Stories of 1970s food lessons in a London school
We’re leaving school today. Not going far, just to the butcher’s shop at the end of the road. He’ll show us how to joint a carcass of lamb and since we’re cooking really cheap meat dishes, he’ll persuade the class that cheap can be delicious.
Large posters showing pig, beef and lamb are pinned on my classroom wall, sent for free from the Meat and Livestock Commission. The animals have cuddly faces but the rest of the picture looks like a chainsaw massacre as their body parts have been hacked it into bits. Students must learn the names of each cut and know which pieces are tough or tender. We can’t afford to cook the tender bits, like fillet steak and pork chops, but we make tasty choices such as Lancashire hot pot, beef stew from skirt, and find many ways to cook beef mince.
To raise the profile of my subject, Home Economics and to get some school publicity, I’ve asked a local newspaper photographer to take snaps. I hope my group will impress him so that he will write about the importance of teaching boys and girls how to cook.
We snake down the road in an ordered line and gather in the butcher’s shop.
He heaves a lamb carcass onto the thick wooden block and sharpens his knives on a steel. This is manly, grown up stuff and my group are keen. As he deftly butchers fleshy chunks of meat from the large bones, the lamb is reduced to chops, shoulder and leg, and the cheapest bit that we are going to cook – the rather fatty but very delicious, breast of lamb.
I wait in anticipation for news of our visit in the local paper. Will we make the front page?
What a disappointment. For all my talk of modern men and women sharing tasks in the home and family, the reporter has chosen to put us on page three with the sexist headline
‘It’s not easy for mum, is it!’
Underneath is a photo of the girls in my class smiling at the butcher and his dead beast. Where are the boys? My interview with the reporter ends with a further piece of sexism:
‘Miss Whitney says that the idea is that the girls should get a visual impression of the cutting up of pork and lamb, in addition to what they learn from their textbooks.’
Oh no I didn’t! But it’s too late, and just reinforces the views that mum does the shopping and cooking, and the challenging questions asked by the dads of the future are just ignored.
One day, I’ll get things changed. One day!
Back at school Sylvia sharpens our filleting knives and the butcher delivers a pile of plump lamb breasts with strict instructions that they must be the same size and not cost more than 50 pence.
Each cooking place has a plastic tray containing a breast of lamb with a pink New Zealand Lamb stamp on the skin – the cheapest at the time. The boys jostle for the largest breast, moving from tray to tray like a game of musical chairs.
‘Stand still class, this is serious cooking. Stand by your place and don’t mess about!’
Boning meat is a very skilled task and I want no fooling around. We’re using sharp knives, which are normally locked away, safe from harm. Sylvia and I count them out and count them back in at the end of the lesson. No-one dares to leave the room until all knives are returned. I use my VERY STERN VOICE for this serious task.
‘Gather round and watch carefully. The rib bones must be carefully cut from the flesh of the breast.’
Bert thumps Lenny and mutters ‘Breast!’
‘Silence! This is important!’
‘Cut the meat off the lamb bones, not yourself. These knives are sharp and I’ll stop the lesson if anyone messes about. So no stupid behaviour – this is really skilled meat boning like the butcher.’
Sylvia and I pace round the group like lions watching their young at play, encouraging, warning, and keeping an eye for their safety. We collect the bones, fat and gristle in a large bin for Mr Davey in history to take home for his dog.
‘Spread the flattened lamb with Paxo sage and onion stuffing, roll it up and tie it like this.’
I show them how to tie the joint with string using butcher’s knots. There are no more quips. This is impressive. No chat back. Miss is deadly serious and she will take no nonsense.
A line of neatly tied and stuffed rolled breasts of lamb appears on my table for marking. The butcher would be proud to sell them in his shop. Beside each one is a clean knife.
‘I’ll cook these for you while you go to your next lesson so they are ready to eat tonight.’
I don’t want anyone munching on raw lamb on the bus home.
They pack and go and the room is a fragrant haven filled with roasting lamb and wafts of sage and onion stuffing. It feels nourishing and nurturing and I know that these new skills will set them up for family meals in the future – and they might even pass the exam!
Breast of lamb with roast potatoes
This is a 1970s recipe – swap the lard with oil if you want ot modernise.
1 breast of lamb with the bones in
1 packet of sage and onion stuffing mix – could be Paxo
4 potatoes for roasting, peeled and cut into quarters
1 large knob of lard – about 30g
- Buy a breast of lamb in one piece with all the bones still in it. Use a sharp knife to cut round each rib bone. Don’t pierce through the skin. Take out the rib bones in one piece. Cut off any big bits of fat.
- Make the stuffing with a dried sage and onion stuffing mix or make your own from bread, onions and herbs mixed with egg.
- Put the boned breast of lamb flat on a chopping board, with the skin side on the board. Smooth the stuffing evenly over the top. Roll up the breast of lamb starting with the thin end. Squeeze it into a roll and then tie with string. Rub the outside with salt.
- Set the oven at 200C, Gas 6.
- Place the lamb on a roasting tin and roast the joint slowly for two hours, so that the fat melts out and the meat is tender with some crackling skin on the outside. Pour any excess fat when cool into a large glass jar. Do not pour down the sink as it sets solid in the u bend and is impossible to budge!
- Put the roast potatoes in after about an hour and baste with some of the fat.
- Serve the meat hot with roast potatoes and mint sauce, green vegetables and gravy.
- Carve the meat by cutting into medium slices, lifting them so that the stuffing doesn’t fall out. Put in a hot oven to keep warm until ready to serve.
Food history note 2020
In the 1970’s the organsiation for New Zealand Lamb sent demonstrators into British schools and provided us with recipe books and teaching resources including large posters to go on the wall. Mutton was also on the menu. Philip Harben wrote a leaflet New Zealand lamb with helpful hints –
‘New Zealand farmers believe in producing meat which the housewife likes and there are over 15 million housewives in Great Britain. New Zealand livestock has been bred from the best British strains and is hygienically wrapped and preserved in cold, clean air, for transportation to Great Britain in speedy refrigerated ships.’
The brand mark New Zealand was stamped on different parts of the animal.
When the UK joined the EEC in 1973 it was still a major market for NZ sheep meat and New Zealand sheep exports were allowed preferential access as a transitional measure from 1973 to 1977, as New Zealand had voluntarily restricted exports. After 1977, meat exports were subject to the European Union’s Common External Tariff of 20%. In 1980, New Zealand agreed to limit sheep meat exports to the European Union.
Today more than 70 per cent of the New Zealand lamb sold in Britain comes from halal slaughterhouses so that the New Zealand meat industry can sell its lamb in Muslim markets round the world.