A spirited debate is under way at the Year One lunch table. This class of five-year-old Hackney epicures are discussing the merits of olives. ‘Olives are too disgusting and greeny,’ says Marley, prodding at the offending olive. ‘Olives are too yucky,’ joins in Eduardo, who is carefully hiding them under his knife. But Asar, a boy who obviously has a more developed palate, declares them ‘yummy’ and devours the lot.
Olives are just one of the unfamiliar ingredients on plates at Gayhurst Community School on the edge of London Fields in north-east London. There are sticky pork ribs, a tabouleh made with mograbiah (giant couscous), parsley and tomatoes, sweetcorn fritters, wholemeal flatbreads, and lemony new potatoes with green olives. For pudding there is saffron rice pudding.
No stewed prunes, boiled cabbage or liver sausage here. Gayhurst chef Nicole Pisani has not only turned the dreary tradition of stodgy school cooking upside-down, but sprinkled it with a generous portion of cardamom seeds and sumac. For generations, no boarding school memoir came without a lament about dinners. Elizabeth David, champion of Mediterranean cooking, described the food at Godstowe as nothing but ‘terrible boiled fish, awful meat.’ Rudyard Kipling recalled meals that would ‘raise a mutiny in Dartmoor.’ George Orwell was so underfed at St Cyprian’s that he stole stale bread in the night.
Then there is the unforgettable ‘Revolt of the Prunes’ at St Custard’s as described by Nigel Molesworth. ‘Once upon a time there was a tribe of savvage prunes who lived in a blak mass in the skool pantry…’
There are no shadowy corners for lurking prunes in Pisani’s kitchen. Each day she feeds 550 children and 60 teachers in an hour. She does it all — main, veggie option, two sides, home-baked bread and a pudding — for around 92p a child. The menus change daily and inspire adventurous eating: a sweet Basbousa semolina cake from Egypt; orecchiette with kale pesto, roast cauliflower with pomegranate seeds, chicken in soy sauce and star anise.
If it all sounds a little Ottolenghi that’s no surprise. Pisani trained under the Israeli chef, whose name is a byword for jewel-coloured dishes with unpronounceable ingredients. But, exhausted by long hours as head chef at his Nopi restaurant in Soho, she responded to a tweet sent by Henry Dimbleby, government ‘School Food Tsar’ and founder of the lunch chain Leon, who was looking for a new chef for his children’s primary school.
In 2013, he and his Leon co-founder John Vincent wrote a report for the government on how to improve school meals. Much had been done, they wrote, since the days of Turkey Twizzlers and mums passing burgers through railings in that 2005 documentary with Jamie Oliver. But there were still big failings: almost 20 per cent of pupils going to secondary school already obese, school kitchens where ‘cooking’ was heating up packet food; little in the way of fruit and veg, and food that was invariably ‘bland, boring and beige’.
Not in Nicole Pisani’s kitchen. Green-and-yellow-striped pumpkins wait to be chopped. Red peppers are piled on the counters. Boxes of bay leaves, chilli flakes, cardamom, turmeric and Chinese five spice are stacked. The saffron rice pudding is a creamy, marigold yellow.
Today’s parents are more obsessed with food — note the Deliciously Ella phenomenon, the avocado cult, plus gluten- and dairy-free products in supermarkets. Waiting for a bus last year near St Mary Abbot’s in Kensington, the C of E primary school where David Cameron and Michael Gove sent their children, I was dumbstruck by a conversation between a mother and small girl. Mum produced a foil-wrapped ‘Bounce Ball’. Squinting at the packet, the little girl put into practice the sounding-out-the-letters technique she’d been taught in class.
‘Spi-ru-li-na. What’s spirulina, mummy?’
Spirulina is a proteinous blue-green algae. Any mother who gives her child a spirulina snack on the way home doesn’t want her eating deep-fried chips at school.
Many schools (private and state, day and boarding) have improved meals to meet parental expectations. At Wetherby Prep, under banners proclaiming ‘Veggietastic!’ and ‘Calcium is Cool’, boys can choose from sweet potato and butternut squash soup, chickpea falafel balls, roasted veg and halloumi pittas and fresh-fruit smoothies. Girls at Wycombe Abbey have a build-your-own-muesli bar with toasted oats, bran, banana chips, dried papaya, dried pineapple, toasted coconut, seeds and probiotic yogurt. My own primary school, North Bridge House in Hampstead, which used to dye rice pink and blue to make it more ‘appetising’, is now all nut-free pesto, spinach and feta filo parcels, and fresh-fruit platters.
When I ask the Year One lunch table at Gayhurst to name their favourite fruit, Bruik says potatoes. Chloe prefers apples and bananas. Maria says no one likes vegetables, but everyone likes bread. Marley puts in a plea for broccoli and sweetcorn. But when Maya says that the best food is McDonald’s, they all agree.
It’s dispiriting, but Pisani knows what she’s up against. On her way to work she notices parents buying children breakfast at McDonald’s and she despairs of seeing five-year-olds with giant family bags of Doritos. So she does her utmost to feed pupils a varied, exciting and nutritious lunch for the one meal she has them in her care.
The lunch I had on a freezing but sunny February day was not just the best school meal I have ever had, but one of the best meals I have had, full stop. The company was delightful, though their table manners — waving knives, chewing with mouths open — could use a bit of work.