Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The 40th Challenge: Challenge Number 8 – Dine In a 2-Michelin Star Restaurant

This has to be the ultimate in greedy challenges. If you recall, I said right at the start of the challenge year that I hoped this would be my birthday present from Dave. This meant that my 40 challenges had to be called 39 steps, as the 40th would have to happen after the completion of the others and therefore probably after my birthday. Dining in a two-Michelin star restaurant was a crazy ambition given our circumstances and finances, but I just hoped that somehow we would pull it off.

I have eaten in four one-Michelin star restaurants. Three of them were in Edinburgh, where Dave and I used to spend my birthday every year after we moved to York, at a time when we were still tinkies (two incomes, no kids) and had money for luxuries. All three (Tom Kitchin’s The Kitchin in Leith, Number One at the Balmoral Hotel, and Martin Wishart’s in Leith) were superb. Unfortunately, I only went to the latter two while pregnant, which meant that nearly all the starters (raw fish, pâté, mouldy cheese) and desserts (raw egg, booze, mouldy cheese) were off the menu, and certain foods were still making me a tad queasy, resulting in me having to make a hurried swap of one of my main courses. The fourth Michelin-starred restaurant we went to was The Star Inn at Harome in Yorkshire, which was thoroughly disappointing for the price, gave me a migraine, and subsequently lost its star.

So even though any sort of meal in a restaurant is a huge and rare treat these days, posh or otherwise, I still felt that now it was time to up our experience, and our bill, and try out the next level. I always had Le Manoir Aux Quatr’ Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire in mind as my two-Michelin starred restaurant of choice. Naturally, its reputation went before it. I’ve also found Raymond Blanc’s slight eccentricity but thoroughly decent charm and expertise very entertaining on television over the years, and have even read his autobiography. And also my aunt happens to live half an hour’s drive away, and she is the one member of my family from that generation who offers to baby-sit Charlotte.

You can only book a table at Le Manoir three months in advance, and lunch is much easier to get into than dinner (where overnight guests at the hotel always have priority). But alas, lunch isn’t cheaper than dinner on a weekend. Nevertheless, on December 9th, we rang to secure our table for the Saturday after my birthday, and got in to the 12.15pm sitting without difficulty. I then just had to wait, and hope that we would all be well enough on the day for the meal to go ahead. (These things are never a given with a near permanently germ-infested toddler in tow.) I didn’t even dare let myself get excited about it.

We travelled down on the Thursday, as there was another birthday treat in store for me during our trip. My family had all clubbed together to give me the very special gift of a pamper day at historic health farm and spa Champneys in Tring. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. What a place. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere quite so grand and luxurious. (It brands itself these days as a health "resort" rather than "farm" and its vast size alone makes that a fairly apt description.) It’s amazing how quickly just a few minutes in a Jacuzzi can make you feel better, let alone a Jacuzzi outside under a canopy in beautiful gardens in front of a Rothschild mansion. And this before you start on the sauna, steam room, plunge pool, thalassotherapy pool, platters of fresh fruit in the drawing room, and darkened quiet zone full of twinkly lights, recliner chairs, whale music and duvets. Included in my day were a facial and manicure, which served to remind me just how little time I get to care for my appearance these days. But they felt so good. My skin was visibly glowing afterwards. My aunt came along too, just to check it was all OK for me. This was only my second ever full day away from Charlotte. Dave took her to the model village of Bekonscot in the morning and to a soft play centre in Aylesbury after lunch, as it was chucking it down. And he was absolutely shattered by the time the rejuvenated me breezed in just before Charlotte’s bedtime.

Then it was the day of the lunch. And despite all my fears, it all worked out magnificently. We explained to Charlotte (very unused to being looked after by other people) that Mummy and Daddy were going out for a special lunch, and that she would stay with Auntie Shirley, and she could play with her trains, go to the park, eat baked beans, watch CBeebies as much as she wanted, and that we would be back after her nap, and she was perfectly accepting of the whole arrangement. If we’d left out the CBeebies part, she might not have been so complacent.

