When the nutrition and food-based guidelines came into force three years ago, many school caterers literally had to go back to the drawing board. Sue Fletcher-White, the then catering manager at Laurel Lane Primary in Middlesex, on the other hand, was already a longstanding advocate of nutritious meals in schools and the new expectations were not too far removed from what she was already doing. There were a few challenges, however, including the need to look at the salt content of certain ingredients to meet the new guidelines, paving the way for stock specialist Essential Cuisine to step up to the plate…
In her previous position as catering manager at Laurel Lane Primary in West Drayton, Middlesex, Sue Fletcher-White left no stone unturned to achieve excellence in healthy school food.
So much so, Laurel Lane was chosen as one of the Food for Life Partnership's flagship schools in 2010, supporting other caterers in their quest to improve the whole food experience and, in doing so, winning Sue's team a Good Food on the Public Plate award.
Since September, Sue has been relishing her new role as food education manager at Colham Manor Primary in Uxbridge, catering for 300 children plus staff on-site and transporting lunches to 260 children plus staff from the neighbouring Heathrow and St Catherine's RC primary schools.
Making lunchtimes a positive feature of the day and enriching classroom learning with everything from farm visits to practical cooking and growing is all part and parcel of modern day school catering, in Sue's view, while sourcing British, ethically and sustainably should also be considered.
"I like to use good quality ingredients in our dishes and adhere to a free range policy, using local producers wherever I can," she said. "For example, we get our meat from Ickenham, eggs from Seer Green, organic milk from Harefield and veg from Wingrove, which are all very local. I contact them each week to see what they have, and in what quantities, and we go from there.
"It's, actually, very cost-effective this way as we can source exactly what we need, while supporting the local community and enriching the overall food experience for children and staff."
Rotating the menu every three weeks, with a complete overhaul twice a year, Sue is more than well versed in creating healthy and tasty recipes for children. However, the now well-imbedded food and nutrition-based guidelines have left absolutely no room for error, and she calls on nutritional software hport SE (standards and education) to ensure every box is ticked.
Salt is a biggie, and was her main concern prior to the guidelines coming into effect in 2009. "I wasn't adding salt to dishes per se at the time, but, when the standards came in, I had to take a much closer look at the salt in certain ingredients to ensure we were compliant," she said.
The readymade stocks she was using were suddenly a problem. "With health and safety regulations ruling out the running of a stockpot, school caterers were generally using a basic, readymade stock with ‘low in salt' credentials," she said. "When the standards came in, however, I looked closer at some of the big names and was quite shocked at the actual salt content."
Essential all round
With stock providing balance of depth and flavour to a dish and considered a cornerstone of the commercial kitchen, Sue faced a new challenge.
After shopping around with little success, however, she discovered Essential Cuisine, which is founded and run by Dorchester-trained chef Nigel Crane, at a supplier day and was impressed by the low salt content of its comprehensive range of light but flavoursome, powdered stocks.
Helping caterers look after their customers, Essential Cuisine has strived to lower the salt content, 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.
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.
Taking away some samples, Sue's next job was to weigh up cost against quality. "I tried them out and was really impressed by the quality," she said. "In terms of cost-effectiveness, my spend is £1.20 - £1.30 per head, plus overheads and labour costs, with a school lunch at Colham Manor priced at £2.10 and £2.20 at our other two schools.
"Everything has to add up, which is why I was also impressed at the yield produced by the stock against some of Essential Cuisine's more well-known competitors. The bonus in school catering is that you get an even greater yield of stock because children don't like food that's too rich. If a scoop makes one litre when you are cooking at home, it'll make one-and-a-half in schools."
Sue has been using Essential Cuisine's Vegetable, Beef and Chicken stocks, and more recently, its Cheese Stock, for over a year now, with each 800g tub producing a superior yield of 50ltrs. "When I left Laurel Lane and joined Colham Manor, I stuck with Essential Cuisine and now my team uses the stocks daily in everything from spaghetti Bolognese to lasagne sauces," she said.
"Because they are powdered, it means we have extra flexibility, making it up as a stock or adding it straight to a dish. For cauliflower cheese, for example, we make up a béchamel sauce, add the stock and grate cheese on top. It's more cost-effective and brings down the calorific content."
Now a firm convert to Essential Cuisine, Sue has also started using the company's No.1 Savoury Gravy, part of a range which also includes No.1 Beef and No.1 Chicken for gravy as it should be.
"I use it across the board, to make onion gravy for roast dinners and in our beef crumble, as it is meaty tasting but suitable for vegetarians, saving on buying a mix of products," she said.
Based in Cheshire, Essential Cuisine fits in nicely with Sue's 'British is best' policy, while its 'made for chefs by chefs' ethos is also a selling point. "Guy from Essential came out to see me to show me how the products can be used, and we ended up sharing ideas," she said. "It was clear he had been a chef and wasn't just a salesman with no experience, which you don't usually get."