One school stands above the tide of culinary corruption. Elaine Williams reports
Queen Ethelburga's College is not for the faint-hearted. Turning into the drive one first has to cope with a flood-lit car park to rival any Tesco's. Directed on foot through yew-hedged gardens one reaches the entrance of this mock-medieval manor, a panelled Armorial Hall savagely guarded by a pair of stuffed tigers snarling silently. A leopard that has met with similar fate paces the length of the lobby. Stags' heads in serried rank look down on visitors. Children on their way to the preparatory wing make nodding daily acquaintance with the rearing physique of a polar bear, jaunty in straw boater and school tie.
Catherine Allott, head of sixth form, boarding and home economics, pristine in crisp, white overall and swept-back blonde hair, is obviously used to stunned hesitation on the part of outsiders.
"Oh yes," she says blithely, waving her arm in the general direction of the dumb menagerie, "the children are a bit upset at first but they soon get used to it."
Queen Ethelburga's is a Pounds 10,550-a-year girl's boarding school in gently rolling countryside 10 miles to the east of Harrogate, North Yorkshire. It is housed in Thorpe Underwood Hall, the turn-of-the century home of a former parent. He bought the school when it was struggling with 50 pupils in Harrogate, moved it into his estate and through shrewd and persistent marketing has built the numbers up to 300.
He also spent a lot of money - Pounds 12 million - adding on prep school, boarding facilities and an equestrian centre boasting the largest indoor arena of any school in Europe.
Thorpe Underwood Hall itself has a more literary, tortured history. Anne Bront spent several fairly troubled years here as a governess to the Robinsons, former owners, distressed by the fact that her brother Branwell, who made a fairly debauched tutor to the family, was dismissed for an alleged affair with Mrs Robinson. But such turbulent ghosts are dispersed by the present assuredness of the place. These girls are confident, spirited and horsey. Paddocks surround the school, they bring their own horses, and livery is part of the service. They perform their Christmas pantomime on horseback.
Mrs Allott wants such equestrian proficiency to be matched by deftness in the kitchen. She is determined her girls will also be able to cook. She is impatient with food technology. Designing a burger has little use for girls required to help parents with dinner parties and who wish to spend gap years in Swiss chalets. These girls have social requirements. Riding prowess and the ability to turn out a reasonable vichyssoise undoubtedly go hand in hand. Mrs Allott has refused to countenance practical skills being written out of the curriculum.
She doesn't mess about. Turning to the Leith's School of Food and Wine in London that produces prodigies such as Henry Harris, head chef at Harvey Nichols, she asked if they provided courses for schools. Caroline Waldegrave, wife of the former Tory minister who owns Leith's, thought that sounded like a good idea and came up with Leith's Basic Certificate in Food and Wine, a course franchise for schools which began last September. Ethelburga's and two others have signed up - but at Pounds 5,000 a go it's hardly within the gift of the local comp.
Mrs Allott is as pleased as punch. The day we turned up the girls were grappling with steamed treacle sponge - just the thing for a nation making high fashion out of traditional puddings. And as we left they were struggling with cr me Anglaise. so what's wrong with Bird's custard powder? "Nothing dear, " says Mrs Allott, "that's the cheap and cheerful version." Well at least its not as bad as custard in cartons. That really is packaged sin in her book. "But it's nothing like the real thing. We have to show them the alternatives. "
Looking cool and trim in their starched Leith's aprons, soft muslin bazley hat and chunky kickers (Leith's stipulate sturdy shoes or clogs for safety reasons) the girls are armed for the syllabus with a compulsory set of chef's knives and the Leith's Cookery Bible. For its part, Leith's provides three days of staff training and two days' teaching in school. It also marks the final exam.
Leith's slogan is "putting practical cooking back into the classroom." Lemon sole doria, boned stuffed poussin, roast pheasant with game chips and bread sauce, scallops in veloute sauce and noisettes of salmon with dill pesto might be considered everyday fare by some but, one suspects, not many.
Mrs Allott assures us that the course is less elaborate than it looks. "They learn how to joint a chicken and fillet a round fish," she says. "They've prepared squid from scratch, they've made roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with real gravy made from vegetable water and the gubbins left at the bottom of the roasting pan, they've learnt how to mix pastry with knives to make it lighter, they've made real orange jelly using gelatine with caramel chips on top - that was a real favourite and we made everything.
"We've made gougons of fish and looked at the pros and cons of deep fat frying, but at how little fat you use if you cook it properly. The girls like hands-on stuff, they like creating things and this is actually very solid. Probably cheaper than feeding a family from packaged food in the supermarket. We've got girls queuing up to do it."
As the students wrestled with their treacle sponge they learnt about the safety procedures of using streamers and were initiated into the virtue of thrift. Cr me Anglaise leaves you with a bowlful of left-over egg whites. The ultimate sacrilege would be to throw them away. "Remember," says Mrs Allott, "meringues can be frozen and saved for Christmas."
For 16-year-old Debbie Williams the course was a vast improvement on GCSE home economics. "I didn't really learn about cooking in my GCSE, this is much better. You really learn about food." For a girl who wants to run horse shows, learning about handling and preparing food is essential to the catering side. Leith's is about organising as well as making as the Cookery Bible makes clear in its blurb about dinner parties: "Remember to sign slips, make sure equipment is taken to the right place, set up an efficient working kitchen, work tidily and stick to a time plan. Remember champagne is served colder than other wines. Serve the food by the agreed method, enjoy the party." That's more like it.
Mrs Allott says she gets frustrated by the amount of time wasted in designing an energy bar or packaging for a pizza. "I do think children need to know how to cook and feed a family." How about smoked trout pate and aubergine caviar on toast?