I take off marks for poor cooking skills, messy worktops and general flustered bumbling.
They’ve had lots of practice at learning what loses marks. I peek over shoulders, open up saucepan lids, bend down and peer into ovens, and rootle in the rubbish bin for food wastage.
During exam rehearsals I bark out warnings.
‘Turn the pan handle in – someone could knock over the boiling water.’
‘Don’t cut away all that potato skin– use a potato peeler.’
‘Use your fingertips to rub the pastry fat into the flour – if you squeeze it anymore it will be a soggy lump’
‘Don’t throw those bits of pastry away – make some jam tarts – we have to use everything – no wastage!’
‘Don’t peel the apple with the cook’s knife!’
‘Don’t lick your food – I won’t taste it if you do!’
Licking loses loads of marks.
Privately I love licking. My favourites are spoonfuls of fluffy margarine and sugar, beaten to pale creaminess for Victoria sandwich. Then the foamy, whisked eggs and sugar which make Swiss Roll.
Savoury and sweet dishes have their own bizarre serving rules. Savoury flans and cheesy scones are cooked and cut with PLAIN rings and cutters.
Sweet tarts and lemon meringue pies must have FLUTED edges. These are the RULES laid down in some Victorian kitchen and they are not to be BROKEN.
Years later I am shocked when I see a Sainsbury’s savoury quiche baked in a fluted flan case. An unforgivable sin committed by the food product developers.
D’oyleys follow savoury and sweet rules – plain for savouries and frilly ones of sweet scones and cakes.
One mark lost for the wrong choice and a scowl from me.
On the exam day they work in silence. except for emergencies.
‘I feel sick miss.’
‘Just keep on cooking Angie – we can’t waste these ingredients.’
‘I’ve dropped my eggs on the floor miss.’
‘Dan, here’s a cloth – clear up and start again.’
I only come to their aid if there is real danger.
‘Paul – put the lid on your frying pan quickly and so that it doesn’t catch fire! And take that tea towel off the top of the cooker!.’
‘Please miss, it was an accident.’
I press my finger to my lips. No speaking, no excuses, this is the real test.
The exam lasts two and a half hours. They must keep to time and follow their plan and produce edible food on the table.
‘OK class you have 20 minutes to finish.’
A class gasp of panic.
‘I’ve burnt the cake miss.’
‘Cut off the black bits and cover it with icing.’
‘My chocolate mousse isn’t set.’
‘Stick it in the freezer, quick.’
They scurry round the room, tarting up the dishes with garnishes of parsley for savoury and sticky glace cherries and angelica diamonds for sweet desserts.
Suddenly it is over. ‘Time’s up – present your food.’
Amazing pies with crisp, golden pastry appear hot from the oven.
Steaming dishes of perfectly cooked cabbage and carrots sprinkled with chopped parsley and topped with a knob of melting margarine.
Soft mounds of creamy mashed potato, decorated with a sprig of parsley.
Pineapple upside down cake glistening with glacé cherries and rings of tinned pineapple served with a jug of creamy Bird’s Custard.
And a pot of tea with a strainer, jug of milk, sugar bowl and matching Beryl Ware cups and saucers.
And a rose in a polished vase.
And a clean pair of football boots.
They scramble out leaving sinks heaving with dirty plates, bowls, burnt pans and sticky baking trays.
Now for my tasting session. All dishes have to be tried and my face must remains deadpan. The students are watching from outside the classroom windows. Once, when I tasted a really sweet kidney ragout, I realised the student used icing sugar instead of flour to thicken the sauce. The dish was inedible so no marks.
Are the bread rolls crisp? Is the shepherd’s pie well seasoned? Are the vegetables overcooked? Has the egg custard curdled? Is the cake properly baked?
I poke and prod, slice, taste and appreciate. It is delicious. They have done me proud.
The marking is over and they surge in to photograph and fuss. Friends come in to congratulate and commiserate. But mainly to eat. Then pack up, wash up, and leave with a wave and ‘Thanks miss – I enjoyed that!’
I have taught them to cook and they have learnt well.