I have always wondered just how great the effect on exams -but really on life, a passion kindled- the very best teaching can have and thus consider myself extraordinarily lucky that I had three brilliant teachers, one at each of the primary, secondary and tertiary levels of my education, Miss Kemp, John Hetherington, Lisa Jardine. I would have done anything to impress any of them; I worked single-mindedly, obsessively focused; in all else I was lazy, dismissive, exclusory, chaotic in the way that, I suppose, passion drives everything else from view, it is a single-engined, single-minded beast. I couldn’t contemplate a slip, however marginal, from the highest grade as it was them, the teachers who inspired me and their opinion that mattered most. I wrote for THEM.
I have always done my best work for my best editors, in both film-making and writing, and I acknowledge the immeasurable value their influence has had over my life and my career. They set the standard. They ensured that I at least understood how high their expectations were of me, thus mine of myself; how those expectations were not a static thing or open to negotiation, disbelief or disagreement on my part; they were continuously raised; no resting on lowly laurels.
The idea that pressure is a bad thing is simply foolish-minded. The best teachers know exactly what they want and what their pupils can give them. They start the debate within, of our being our own harshest critic and of learning that in life one has to do it for oneself, honestly, truthfully and with complete objectivity. Particularly in any of the arts where one is publically criticised. It’s not just minding about a bad review –that is an acceptable indulgence, it’s not humanly possible not to, and it’s always the bad one we remember– it’s about knowing the truth and the lie about it and learning to continuously rise above.
So what happens to the children who don’t have any expectations of themselves because nobody else ever did, or because they didn’t get around to finding out that they could achieve anything they wanted to if only someone made them believe they could?
I spent a few months last summer in a church hall in Minehead teaching a weekly cookery class to some young mothers who had asked their local branch of Homestart for help. The charity offers practical help and visits to families finding it tough rearing young children.
Somerset is a beautiful place to bring up children, idyllic in the obvious ways, but there is no beauty in rural poverty and isolation, joblessness, mental illness, drugs and drink. The city problems are, in a sense, compounded far from the madding crowd precisely because of loneliness, distance, low wages, and you have to have a car to get anywhere near civilisation. You can be marooned by the weather, live miles from anyone or anywhere, not get to meet other young mothers or fathers with the same stresses and strains on their hands, not want to look like you can’t cope.
As I walked in through the door for the first time, I was the nervous one. I felt like it was my first day in a new school.
These girls didn’t need another adult patronising them with mateyness. They needed a break from their babies and toddlers who were being looked after in the church hall for 2 hours. They needed some fun. Someone to listen to THEM for a change, some time to do something for themselves, someone who didn’t impose what they wanted to teach on unwilling ears and tell them what they ought to be cooking and eating. Look how badly wrong that went even for Jamie Oliver when he went into one school and changed the menus and the mothers were found poking hamburgers and chips through the railings at lunchtime to show they had the right to feed their children what they wanted to.
It’s a fine line you tread telling anyone that you know better than they do, even finer if you start telling them what to do. So I kept the fact that I’d been told one of the mothers fed her toddler almost exclusively on a diet of ground up doner kebabs to myself and went in open minded. I got used, when I made my BBC-2 series about the NSPCC, to finding children in houses with nothing but a deep fat fryer and a sack of spuds in the corner, or parents who hadn’t given their children breakfast when the social workers arrived at midday, going to the fridge for the Mars bars. I had witnessed children removed from their beds and homes at night by the NSPCC officers from dodgy caravan sites where the only sign of food was the collar of lard welded rigid to the gas burner like set wax, a manky burnt frying pan the only weapon of culinary destruction visible. Judge not, and all that, but it is not my remit to impose my values on anyone nor for them to do the same to me.
I took a risk that first week. The budget was ludicrously tiny, £15, and for that, the girls all had to go home with supper for their families. I wanted to teach them about taste more than anything, how to make things taste good, but first I needed to know their taste. What did they like to eat and what could they cook? Were there things they wished they could afford to make or would really love to learn?
The first dish was going to be my calling card to either lure them the following week or ensure they didn’t come back, so I had to really think it through.
