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L’escargot chef helps kids get aquainted with the snails

In a former laundry room at a historic stately home, amid the colourful clutter of decades of family life, Fred Berkmiller is serving an unusual lunch party.

The award-winning French chef has just ladled out steaming bowls of cullen skink to a dozen guests, including the lady of the house, Mary Fawdry — who is a big fan of his Edinburgh restaurants, L’escargot Bleu and L’escargot Blanc.  Newton House, just outside Dalkeith, is exactly the kind of country mansion where renowned chefs such as Berkmiller might provide exclusive fine dining experiences for wealthy owners and their friends or business contacts.

The most important people gathered around the large wooden table today, however, are six teenagers from Dalkeith High whose slightly incongruous appearance is accentuated by their school uniforms.  They are here thanks to a new social enterprise project established by Berkmiller,Fawdry and our Food and Environment activities in a bid to ensure the next generation truly embodies the Scottish government’s aim of becoming a Good Food Nation.

Its aim is to give today’s teens from deprived communities the knowledge, skills and appreciation of healthy food to help themselves, from planting and picking fruit and vegetables to cooking and eating them.  It was inspired by the thriving walled garden just outside the door, which until recently had become an acre of “jungle” that retired art framer Fawdry, now in her seventies, could no longer manage.

Earlier, standing among the carrots and leeks which he is helping pupils to pick for lunch, Berkmiller freely admits that despite years honing his culinary expertise he too knew nothing about gardening before Fawdry offered him the use of her garden earlier this year.  Initially the idea was for him to grow produce for his restaurants, until they realised that they could do much more. For while the world of fine dining and walled gardens seems far removed from the challenges of teenage life, Berkmiller relates to today’s pupils as he vividly recalls his own formative years in France’s Loire Valley.

He says: “I was a bad boy at school and my parents did not know what to do with me, so at 14 they sent me to a restaurant about 40 miles away on a kind of apprentice scheme. I was away from my comfort zone and the chef was a bully. I remember walking behind him gathering up carrots and green beans [as they fell from a wheelbarrow en route to the restaurant after being picked], and if you’d asked me then if I wanted my own garden I’d probably have told you off. But the chef was also a slow food man, and he always said to me, ‘Whatever I’m teaching you, you will pass on’.”

Now aged 47, with children of his own, Berkmiller is doing just that, but with humour, teasing one 14-year-old who refuses to eat the soup but asks what pudding is by replying instantly: “It’s fish!”Explaining the importance of dining together, Berkmiller adds: “Everyone is out of their comfort zone here too, but in a homely country kitchen. We have sat here for an hour and a half without anyone wanting to leave the table.
“Food is not just about filling the engine, it’s about socialising and communicating, and dealing with family issues. If you take away the table, what’s left?”

As the pupils chat, a few plates remain untouched, but most at least try the soup despite their reservations.Adam Ramage, 14, was among the doubters, but he then requests seconds, declaring that he’s changed his mind and asking Berkmiller: “How did you get the carrots like this? When I cook them they are soft.” Berkmiller reminds him that the vegetables are fresh from the ground, “as you just picked them”, and they are best when not cooked too long.

Ramage, who likes baking cakes, is only a partial convert, and cheerfully maintains that fish suppers from his local Italian chippy are still “better”. Leeann McLachlan, also 14, loves cooking, and regularly makes dinner for her family, including spaghetti bolognese with vegetables from the local Saturday market.  But the reactions she says she gets from her friends help explain the obstinately consistent high levels of obesity among children. “My friends like eating but they don’t like cooking. They like McDonald’s. They like eating what I cook, but only if I don’t tell them it’s healthy.”

Mud soon flies as principal teacher in sustainability, Bill Gray, demonstrates how to dig up a lettuce, shaking it “like a terrier with a rat” to remove the earth. One boy admits the vegetables look “different” when they are in the ground, highlighting the lack of familiarity that is another key issue in combating obesity. Poverty is another.

Gray says: “Food banks area big problem across Scotland. Our aim is to empower the community. We want pupils to be able to teach the public to grow and cook healthy food.”

Dalkeith is among three schools participating in the project which Keep Scotland Beautiful believes is “perfect”.

Eve Keepax, our Food and Environment Officer says, "It provides the whole experience, from planting, tending and picking vegetables and herbs, to cooking them in the kitchen and then eating them at the table as a shared experience."

Fawdry agrees: “I thought it was such a waste then the garden was overgrown so i asked Fred if he wanted to grow nice veg for his nice restaurants.   I did not envisage schools coming at all at first, but this is even better than I'd hoped because now we have the social aspect too."

Written by freelance journalist Julia Horton @HortonJulia and published in The Sunday Times November 26, 2017.

01 December 2017

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