Miss, my frogspawn has hatched

25th March 2005 at 00:00
It wasn't always lunch at The Ivy for our celebrities, who have mixed memories of the culinary delights (and disasters) that were served in their schools. Pamela Coleman digs in to a feast of sago, desiccated liver and banana splodge

Lumpy custard, gritty mince, sloppy cabbage and, most universally disliked, rubbery liver: these are just some of the lasting memories of school dinners. There are good memories too, of gooey puddings and crisp roast potatoes and fish and chips on Fridays. Good or bad, it seems everyone has a clear recollection of their school meals.


I was lucky because the food at my boarding school (Uppingham, in Rutland) was rather good. It was basic British fare: lots of roasts and shepherd's pies and dishes using local ingredients. The roast beef was rather well done, whereas at home it would be nice and pink, but it tasted great and my affection for pork with crackling and stuffing and apple sauce stems from my schooldays.

The menus were fairly predictable. We always had fish on Fridays: cod and chips with lots of tomato ketchup, or fish pie, which was nicely made with boiled eggs and parsley, white sauce and potato on top. For dessert we had things such as bread and butter pudding and trifle. I wasn't a budding chef then, but food has always played an important part in my life.

I used to play a lot of rugby and after matches we would have tea in the school buttery, which was run by an ex-Army baker who turned out the best doughnuts I've ever tasted. He produced great plates of sausage, beans, egg and chips, which we smothered in HP or Daddies sauce and washed down with cups of sweet tea: things that we are now not supposed to have but were a great treat then when the food we were eating on a daily basis represented a good, balanced diet.


I didn't like school much and I liked the meals at Bangor county grammar school for girls even less. They were dreadful. Food tasted of nothing.

There was dry, gritty, grainy grey mince and plain boiled potatoes. Yuk. If we had salad there was no dressing on it; it was just lettuce and perhaps the odd bit of cucumber.

There was an unspeakably foul dish called corned beef stew, which put me off corned beef for life. Even the puddings were horrible. I remember awful custard and jam roll, which I hated, and spotted dick that had white sauce on it that was even worse than the custard.

Everything came round on a regular rota and you had to eat what was on your plate. The ingredients were probably all right, but they weren't properly cooked. Things like stews and mince that need long, slow cooking weren't cooked long enough and vegetables were cooked far too long. And they put bicarbonate of soda in everything. School meals put me off custard and suet puddings and jam sponges. I hate those traditional puddings.


When I think about school dinners I think mainly about the indignity of standing in line in the queue for those who had free school meals. We had Caribbean cooking at home and I found the stuff they served at St Matthias primary school in Hockley in Birmingham very strange.

They gave us chips and mashed potatoes and sausages and dry meat with gravy. I couldn't understand why English food was so dry with gravy on it to make it wet. Gravy was a mystery to me. I never liked it. In Caribbean cooking you put everything in together.

The main courses never looked very appetising, so I often swapped my dinner for somebody else's pudding. I liked anything sweet, especially treacle tart. I was one of those boys who mixed up the sponge pudding and custard into one big mush to disgust the girls. I loved chocolate pudding and rhubarb and custard. I even liked rice pudding and semolina. Mum didn't make those kind of things.

Things got more difficult when I went to secondary school (the Broadway in Perry Barr, Birmingham) and stopped eating meat. When I went up to the counter and said I was a vegan they didn't know what to give me and just piled my plate high with vegetables.


The cheese and onion pie at Holywell grammar school, North Wales, was delicious. I've never tasted anything as good since. It was a gooey mixture of cheese, potatoes and onions with short crust pastry on top, and I seem to remember it was served with baked beans.

The shepherd's pie was good, too, very flavoursome. The fishcakes weren't so hot; they were always rather dry. For pudding it was nearly always rice pudding or semolina or, the worst, sago. The best was jam roly-poly made with suet and served with custard. The food at school was much better than what I had when I got to Rada. There I survived on chips and gravy; it was all I could afford.

It's interesting that the staple dishes on restaurant menus at places such as The Ivy today are very often the sort of comfort food people enjoyed at school.

JENNY ECLAIR, comedian

I loved banana splodge. It was my favourite pudding at Ansdell primary school, Lytham-St-Annes. It was a thin pastry case smeared with the sort of cheap jam that takes the enamel off your teeth and filled with a gelatinous banana flavoured custard mixture with added banana on top. We had it once a week and I really looked forward to it. I don't have a sweet tooth any more - I've smoked it off - but before I was a Silk Cut girl I loved puddings.

When I got to secondary school (Queen Mary's, Lytham-St-Annes) the food was variable. The kitchens were run by a menopausal woman we called Madame Butterfly, whose moods were very erratic. If she was in a bad mood we got awful things such as liver with lots of tumours in it, served with a thin onion gravy. That was bad. I've never eaten liver since.

