Stories from my 1970s food lessons in an east London school
Class, today we’re going to make some cheese and have a cheese tasting.’
‘Eew, Yuk … cheese.’ comes the grumble from the back of the stools.
I need sour milk for my lesson to show how curdled milk is used to make cheese. I usually squirt lemon juice into fresh milk to make curds, but my food funds are short so I search out old, half empty milk bottles which lurk around the school. They’re stashed in places where teachers hide, drink tea, smoke and escape from being caught to cover lessons or do extra break or lunch duties.
Students are round my table and ready to start.
‘How do you think people found out how to make cheese?’
Gavin hasn’t been to my lessons for ages. The relief of having a class without Gavin is enormous. The rest of us can get on and don’t have to watch for Gavin’s angry outbursts or wanderings around the room, stealing other people’s food. This must be his first day back after his recent suspension, but he’s not subdued, and he could make this lesson tough going.
I’m into my legends about food. The ‘Did you know’ and ‘You’ll never believe this’ type of storytelling that helps them remember the lesson and gets them settled, just like nursery school children.
‘According to legend, cheese was invented thousands of years ago when Arab herdsmen carried milk in bags made from sheep’s stomachs. By the end of their journey, the milk had turned into cheese. An enzyme called rennet in the sheep’s stomach curdled the milk and made curds which then became cheese as the liquid drained away. They’d discovered the art of cheesemaking!’
Please Gavin, don’t ask why they put milk in a stomach. Or why the Arabs carry a stomach bag around.
The wooden stool legs squeak. They’re getting restless.
‘Let’s make some cheese. Gavin. Hold this sieve and pour the milk through.’
I can’t risk leaving Gavin amongst the stools – I need to watch what he is doing. As Gavin pours, I chant Miss Muffet’s nursery rhyme about her eating her curds and whey to distract from the stench of the sour milk. The muslin-lined sieve fills up with creamy lumps.
‘Gavin, show the group your curds.’
Gavin tilts the sieve towards the class.
‘Can the rest of you see Gavin’s curds?’
No-one wants to see anything of Gavin’s. He might pin them against a wall later and threaten them.
‘Gavin – tie the muslin bag with the curds to the tap and let it drain over the sink please. At the end of the lesson we’ll have a look and taste it.’
‘I ain’t eating that. It looks like sick’
It’s Liz, the only girl who speaks when Gavin’s around.
‘Write these words in your exercise books to describe for homework. ’
My chalk stub makes teeth tingling screeches on the black roller board.
Milk, Sour, Curds, Whey, Rennet, Enzyme, Cheese.
Half the class get out their pens and exercise books. Half follow Gavin and do nothing. I’ve printed out homework sheets on the school Banda machine which I’ll hand out at the end of the lesson. It’s not worth a fight now. Cheese and curds could go everywhere.
‘Let’s start the cheese tasting.’
For their cheese tasting I’ve bought large chunks of Cheddar, Caerphilly, Lancashire and Double Gloucester from Budgens supermarket using my tiny food budget. This lesson is educational so they don’t pay. Just like they don’t pay for chemicals in chemistry or paint in art classes. My food budget is running out and I need to talk to the headmaster as more students keep being sent to join my lessons.
Sylvia, my right hand helper, chops the cheeses into tiny pieces and labels them. Equal pieces. Yes, the same size pieces. Pieces that look the same to avoid ‘His is bigger… smaller than mine.’
Everyone has a plate, a wooden cocktail stick to spear their cheese chunks, one Jacob’s Cream Cracker and a glass of palate-cleansing water. And a tasting chart to fill in with a mark out of ten for each cheese.
I’d like them to learn new tastes but I bet I know the results.
‘Which is your favourite cheese, class?’
‘What about all the others?’
‘We don’t like ‘em, we only like Cheddar.’
‘What cheese would you choose to crumble onto cheese on toast?’
‘Why don’t you like the other cheeses?’
