Balsamic vinegar with your jam sandwich, sir?

When the primary school child said he no longer wanted school dinners, I reacted badly
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The Independent Culture
NEVER MIND about genetically engineered vegetables - how about someone coming up with some nutritious packed lunches genetically engineered to appeal to a nine-year-old?

Ever since those Great Ormond Street Hospital doctors came out in support of Craig, the beastly child who refused to eat anything but jam sandwiches for three years (white bread, butter and jam, they said, contained everything he required in the way of nutrition), it has been impossible to make my children eat proper food, ie fruit, vegetables and brown bread.

Craig didn't eat broccoli, they whine. Craig never had to have oranges and brown bread. So when the primary-school child announced that he no longer wanted school dinners, and he asked why couldn't he have packed lunch like everyone else, I reacted badly. Absolutely not, I said. A hot meal in the middle of the day, meat and two veg followed by, say, stewed apple and custard, was much better for him than a sandwich. "But Mum," said Craig Mark II, puzzled, "we don't have hot meals at school. We have cold pizza and greasy chips and for pudding we have soft ice-cream, and it's disgusting."

Not compared to what I used to have at school, it isn't. We at the Convent of St Francis de Sales survived almost exclusively on Spam fritters, beetroot and tapioca, except on Sundays when we had calves'-foot jelly and Birds Instant Whip in three flavours - strawberry for the nuns, chocolate for the prefects and vanilla for everyone else. I remember my friend Iris Hislop saying wistfully that it was almost worth becoming a nun for the strawberry.

Whatever happened to good old-fashioned school dinners? My daughters used to have mince and cabbage and mashed potatoes. Only children with weird dietary requirements were allowed to bring packed lunches. Now half the children in the primary school take in their own food, presumably because they don't like pizza and chips. No, surely that's impossible. Most modern children eat practically nothing else.

In the end, as usual, I relented. You can pack a surprising amount of nutrition into a wholemeal sandwich, particularly if you forget to buy conventional fillings, as I invariably did. I once made Craig Mark II a veritable power sandwich filled with the remains of last night's supper. When he came home next afternoon he was in tears. Everybody, he snuffled, had laughed at his spinach sandwich. No one else had spinach sandwiches, in fact no one else had sandwiches. In their Nintendo lunch boxes they brought Thai chicken bites with lemon and coriander dip and sour-cream- flavoured Pringles - you know, those crisps shaped like flying saucers. Emily Blott, he said, brings hers to school in a small blue plastic flying- saucer-shaped container designed by the manufacturer exclusively for that purpose.

The trouble with modern children is that they're far too sophisticated as far as food is concerned, because they eat out too much. I once heard a five-year-old in a restaurant ask the waiter to bring him some balsamic vinegar for his salad. Little brat.

In the good old days, school dinners were for children and restaurants were for grown-ups.

Talking of grown-up restaurants (the great packed lunch debate, albeit unresolved, is getting us nowhere fast) let me tell you this charming story about one of my favourites, the White Horse at Chilgrove in Sussex, as famous for its cellar as for its dining-room. Barry Phillips, its chef- proprietor, retired a couple of months ago and a friend in the wine trade went to dinner there on Mr Phillips's last night in the kitchen. Everyone, said Simon, was ordering amazing wines. The man at the table next to his had a bottle of 1958 Romanee Conti, which cost a cool pounds 2,500.

"Come on, you must have something interesting in that cellar of yours that I could try," Simon said to the boss. "As a matter of fact I do happen to have a 1920 Cantenac-Brown, the last bottle, which could be OK. On the other hand it could be vinegar. It's up to you," said Phillips. "How much do you want for it?" asked Simon. "Shall we say pounds 50?" "Done," said Simon and a dusty bottle was produced whose contents proved to be not at all bad. In fact pretty bloody good.

"I say," said the man at the next table, "that looks interesting. What is it?" He was told that it was a 1920 Cantenac-Brown. "Why don't we do a deal?" said the 1958 Romanee Conti man. "You have half of mine and I'll have half of yours, OK?" "Done," said Simon, who I suspect got the better deal, though I admit I know as much about fine wine as I do about - well, the components of an acceptable packed lunch for a nine-year-old. Maybe jam sandwiches are nutritious.