If she was in a good mood we got chocolate pudding with strawberry flavoured custard on top and excessive amounts of roast potatoes. My friend, Jill Simpkin, held the record for once fitting 16 roast potatoes in the pockets of her slipover and eating them throughout the afternoon. She was a useful friend to have. If I got hungry on the hockey field I could always ask Jill if she had a spare roast potato.


When I did a television programme about prison food it reminded me of my days at King's, Canterbury. A lasting memory is of retching on lumpy porridge and sneaking food into my pocket or secreting it in a copy of The Beano, because we had to eat everything on the plate.

There were some nice things, such as steamed chocolate pudding with cornflour sauce, but on the whole school food was pretty foul. I remember we had a lot of liver with big veins going through the middle and swede that looked like some sort of pond life.

But when I look back and compare what we ate with what children eat at school now I think school food in my day was more nutritious. Nowadays freedom of choice has made for very fussy kids, who pile their plates high with chips and avoid the veg and salad. Then, parents knew their kids were getting a balanced meal.

The ingredients were OK, but cooking skills weren't. A lot of food, especially vegetables, was overcooked. Cabbage would be put on at nine o'clock in the morning for one o'clock lunch, so it was all slimy. I remember shepherd's pie with instant potato on top, and lumpy, gelatinous gravy. It was hideous. But the roasts were OK and we had chips once a week.

At least then food was cooked by a team in the kitchen, not someone opening a bag with a pair of scissors. We need to regain control of what our kids eat and wean them off ready meals, which are full of salt and sugar. My own kids (Toby, nine, and Billie, seven) have finally learned to like vegetables. Toby has stopped saying he doesn't like cabbage since I cooked it with a bit of bacon and a bit of onion and a few fennel seeds to make it more exciting.

JILLY COOPER, novelist

Apart from frogspawn (sago pudding), I found school food seriously good.

One of my favourite things was orange jelly. I was at school during the war and one day my primary school (Brooklands in Cobham, Surrey) was hit by a bomb and the windows blew out. The glass went into my jelly. When all the mothers rushed to school to take us home I was found blubbing, not because of the bomb, but because my orange jelly was filled with glass.

Afterwards I went to Godolphin in Salisbury. I was in the Hamilton house where our cook, Emily, was the envy of the whole school. We had fantastic food, wonderful apple charlottes and bread and butter puddings and fish pies. I got very fat. I went up to 11st 3lb because I was so greedy and had second and third helpings of everything, especially the heavenly puddings.

I sometimes devoured up to five slices of bread and jam.

KELLY HOLMES, Olympic athlete

The meals at Hilden borough primary school in Kent were pretty good as far as I remember. Bangers and mash was my favourite; I enjoyed that. But I didn't have school dinners for long because I started running seriously by the time I was 12.

From then on I took packed lunches so I could get on with my training in the lunch hour. Mum would give me sandwiches, usually filled with ham or cheese, and a piece of fruit, often an apple or satsuma, something pretty healthy.

NICKY CLARKE, hairdresser

My mother is Greek so we had things such as moussaka and pasta at home, and dishes cooked with garlic and olives, so school food seemed a bit tasteless by comparison.

At Surrey Square primary in London in the Sixties I remember being forced to eat lumpy custard and boring English stews. The two dishes that really stick in my mind, though, are tapioca and rice pudding, both of which I still hate. The overriding taste I remember is of salt, and most dishes were very bland. We'd be given meat pie with vegetables that had been boiled the life out of. And of course on Friday it was always fish with chips. I think that was the only time we had chips. The rest of the time we had boiled potatoes and gravy, which didn't taste of anything at all.

The puddings were OK, apart from the milky ones. I liked jam roly-poly and apple pie, though I didn't like the custard that was served with it.

Lancashire hot pot was good. I can't remember ever being offered salad at school. When I got to grammar school (Archbishop Tennyson in Yeovil) there was more choice, but by then I preferred to skip school lunches and hang around the nearby park with my mates with a fag and a sandwich. My father is a big breakfast man so I never left the house without a meal, and my mum always cooked a big dinner at night, so school meals didn't seem very important.

Rick Stein's most recent publications are three pocket-sized books, Starters, Main Courses and Puddings (BBCBooks, pound;4.99 each) and the paperback version of Rick Stein's Food Heroes (BBCBooks, pound;12.99).

Alice Thomas Ellis died on March 8, aged 72. Her last book was Fish, Flesh and Good Red Herring (Virago Press, pound;14.99). Benjamin Zephaniah's latest book is Gangsta Rap (Bloomsbury, pound;5.99)

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