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Spring Feast, with Julia Ponsonby (right). Photo: Joanna Brown.

Spring Feast, with Julia Ponsonby (right). Photo: Joanna Brown.

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Green meals for 85? No problem for Schumacher College's Head Cook

Julia Ponsonby

30th August 2014

Good food is an essential ingredient at Schumacher College, writes Julia Ponsonby, made with love using fresh, wholesome ingredients many of which have traveled no further than the vegetable garden. No less important, the sense of companionship, learning, fun and frequent hilarity that permeates the building - and the kitchen in particular.

Great enjoyment in working together and sharing a mutual love of the Earth in all its abundance continually breeds good food - and just as important, good mood!

Any room that has four doors opening off it provides the perfect setting for a farce. Not just farce - time travel.

The kitchen at Schumacher College is such a room - four doors, and a wide window opening on to a beautiful garden of herbs and edible flowers.

With the beginning of every new course at the College it is my job as Head of Food to introduce the new batch of students to the kitchen. Here they will be engaged in cooking, with staff, volunteers and professional chefs.

Here we hope they will not be engaged in germ spreading, cutting their pinkies or, we hope, burning the cookies. But they will be involved in time travel, because Schumacher College is that kind of place.

When people arrive they immerse themselves in learning and connecting with other like-minded people. It is a transformative experience that is easy to underestimate.

People arrive open to life-change and when I say "over there is a calendar, in case you forget the date" there is usually a chuckle, but it's true. People forget the outside world while they are at the College, so they need to be reminded which date to write on the leftover food!

The importance of good food

Good food really helps people focus and feel comfortable where they are. We source our food as locally as we can - but also drawing on fairly traded commodities for the well-travelled foods people just don't seem ready to give up - namely, coffee, chocolate and bananas.

We love fresh organic vegetables, more and more of which we grow in our own burgeoning vegetable patch around the College, with ducks in charge of slug control. The usual diet is a varied lacto-vegetarian offer that includes beans, eggs and cheese for protein alongside vegetables and fruit.

We make our own bread, which includes an abundance of sourdough breads baked mainly by our longest serving volunteer, Voirrey Watterson, who is also a keen fermenter.

Voirrey is not the only person at the College who seeks to cultivate her own culinary interests whilst still remaining part of a communal pattern of eating and food preparation. Indeed, managing diverse food interests and special diet requirements has been one of the challenges that has faced catering managers right from the beginning.

The very fact that we are a vegetarian college has sometimes been brought into question, or cleverly negotiated around by students with a commitment to meat eating. Never was this more keenly felt than a few years ago when we had several students on our masters programmes all of whom felt they needed to eat regular meat and fish to maintain health.

Anyone for pheasants?

One of the students had a game-keeper for a father and would frequently bring back a brace of pheasants after a weekend away. These would be found hanging in an outhouse ready to be cooked on an outdoor fire a few days later.

Usually, however, students seem delighted with the vegetarian food we offer and respectful of the guidelines that no meat or fish should be kept in college premises. This is not just for reasons of health and safety, but because we get visitors coming here who are committed to vegetarianism for spiritual and moral reasons and would be upset by the stink of fish in an accommodation block kitchen fridge intended for milk.

We also cater for special dietary requirements. Mostly these take the form of requests for a vegan or a gluten-free diet - to take the most common and least bizarre examples.

I encourage people to tell us if they have any problems with the food, because I want them to feel happy, but some of my colleagues get really fed up, and so do I, when special diets are prepared and then ignored, ending up in the compost bucket.

OK, if you've got a medical problem, we're happy to make a special diet pizza or pudding and we do so. But if special diet customers are seen ignoring their special meals and taking a piece of cheesy pizza or creamy gateaux, it will be the talk of the kitchen for days!

Personal responsibility - and self-control

Whose responsibility is it when you eat something you deem to be bad for you? This is an oft debated subject when it comes to home-made cookies. People love them - but some people feel they eat too many. They worry they will get fat and suggest we should cut such temptations out of the Schumacher College diet altogether. This is a subject that crops up for debate with surprising regularity.

Being the head cook at an international learning centre, which explores pathways to a sustainable future, I do feel it is my responsibility to provide a balanced and healthy diet that people will be nurtured by and find pleasurable. It's also important that our diet sets a good example. However, for many people coming from far and wide, the touches of sweetness are greatly looked forward to - and the making of the cookies is also enjoyed.

My way of managing the 'temptress' label is to make sure fresh or dried fruit is also available: thus confronting people with an awareness that they are making their own choice. This mirrors choices we are making all the time in the big wide world, where we are confronted by advertising and continuously offered the opportunity to over-indulge.

