Steamed, wet vegetables, baked beans, lots of baked beans, pies in tin foil, room temperature yoghurts, Mother’s Pride bread, plastic chairs…
That is pretty much my memory of dining in halls at university. It was the 80s; it rained a lot; students had big hair; it was Hull.
In fact, “dining in halls” is a misleading term, suggesting an air of faded Brideshead glamour, of fellows in cloaks and bottles of claret. We made do with a canteen at a student accommodation site called The Lawns, so named because there was grass, then something of a novelty in Hull.
My student city was superb in many respects but food provision wasn’t its strong point. Campus grub has changed beyond all recognition in the intervening 30 years. Today there are wraps, stir fries, things with pesto, curries without sultanas. I have gained an eye-opening insight into the variety of food now available at higher education institutions through contacts with The University Caterers Organisation, the industry’s leading membership body.
But what about the top end of university dining? What is it really like to dine like a don in 2016?
I get a chance to find out when I am invited to St John’s College, Cambridge by catering and conference manager Bill Brogan. The evening promises a round table discussion about hospitality and I take Brogan’s advice and get down in plenty of time for a stroll around the city. Astonishingly, it is my first visit and the city lives up to the hype.
Before dinner in Parsons Room, there is time for a sneak peek of The Hall, the spectacular 16th Century room where students and fellows dine each night by candlelight.
The Hall can be best summed up in one words: Hogwarts. The vast space looks like it has been ripped from the pages of a Harry Potter book, only St John’s was here several hundreds years before J K Rowling put finger to word processor.
This evening’s three-course student dinner, with half a bottle of wine and coffee, comprises Jerusalem artichoke soup; pan-fried chicken supreme with a thyme sauce, roast heritage potatoes and broccoli; and mango pannacotta, berry compote and a tuile biscuit.
The fellows are served three different courses; the menu is written in French (no translation) for fellows, English for undergraduates. Quite right, too.
In Parsons Room, one quickly gets a taste of the evening ahead as guests at the reception are served Pol Roger Pure Champagne, a beautifully bone dry-blend of pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay.
There is an unofficial competition at Cambridge to be the top college for dining. Trinity has a friendly rivalry with St John’s and head of catering Ian Reinhardt, a dab hand with a crème brûlée, joins us for dinner. I have yet to run the rule over Trinity’s cooking but Reinhardt has his work cut out if he wants Brogan’s crown.
Pot roast quail is paired with warm aubergine and on-trend superfood pomegranate for a salad, followed by precisely cooked fillet of halibut. The plump fish is sprinkled with Danish-style crunchy ymerdrys and distinctly French-style braised haricot beans with garlic and blanched tomatoes.
Brogan has an eye, and a palate, for exciting wines and tonight is no exception. The salad and fish are accompanied by a pale Japanese white wine, Sol Lucet Koshu, from Yamanashi. Low in alcohol, this delicate wine has citrus fruit and apple notes.
The main course – canon of lamb with a brioche crust – requires an altogether bigger wine and Brogan plays his trump card with a delicious Chêne Bleu Astralabe, as good a bottle of Rhône as I have had in a while. The grapes are grown in the mountains above Gigondas. Decades-old grenache and syrah vines have been supplemented with new vineyard plantings of traditional regional varietals such as roussanne, marsanne and viognier. It is an amazing project for which principal Nicole Rolet and her team deserve huge credit.
The 2011 Astralabe conjures up the dry spice, sunshine and big fruits of Provence. It is a powerful wine but there is freshness too, perhaps a result of the altitude of Chêne Bleu in the Dentelles de Montmirail. The vineyard’s motto may be Non Mihi, Non Tibi, Sed Nobis (Not Mine, Not Yours, But Ours) but frankly I would be very happy to keep the Astralabe all to myself. Ungallant, but needs must.
Dinner continues with a water pudding, an old English dessert, enlived by winter berries, passion fruit jellies, an orange tuile biscuit and Japanese salted ice cream. The level of cooking is quite remarkable for a university, albeit a very special one. This sort of food can only be produced through dedication, a commitment to staff training and a highly motivated management.
Dinner concludes, as I had hoped it would, with cheese and the ritual passing of the port, a juicy 2009 Krohn. There may be French menus for the fellows in The Hall but it is British cheeses that are celebrated in Parsons Room: delicate Baron Bigod, a brie-type cheese from Suffolk; a pungent Devon Blue; and Paddy’s Milestone, creamy cheese that takes the local name for Ailsa Craig, the famous rock in the Firth of Clyde.
After the meal, I take a short stroll over the college’s Bridge of Sighs, peering out on the inky black River Cam. I had expected the bridge to have a romantic link with its Venetian namesake but the only similarity, except the name, is that they are both covered constructions.
Meandering through the college’s vaulted walkways I can’t help but think that Venice, street for street, must easily out-punch Cambridge for gastronomic experiences. But I doubt if any of its noble seats of learning have a kitchen and a hospitality staff to compare with St John’s.