My flaky pastry rant for 1970s

One day I will never ever make rough puff, flaky and puff pastry again. It will be struck off by the exam boards when they realise it is a high fat waste of my student’s time. We might show videos about it as a piece of history. A nonsense done by daft cookery teachers in the 1970s and a bit of sticky fun shown on old TV shows. 

Cream horn tins bought in charity shop as piping bags.

One day a factory will make it and we can buy it in supermarkets ready made if we really want to cook with it. The cream horn tins will be thrown away. My students won’t know the meaning of mille feuille. Eccles cakes, sausage rolls and jam puffs will be bought in cake shops unless a future government puts a ban on them or labels them with big red sticker to show they are very high in fat. 

No more pastry made from lard or cheap fishy margarine from county supplies. No more struggling on hot summer days trying to get layers of fat in between layers of fatty pastry. No more scraping off sticky failures from my work surfaces. Lessons are too short to let the pasty chill down and rest and my fridge is stuffed with tubs of margarine and lard and a pint of milk for my tea break whenever that comes.

No more greasy baking trays for me to soak after school in the butler’s sink full of boiling water and caustic soda. No more fatty cooking that drips through the shelves of the oven, splatters the oven sides and glass doors and covers the oven with blobs of grease. My cookers need an industrial cleaning company to come in after these pastry lessons and remove the amount of grease that has accumulated from these wretched high fat pastry dishes. My after school hours are spent lying on the kitchen floor in my pink nylon overall with matching rubber gloves, scraping out layers of fat and scouring the trays at the bottom of the oven with endless Brillo pads to stop black smoke from billowing out when the ovens are lit. And there is a limit to the cleaning greasy oven punishments I can hand out to naughty students to help with this task! And no, the school cleaners do not want to do this job – it is not part of their role according to Jim the caretaker.

The exam has been renamed Food and Nutrition. We learn about healthy eating and cutting down on saturated fat. Fatty pastry lessons must stop.

Cookery Exam Results 1973

It’s mid August. The height of summer 1973. Hot. Very hot and it’s the day that exam results are released. My Mini Traveller reluctantly leaves the sparkling seas of sunny Sussex and heads north to my east London school which is open just for this one day to hand out exam results to students and staff that choose to attend.

This is a day of reckoning for me. One year at the school. One year of teaching my exam students. One year to get my raggle taggle groups able to cook an edible two course meal, with a cake or batch of biscuits, iron a shirt, clean a pair of football boots and lay out the table, with d’oyleys, cruet set, flower arrangement and serving dishes. One year to drill in stuff for the theory exam, with some of them struggling to read and write. I’ve learnt that at the start of the new term each department’s results will be pinned on the staffroom noticeboard and I’m a department of ONE. One year when I might get named, shamed and singled out for improvement. Evidence of my success or failure in the first year of teaching at this school will be pinned up for all to see.

Today very few staff have turned up. Their six summer week break is sacrosanct. Time to get away. End of term chatter in the staffroom boasted of long family trips to France on camping forays or staying in gites in the Dordogne. No doubt they’ll come back glorifying du pain, du vin and du some delicious French cheese and saucisson. A group of young teachers is taking a trip to America, driving down the west coast searching for the Beach Boys’ lifestyle and told me they’re visiting seafood shacks by the ocean to sample lobsters, crab and fries. Older teachers say they’re just as happy sitting in their Cromer caravan overlooking the icy cold North Sea and watching the wind whip up the waves. A picnic on the beach with brown bread Cromer crab sandwiches and a glass of warm Adnams Southwold beer is perfect. They deserve their holiday and will be back fresh at the start of the new term.

Kind Mr Lewes, who supported me with my class discipline in that first year, sits in the entrance hall at an enormous trestle table filled with rows of brown envelopes, lined up in alphabetical order.  Eager students file past. ‘Surname and exam number?’ They hurry away, tearing open the envelope and pulling out the typed sheet that decides their future. Followed by jumping squeals of delight or subdued shrugs of disappointment. No one from my classes seems to have turned up.

Mr Lewes hands me a large envelope containing two printed lists. One with my CSE results and the other O level and I scurry away to my cookery room to discover my fate.

The CSE result sheet is first and I scan down the familiar names. Out of sixty candidates, fifteen have a Grade 1. That’s amazing. If they’d been allowed to join my O level group they would have a proper O level certificate and grade. How they could have shone. The low expectation from the old secondary modern thinking makes me sad. Many boys have scored grades 4 and 5 and two have got a U which means total failure. My O level results are spectacularly poor and no doubt the headmaster will call me in for an explanation at the start of term.

There’s a timid knock at my door and Alice walks in. The quiet girl who wasn’t allowed to change classes to move away from the boisterous boys and work with the gentle, hardworking O level group. She’s no longer dressed in her prim school uniform and looks surprisingly pretty in her flowery summer dress and bouncy blond hair. Alice may well smile. She’s achieved her goal – a Grade 1 CSE, equivalent to an O level.

‘Well done Alice. This means you can do A level Home Economics with me in the sixth form.’

‘Thanks Miss. I got some really good results. See you in September.’

There’s another bang on the door and in comes a joyous Bert.

‘Miss, I passed. It was the only exam I took and I got it.’ Bert, in his out of school clothes, looks distinctly grown up. ‘Yes Bert – you got a Grade 5.’ It’s the lowest grade before total failure, but we’re both pleased. Bert, whose practical exam was a disaster. His Cornish pasty shortcrust pastry was such a sticky mess that he scooped it into a bowl, mixed in the minced beef, onions and potatoes, patted it flat and baked it. A sort of Cornish Pasty pizza. And his Swiss Roll didn’t roll but he still served the spongy lump with some jam and a jug of custard. If only he’d chosen his favourite shepherd’s pie and apple crumble we would have been in business.

“See you at prize giving day, Miss.’ Bert leaves my room waving his result’s paper in triumph.

Marguerite Patten

Marguerite Patten’s Cookery in Colour was my first cookery book and I used it for all my cooking exams in the 1960’s. In 2009 I visited her at her home and got my well used book signed. Marguerite was as busy as ever, and at 93 years old, she regularly contributed to BBC discussion programmess on current food issues. We talked about the challenges of cooking in war time, and all the changes in equipment and ingredients that came during the following years.

Marguerite Patten signing my copy of Cookery in Colour

Marguerite gave me a copy of A Century of British Cooking, as I was writing a memoir of teaching in London schools in the 1970s. She has written an astonishing 170 books, which makes my 70 titles seem like a starter. Marguerite worked on the launch of the new pressure cookers which saved fuel in the 1950s – interesting how many things are becoming topical today. She demonstrated the Kenwood Chef when it was invented, and promoted many of the food initiatives in the 50s and 60s – using more wholemeal flour and the soft margarines for cake making.

We talked of offal – Awful Offal my students called it- and remembered stuffed hearts, liver and bacon, and grilled kidneys. Marguerite was involved with many food initiatives, and believed that food should be well cooked and delicious. We sat down to a tea of smoked salmon sandwiches and asparagus rolled in brown bread with cream cheese, followed by homemade fruit cake.

Marguerite was an inspiration to anyone wanting to learn to cook, or write about food. So optimistic, generous and hard working, with a database of stories and memories. I value sharing her memories and sensible opinions on the food we eat.

Marguerite died in 2015 at the age of 99. Jenny Ridgwell

Photo by Jenny Ridgwell