‘Because we like Cheddar.’
I pass round the first plate of tiny pieces of a creamy, mild cheese.
‘This Caerphilly cheese is moist and salty. Welsh coal miners need a salty cheese to replace the salt they have lost in sweat when they are working hard in underground mines. When you’ve finished tasting, eat a piece of cracker and take a sip of water to clean your palate for the next one.’
‘Gavin. What now?’
‘Got any more biscuits, Miss? To clean my palate?’
Sylvia instinctively snaps the remaining crackers in half. For Gavin and the other boys this cheese tasting is lunch. If they fill up on cheese and crackers, they can go down the betting shop.
The National Dairy Council is keen to promote cheeses in school and provides booklets and coloured charts to decorate my room. If the class is good, next term we’ll go on a trip to their headquarters near Oxford Street for a demonstration. But only if they are good. Really good. And if I can persuade Gavin not to come.
I point to the large wall map called English Cheeses which shows chunks of cheese dotted around England. Caerphilly is shown with an arrow pointing to Wales. Why’s that there? And what’s happened to cheeses from Scotland or Northern Ireland?
Lancashire cheese is next.
‘Lancashire cheese comes from the north of England. It’s much colder there and this cheese is used a lot in cooking.’
‘Is that where you come from, Miss?’
‘No, Len, I come from north of Watford, the Midlands. Not the north.’
They don’t get this tease. Watford is an unknown land.
‘Crumble this cheese into potato pie and bake in cheese pasties.’
‘Don’t like it, Miss.’
Why ask? I know Cheddar will be in the answer.
We move onto orange Double Gloucester, and then golden, solid, reliable Cheddar.
‘Now in groups, add up the votes on your charts please.’
They struggle to find a good adding up person. Gavin is munching the spare cream crackers. No one wants his votes.
‘What’s the favourite cheese then from this tasting?’
‘Cheddar!’ they shout. Of course.
I’ve got a surprise before they go. From the fridge I take out a wedge of Stilton with its nobbled, crusty rind, and pungent, creamy inside mottled with blue veins.
‘Can you see the holes in the rind? The mould grows and spreads through the cheese and gives it a special flavour.’
This is a perfectly, delicious piece of Stilton.
‘Do any of you want to taste it?’
Even Gavin reels back in horror.
‘Why would we eat mouldy, stinky cheese?’
I’m not going to show them the slice of pongy, seeping Brie that I’ve bought for my lunch. It smells like the boy’s toilets, and tastes heavenly.
As they pack up ready to leave, I hand them each a National Dairy Council book on cheese making, with the map of English Cheese including one from Wales, their Banda-ed homework and the recipe for next week, Cheese and potato pie.
But I’ve forgotten Gavin’s curds. The whey is still dripping out through the muslin bag over the sink.
‘Does anyone want to taste these curds?’
‘Na, thanks, looks like sick’ Liz links arms with Gavin and leaves.
‘Alright, well you might want to pop in later and see how I’ve made the curd into Yorkshire curd tarts.’
Tarts, tarts. I know Len likes tarts, so he might be back, even though he’s left his homework sheet on the window ledge.
Publishers of my first textbook Finding out about Food really liked my stories and Did you knows and included them in the text. And it sold 120,000 copies which would make it an Amazon Bestseller!
When I was writing this memoir, I puzzled why I included Caerphilly in my cheese tastings as an English cheese. It was shown on the National Dairy Councils posters for English Cheeses which were sent to schools. Of course I know that Caerphilly is in Wales but why didn’t they?
The National Dairy Council and the English Country Cheese Council were part of the National Milk Publicity Council, established in 1923. The body aimed to promote the consumption of milk, real dairy cream and English cheese. In 2020 ‘The Dairy Council is a non-profit making organisation established in 1920 that promotes and informs about the benefits of dairy foods in a healthy balanced diet.’ The National Dairy Council’s website has been taken over by Dell.