Stories of 1970s food lessons in a London school
Making marmalade is one of the kitchen joys of winter and I wish someone would make a marmalade perfume to remind me of its nourishing fragrance.
A large box of Spanish Seville oranges has been left by the greengrocer outside my room and it’s so cold I wipe the January frost off their rinds. Giant aluminium preserving pans stacked high on the shelves in the food store are getting their first outing and they’ve been dusted, cleaned and scrubbed to remove the graveyard of spiders and flies who died inside unnoticed after years of neglect. Donated jam jars have been stripped of their labels and Syliva has hidden the black haired golly stickers from pots of Robertson’s Golden Shred in an envelope in my desk drawer.
‘This is a lesson on Preservation. Work in groups and we’ll share out the jars of marmalade at the end of the lesson.’
Clever, stroppy, foldy arms Carol looms towards me.
‘I ain’t sharing me cooking. How will I get a mark if we share!’
Carol and Vicky randomly appear in my O level Cookery group as no other teacher wants them. Ever! The class despairs at their constant outbursts and I long for them to storm out to the station coffee bar for mugs of instant Maxwell House.
‘OK Carol – you and Vicky work as a pair! Now all of you, slice the orange peel really thinly like this.’
I cut tiny slivers of peel into thin strips which burst with zesty fragrance. A warm, pungent calm descends.
‘Put the pith and pips in these pieces of muslin, tie up with string and drop in the pan to simmer with the squeezed orange juice and water.’
Sylvia has dusted down a bolt of white, soft muslin found on the top food store shelf. I imagine that She who ran away might have used it to wrap round Christmas puddings ready for steaming or for straining milk curds to make cheese. But today my London teenagers are tying up bags with pips and pith to boil in our very large pans.
Carol shouts from behind her Formica table.
‘We don’t want no pips or peel in ours. We don’t eat them things.’
‘Listen class – the pips and pith contain pectin which sets the marmalade, otherwise it’s a runny syrup!’
Carol scowls and mutters as the class settles into the gentle rhythm of slicing peel and squeezing juice.
Ugh! Now Vicky erupts and runs to the bin and spits out a vomit of orange flesh.
‘Miss, this orange is vile. Sour as anything. It’s off! We can’t cook with them!’
‘Class, put down your knives.’ The quiet hush has been disrupted again.
‘Seville oranges are bitter and sour. You don’t eat them raw. You cook them with sugar. The first marmalade was made in a factory in Dundee. They got a delivery of these sour Seville oranges by mistake and couldn’t use them so they invented a new recipe – Dundee Marmalade made with sugar. Now let’s get on.’
I feel like a perky, smartarse Brain of Britain contestant, only with a Midland accent.
We tip vast quantities of Tate and Lyle sugar into the pans of simmering juice and the steam rises and blurs the windows. Ah Bisto! The room smells delicious.
‘Don’t lick your spoons class or taste!’ The marmalade is reaching tongue scorching temperatures.
I spin round the room of pans sticking the jam thermometer into bubbling mixtures and Sylvia, my magical helper, follows with a cold plate for the wrinkle test.
‘If a spoon of your marmalade wrinkles on this plate, it’s setting!’
They look at me. Bewildered. Wrinkle? Why does it need to wrinkle?
We’re ready. Hot jam jars fresh out of the oven and are filled with scalding, golden liquid. Quick now. Cover and seal it from germs with a circle of greaseproof paper and a crackly cellophane top tied with string.
The room glows orange – floaty slivers of finely cut peel dancing in the golden jelly of our east London marmalade.
Two pots are different. Carol and Vicky have abandoned their sugary syrup which will probably never set and definitely never deserve the name marmalade. But they’ve no doubt gone for a smoke.