Confessions of a secret school-meals fan

Macaroni Cheese

I was chatting to a school-meals lady the other day. Pupils were eating healthier foods in Scotland’s school canteens, she said, because they didn’t get much of an option. It was either healthy eating or nothing, which meant that many teens headed down town for a pie and chips and a can of cola.

I can’t be sure, but I detected a wistfulness in her tone, as if she was sad that the days of good, hearty Scottish fare in school dining rooms had been replaced by salads, vegetarian fajitas and fresh fruit.

I loved school meals when I was a teenager. You couldn’t have prised me away from them, even although I was raised at a time when school meals were regarded by many of my peers as deeply uncool. Nobody who valued their street cred ate school meals. Since I have never had street cred, that bothered me not one iota.

The pinnacle of this culinary delight was the industrial-sized oblong heavy-aluminium pan (with rounded corners and handles at both ends) of macaroni-cheese. This was not just any macaroni-cheese. This was macaroni-cheese crafted by culinary goddesses. It had a thick leathery skin that drifted close to burned and tasted salty and cheesy when you chewed it. It made wonderful sooking noises at the huge spoon wielded by the dinner lady. She would size you up; judge your appetite and capacity, and whack an appropriate-sized chunk of her wares on your plastic plate. You would move along to her colleague, who would perform a similar ritual with an oblong pan of pickled beetroot. They were angels, both.

That love of school macaroni has never left me. I wrote a newspaper column about it in the mid-1980s. Two weeks later, I gave a talk in a secondary school in Aberdeenshire and the headmaster invited me to lunch afterwards in the school canteen. Imagine my delight when I realised that top of the menu was macaroni-cheese. “We don’t really do it nowadays,” he said, “but since it was you I asked for it specially.” He could have offered me a crystal trophy and a blank cheque and I would not have been more impressed.

It is well known in our extended family that if ever anyone wants to get me to do something I don’t particularly want to do, a plate of macaroni-cheese is the way to soften me up. It must be home-made to get that authentic leathery skin, however. I can’t imagine why anyone would buy a tin of macaroni-cheese or, worse, a packet of ready-mix, when 10 minutes’ extra work produces a dish at half the cost with 20 times the taste.

As for the compulsory pickled beetroot, it must not be sweet pickle, but proper vinegar pickle. Sainsbury’s is best. Baxter’s beetroot, I regret to say, is like eating round paving slabs.

If you want an extra favour, finish me off with school Eve’s Pudding and custard.

I am a man of homely tastes.

Filed Under: CookingFeaturedScotland


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  1. Avril Spence says:

    I loved school dinner macaroni cheese too. Most of the meals were lovely apart from the ocean pie.

    As for the best school dinner pud, I’d go for coconut tart with custard. No other custard measures up to that.

    I dispute your choice of best pickled beetroot. ALDI is my favourite and cheaper than Sainsbury’s.

    • Norman says:

      The only school pud I couldn’t stand was chocolate cracknel. To me, it just ruined good chocolate. Everything else was wonderful. Well, maybe apart from the toad-in-the-hole, which was described by one juvenile restaurant critic in my year as: “Possibly better if they’d taen it oot o the hole.”
      If you liked school custard, Avril, you might remember the bashed, red-aluminium custard jugs.
      I’m not a huge fan of the Aldi beetroot because, if it’s the Bramwell brand I’m thinking of, it’s too sweet and mild for me. I like my beetroot vinegar so strong that your eyes narrow, you bang the table a few times with your fist and then your hair stands on end.

      • Avril Spence says:

        Yes, I remember the jugs although they were a gold colour in my primary school.

        You obviously like “cheek-sookin” pickles. It’s strange that I don’t since I love other strong tastes. I could eat a whole lemon for instance.

        Since my son left home I never make macaroni cheese because my husband doesn’t like it. I tried having it if eating out but I was usually disappointed. It’s rarely cheesy enough (cheap mild cheese and no mustard?)and doesn’t always have a grilled cheese top.

        However, I have discovered a cafe which serves the best spaghetti carbonara I’ve ever tasted, even in Italy.

        • Norman says:

          A hale lemon? Respect.
          I don’t like ordering restaurant or cafe macaroni, either. As you say, it’s usually a poor imitation and, also, they charge a fortune for what is basically pasta and cheese. There is one Aberdeen hotel with macaroni-cheese on its menu for £14.95. I’d want gold-leaf, not cheese, sprinkled across the top for that.
          If you don’t mind my asking, which is your carbonara restaurant?

          • Avril Spence says:

            The Old Bakery in Braemar, between The Co-op and Gordon Tearoom. We often eat there when we’re in Braemar. It’s good wholesome grub at reasonable prices. My husband loves their home-made steak pie.

            They also make the second best scones in the North East. The best is in the NTS tearoom at Brodie Castle or so I’ve found.

          • Norman says:

            Thank you, Avril. I’ll visit the next time I’m at Braemar.
            I can’t tell you where the best scones are, but I know where the worst are lurking, and it’s not a million miles from our alma mater. They are lumps of crumbly dough heated up in the microwave oven to disguise their staleness.

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