So, in short, cookies at Schumacher college are a 'naughty but nice' reality-fix. And if you eat too many and put on weight - on your own head (or rather stomach) be it.

Other catering choices can also be seen as educational tools. For example, during a year in which the British bee came seriously under threat and honey supplies dropped to almost zero throughout the country, my colleague Wayne Schroeder, rather than buy in honey from abroad, decided to use this as a learning opportunity.

Any student surprised by the absence of honey in the snack area would come in search of it. During the process they would encounter Wayne and hear the illuminating story of the plight of the honey bee, including a bit more about the amazing function bees have for all growing systems where they act as pollinators - fruit trees for example.

Horticulture at home

Learning about food through food has become more explicit since our courses in sustainable horticulture for food production began. Nowadays, all students get involved in gardening as well as cooking, so everyone experiences the whole cycle of food production from field to table to some degree.

The students whose main focus is to learn about sustainable food production systems rub shoulders with other students as they wash up and cook together, so there is a sharing of deeper knowledge too - this contributes to the wholistic nature of learning at the College.

Holistic Science, Economics for Transition, Ecological Design and many other subjects dance their way through the conversations with a deep love of cooking and gardening frequently recurring as a common thread that weaves the major themes together.

Visitors to our doors

Going back to the four doors and the farce image. People who come to Schumacher College often say that the kitchen is the heart of the place - it is physically easy to find and very visible. It is the place where all the gossip is shared.

And it is the place where there is a lot of fun spent cooking up nutritious, wholesome and delicious food to sustain 85 or so people who will eat at lunch time and 50 or so people who will eat in the evening.

It can get crazy - because of the four doors - people come to one opening looking for someone who has just gone out of another door. Lead Cook dilemma - do you go looking for people who are lost? Not when its ten minutes to serving time. Then, the answer has to be - go and look in the big fridge!

Other visitors to our doors are, occasionally, insects, mice, salesmen and stray dogs - normally being looked after by one of our dog-loving admin staff. These all need to be politely shooed away.

We also have the roof men - the kitchen has an oft-missed door that opens on to a tiny courtyard where direct access can be gained to the College's amazing patch worked and pinnacled roof system.

When the roof men arrive with a ladder, you know a new leak must have sprung up overnight, the library is probably dripping with water and these brave roof-onauts are going to go up and fix things yet again; part of the ongoing roof saga that has been a recurrent theme for the last 25 years.

Finally, a mention of the latest arrivers to those usually open kitchen doors, brings into focus the diverse possibilities for lending a helping hand that open up when you work with food.

Just over a year ago, I was approached by the director of a new project starting up on the Dartington Estate. Named 'Landworks', it aims to provide people coming out of prison with a new set of skills and a new hope in life. We were asked simply if we could provide bread and soup during the initial set up phase of the project.

So unexpectedly successful was this small amount of extra work that we have continued to provide bread and soup and enjoy the mutual enrichment of meeting men journeying on from a different life experience to our normal participants.

Extending opportunities

Another extension of our normal activities has been to create a role for a person with Down's syndrome to support the work of the kitchen one morning a week as a 'hospitality assistant'.

The young lady in question, Sophie, arrives one morning a week with a supporter from the Robert Owen Communities and after 6 months she has learned her job well and is really useful and happy. We too have learned a lot about working differently with people who have unusual skill-frameworks and the value of patience when it comes to giving people the opportunity to flower at their own rate.

With the production of good wholesome vegetarian food at the very heart of what our kitchen does, it's perhaps not surprising that we're frequently asked for recipes and that we've put these into cookbooks.

The first, Gaia's Kitchen, clearly showed a demand for the scaled up recipes it offers, alongside the usual 'family' size quantities. These larger amounts are suitable for anyone preparing food for a group - which could be a party or a community group or a student group.

Our next book, Gaia's Feasts, follows up on this theme by providing another decade's worth of recipes from the College, many provided by our gifted team of chefs.

The recipes are also a testament to a place where great enjoyment in working together and sharing a mutual love of the Earth in all its abundance continually breeds good food - and just as important, good mood!



Julia Ponsonby is a vegetarian chef and currently the Head of Food at Schumacher College. She lives in on the Dartington Estate with her husband and 13 year old son and has worked at the College (on and off) for the last 20 years.

Gaia's Feasts Special offer: 30% off and free p&p in the UK between 1st September and 30th September 2014. Enter code: ECOLOGIST14.

Julia's books



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