Appetite for travel

27th September 1996 at 01:00
David Henderson digests a school's gastronomic comings and goings in Montreuil. It tastes like athlete's foot in a pair of sandshoes," a Scottish cheese taster pronounced. Fortunately, Jacques Gantiez, boss of the Hotel Les Hauts de Montreuil and French director of Equity Total Travel, was not within earshot as one of his favourite local creations was shot down.

"Yuk," was the common description of ewes' milk Camembert and some of the array of northern French cheeses displayed and beautifully described by the substantial figure of Monsieur Gantiez, whose every word was translated into English by Tom, the Equity rep. Someone else ventured into the tray of ripe aromas, gingerly sampled the fare and proceeded to cough up the contents.

The 30-strong party of 15 and 16-year-olds from Holy Rood High, Edinburgh, reared on best mousetrap cheese, revelled in the tasting, judging by their negative reaction. Sampling traditional French delicacies was at the core of the course, La Vraie Cuisine Francaise, based in the medieval walled town of Montreuil, 40 minutes from Boulogne.

Melissa agreed. "I would not have tasted the cheeses because of the smell. They looked weird. You tasted it because all your friends tasted it," she said. The course was achieving one of its aims of broadening minds and palates, even if the sample wines which accompanied the cheeses drew similar gasps of adverse judgment.

Louise summed up the mouthful of house red. "This is like vinegar. I prefer champagne." Sipping thimbles of French wine may have appealed to some under-age drinkers but for most the experience ranked with cheese tasting.

M Gantiez would probably have skulked in his wine cellar had he seen the full reaction. In his dingy cellar buried beneath the ancient streets, the boss man lovingly charted the course of different vintages and drew attention to dust-laden bottles on the racks decked in spiders' webs. The teachers grew increasingly nervous in the tight, dark confines as their host acclaimed bottles dating back to the French Revolution, some priceless, some a mere Pounds 2,000.

One party member was not there to hear the exposition. She freaked out at the first sign of the spiders.

Earlier in the day, M Gantiez had run through the history and making of French wines, a subject close to his liver. "What do wine growers fear most?" he asked through his interpreter.

Frost, wind, rain were some of the answers. All wrong, of course. Hail was the right answer, if the big man was not pulling our legs.

Just before picking the grapes, growers keep a special watch on the weather lest nasty cold fronts deposit unfriendly hail on precious crops. Growers fire rockets into the clouds to precipitate rain. The sceptical audience waited for him to hold up a "true or bluff" card.

For most, including the staff, this was a fascinating insight into French culture. Mornings in this six-day package (including two days for travelling) were set aside for demonstrations. Pascal, head chef at the tender age of 23, did his Floyd on France act with trusty Tom by his side.

Day one in this home economics practical, was devoted to cod in puff pastry, or "posh fish fingers" as Tom described it. The difference is that the fish is bought every morning at the market in Boulogne, wrapped in finely-judged home-made pastry and garnished with a delicate creamy sauce far removed from the HP bottle. The watchers were invited to create baskets, carved from firm tomatoes.The dish received the ultimate Scottish accolade. "It's aw right that," one girl concluded. It was a partial "Yum Day".

Day two was wine and cheese (Yuk Day) and day three was boeuf en croute stuffed with foie gras, mostly a Yuk Day. Yuk, because the French eat their beef on the red side of raw, known as "bleu", a suitably onomatapoeic description that screwed up as many faces as the explanation of foie gras. Tubes stuck down the mouths of geese to enlarge livers did not go down well. Big Yuk.

A display and tasting of charcuterie drew equal responses. Sausage made from pigs trotters was Very Big Yuk.

Day four was different. Definitely a Yum Day, or puddings. Tarte aux pommes drew much favour and many willing participants to prepare it. For Melissa, a standard grade home economics pupil, the main difference was the excess of butter and cream used in most dishes. Natalie observed Pascal clean up quickly - as her teachers advised - and was impressed with his colourfully and carefully presented dishes. Afternoons included visits to a boulangerie (Half Yum) and a chocolate factory (Extra Big Yum) with other trips to a fairground and swimming pool thrown in.

Janice Watson, principal teacher of home economics, thought her charges had done well to taste as much as they did. The trip was also valuable for its hidden aspects, such as sitting down in a restaurant and actually eating a meal together. "A lot of the kids will rarely do that," she said.

This was her second trip to Montreuil, and while she found the group food better the first time, she nevertheless backed the gastronomic experience. "In education, it's easy to become introverted, shut the door of the classroom and teach," she said. "But if we can take children into this environment it can become more interesting. They'll remember this," she said. Back in class they'll hopefully remember that they'll lose marks if they don't tidy as they go.

On a broader front, the school has worked hard to turn the kids away from the Scottish diet of lunchtime chips, a point that will be reinforced by the northern French experience. As assistant principal home economics teacher Irene McLellan said: "We are trying to let them see that to eat healthily does not have to be boring."

A pupil diary highlighted the contradictions during the boeuf en croute day. "Boring but quite interesting," he wrote. Make something of that then.

Holy Rood High travelled with Equity Total Travel, Dukes Lane House, 47 Middle Street, Brighton, East Sussex BN1 1AL. Tel: 01273 203202

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