Great meals I haven't eaten;Comment;Opinion

30th January 1998 at 00:00
Travelling on a French train at midday is a bit like being in Princes Street for the one o'clock gun. The residents know what to do. Whereas in Edinburgh the locals check their watches, on SNCF a myriad of hands unwrap the tinfoil as the ritual of lunch begins.

The end of the year lunch the previous day at a local village restaurant in the part of France that our French assistant calls "the Big South" was listed as chestnut soup, quail salad, cod in shrimp sauce, rack of lamb, cheese with sweet white wine, and an assiette gourmande.

While it's unlikely that French teachers would dine out daily on such a menu, the canteen culture - as I remember it from a school exchange to Midi Pyrenees - was infinitely superior to our own.

Look around any staffroom at lunch-time - the paper bags with cheese rolls, the Tupperware treats, the plastic trays from the dining hall with matching burger and chips. Or take the fruit eaters: one colleague I knew used to produce a variety of fruit - invariably bruised and wrinkled - in an attempt to maintain a healthy diet.

All reminiscent of the childhood joke my father recounted of walking into the local fruiterer and asking for "threepence worth of chipped fruit and no' too many melons". In my first staffroom, the principal teacher of English carefully peeled his daily apple with his Second World War penknife, curling the skin in one continuous curve. He often said that he didn't really like apples, "just the aesthetic pleasure of peeling them".

Modern lunch hours have frequently shrunk until eating has been restricted to the snatched chocolate bar or pot noodle, but there have always been those individualists who remain outwith the mainstream of staffroom gastronomy - the lovingly prepared dish reheated in the Baby Belling (a sign of the newly wed that one), or the neatly chopped apple and celery salad, with optional Ryvita - for the waistline watcher.

Once, when one of our staff had been for a meal at the Quatre Saisons in Oxford he made the mistake of leaving the menu lying casually on the staffroom table. The resident philistine was unimpressed. "They don't do mince" was all he said as he scanned it.

One of our history trips to Bannockburn required that the pupils wrote about their visit, saying what had been most interesting. When one report came back it stated that "seeing what teachers eat" had proved the highlight.

My wife's nephew worked as a general labourer and stayed for a while with his granny, but he has never forgotten his embarrassment on the building site at unwrapping his first-day pieces and finding two layers of delicate triangular cheese sandwiches, all with the crusts carefully removed. And when one of our guidance staff produced his My Little Pony lunch-box a few years ago he claimed (improbably, we all thought) that he had picked up his daughter's pieces that morning by mistake. How she coped with his usual tin of mackerel fillets we shuddered to imagine.

The only thing worse than teachers eating in schools is the chore of organising teachers eating outside. Menus too plain for some are too fancy for others and the curse of the 16 separate bills is a sure sign of teachers dining out. "I didn't have any wine"; "Your main course was slightly dearer than mine"; "Should I have to pay the same if I didn't have a pudding?" Have a night at the casino I say, and put the dinner money on black.

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