FOOD & DRINK: A TEST OF THE TASTEBUDS

It's never too early to learn -which is why a French chef is teaching a class of six-year-olds to know their kombas from their kumquats. Michael Bateman joins the fun
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The Independent Culture
IF IT'S NOT a party, why are Form Two at Lion School in Putney, south-west London, wearing funny hats?

Funny hats, nonsense, these are chefs' toques. Form Two, a class of six- year-olds, is playing host to a team of cooks.

Well, it is a party of sorts, and if that beaming Frenchman dipping into a cornucopia of crisps, jellies, jam tarts and chocolates isn't Father Christmas, then who is?

With his chef's spotless whites fastened around his middle, stretched like a spinnaker in a gale, he is the very picture of well-being. This is clearly a man who feeds often and well.

Few better, indeed. For he is Michel Bourdin, distinguished chef of the exclusive Connaught Hotel in Mayfair. He is here in his capacity of Chancellor of the Academie Culinaire de France (UK) - he was founding president 15 years ago. As such, he is a key figure in a challenging scheme that top chefs have taken on, called Adopt-a-school.

There is a precedent for this. In France a few years ago, Jack Lang, then culture minister, dismayed by the inroads American fast food was making in the capital, urged Parisian chefs to go into schools and fight for their gastronomic birthright. And so they did. So why not here?

Because, mes amis, we don't have a gastronomic tradition, that's why. And the only government initiative of recent years has been to sweep cooking virtually off the curriculum in schools. Food is now simply a part of science and technology.

The children don't have a say in this. How do teachers feel? They have mixed feelings. Some administrations, driven into the ground by trying to balance the budget, costing out the time, energy, effort and expenses of running cookery classes, are deeply relieved.

Others, with a history of domestic science teaching, regret the loss of a subject of infinite value to certain kinds of pupil. And a growing number of educators deplore the spectre of a generation immersed in junk food, fast food and convenience food who will grow up in total ignorance of culinary skills.

This is all beyond the sphere of the chefs but, convinced that good eating begins in the home, the Academie went ahead. So far, says Giles Thompson, the chairman of the Adopt-a-school committee, around 40 of the Academie's 100 full members have adopted schools (about 50 per cent of them state schools, 50 per cent private) , and another 10 have given demonstrations in schools.

Yorkshire-born Giles Thompson (whose father, Sir Donald Thompson MP, a Halifax butcher, was formerly parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Agiculture), believes a love of good food begins as in childhood. "That was my experience. I used to ride shot-gun with the meat deliveries, and I remember visiting canteens run by larger-than-life, love-you-to-death matrons who'd feed you up on Bakewell tart."

In Mr Thompson's view, children have extremely sensitive perceptions of taste, but they have no training in categorising them. "They know they like sugar, but they don't know why. They don't like bitter flavours and they don't know why. It's our aim to get children to appreciate the five senses, and explore the four distinct categories of taste." The four? "Bitter, sweet, salt and sour."

The Adopt-a-school committee backs up its visits by providing schools with promotional material and a teacher's pack. Form Two at Lion School has clearly done its homework, which may explain the mysterious sheet of pink paper, two foot by one foot, stuck to the blackboard, labelled Tongue.

The lesson today takes the form of an hour-long exercise in guessing at mysterious foods, identifying them by feel, or smell and taste.

Taste Test One: Crisps, Connaught-style (no additives, preservatives, flavourings, colouring, MSG, etc.) Three stacks, which look identical. But this is strange: one pile tastes sweet, one plain, one salty. Easy, peasy, every child gets them right. Which do they like best? Salty, they all agree. "Good," says chef Bourdin. "Potatoes need salt for flavour. So do meat and fish."

Now chef Bourdin takes a black lump the size of a tennis ball and, with a large kitchen knife, severs it in two. "Maybe some of your parents haven't tasted this, so you can tell them when you get home that you had truffle at school. It's a kind of mushroom that grows underground. It's sometimes called a Black Diamond, because it costs a lot of money." (He doesn't mention that this 200g monster will be worth around pounds 100, though).