I brought my children up on Puy lentil, pasta and tomato soup. More of a stew than a soup, it is thick with smoked bacon, herbs, Parmesan and the onion, garlic, celery and carrot soffrito to which the tomatoes and lentils are added give it strength and depth of flavour. It can be made in advance and heated up for days. A one-pot, basic skills peasant of a dish. Short of torching the pan, it can’t go wrong whatever you do to it and the additions and subtractions you can make according to the fridge, your purse, your larder, make it something for all-comers. It is made with water, not stock, any cheap lentils will do if the Puy ones are too expensive, any herbs work, parsley, basil, tarragon, thyme, bay; you can forget the bacon if you’re a veggie, so I thought this would be a dish which each girl could adapt to her individual taste. Making recipes by rote and rule might not work, if everyone could add their splash and dash of creativity, they might start to feel confident about cooking new dishes from scratch.
My worry about lentilphobia was entirely misplaced, as was my fear that it was not the sort of food they would want to try or thought their children would eat. Again, entirely misplaced, one girl said she often cooked lentils as they were so cheap and they were all eager to try something new. They hadn’t cooked with fresh herbs before and one girl was vociferous about the Parmesan stinking of sick, but she was happy to grate Cheddar into the soup instead.
I demonstrated how to chop the vegetables for the soffrito. One girl had such poor knife skills she didn’t know how to hold the knife and was terrified of it slipping and severing a finger. Another girl couldn’t read, so we worked out a method of her watching me first and then between us we drew pictures of the quantity of each ingredient and she was amazingly quick and accurate at verbal instruction, it was a skill she’d developed in the absence of reading.
I have always believed that the eyes are the most important sense of the five for cooking, that things lodge better in the memory when you’ve seen for yourself. I discovered that kitchen equipment was pretty rudimentary in some of their kitchens, one girl had 2 small saucepans and a wooden spoon, but clearly loved cooking, was utterly absorbed by it, repeated the soup at the weekend at home with another of the girls and said they’d spent all weekend cooking together. Up til then, she said, she didn’t really go out of the house as she had nowhere to go and didn’t know any other young mothers as she was new to the area. One Monday she came in proudly saying that her dad had bought her a couple of new pans for her birthday.
In the absence of liquidisers and food processors I had to make sure all the dishes could be made by hand in the short time we had and that I taught the different processes from scratch the old-fashioned way.
At the end of our first session, everyone tried everyone else’s soup. I think the girls’ biggest surprise was that everyone’s tasted different but they were all good. My final words that day, were that if I had been given a bowl of their soups in a café I would have been thrilled, I would have returned, that they were all good, natural cooks.
It was clear that the smallest bit of praise initiated the biggest of breakthroughs. The following week, the girls all came back, and one of them had a cup of tea made for me within minutes of my arrival from that week on.
The fag breaks helped concentration, as did the fact that I didn’t question them. I never remarked on the swearing. So it didn’t feel like a classroom, it felt like a laboratory in which we were all doing the same experiment. Bit by bit I could ask if the girls would wait for the next ciggy until they’d completed the next process; they, in turn, began to ask me to watch their pans in their absence.
So, I asked, what do you really want to learn to cook over the next few weeks?
Tarts. Lemon meringue pie, quiche, treacle tart and Bakewell tart.They knew what the classics were alright.
Roast chicken and all the trimmings. One girl told me she wouldn’t dare roast a chicken as she wouldn’t know when it was cooked and she might poison her child.
Pasta sauces like meatballs in tomato sauce, lasagne.
Chicken curry, lamb curry, prawn curry.
Sponge cakes, scones and chocolate brownies.
Chicken risotto with the remains of the roast chicken, for which we made the stock first, and despite cries of ‘it looks like dirty dishwater,’ they wolfed down the result.
Beef stew and dumplings.
Apple and rhubarb crumbles.
And so, for the next couple of months, the girls came back each week and we tackled all of the above with only the best ingredients. Each girl learned how to make perfect pastry by hand. I only had to say the immortal words ‘no soggy bottoms’ for the mantra to enter the annals of the girls’ oral culinary lexicons and be intoned every time we baked a tart ‘blind’ or they turned a tart out fresh from the oven and the tin.
It wasn’t without incident. After an alleged theft, two newly firm friends became sworn enemies. I told them that the kitchen was a place of calm not a warzone and that if I couldn’t trust them not to stab each other to death, I couldn’t let them cook. There was a catfight outside during fag-break one Monday, but by the time the girls came back in, the threat of losing that evening’s dinner was too much to continue the vendetta.
They loved it when I was under pressure. At the end of one session, I had to turn their cheesecakes out, still hot, in a hurry and was swearing at the heat of the tin as I wrestled with the metal and tried to stop the wobblingly set cheesecakes cracking or collapsing. One of the girls, I saw, when I looked up at them giggling, was filming the whole thing on her iPhone.
