In a French primary school the turkey comes not 'twizzled' but braised in red wine, and there's cheese and strawberries for pud. Steven Hastings reserves a table
Spend a morning in a good school and you're happy to be an education journalist. It's an uplifting experience - that is, until they invite you to stay for lunch. After a plastic tray of turkey dinosaurs, economy baked beans and pink jelly, you're not quite as uplifted as you were. Which might explain why the menu bulletins outside my new local primary school seem so fascinating. Roast guinea fowl? Veal in cream sauce? Not dishes I'd previously associated with school dinners. But then this school is in Parisot, in rural south-west France.
I ask the head if I can drop by for a meal. For professional reasons, of course. She explains that the food is nothing to do with her. So I speak to the mayor, who approves every month's menu, and sometimes calls in for lunch. This is not just curiosity on his part. The children pay e2 (pound;1.35) for their meal, but the true cost is heavily subsidised by the local commune. It's his job to insist on value for money. The idea that ingredients for an English school dinner might cost as little as half a euro is met with incredulity. "Food is much cheaper in England?" he asks.
The person really in charge of the meals, however, is Reine Breil. Born in Parisot, Reine has been working in the kitchen for 28 years. She is happy for me to visit, but not on the day I turn up. Too little notice? "No," she says forcibly. "It's fish. It's not of the region. You must come and eat meat." Fish is the only thing that Reine ever buys frozen. The bread comes from the village bakery. The village butcher supplies the meat, sourced from local farms.
As in many French restaurants, Reine, and her assistant Brigitte Barnabe, provide only a menu du jour. There's no choice and no distinction between "children's food" and "grown-up food". You get what you're given. Like it or lump it. The children seem to like it. The day I visit we start with a plate of immaculately dressed lettuce leaves. Then it's turkey, not "twizzled" or nuggeted, but braised in red wine, with herbs, olives and tomatoes and served with couscous. There's plenty of bread to mop up the sauce, and red wine for the staff - although those with tricky afternoon classes sensibly stick to water.
Reine Breil pushes her trolley down the aisle, ladling out the stew. At the end, she turns and comes back again. Those wanting seconds stick their hands up. Most do. As she turns again, those who want thirds stick their hands up. Plenty do. There's a groan of disappointment from those who miss out.
Next, this being France, there's a bit of cheese, and then fresh strawberries. At the moment every local market is laden with strawberries.
So strawberries it is. What is more of a surprise is the champagne. "We don't have champagne every day," explain the staff, embarrassed. But they don't explain why they are having it today - other than that it goes really well with strawberries. They insist on me crushing a strawberry into my glass of fizz. "Good? Don't you think?"
Reine Breil approves. "I serve a balanced menu," she says. "But sometimes I just go for it: pate de campagne, then boeuf bourguignon and chocolate flan. Sometimes you have to eat for pleasure." Lunch is convivial. There's coffee and the staff light up their cigarettes. Parisot has links with an English school, and some of the staff have heard about packed lunches. Here all 110 children eat in the cantine. "It seems a little bit sad, doesn't it?" they suggest. "A sandwich in a box?" They are also baffled when I mention vegetarianism. "This is the countryside. If it moves we eat it."
In some ways, school meals are the same here as in England. The dining hall is chaotic and noisy. And with four courses to get through, it's louder for longer. As in England, pizzas are popular. Except that, of course, Reine Breil makes the pizza herself with fresh ingredients. I ask Juliette, nine, if she has enjoyed her meal. She looks at me as though it's a very odd question, though that could be my shaky French. Is there anything she doesn't like then? "Choux de Bruxelles." Sprouts. The schoolchildren of Europe are united on the question of Brussels.
But there's more variety here than in most English schools. On a month's menu, nothing is repeated. Chips appear only one day every month and the "menu McDo" (burger and chips) and a Chinese menu are annual events.
Has the food changed over Reine Breil's three decades of working a nine-hour day? Oh yes, she says. I expect a complaint about the eating habits of modern youth. Instead she explains how health and safety regulations have scuppered her omelettes. "A good omelette is ever so slightly wet in the middle, but we're supposed to cook eggs right through.
Then the omelette is too dry." So she's wiped them from her menu. "I'd rather not cook them at all, than cook them badly."