There’s a pile of crinkly foily bits under my desk so who’s been into my room over the Christmas holidays? I unlock my desk drawer and there’s more silvery bobbles and scrunched up blue and white paper along with a scattering of mouse poo. My Christmas gift, a bar of Fry’s Chocolate Cream, locked in my drawer for safe keeping, has been decimated. It really is while the cat’s away, the mice have had a play. Turning the key in the store room reveals more feasting. They’ve chewed off corners of the cardboard pack of Scott’s Porage Oats and mingled their poo amongst the oat flakes that have fallen on the floor.
It’s a job for caretaker Jim.
‘Can you get me a set of Little Nipper Mouse Traps as the mice have set up the mouse cafe in the back of my cookery room?’
He’s no doubt groaning at my return, but baking is about to begin, although flapjacks are off the menu for now, and I need to be sure the mice are not consuming my stores.
Swiss Roll is one of my favourite lessons and they are gathered on the stools watching me whisk my eggs and sugar to make a thick creamy trail.
It’s staring at me, sitting on its haunches behind the back row of stools. Not bothered by the whirr of the rotary beaters but ready to turn my Swiss Roll lesson into classroom chaos.
‘Look – the eggs and sugar must be thick enough to write the two letters of your name.’
I hold up the whisk, let the thick mixture drip down and want to write F… O.. as I make eye contact with the mouse.
‘Class just sit still for a minute!’ They sense my urgency but grumble from the stools as I scramble into the saucepan cupboard and emerge with the heaviest pans and largest lids.
“Bert!’ I beckon to him to come but hush him too as I hand him two lids.
‘Liz, quiet, come here!” She gets two pans. ‘Bang you two. Make noise!’
‘Follow me!’ I set off to the back of the stools, banging my saucepan with a rolling pin.
It’s working. My grandmother is right. If you make loud noises it frightens a mouse in its getaway tracks.
It’s still, stunned by the spectacle of three people banging kitchen equipment.
But now what? How do I catch it? Kill it. Do what with it?
‘Bert and Liz – keep banging – if it moves, catch it!’
I return with my mop bucket and invert it over the frightened mouse. It’s trapped underneath but we can hear it scuttling and making an exit plan.
‘Get the caretaker!’
I send timid Tim off to get Jim to rescue us. And just in case the mouse works out how to lift off the bucket, I put my heavy catering tin of red jam on top to weight it down.
‘OK class, get on with your whisking.’
The rotary whisks whirr noisily but I can just hear the mouse rattling to find an escape.
‘Now sieve your flour and fold it with a spoon in a figure of eight, then pile it into your tin and bake.’
Quick, quick. Don’t find any mouse droppings in your flour. Don’t ask why a figure of eight. Quick, quick get rid of the mouse.
Help at last – it’s Jim and Tim.
’Jim there’s a mouse under the bucket.’
I point to the bucket topped with the jam tin.
He gives me a ‘What am I supposed to do about that’ look.
I hand him Liz’s saucepan and lid.
‘Can you catch it in this saucepan and take it away? PLEASE.’
Jim is used to doing technical caretaking things like fixing locks and electrical switches. Mouse catching may not be in his remit.
I mouth another ‘PLEASE, so we can get on.’
He crouches, grabs, bangs on the saucepan lid and leaves holding it way out in front of him as if it has a bad smell.
The soft sponges are ready from the oven, and turned out onto sugared tea towels then spread with the strawberry jam from the newly opened mouse capturing tin. I’ll take Jim a slice later when I collect my saucepan.
In 1994 I visited Marguerite Patten and asked her about the origin of this figure of eight method to mix flour into sponge cakes. She didn’t know but felt it was very important to save the gluten in the flour being overworked and making the sponge tougher. When I was marking cookery practical exams, students lost a whole mark if they didn’t follow this technique.