And then we drove off to paradise. A lot of the Michelin star grading system is based on the hospitality and ambience of a place, rather than the food. As you will see, the food was of course without exception exquisite, but what was so striking was the warm welcome we received from the moment we arrived, and the absolute comfort of our surroundings. The manor house dates from the 14th century and was built by a Frenchman, which explains its architectural style of Loire chateau meets Cotswold cottage. Inside is full of pale wood panelling and beams, and it manages to be light and airy despite its small medieval windows. There are huge fireplaces and cuddly sofas everywhere. Everyone greets you with a friendly smile. There is a lot of French spoken, and we became “madame” and “monsieur” to all. But all the staff seem genuinely pleased about your visit. There is not the slightest trace of snootiness about the place. There is no judgment made about your appearance, despite my aunt insisting on brushing off encrusted rice cake from my tatty old coat before we left. Nothing is too much trouble for anyone. The toilets are so spacious and luxurious I laughed.

We had arrived early and had planned to spend a little time wandering around the beautiful grounds before lunch, but the heavens opened as we pulled into the car park, so we just went straight inside and opted for a post-prandial stroll instead. The gardens are lovely at any time of year – the earth of the vegetable patches was mostly bare, but there were still interesting statues and sculptures everywhere, small ponds and secret paths, as well as a Japanese garden and tea house.

We were shown into a lounge and we just sat back and let it all happen. Snuggled up in front of the fire, we perused the menu and tried not to panic over the prices on the wine list, which often ran into hundreds if not thousands of pounds. Thankfully there were plenty of by the glass options (and this was only lunchtime after all, with one of us driving), even if a single glass cost more than we might hope to pay for a whole bottle elsewhere. But there’s no point going somewhere like that to then have to be entirely abstemious. You have to just go with the flow and worry about the credit card repayments another time. We ordered non-alcoholic cocktails as an aperitif – a virgin mojito for me, and a camparino for Dave, both refreshing palate cleansers. Then a plate of canapés arrived, and our mouths began to warm up to the gastronomic experience of a lifetime.
Canapes and menus on a cuddly sofa in front of the fire

There was an article in the Guardian this week about whether or not it is bad manners to photograph your food in a restaurant. Well, it probably is, but I had my blog post and you, dear readers, in mind. But I switched the camera flash off, and took just one shot as quickly as possible so that I would minimise disturbance to other diners. For some of the courses you will see that I forgot about taking a photo until I had already eaten some of it, as my senses were just too keen to jump in.

Our meal ran as follows:

The canapés – smoked salmon on toast, caraway pie, salt cod potato and ham balls on red pepper ketchup, goats curd with manuka honey on an oat cake.
The salmon is missing

Chosen from the bread basket - beer and mashed potato bread, sundried tomato ciabatta, raisin and pecan loaf, and a miniature French baguette, with a choice of salted or unsalted butter.

Washed down with - one glass of a Southern French Sauvignon Blanc, one glass of a Chassagne Montrachet, one glass of a Burgundy Pinot Noir at £22 (the waiter neglected to mention the price when he recommended it just before the main courses arrived) and half a glass of an English wine which was a bad choice of my own just before dessert.

The dishes of the Les Saveurs de Mars seven-course tasting menu (cue Masterchef style voiceover):

1. Ceviche de noix de St-Jacques, caviar et orange de Séville
(That’s raw scallops and something normally only in marmalade to you, on radish and fennel)

2. Saumon fumé mi-cuit, raifort et concombre
(Warm oak-smoked salmon, horseradish and what Charlotte pronounces cucumbugger)

3. Oeuf de poule, purée de cresson, jambon de jabugo, noisettes grillés
(Posh ham and eggs with hazelnuts and watercress slop)

4. Caille des dombes rôtie, chou rouge, vin rouge et canella
(Quail with red cabbage, red wine and cinnamon gravy, plus butternut squash two ways, turnip, onion and chestnut)

5. Fromage bleu Crozier, noix de pecan, gelée aux baies de genievre
(Irish blue cheese, cheese mousse, roasted pecans and juniper jelly on wafer-thin deep-fried bread)
Half the cheese has already vanished

6. Gelée de fruits exotiques, jus de noix de coco et feuille de kaffir
(An unbelievably clever ravioli with a shell of tropical fruit gel, with kaffir lime and coconut sorbet)

7. “Citrus”
(Lemon custard encased in lemon white chocolate on a lemon biscuit, with lemon and basil sorbet, grapefruit jellies and lime marshmallows and an added birthday touch)
Candle already extinguished

Happy diner

Rounded off with: peppermint tea (or coffee for Dave) and a plate of petits fours – a licorice mini-Magnum, lemon macaroon, chocolate and marmalade biscuit, mini brownie, pistachio and lavender nougat, rhubarb and ginger jelly, and a nut caramel cream.

