Élan victual

University food is not what it used to be, laments John Gilbey, but perhaps it is not too late to make it glorious once again

September 27, 2012

The Wild-West themed diner in the Californian airport lounge was crowded and I ended up sharing a table with an American businessman. Given our impressively displayed respective bulk, this turned out to be a fairly intimate affair. We exchanged pleasantries about destinations and weather - then, as the platters of heavily greased protein were thudded down in front of us, the conversation shifted to employment.

My new-found friend was chomping through a steak sandwich about the size of my left lung when I mentioned that I worked for a British university. His hand paused on its way to the mammoth pile of onion rings and his eyes glazed over.

"You're one lucky guy, do you know that?" he remarked. I agreed - in subdued but polite tones - then asked him why, especially, he considered this to be the case. Tiny beads of perspiration broke out on his forehead and he fought visibly with a powerful emotion - or, perhaps, heartburn. Wiping his brow, he began to enumerate the benefits of my post.

"Why, the roast beef of Olde England, of course...High table at college dinners with the best silver shining in the candlelight...Huge haunches of meat being carried shoulder high into the hall by the kitchen porters to be greeted by rows of cheering students in evening dress...Roast swan appearing by Royal decree...Fine wines chosen from the extensive cellerage by the bursar to accompany each course...Rich, creamy puddings and private stocks of crusted port served in antique glasses...Then off to the senior common room for ancient brandies and choice cigars enjoyed on leather Chesterfields before an open log fire...Heck, it must be amazing..."

He was obviously a man who liked his food, but his view of college catering, which appeared surprisingly naive for such a well-travelled man, seemed to be some shotgun recombination of Hollywood epics depicting medieval England - starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, naturally - along with a heady infusion of Brideshead Revisited, a side order of Porterhouse Blue and a light drizzle of Downton Abbey.

I considered carefully: he was either deadly serious or merely a much better exponent of dramatic irony than me, so I decided to let him down as gently as possible. I regaled him with tragic stories of cuts in funding and cited examples of the newly health-conscious, Olympic-frenzied and body-image empowered UK that I inhabited. He looked genuinely crestfallen and said it was a "damn shame", hinting that I ought to stand up for my traditional rights.

Back on campus, I thought about that comment as I queued in the cheaper of the two sandwich bars for my tuna 'n' cucumber roll - no mayo - and apple juice to stave off the jet-lag. Why is it that so much university catering is almost painfully bland these days? Why have we lost so much of the individuality that was still apparent only 10 years ago? Sure, the food is still wholesome, clean and well presented, but I can clearly and fondly remember particular university dining rooms that had reputations appreciated far beyond campus - to the extent that external examiners would carefully plan their visits to coincide with the day that the best roast was served.

It is probably all down to money, of course, and much of the academic food supply has been farmed out to the catering giants that service so many public venues. Even where the facilities have been kept in-house, there seems to be an expectation that they will at least look as though they have been franchised, with strange faux-branded eateries appearing like mushrooms overnight. As a result, it is hardly surprising that you feel as though you are in a motorway service area whenever you try to get a snack at a UK university.

Thankfully, you can still find pockets of excellence if you look really hard - such as the conference breakfast I had at an Oxbridge college recently. Hundreds of (slightly hung-over) delegates descended simultaneously on the servery for a full English whose extra-crisped bacon you could smell in every corridor of the hall. Serving commenced with almost military precision, as each delegate was given a bespoke selection from the hotplates without having to break step. As we turned towards the tables, a youth plonked a set of cutlery wrapped in a cloth napkin on each tray. Appearing from nowhere, the tall, suited figure of the bursar leaned towards him and quietly intoned: "Keep 'em straight, lad." It was a moment of pure Dickens.

Perhaps my American friend is on to something. Given the still prevalent passion for meat, grease and dairy overload, perhaps one could raise some extra tourist revenue by delivering food in a carefully themed campus outlet. Heck, maybe if you called it the Centre for Falstaffian Studies and added some historically costumed academics to intone appropriately punchy mini-lectures over the main course, you could even pick up some grant money to help fund it. You would need to make sure that your roast ox was up to scratch, of course, but I would be more than happy to test it out for you: my consultancy rates are very reasonable.

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