Please, sir...


Katie Jarvis goes back to school to sample Rendcomb College's meals and has an education in 21st century school food

Please, sir...

Katie Jarvis goes back to school to sample Rendcomb College’s meals and has an education in 21st century school food

So here I am. Standing in the headmaster’s office, with its grown-up desk and imposing views over Rendcomb College’s estate lands.

“Were you ever naughty at school?” the head, Roland Martin, asks.

“No!” I squeak. “I was always very, very good.”

“There’s no need to look so worried, then!”

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Well, if I’d gone to school at Rendcomb, I might not harbour quite such feelings of awe at being allowed into this inner sanctum. In my far-off schooldays, being summoned to see our bolt-upright, six-foot-tall headmistress – who was outstanding, it has to be said – was never good news. But Roland, himself an old boy of the college, is far more human.

His eyes go misty at memories of his younger days here. “It was a moment of heroics, the morning when Dan Houseman and I had a fish-finger-eating competition. They used to be served at breakfast time – I can’t remember who won but we got up to about 29 each. They’re still one of my comfort foods.” It’s not a random memory: I am here to talk about food, though more in terms of quality than outright quantity; (it’s a boy thing).

To set the scene: it started with a tweet. I happened to mention on Twitter that, if I were ever to start a restaurant (relax – unlikely), I’d serve some of my fondly-recalled school meals: steak pie; corned beef hash; chicken fricassee with fried bread; jam tart; chocolate crunch with indeterminately but thrillingly-pink custard; ice cream that we ate like lollipops on the end of forks (until a teacher saw). The only horror was a dish named poor man’s goose; it sounded intriguing until we realised it was stringy liver described by somebody with a sadistic sense of humour.

The Twitter response was heartening: it came in the form of a lunch invitation to Rendcomb. You can see how gladdening this was by logging onto the website, where the lunch menus are commendable for their variety, quality, veracity and lack of stringy liver. Read and dribble: dishes such as grilled peppered Atlantic salmon, sirloin steak (yes, honestly), beef in black bean sauce, quorn and vegetable hotpot; food that wouldn’t look out of place on a good restaurant menu.

I’m ushered into the dining hall – fingernails clean; hair brushed – by Roland and Kerri, his wife (a self-described Minister without Portfolio who, alongside bringing up their two children, teaches English at Cheltenham Ladies’). The array of food is excellent: homemade soup, beef or vegetable lasagne (which I take), grilled chicken with peanut sauce, minted potatoes, vegetables and a salad bar. The only disappointment is that no one interprets my indecision over pudding as a veiled attempt to eat two. Thwarted, I take the plum and oat crumble with custard (of course). You can see that the food committee – comprised of elected students from each year – keeps the kitchen on its toes.

And it’s a delightful meal. As I tuck in, I chat to Mark Naylor, the college’s commercial operations manager. “The ethos of the college is to support the local economy and also to reduce our food miles,” he explains. “It’s surprising how competitive local suppliers will be: they want the business. Including the staff, we’re feeding about 500 – plus it doesn’t cost so much to deliver to us.”

Well, quite. The college’s spend on fruit and veg alone is just short of £1,000 a week. It’s not unusual to see six or seven boxes-worth of bananas disappearing down small, well-fed hatches.

Aha! You might say. This is a boarding school where you won’t get much change from £25,000 a year at sixth-form level. Which is true: the amount available for food is possibly more than many households can manage right now. Interestingly, though, the college also supplies – at cost – all the meals for North Cerney primary, just down the road. It’s part of the charitable ethos on which Rendcomb was founded.

Mark Robbins heads up the kitchen, where chefs are busy rolling pastry as we speak. “I’ve been here for 12 years and things have changed an awful lot. There was never fresh chicken breast before. Now we also cook fresh salmon and tuna,” he says.

“There are always favourites – sweet and sour chicken; fish and chips on Friday, with healthier options, such as grilled tuna, salmon or cod.”

Do the kids go for that?

“Not at all! But the staff do.”

Which is another plus – staff and pupils eat the same meals in the same hall. It’s a mark of how good the food is. And also, perhaps, a prompt for all-round good behaviour. Which sparks another Mr Martin memory.

“I remember Tim Lane, who was head of music, stopping a meal in the junior dining room to teach us to eat cheese and biscuits properly. He was upset because we were eating in an uncouth fashion.”

Well, take it from me. We may not have been eating cheese today, but I didn’t see an uncouth youth among them.

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