Licorice mini-Magnum and lemon macaroon no longer in view

What can I say? It was all perfect. Even flavours that I don’t normally much care for, like horseradish, were in flawless balance and proportions. Everything melted away in our mouths, allowing us to taste every single ingredient whilst leaving us with a unique and complete overall flavour too. The textures of the baked produce (breads, pastry etc) were simply incredible. Nothing could compare.

The bill? £335. Ouch. Plus a new mobile phone for Dave, since his - rather worryingly - went missing while we were there, even though the staff did their utmost to help us find it. Without a doubt, my most extravagant birthday present ever.

I would give anything to go back, stay the night, live the dream one more time. But it will no doubt be at least a decade before I do.

Charlotte went down with a streaming cold just as we arrived back at my aunt’s. For once, her timing was truly impeccable.

Et voila. I'm done. 40 challenges for 40 years. My journey is complete.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Challenge Number 7 (and others) – Repeat

March 6th 2013. The dreaded big day of the four-oh had finally arrived and I’d been so busy finishing up my challenges that I had failed to organise myself a party. I knew that a big and exciting weekend lay ahead (more on this shortly) but I still wanted to do something a little bit special to make the actual day itself memorable. Not least because I feared the possibility of last-minute cancellations for said big weekend. (We are definitely overdue a vomiting bug, you see.) Part of me (or, truth be told, an awful lot of me) wanted to run away and hide (preferably in a luxury hotel) but as Dave had taken the day off work I felt it would be rather mean to not spend my birthday with my family.

My only briefs to Dave about the day was that I wanted my first lie-in in two and a half years, come what may, and that I wanted to drink champagne at an inappropriate moment. So the night before, Dave slept upstairs in our attic with instructions to take Charlotte down to the lounge as soon as she woke, I had our bedroom door firmly shut, ear plugs rammed in, the duvet over my head, the black-out blinds down... and what flipping time did I wake up? Ten to seven. Just like every other day of the week when Charlotte chirrups us awake. I didn’t get up straight away, mind, but I didn’t get any more sleep either.

Eventually I had a shower and went downstairs to be greeted by my very excited daughter shouting “Mummy! Birthday! Presents! Sweeties! Charlotte will have one. Just a little one,” which could only further ingrain (and endear) her as the chip off the old block that she truly is. I didn’t give her any of my sweeties though, since naughty Daddy had bought me 40 champagne truffles to mark my 40 years. Yet this wasn’t the champagne at an inappropriate moment, as Dave then produced a miniature bottle for me to down with my breakfast: a breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs and a pain au chocolat.

A colourful (and alcoholic) breakfast

It dawned misty and rainy; weather conditions that weren’t going to change for the next few days, when it started to snow instead. Sigh. So much for my birthday heralding the spring. Dave had written in my card that we shouldn’t just be celebrating my birthday, but the completion of all of my 39 steps too, so that’s what we set out to do, with a little homage to several of the better challenges along the way. So after my brightly coloured breakfast (challenge number 11), we set off to Whitby, one of my favourite Yorkshire places, where we went to the beach at high tide and played football in a downpour. This served as a reminder of our trip to see Brazil vs New Zealand at the Olympics (challenge number 21) and to mark our being on an island, just like we were on Jersey (challenge number 26). Alas, the inclement weather and tidal-sized waves meant there could be no repeat of outdoor bathing challenge number 28, but I did get my snowboots wet at one point while wading into the water to retrieve the errant football. Even though Whitby is more famous for being the opening setting for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Stoker’s contemporary Charles Dickens (challenge number 22) was also known to holiday here. And I was armed with a birthday gift of beautiful green mittens knitted by Sam, who gave me the 40 challenges idea and was keen to encourage to keep up my new crafty skill (challenge number 15).

