St Leonards-Mayfield School had nothing to worry about when Jamie Oliver turned up to have a gander at its menus two years ago. The independent Catholic girls' school in East Sussex is renowned for its ‘foodie' approach to school lunches and the new standards only reinforced what it already advocated in terms of nutritional welfare. More pupils than ever before, however, have special dietary requirements, and catering has become a potential minefield. Essential Cuisine ensures the head chef can continue to dish up exceptional food and meet every child's needs with stocks that set a new benchmark…
Gold star from Jamie One of Martin Spicer's first jobs when he joined St Leonards-Mayfield as head chef two years ago was to go through the lunch menu with ‘patron saint' of school dinners Jamie Oliver.
He had nothing to worry about, with the infamous ambassador declaring that the balance of food offered was one of the best he'd seen, and, on tasting the food, said it was "excellent".
From the lunch menu, rotated every four weeks, pupils can choose from three, freshly-prepared mains, including a vegetarian option, two vegetable sides and a potato dish, with a salad bar of cold meats and dressings also offered. Sometimes, there is soup of the day.
This is rounded off with two choices of dessert, a ‘creative' option such as warm sticky pear and ginger cake with whipped cream plus a set fresh fruit, jelly and ice-cream alternative.
Catering for boarders as well as day pupils, the line-up in the evening is similar but has a distinct international feel, offering the likes of piri-piri chicken, Malaysian vegetable and coconut curry, Szechwan chilli chicken or corn and a weekly Tex-Mex taco night.
"We offer traditional British food, but we do have quite a multi-cultural student base, with girls from Spain and Italy to the Far East and the US, which is reflected in our menus," said head chef Martin, who trained at the Savoy and has worked in schools for a decade.
"We serve up 600 lunches alone daily, 200 to staff, but we see ourselves as real foodies here and, while the presentation is, obviously, different, the actual food we produce is not far off that of four or five star hotels. Jamie Oliver, when he visited, said it was excellent."
Taking stock One thing Martin did want to do when he joined St Leonards-Mayfield prior to Jamie's visit was review a few essential ingredients, to save time with no compromise on quality, further reduce salt intake and cater for a growing number with special dietary requirements.
Having to prepare 20-30 litres of stock a day to flavour sauces, gravies and soups, he was understandably keen to find out if there were any pre-prepared products that could do the job better than the usual, ‘habitual' brands, while helping to make menus even healthier.
"Making stock from scratch takes hours of care, preparing and sweating the veg, boiling it up with water at a certain temperature, then having the room to cool it before skimming it off. It takes quite a bit of time, which is not always viable in today's catering world," he said.
He discovered Essential Cuisine, which is run by Dorchester-trained chef Nigel Crane and produces a range of powdered stock mixes with a superior yield of 50ltrs per 800g tub.
Unlike most others on the market, each flavour - from chicken to light vegetable and, now, Halal Society-approved versions to cater for the Muslim community - tastes just like kitchen-made stock with a clear appearance and appropriate levels of seasoning.
Each stock also has a low level of fat (c3%), is simple and easy to use and contains no MSG or preservatives. With a 12 month shelf life, there is no need to refrigerate after opening, and each tub is colour coded for easy recognition.
With Martin seeing a dramatic increase in pupils on special diets in the past year alone, the range, crucially, offers peace of mind. "We use Essential Cuisine's stocks, mainly chicken,beef,vegetable and fish, in everything from coq au vin and hoi sin sauce for sticky pork belly and Chinese noodles through to vegetarian aubergine and courgette Goan curry," he said.
"We also use the vegetable stock in the couscous for stuffing our roast Moroccan stuffed peppers, and the beef stock for traditional cottage pie.
"One of our biggest challenges is catering for special requirements. For example, I have been here two years and this year alone, I've seen a 20 percent increase in gluten-free diets. With Essential Cuisine stocks, we know that when we cook and make our sauce bases, we are safe to do so. We haven't got to make something separate, which is a huge advantage.
In the fight against obesity, Essential Cuisine has also strived to lower the salt content of its stocks, wherever possible, without taking away the naturally rich taste of the stockpot. Based on 50ml as a recipe ingredient, each stock contains just 0.28g of salt, or 5.6g per litre.
"In terms of yield, Essential Cuisine stocks are very good, especially when reduced down, and, in my view, you would need a huge amount of some of their competitors' to get both the same yield and taste. Because they are powdered, you can also add them straight to a sauce or dissolve them first in water, making them much better and more hygienic than the awful pastes.
"All in all, I think Essential Cuisine has come the closest to stock that is true to the flavour of homemade stock. They also pitch products to the level of chef they are talking to, bringing in samples and responding to feedback - one great benefit of a company that's chef-run."
This case study was provided by Essential Cuisine