The two halves are passed round. Lucy, Charlotte and Alex screw up their faces. Yusuke fans the smell towards his nose before recoiling. "It smells really bad," says Tom. Emily, Maxi and Molly register feelings of disgust. So do they all, except Emma. She holds it to her nose, thoughtfully. What mysterious message does it convey? Who can say.

(The teacher, Jane Denton, whispers: "Half the class has been to France. I think Emma's parents take her out to restaurants.")

Little tartlets of scrambled eggs with truffle, however, do not receive the accolade of the class. Chef Bourdin's sous-chef, Joe Croan, swiftly moves on to tropical fruit, a subject on which the children prove to be expert, correctly identifying kiwi fruit, passion fruit, pomegranates, star fruit and lychees with no difficulty at all. But they are defeated by "squidgy" tamarillos (tree tomatoes), cape gooseberry (physalis), rambutan (a curly-haired lychee), komba (banana passion-fruit) and kumquats, those tiny bitter oranges.

"Who wants to taste something bitter?" asks chef Bourdin, cutting kumquats into pieces. Everyone does. "You are very courageous," he says. "Everything has a taste," he explains, repeating Giles Thompson's mantra, "bitter, sweet, salt and..." Hands shoot up. "And sour."

"And sour, that's very good," he approves.

"Who can tell me which parts of the tongue recognise these tastes?" asks Joe Croan, moving to the blackboard. Good heavens, they all can. The tip of the tongue recognises sweet flavours, and just behind, at the side, saltiness. Further back, the sides of the tongue are sensitive to sour flavours. Bitter tastes are picked up at the very back of the tongue.

These children are only six. I bet their parents aren't nearly so clued up.

They don't recognise everything. Fennel is wrongly identified as aspra- grass. "Tastes minty," suggests one, and soon others agree it's minty. Then a lone voice pops up: "Liquorice." That's right, very good, fennel and liquorice both have the same taste - of anise.

Step forward M Bourdin's patissiere, Carolyn Power. She passes round pastries with raspberry and strawberry jam, which they easily distinguish. She has also made some jellies, coloured orange and cherry. "I will warn you," says chef Bourdin. "There is a trick. Remember, use all your senses, not just your eyes."

Great confusion. Their eyes tell them they are eating orange and cherry jellies. In fact, one is orange, but the other is lemon that Carolyn had dyed with cherry colouring.

So the lesson continues. M Bourdin quizzes them on fish (they are knowledgeable about shark, starfish and goldfish, but unfamiliar with turbot and sole) and meat (only three of the 16 children admit to liking it). All enthusiastically agree they'd like to visit his kitchens.

The visit is declared a resounding success by the school principal, Jane Luard. "This is a big experience for the children. We can teach them about the food chain. But modern city children haven't a clue where food comes from or what is good for them."

The Academie is equally delighted. Anything that improves the image of a much misunderstood profession is very welcome, says John Huber, a senior lecturer at Thames Valley University and an Academie committee member. A Swiss-born chef who has been working in Britain for more than 30 years, he notes that it is only in the last few years that young people are beginning to look at catering as a potentially rewarding career.

"There has always been this difficulty to overcome with catering in Britain because people say, 'I am not a servant.' On the Continent it is regarded as a profession."

But there are other difficulties, John Huber admits. "Knowledge about food begins in the home. On the Continent, families take their children out to restaurants as a matter of course. Ninety per cent of the students who come to my courses have never eaten in a proper restaurant."

Sadly, this is a class thing. And the class we are concerned with today, Form Two at the Lion School, Putney, is, you might think, a very privileged class. Well. The Academie, which has members around the country, welcomes inquiries from all schools. Write to Sara Jayne-Stanes, Academie Culinaire de France (UK), 517 Old York Road, London SW18 1TF. Or why not get in touch with your nearest hotel or restaurant? Many will be sympathetic to showing over small parties of children. !

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