What does it take to make a child interested in food? Do you have to grow up in a first-class restaurant? Or spend your childhood learning kitchen lore from an overbearing French maman? Or do you just need one striking experience to open you up to the possibilities of the things you eat?
The Focus on Food cooking bus is a touring classroom trying to provide thousands of British schoolchildren with this kind of singular moment. I recently joined the bus at Bonner primary school in Bethnal Green, east London, on the first day of the annual Focus on Food Week. "Bus" does not seem the right word for "an expandable pantechnicon that converts to a state-of-the-art kitchen", complete with four child-sized work tables, a demonstration table, running water, myriad wooden spoons, and amply stocked fridges, courtesy of Waitrose, the sponsor.
The theme this year is all things Italian. Rosemary, garlic and basil scented the summer air. The TV chef Tony Tobin, aided by the two permanent teachers on the bus, had one and a half hours to show 16 ten- and eleven-year-olds of extremely mixed ability and ethnic background how to make plain bread dough, pizza, calzone, focaccia and, finally, reams of fresh pasta.
Now, you can imagine how nauseating this kind of exercise might be if Focus on Food had got it wrong; if the chef had paraded his stardom; if Italian know-how had been too pretentiously pushed; if the tone had been either too aloof or too ingratiating. As it was, it turned out to be a model of accelerated learning, and brought tears to my eyes more than once.
Tobin, a stalwart of Ready Steady Cook and a patient teacher, got his audience exactly right. "We're going to wake this yeast up, give it a shower and let it have its breakfast," he said, and the children giggled. They looked a bit squeamish when he held up an anchovy to go on pizza, but they copied what he had shown them meticulously, arranging mozzarella with sombre concentration, and in some cases crimping the edges of the calzone like professionals.
Anita Cormac, the director of Focus on Food, disputes the idea that, when teaching children cooking, "it doesn't really matter what the result is", so long as the children have had fun. She rejects funny-face cooking outright, and says: "We always push for a well-crafted product." This is a way of taking the children seriously, as well as teaching them more about cooking. Most of them looked amazed that they had managed to make something so delicious to take home to their mums. It was particularly moving to watch a cheerful boy with learning disabilities at first struggling even to make his dough cohere, but then, slowly but surely, producing the most desirable pizza in his work group.
Bonner school was recommended to Focus on Food by a talkative local taxi-driver, Alan Docker, who by strange coincidence also drove me there that morning. However, any school in the country can apply to have a visit from the bus. It usually stays for a full week, involving teachers as well as children of all ages.
No one could see the bus without appreciating what a huge impact a single lesson can have, nor leave it without feeling that one such experience provokes the desire for more. OK, so it's sponsored by a supermarket, which isn't perfect, but at least it's Waitrose, which has been remarkably un-self-serving (for example, it still sponsors the campaign in the north, where it has no stores).
But what is needed next is another bus, which Focus on Food is asking the government to fund. It's had no joy so far. Ministers, act now!