The feeding of the 25,000: Inside the warehouse that supplies thousands of charity Christmas meals

8,000 volunteers serving 25,000 meals: 700kg of turkey, 5,941kg of spuds, 8,040 mince pies, 1,991 puds and 984kg of satsumas. And all of it is donated, coming through just one warehouse

The warehouse is found on a windswept industrial estate in southeast London, just off the busy A2 motorway. An art gallery for most of the year, come December, the red-brick building with large windows overlooking the Shard is packed to the rafters with turkeys, tinsel and all the trimmings, having been requisitioned by the homeless charity Crisis in preparation for the 4,000 Christmas dinners it serves on 25 December.

“This is the one time of year when our guests can be completely spoiled,” says Lisa Calmiano, the charity’s catering services co-ordinator. For 11 months of the year, she works as a management consultant, a job she says comes in handy when overseeing an operation of this magnitude.

Her team plans the menu in April and begins to hunt down donations of cranberry sauce, Brussels sprouts and plum puddings as early as June. While most of the centres where Christmas dinner will be served have pre-installed cooking facilities, a few are disused buildings in which the volunteers will need to build working kitchens before cooking can > start. In some cases they won’t get access to the buildings until the morning of 23 December – at the same time as the first guests arrive for the eight days of Crisis at Christmas.

A few miles north-east of the Crisis warehouse lies Gascoigne primary school. This October, in the canteen, children clattered plastic trays along the silver self-service rail. They peered under glass dividers through billows of steam at food piled high in white Pyrex dishes. It was black history month and catering manager Mary Graves and her nine ‘ladies’, served up jerk chicken, flavoured rice, and a vegetable curry. It was also Eid, which meant that the dining hall was half empty: 40 per cent of the students were on religious holiday.

Located in Barking, Gascoigne is the largest primary school in the country. Over the past decade, it has seen a dramatic demographic shift, reflecting migration patterns both within London and further afield. “When I started here,” says head teacher Bob Garton, “There were very few students with English as a second language.

“Now, there are children from Somalia and Kenya and Eritrea. About a third of our children are African, a third are Eastern European and the other third are from all over.” In an average class, he says, there are two or three children who are ‘white British’.

The mix makes for a complicated calendar. Children will also have time off for Sikh and Hindu festivals. Some of the Eastern European children celebrate Christmas earlier in December. Mr Garton says he empathises, being Jewish himself. “Rosh Hashanah was right at the beginning of term this year, it was a real pain.” But despite this cultural variety, no parent has ever asked that their child not partake in Christmas dinner.

This Tuesday past, Ms Graves, who has cooked at the school for more than 20 years, was in the kitchen well before dawn. With more than 850 student and staff mouths to feed, there was a lot of prep to get done. For anyone who has ever eaten a school dinner, the menu will be familiar: sliced turkey breast; potatoes with uneven brown splodges; pigs in blankets, sticky with fat from the pan; carrots and peas; mashed swede; boiled leeks; and cheese puffs for the vegetarians. All served with thick granule gravy. For dessert, it was Christmas chocolate pudding with ice cream and a satsuma.

In the kitchen’s large stainless-steel ovens, she roasted 16 whole turkey breasts, half of which were halal. “Sometimes even the non-halal kids say they want the halal meat,” Graves explains. “I don’t say no to them. To me, if they want it, they can have it: I give them an option, I say what would you like and they’ll say ‘that please miss’, and I’ll say ‘go on then’.”

Cooking the food is only half the challenge. Despite a new canteen, roughly the size of a tennis court, built five years ago, the school is set to reach capacity next year. Feeding 1,000 children (packed lunches included), and 150 staff in this space in a single hour isn’t easy. By comparison, a central London restaurant with a similar size dining room will aim to turn 250 covers on a busy Friday night.

“It’s a military operation making sure it all flows,” says Mr Garton. “The children might come in and not be able to find seats. You might let too many in and they all want to sit next to their friends and so forth. Myself and all senior staff, 12 in total, are involved at lunchtime.” The challenge is complicated by the addition of staff sitting down with the children to tuck into their turkey.  Mr Garton explains that those who do so get their meal for free. Although it poses logistical problems, he wouldn’t have it any other way. Put simply, “it’s a school tradition.”

As the sun sets on Christmas day, somewhere in the Caribbean sea, Santa will abseil down a chimney. Aboard P&O’s largest cruise ship, Azura, many of the 5,000 passengers and staff will gather on deck in 30-degree heat to watch the pre-dinner spectacle on the side of the ship’s funnel. Below deck sits an alpine village made from gingerbread and 50 kilos of icing sugar, erected overnight by a team of pastry chefs.

“It’s very different having Christmas in the Caribbean,” says P&O’s head development chef Haydn Davis. “During the day it’s business as usual: everybody’s out sunbathing in their bikinis and their shorts. Then in the evening, the  Christmas feeling takes over. Everybody gets dressed up formally and goes to a cocktail party before sitting down for Christmas dinner.”

Choice is abundant. For appetisers, diners can choose between Mediterranean crevette cocktail with white Cornish crab and Marie Rose sauce, soft poached egg and spinach Florentine with a truffle hollandaise sauce, and chicken liver and brandy parfait with caramelised beetroot and red-onion chutney. All followed by two soup options: white cherry-tomato or double-beef consommé.

