For someone who didn't eat any of them, I have very vivid memories of school dinners. Although every lunch time I would, without fail, pile my plate with the same old combination of stale bread roll and sawdust-textured luminous grated cheese (which, naturally, came out of a giant wholesale sack), I paid great peripheral attention to the feats of gastronomy quietly occurring around me.
I remember 'pasta Wednesday', when the whole school was treated to vats of waterlogged, flabby pasta with a dollop of ketchup-coloured sauce. I remember the ripple of excitement that passed through the lunch queue on the sporadic occasions that chips featured on the menu, even though they were inevitably tragic, flaccid specimens sporting a thin film of grease and possessing all the crunch of a waterlogged marshmallow.
I remember the smell of 'minty lamb stew' that crept through the halls and corridors like a noxious green ghost, assaulting my nostrils with its foul barrage - an indescribably vile smell, despite the fact that lamb and mint are inherently good things - and how it looked in the serving hatch like a vat of gravy with grass cuttings floating in it.
I remember the cold pizza that appeared at the salad bar and was always sought after, despite bearing an exact resemblance both visually and gastronomically to an item of roadkill smeared over a wedge of polystyrene. I remember my friendship group's obsession with the green Granny Smith apples in the fruit box at lunch, and the anxious wait for the first person to bite into theirs and declare whether they were a good or a bad batch - the former possessing the correct amount of crispness and acidity, the latter eating about as well as a tennis ball. I'd say it was about a 50-50 ratio, for the duration of my school days.
I remember the giant wedges of flapjack that often graced the dessert plates, and were one of the only desserts I would eat. They were thick, solid, sticky, peppered with raisins and saturated with fat and sugar; thus, I loved them. I still remember a friend of mine snatching one from my hand and taking a huge bite out of it, for no apparent reason. I don't think I've ever quite forgiven her.
Let's not forget the cornflake tart, which was some inexplicable creation resembling a treacle tart but using cornflakes instead of breadcrumbs. Today I wonder if one of the school cooks made it up for a dare/had run out of breadcrumbs/had a box of cornflakes to use up/was drunk/blind and/or deranged.
I remember what it was that put me off school dinners for good; the reason why my lunch for nine years consisted of a decidedly un-nutritious mix of long-life carbohydrate and fatty, processed cheese. It was my first and only bite of a 'tuna and sweetcorn lasagne', which so repulsed me that I remember declaring my outrage to my mother that such an item was even allowed to exist. To be fair to my school, at this point I ate nothing other than cheese, bread and fish fingers, so it's unsurprising that their hideous pseudo-Italian pastiche repelled me.
There was also 'Eve's pudding', a classic school-dinner combo of uniform fruit pieces (apple, in this case), probably from a tin, nestled underneath a giant wodge of wobbly, chewy sponge. This obviously came complete with a puddle of lurid custard, seeping wetly into the crumb. There were, naturally, variations on this, sometimes using pears. There was apple crumble, now my absolute favourite dessert, but back then something I never touched, as - not registering on my food radar because it didn't belong in any acceptable categories (i.e. a species of bread, cheese or processed fish product) - I steered well clear and regarded it with xenophobic suspicion.
I remember what a treat it was to be allowed a 'snack pack', only issued under highly strict conditions (forms had to be filled in) in dire circumstances - i.e. when you had a club or some other character-building extracurricular activity taking up your lunch break so were unable to make it to proper lunch. For some reason, these were always much nicer than the lunch served in hall. They also contained huge jam doughnuts, which were their main attraction. Sometimes, if you got to lunch really early and were very lucky, there might be a doughnut or two sitting proudly amongst the other lacklustre pudding offerings. Me being me, that notoriously picky so-and-so, I would nibble around the oozing jammy centre and then allow whichever of my friends had irritated me the least that day to finish off my sugary spoils.
Finally, I remember the lemon meringue pie. I remember this chiefly because I think it is the reason I now wear contact lenses. So blinding was its radiant neon yellow centre that my retinas have never been the same since it first graced the school pudding area.
It wasn't even yellow. Not yellow as you might think of yellow. Not the colour of dandelions or buttercups. This was a colour that I have never seen in any natural shape or form. The closest I can come to describing it is that it was the exact colour of the light sabers in my Star Wars lego sets. The colour of a yellow highlighter, tinged with green, lurid and unabashedly luminous. Like nothing in nature.
Actually, I know how to describe it perfectly. Imagine a large vat of washing-up liquid. The vivid yellow-green kind. Now imagine adding an almost-equally-sized vat of gelatine to this liquid. Now imagine pouring the resultant viscous slop into a pastry case, and whacking a pillowy froth of quivering meringue on top. You have, dear readers, my school lemon meringue pie.
I can only guess at its flavour and texture because, naturally, I never took a single bite. But I saw the way the tines of my friends' forks would cling tenaciously to that gelatinous neon interior, the way it would slice cleanly under the pressure of metal suggesting a texture reminiscent of Turkish delight. It glowed brightly in the dinginess of the lunch hall rather like a jellyfish loitering dangerously in the depths of the ocean, waiting to inflict its fake lemony sting upon the unsuspecting diner. I don't remember the meringue or pastry part, so preoccupied is my mind with this feat of engineering that was the green-yellow pie filling.
