Feature: ‘Tis the season

… for mince pies, Christmas pud and a diverse multitude of global treats. Simon Fry rounds up the festive dining news

As with many of the nation’s households, independent schools are already looking forward to the delicious dining heralded by December’s arrival. It is increasingly the case, however, that schools reflect their pupils’ diversity in the cuisine coming out of their kitchens, as chefs and catering staff enjoy free rein when it comes to a global recipe book.

Every culture has its traditions and over the year The Brookwood Partnership caters for a variety of events in November and December including Diwali, Thanksgiving and, of course, Christmas.

By taking an inclusive approach, Brookwood likes to offer everyone the opportunity to have their own ‘taste of home’ as well as experience different traditions. As with most things, each event requires some explanation; many international pupils, for example, are intrigued by mince pies and crackers. Brookwood has also needed to be creative when it comes to Christmas desserts as many British pupils aren’t keen on the traditional Christmas pudding.

Education also works both ways. Who would have known that most American “moms” make pumpkin pie with tinned pumpkin? So catering for Thanksgiving means putting Brookwood’s fresh food policy to one side so that the most important celebration in the US calendar has a real taste of home.

This year’s Christmas dining at Essex’s Felsted School will have an international flavour.

With over 17 nationalities in its pupil body, the school’s chefs have chosen 12 of these to cook over the same number of days leading up to the end of term. The dozen days of feasting start with a Slovakian ‘Stedry den’ of battered carp and openkance (dough with poppy seeds and honey), moves onto Chinese sweet and sour pork and a Dutch Sinterklaas meal of gourmetten (mixed meat and fish grill) and poffertjes (baby pancake puffs), before taking in Brazilian codfish balls and Russian Christmas cookies, among other international delights, and a traditional English Christmas finale.

International celebrations at Felsted

General services manager Renee Hauret says: “Our chefs have really enjoyed putting these menus together – it has proved quite an educational talking point in the kitchen! Surprisingly, the ingredients have not proven too much of a challenge – so far we have managed to source them all locally.”

Caterers Holroyd Howe will be dishing up similarly diverse dining at King Edward’s School Witley where the pupil population spans 43 countries. From late November into December, festive fare from Spain, Mexico, Poland and Germany will be on the menu, with all dietary requirements on religious and lifestyle-choice grounds (such as vegan and vegetarian) catered for. Last year saw a beautiful full-size tasty gingerbread tree and a replica of King Edward’s in gingerbread displayed in the school’s dining room. Specialist catering is provided throughout the calendar too; occasions such as admissions day, Chinese New Year, Burns’ Night and Diwali are all celebrated with an array of suitably themed culinary delights.

ACS Cobham International School’s annual international fair celebrates the school’s multicultural identity, with pupils, parents, teachers and staff enjoying a variety of food, drink and traditions from every corner of the globe. The starting point for this year’s event was India, with pupils encouraged to play a traditional Indian game, dress in a sari, experiment with face paints and sample traditional Indian food. Highlights included a Scandinavian wintery booth and a Brazilian interactive rainforest and river, with new stalls in 2015 celebrating Poland and Uruguay.

ACS Cobham

Last time out at ACS Egham International School’s international fair guests joined in with Canadian and Swedish hockey, American football and baseball and traditional Hong Kong chopstick games and also saw a demonstration of Brazilian Capoeira. The ACS Egham community raised over £4,000 for Food4Lunch and StreetInvest: two charities supporting children who are on the streets or are vulnerable and not receiving nutritional meals in the school holidays.

The numbers make for impressive reading at Epsom College where Christmas preparations begin in October with the college’s chef preparing nut-free homemade mincemeat and Christmas puddings. By 1 December, when Christmas festivities and functions begin, he will have made 2,500 standard mince pies, 500 mini mince pies and 300 Christmas puddings, with the school buying 200 turkeys, making 5,000 pigs-in-blankets and preparing numerous sacks of potatoes.

Christmas at Epsom College

The catering staff decorate a 15-foot Christmas tree in the school’s main hall and a 10-foot Christmas tree is put in the dining room, while 3,000 crackers, 1,100 candy canes and 500 bags of chocolate coins will be consumed before school breaks up.

The school’s Christingle service with the college chaplain is followed by tea, the catering team dressing up as elves and the newest male team member given the job of Santa. For the pupils’ Christmas dinner, catering staff, house matrons and the facilities team (including the bursar and her PA) dress up to serve lunch and hand out crackers, candy canes and chocolate coins to all 1,100 pupils and teachers dining that day.

In December, Mayfield School will repeat the live crib cream tea for Old Cornelians and their families which it inaugurated in 2014. Last year, delicious homemade scones with jam and cream, mulled wine and beautifully made sandwiches were enjoyed by generations past and present in the Courtyard. Games, presents and sweets for the children were placed under the Christmas tree and Old Cornelians caught up with each other, former staff and baby Jesus (the son of an Old Cornelian) before his starring role. Following this festive feast, they and their children then enjoyed the 50-year-old tradition of live crib, a nativity which features a real donkey and baby and is organised and performed solely by the girls of Mayfield School.

As part of its festive celebrations, Handcross Park School holds a Christmas ball for boarders and a formal dinner for year-eight pupils, both of which reinforce the importance of the traditional good manners which are an important part of the school’s ethos.

The Boarders’ Ball is a formal, three-course dinner followed by a party to which all boarders (from year three to eight) are invited along with the boarding staff. The children enjoy the opportunity to socialise with the staff and other boarding community members in a festively decorated room. The three-course dinner for year eight pupils and their teaching staff is served in a candlelit dining space, with the children appreciating the sense of occasion. As a matter of course, the whole school also comes together for a traditional Christmas lunch.

As a boarding school, Westonbirt sees its kitchens as being at the heart of school life, with pupils and staff all eating food prepared on the site every day. In the build-up to Christmas, the school chefs are integral to the many festivities boarders and day pupils enjoy.

Westonbirt is an international community and the girls from cultures not celebrating Christmas enjoy immersing themselves in the school’s festivities

Westonbirt School’s annual Christmas party is a whole-school event when the magnificent Great Hall is decked with boughs of holly and staff and pupils are served a festive feast on banqueting tables under the twinkling lights of a 20ft Christmas tree.

In food and nutrition, girls work with the seasons and in November and December make traditional Christmas fayre, including mince pies with homemade mincemeat and Christmas puddings. The year-13 Leiths pupils have a competition to produce the most impressively decorated Christmas cake.

Westonbirt is an international community and the girls from cultures not celebrating Christmas enjoy immersing themselves in the school’s festivities. Likewise, local girls learn about the celebrations other cultures enjoy at this time of year. The American pupils host an annual Thanksgiving supper in December and Chinese pupils lead a celebration for Chinese New Year after the Christmas break.

Westonbirt’s Great Hall

Food is central to all cultural identities and their holidays, events and customs; independent schools – and their hardworking kitchens – can be commended for broadening their pupils’ education through authentic catering.

The Brookwood Partnership W: www.brookwood-ptnrs.com

Felsted School W: www.felsted.org

KES Witley W: www.kesw.org

ACS W: www.acs-schools.com

Epsom College W: www.epsomcollege.org.uk

Mayfield School W: www.mayfieldgirls.org

Handcross Park School W: www.handcrossparkschool.co.uk

Westonbirt School W: www.westonbirt.org

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