No amount of tickling would make Charlotte look at the camera

Daddy has England ambitions for his daughter

Soon it was time for lunch, and what could have been a better choice than the lobster thermidor at the Magpie Cafe, a repeat of challenge number 7 (completed on Jersey)? Whitby was fairly desolate in the deluge, so for the first time ever, we didn’t have to queue, and had a choice of tables once inside. Most people go to the Magpie for the whale-sized portions of haddock and beef-dripping chips, so I felt I ought to explain to the waitress why I was ordering the most expensive thing on the menu by quite some distance. She wished me a happy birthday and I thought no more of it until just as we were about to ask for the bill, when suddenly she emerged from the kitchen with a candle atop a miniature Victoria sponge cake. With typical Yorkshire tact, she then shouted, “Right, everybody, we have a birthday! Stop what you're doing and sing for Rebecca!” and made the entire restaurant perform Happy Birthday. Charlotte may love birthday presents and sweeties and cakes but still hates the song (remember challenge number 31?), so she burst into tears. She was quickly calmed by being allowed to eat most of the cake. Victoria sponge maybe, but for a brief moment amongst Yorkshire's finest, I felt as if I had slipped into a Victoria Wood sketch.

The Magpie's Lobster thermidor with battered courgettes

Time to move on, and another bleak and foggy drive across the Moors took us back to York, where I had promised myself afternoon tea at that other classic Yorkshire eaterie, Betty’s. Once more against tradition, there was no queue here either. And because I wanted to drink champagne at inappropriate moments, it had to be the pink champagne afternoon tea. Betty’s may not seem very German-speaking these days (challenge number 25), but its founder, Fritz Bützer (who subsequently changed his name to Frederick Belmont while living in Bradford) definitely was, since he was born in the Swiss Alps. And Betty’s is nicely situated in St Helen’s Square, opposite the original Terry’s shop, factory and restaurant, which links to my York chocolate tour (challenge number 13). And there was much chocolate involved in afternoon tea. And since I was having a day off, there was also much bread not baked by me (challenge number 34) and jam not burnt by me on the scones (challenge number 29). Charlotte, allowed to shovel down cake for her second meal of the day, was in heaven. And there was no singing this time. Betty’s may seem dead posh, but it is incredibly child friendly, which is probably a bad discovery. I don't think I have ever felt so full as I did when we left.

You get more sandwiches than this -
I'd been too busy eating to remember to take a photo

When we left Betty’s, it was already dark. Time had run away with us. I had arranged to meet a friend for a drink in town at eight, but somehow had to get to a parents’ evening at Charlotte’s nursery in between. There was no time to go home to change, so a repeat of my cocktails in a glamorous dress challenge (number 6) would only be able to involve the cocktails. I also had to make an emergency trip to Marks & Spencer's to spend some birthday money on a small handbag, so that I didn’t have to take a changing bag full of nappies and snacks out on the town with me. Dave then took Charlotte and the changing bag home. And Stripey of course, who had been with us throughout the day (challenge number 16). I drank more wine at the nursery parents’ evening which helpfully disguised the fact that I had turned up slightly drunk in the first place. (Bad Mummy.) Then I headed back into town to meet Claire for the biggest gin and tonic of my life.

A lot of Hendricks and cucumber

It turns out that being 40 isn’t so bad after all. Cheers!

Monday, 4 March 2013

Challenge Number 18 - Retake

Hello, me again. To feel a little better about turning 40, I decided it was time to re-attempt my crazy hair colour challenge. I have a new hairdresser now. She is fantastic. I can give you her number.

Now, it's not fluorescent pink, blue or green, but it's definitely bold. As you will see, unfortunately this attempt still has hues of our front door in it, but it's not an exact match. In fact it's more of an exact match to the background colour of my blog.

But everyone has noticed the difference this time. And because this hairdresser uses decent products, it hasn't ruined my hair either.

Two days to go til F-Day. Feeling a bit shaky now.