The kitchen had become a place where the girls could talk about their hopes, fears, problems, daily lives and cook without pressure or competitiveness. A couple of them said they looked forward to each class more than anything else they did all week. When the money looked like it had dried up, the girls said they would do a car-boot sale and raise enough for us to keep going. The best thing was, they said they’d do it by baking cakes and selling them.
In the event, we managed to secure enough money to finish the term and all the dishes the girls had put on their list. Not one of them turned out anything less than delicious over the whole period.
The sad thing is, it had to end.
There was no more money.
My experience over those few months last summer confirmed my belief that it is in the kitchen that the real battle of education and confidence can be won through the achievement of culinary skills, but the sense of its being a shared endeavour is crucial. Over a shared recipe or chopping board, the unconfident cook can grow in stature and feel the pride that we all feel when we put a good, simple dinner on the table to nurture our family with; one that we have made simply, but with love and care, having taken that great step forward from knowledge to understanding.
I still miss the girls. I looked forward to Monday afternoons too: the excitement, the unpredictability, the camaraderie, the openness and willingness with which they accepted how I wanted to teach them because they knew it was all about them, and my belief that they could learn to share my passion if we all had fun.
serves 8 preheat oven to 180C/gas 4This has to be the most maligned and bastardised of tarts, in the sense that so often people present a ‘quiche’ that bears NO resemblance to the peerless classic, and clearly have no idea what the classic involves.
The quiche Lorraine is a top tart. When cooked by a top tart maker who understands it. Yes, it is simple, there are three key ingredients: cream, eggs and smoked bacon, so if they are not of the very best quality, your tart will not be, however good you might be at making tarts.
Streaky bacon is a must, you need the fat, -I pour mine into the custard for flavour when I have frazzled it in the pan and snipped off the rind.
Makes 1 x 20cm/ 8 inch tart.
Make the shortcrust pastry in the usual way and bake blind and dry out.
Meanwhile, make the custard: 8 rashers best, smoked streaky bacon for the filling, an extra 8 for on top 1 x 300 ml double cream (untreated Guernsey or Jersey if you can find it) 1 x 150 ml single cream 2 eggs + 2 yolks Sea salt and white pepper
Fry the first 8 rashers in a pan with no other fat or oil, and turn them regularly until they are well crisped and browned. Remove the rashers from the pan, snip off the rind, and break into pieces. Whisk the creams and eggs thoroughly with sea salt to taste and a good grind of white pepper. Pour the bacon aft into the bowl of cream and mix in. Remove the tart case from the oven, lay the pieces of bacon on the base of the quiche and pour over the custard. Baked until gloriously golden and risen and just set. Cool for 15 minutes on a rack. Meanwhile, fry the rest of the rashers and when you have turned the quiche out ready to eat, lay the strips of bacon over the top. A perfect and generous final touch.
Lemon Meringue Pie
serves 6-8 preheat oven to 180C/Gas 4
A true classic, and one that all children seem to love as much as all adults, the sharp twang of lemon with the sweet, crisp, mallowy-middled meringue.
Make the usual shortcrust, bake blind and dry out in the oven.
Meanwhile make the filling and the meringue: grated zest and juice of 3 large lemons 45g cornflour 300 ml water 3 large egg yolks 90g vanilla caster sugar 60g unsalted butter cubed small 3-6 egg whites, it depends on how cloudy you like your meringue 90-120g vanilla caster sugar Put the zest and juice in the top of a double boiler, and add the cornflour which you’ve whisked with 2 tbsps water first so that it is a smooth paste. Bring the rest of the water to the boil and add it to the lemon mixture. Keep whisking over the heat until the mixture thickens considerably. Remove from the heat and whisk in the egg yolks, sugar and butter. Leave to cool while you make the meringue.
Whisk the egg whites to soft peak then scatter in a third of the sugar and whisk again until satiny and they don’t slip out of the bowl when you turn the bowl upside down. Add the next third of sugar and whisk again. Test the stiffness in the same way. Best test ever invented in the kitchen. Remove the tart from oven. Scrape over the lemon gloop. Scrape over the meringue, sprinkling the final third of sugar over the top. Put the tart in the bottom of the oven and cook until the meringue has browned and when you tap the outside of it, it feels as crisp as snow. Remove from the oven and cool for 10 minutes before turning out and serving. Single cream is best.