Despite this, I have an inkling that proper meringue pie can be a lovely thing. After all, I love pie, I love fruit, and I love meringue. Surely only good things can come of combining them all into one gloriously hedonistic and billowing dessert.
I've been meaning to make a meringue pie for a good few years. I really thought it was going to happen this spring, when I was totally set on the idea of a rhubarb and blood orange meringue pie, filled with a wonderful bright pink compote of Yorkshire rhubarb laced with the astringent snap of blood orange zest. I never got round to it, but the idea has nestled at the back of my mind for months. Then, the other day, faced with a glut of gooseberries (I am so into gooseberries at the moment), I came across a recipe in the trusty Diana Henry's Food From Plenty for gooseberry meringue pie. It was obviously a great idea - gooseberries have a lovely sharpness to them that is ideal for counteracting the sweetness of a frothy swathe of meringue.
Making a meringue pie is a lot easier than I thought. Yes, you can get all fancy with Swiss meringue and cooks' blowtorches and the like, but this is a simpler, more homely pie that just requires the composition of various elements and then a bake in the oven. There's a simple shortcrust pastry case, enriched with only the tiniest amount of sugar to provide a lovely savoury biscuity crunch against the other sweet elements; there's a rich, textured and delicious filling of stewed gooseberries thickened with cornflour and enriched with egg yolks; finally, there's a brilliant white blanket of meringue draped lovingly over the entire creation, light and airy in the centre with a crisp sugary exterior.
The gooseberry filling I could eat on its own; thick with chunks of berry and possessing that gorgeous honey-muscat aroma that gooseberries enjoy, it is sweet-tart and delicious. The use of cornflour and egg yolks to thicken it means it's really rich and lovely, almost like a jam. I used a mixture of red and green gooseberries, meaning the filling came out a lovely pink-tinged colour. It could have been rhubarb after all.
While the gooseberry and pastry combination is delicious on its own, it needs the sweet meringue to take the edge off the sour berries. This is a real adventure in tastes and textures, with the buttery crunch of the pastry playing against the gooey, sweet-sour filling, all smothered in the light and fluffy meringue that takes the edge off the tartness and provides a delicious crunch where its edges have browned and crisped in the oven.
I ate this first when it was still warm from the oven, but I'd actually recommend serving it chilled - keep it in the fridge and remove half an hour before serving. I don't know why it's better this way, but it just is - all the flavours seem to become more pronounced (which is odd, because usually the opposite is the case). It seems to improve with keeping, too, the filling becoming even more flavoursome.
I'm pretty thrilled that my first attempt at a meringue pie was successful. And what a far cry from that lurid yellow creation that still haunts me.
What are your memories of school dinners? Are there any particular culinary horrors forever imprinted in your mind?
Gooseberry meringue pie (serves 6):
(Adapted from Diana Henry's 'Food From Plenty')
- 140g plain flour
- 80g cold butter, cubed
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tbsp caster sugar
- Cold water
- 750g gooseberries, topped and tailed
- 150g caster sugar (or more to taste)
- 4 tbsp cornflour
- 3 egg yolks
- 3 egg whites
- 175g caster sugar
First, make the pastry. Put the flour, butter and salt into a food processor and blitz until it looks like breadcrumbs. Don't overprocess it as this will warm up the butter. Add the sugar and blitz again for a second, then gradually add enough cold water to make the mixture start to come together - around 1-2tbsp. Tip it out onto a floured work surface and press into a ball, then wrap this in clingfilm and chill for an hour or so.
Meanwhile, make the pie filling. Put the gooseberries in a pan with 2 tbsp water and the 150g caster sugar. Cover and heat gently, stirring occasionally. The gooseberries will release a lot of juice; some will turn to mush while others will keep their shape. When they are tender, strain through a sieve, reserving the liquid, then put the liquid back into the pan and simmer until there is around 200ml left.
Take 4tbsp of this gooseberry juice and mix with the cornflour, stirring vigorously to remove any lumps. When it forms a smooth paste, put this back into the juice in the saucepan and add the gooseberries. Bring to the boil and stir; the mixture will thicken. Turn off the heat, beat in the egg yolks, then pour into a bowl and leave to cool.
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Grease a 22-23cm tart tin with a removable base. On a floured work surface, roll out the pastry and use it to line the tart tin. Leave some pastry hanging over the edges so it doesn't shrink - you can trim these bits later when the pie is baked. Line the pastry with greaseproof paper, fill with baking beans and bake for 15 minutes, then remove the paper and beans and bake for another 10 minutes, so it is golden and biscuity. Remove from the oven and cool for a few minutes, then use a knife to trim off any overhanging pastry from the edges.
Put the egg whites in a clean bowl and beat with an electric whisk to stiff peaks. Add a little of the 175g sugar, beat again, then add the rest of the sugar gradually while whisking, until the mixture has the appearance and consistency of shaving foam.
Pour the gooseberry mixture into the pastry case. Spoon the meringue evenly over the tart, covering the pastry edges and all of the filling. Put the oven temperature down to 180C and bake for 25 minutes, until the meringue is golden on top. Leave to cool on a wire rack, then remove the pie from the tin (the easiest way to do this is to rest it on an upturned bowl or a tin can; the rim of the tin should just fall away, and you can then transfer to a plate and slide the base off using a palette knife).
Dust with icing sugar, and serve at room temperature or lightly chilled (remove from the fridge around 30 minutes before serving).