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Monsieur's menu

Pam Cooley tastes The Kitchen Experience at a Victorian mansion.

What time must you get up every morning if you come to work in this house?" A shy voice suggests five o'clock. "Zut alors! You are right. This is a most intelligent girl. She will be a maid and help in my kitchen," exclaims Monsieur Athlone, who, according to the 1881 census, was cook in the Victorian mansion of the Rothschild family, in what is now Gunnersbury Park Museum in West London.

Monsieur Athlone, otherwise known as Adam Senior, assistant education officer, is hiring household staff to take part in the museum's Victorian Kitchen Experience. In an atrocious and unflagging French accent, worthy of an actor's Equity card, rather than his archaeology degree, Monsieur Athlone explains the position and duties of servants in a great house. From 25 children of Year 5 at Hobbayne Primary School in Hanwell, he selects a housekeeper, maids, kitchen boys, a butler and footmen. Every child gets a part and an appropriate bit of costume.

The Victorian Kitchen Experience is designed to support key stage 1 "Then and Now" and key stage 2 History Victorian Britain. As this was the last week of term before Christmas, Hobbayne school's session was festive and interspersed with seasonal traditions.

To the delight of the children, Monsieur Athlone orchestrated the kitchen staff. Sue McAlpine, who leads the education team, told the others how the Victorians celebrated Christmas, helping them to make old-fashioned Christmas tree decorations and play family parlour games. The groups changed places after lunch.

After setting the scene and establishing the below-stairs hierarchy, with everyone learning to address the cook as Sir or Monsieur with a bob or nod, Monsieur Athlone instructed the butler and a footman how to wait at table. Then the class trooped to the scullery, the laundry and the cold room. Mr Senior made sure that as many children as possible had an opportunity to play a part or be the first to answer his questions. He showed how the heavy old-fashioned broom, the cumbersome cold-cupboard and the three-legged washing "dolly" in an iron tub have been replaced by vacuum cleaners, refrigerators and washing machines.

Crammed into the chef's room, Monsieur Athlone explained: "This is where I come to relax and get away from the hubbub of the kitchen. I sit at my desk and I look at my menu cards and plan what I will cook. Also, this is where I bring people when I hire them and fire them."

Fixing his eye on a very small kitchen maid, he says: "If I wanted to hire you because you are intelligent and have shown me good behaviour then I bring you in here and tell you your conditions and how much money you will get." There were nervous giggles as he dropped his voice significantly. "If, however, I wanted to fire you then I might bring you in here also and scream and shout a little bit before I throw you out of the household."

Back in the warm kitchen there was no time to examine the great cast-iron range with its ovens and boilers because preparing the Christmas feast was the main focus of this session.

The class gathered round the long table. Monsieur Athlone, using examples the children be familiar with, described how some foods, such as jelly and sugar, have changed. The class crushed sugar lumps and spices with a pestle and mortar, handled and smelled a root of ginger and guessed wildly at how cochineal was produced. Everyone had a turn stirring the real Christmas pudding before being shown how to make an orange petit four to take away with them.

The faded grandeur of the mansion is the ideal setting for a range of Victorian workshops. Sue McAlpine explained: "We aim for as much hands-on activity as possible, using role play to develop unstructured scenarios to suit the ability of different groups, including children with special needs. We are always happy to meet teachers when they book a session to discuss how best a workshop can be made to fit in with classroom work."

As well as the Kitchen Experience, available throughout the year, the programme, varied from term to term, includes Victorian school days, street life and costumes, all using the excellent selection of replica garments.

The museum also has a collection of early "electrical machines, gadgets and contraptions". Other workshops explore the Romans and home life during the Second World War.

Gunnersbury Park Museum, London W3 8LQ. A pack of seven follow-up worksheets is available, Pounds 1. Schools are advised to book early in the term. Tel: 0181 992 2247

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