After a sorbet palate cleanser, it’s Norfolk turkey or York ham with all the trimmings, Loch Duart salmon  supreme, pheasant and partridge braised in mulled wine, forest mushroom and roast chestnut Wellington, or lemon sole with a lobster mousseline and a  Champagne cappuccino.

For dessert, there’s Christmas pudding, flambéed in brandy; peach and amoretti Melba trifle; mocha and praline Christmas log with clotted cream ice cream; or poached pears in Claret. This menu, devised at headquarters in Dover, will be served across the whole fleet, to roughly 26,000 crew and passengers.>

Despite the choice, Davis says, tradition always wins over. “Ninety per cent of people will have the Mediterranean cocktail, likely followed by the white cherry-tomato soup and the Norfolk turkey.”

Not so for Anita Thompson, a veteran of four cruises who will be spending this Christmas aboard the Ventura, the sister ship to the Azura which will also spend Christmas in the Caribbean. Enjoying a stress-free Christmas alone, she’s planned ahead and says she will opt for the pheasant, “I’m a very untraditional person, you see.”

“I do do the dressing up bit, but that’s not really why I go. It’s more for the awesomeness of being in the middle of the ocean on Christmas day.” When it comes to the food, she says, nobody aboard will be left wanting. “You’re spoilt. There are people who are cochons on the boat and will go at midnight and pile up their plate for supper. It’s not the sort of place to go if you are on a diet.”

In the central galley kitchen, responsible for the ship’s three biggest restaurants, in which the majority of passengers and crew will eat, 165 kitchen staff will spend the day roasting a hundred  10-kilo turkeys and a ton of potatoes, as well as washing, scraping and boiling 130 kilos of Brussels sprouts. Additional chefs will be drafted in to carve the birds.

On such scale, when something goes wrong, it goes very wrong. One year, bread rolls left in the oven caused a fire midway through Christmas-dinner service. The entire kitchen staff had to be evacuated. Another year, a shipping container of turkeys went missing en route. “The only course of action was to get BA to fly out 100 turkeys for us,” says Davis.

All well and good, but on such a vast scale, can you really match a home-cooked Christmas dinner? Roast potatoes, integral to the whole affair, are notoriously difficult to get right in bulk. “I’m a Delia lover.” explains Davies. “You parboil the potatoes, drain them, put the lid on, shake them about and then you’ve got all these nice crispy bits when you put them into the hot oil.”

“But with 600 or 700 kilos of potatoes, you can’t do that, because in the trays we’re using, you can’t move all those potatoes around. You tend to find that those things you can do at home quite successfully in a small oven, don’t always translate into large numbers in that way.”

Soggy spuds are something that those indulging in a mass-cooked dinner this festive period will have to stomach – the UK’s 75,914 prisoners and 781 peers included. According to Raymond Lunn, who spent three and a half years in various prisons and now works as a consultant and public speaker, standards in prison food vary greatly depending on the kitchen. “Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s awful.” But, he says, he still remembers one particular bread-and-butter pudding he was served in prison at the age of 16. “It was the best I’ve ever had”.

Prison catering budgets and menus are devolved to each institution’s governor to spend as they see fit. On average last year, £2.26 was spent per prisoner per day. Christmas dinner, according to Lunn, was “no different quality-wise”. Except for one thing: “You get a turkey leg and all the trimmings – and you’re not going get a big hunk of meat like that any other day.”

For many inmates, distracted by thoughts of home and family, Christmas is an unhappy time. The food alone sets the day apart, breaking the monotony of the usual menu. “You always got the same thing every day, every week. It was very routine. It was fish and chips on a Friday. On a Saturday afternoon, you’d get chips, some bacon, sausage and beans and always a pudding, something like semolina. And then your Sunday dinner was always a Sunday dinner with a slice of beef or chicken. But never turkey.”

Meanwhile, in the Peers’ Dining Room at the House of Lords, the turkey comes as part of a three-bird roast. At £42.50 for three courses plus coffee and a mince pie, expectations will be set higher than at HMP canteens. But, price aside, over the coming fortnight, all and sundry, from prisoners to peers, will sit down to what is ostensibly the same meal.

The night before Christmas at Crisis HQ, Calmiano will be frantically calling suppliers in what she calls a ‘supermarket sweep’, hunting down the last  few missing ingredients before the  shops close.

On 22 December, the small team of paid Crisis staff will hand over the keys to the centres, which will be run for the next eight days entirely by volunteers. They come from all walks of life – lawyers, nurses, city traders – with at least one trained cook in each kitchen. “A few of the chefs like to do a double shift on Christmas day,” says Calmiano. “To make sure they get the dinner just right.”

Since the economic downturn, Crisis has reported an increase in the number of families visiting their centres. “I think it’s a humbling experience at Christmas to come and spend your time doing  this. It’s a reminder about what’s going on out there and how hard it can be for some people. That’s why most of our people volunteer.”

The charity aims to meet the guests’ every need, with doctors, hairdressers, masseuses and seamstresses on hand. There are computers and free advice services, karaoke, and a yearly football tournament. In some centres, a team of volunteers will bathe guests’ dogs and check them over for health issues. Despite all the extras, Calmiano says, really it is all about the food. “Being able to eat something very traditional is often all that people want at this time of year. It’s comforting: it gives them a real sense of being part of that tradition.” µ

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