This is how it started. All grump and tantrum over not being allowed to sit in 27 degree heat without a sun hat. When you’re 1 it’s important to look cool on the beach. Who cares about sun stroke? READ MORE
So given a night without all three of our kids, what did we do? Did we grab a takeaway, a DVD and an early night in our own, very comfortable king sized bed? Did we hell. We decided to make like teenagers and go on an adventure. Only adventures these days come really rather well prepared. I consulted Twitter and Facebook for recommendations for Birmingham (I thank you and I love you all for being so forthcoming in telling me the great and the good of your home city) and this is what happened.
We stayed at the Bloc hotel in The Jewellery Quarter. Now, I booked this pretty much based on the fact it was under £50 and didn’t look like the kind of place where I might catch bed bugs. Oh and our room didn’t have a window (though did have a blind pretending to cover a make believe window) which for me is a big plus. I HATE being woken by light. I have been known to unplug hotel alarm clocks as the red numbers pollute my inky space. I know this is strange, but I need to mention it.
We spent 5 days in Normandy over Easter. It was a flip, last minute decision. The kind that seems all a bit crazy (well crazy in a parents-of-two-small-boys way) at the time.
‘Let’s just go away!’ I exclaimed over the phone to my husband. ‘I’ll book it! Nothing for you to do!’ I am surely at my best when faced with a last minute project to organise. It brings out the Brownie in me. I like packing, making lists, ordering holiday money, searching for insurance, planning stops offs en route. And especially researching places to eat. Oh yes! Just give a pregnant Holly a mini break and little or no time to plan it and I’m happy as a glutton in France.
I do like a bit of praise though. And it has to be said that my bargain £250 holiday in Houlgate (including the ferry crossing and superior caravan view – ha) may have been mocked by my husband a few times over the 5 days. He was subjected to a fair few caravan holidays in his formative years, giving him a pathological hatred of campsites, caravan clubs or anything where the bedding is less than luxurious. Me? Well I like the idea of roughing it but come over a bit pathetic when anything remotely uncomfortable rears its head.
So here’s where we went. And we stayed in a modest 2 bedroom static caravan. It’s wasn’t plush or comfy. It was a bit basic. But it was fine. Houlgate was chosen for its proximity to Calais, nearby beach and indoor swimming pool. After all Normandy isn’t renowned for sun. But it is renowned for amazing food. So an indoor pool, two adventure playgrounds and a a climbing wall were the big ticks for the younger members of the trip. The local restaurants were the playgrounds for the older ones.
We powered down to Dover with the aid of an iPad and a lot of sticker books. The crossing was blissful mainly due to the picnic (told you I love a planned trip) and kids area with Tom & Jerry on a loop.
The campsite was quiet and mainly full of Dutch and German tourists. In my girlie swot research I’d found that the onsite restaurant did good pizzas but everything else was a bit ropey. Well I beg to differ. The pizza was not great – the base pre baked and cardboard like. The kids weren’t keen and neither were we. We didn’t eat there again. Luckily every morning we collected fresh bread and croissants ordered from the site shop. Much better.
Check out the 70s style caravan decor. Mr Bell (an interior designer) just LOVED it. The local beach was a 5 minute drive (with free, unrestricted parking and loos – hurrah for my pregnant SPD hips and bladder) with long, long beaches and a lot of ‘the right kind of sand’ for castle building. We set to work.
Until hunger stopped us in our tracks. So off we toddled to Le Patio and indulged in ham pizza, a prawn & avocado salad and a roasted vegetable bruschetta.
It was pretty good – though the avocado was hard according to Mr Bell. The bill was 53 Euros with drinks. The sky was beautiful and moody.
But it did look like it was about to rain so we retrieved the trains we’d buried and hot footed it back to the caravan for a little mid afternoon nap.
Then we realised we’d left the wooden track buried in the moat. Back we went. It was as close to a beach crisis as we’d ever gotten. The tide was coming in! The sandcastle, once located, was just metres from the incoming sea. Mr Bell dug and dug with all his might! Daddy saved the day.
Day 2 saw us explore the main drag in Houlgate (there’s only really one drag so hard to miss it).
And we found a beautiful patisserie shop:
So we bought some gold coins, obviously.
We had lunch at Ambiance Cafe, followed by pudding. Chocolate crepe for Charlie:
Cafe Gourmand for Daddy (though I didn’t get there fast enough to capture the full extent of the joys… there was a floating island, strawberries and cream, caramel ice-cream and a macaron.)
The macaron I helped to taste. Texture good, flavour a little lacking.
Oh and coconut and pistachio ice-cream for me:
Dinner was at Cafe Chocolat. Moules for Daddy:
A croque-monsieur for the boys and a galette fromagere for me. And pudding, well of course there was pudding:
Excellent macarons to share. Happy campers. Though these small toddler models did freak the boys out a bit.
The next day was an early start as it was market day. First stop a drink:
Now being pregnant and in France can be tortuous. Little cheese, no pate, very little red wine and a lot of seafood off the menu. But this market sold oil dispensers. I can’t tell you how excited I was to see these. I know, I know…
And other stuff too…
We spent a bit more time on the beach. Mostly trampling sandcastles built by men with bigger spades:
Then we went for lunch again. At Le Royalty. Are you getting the idea? Moules (with a lot of cheese) for Daddy. The sauce was amazing. I helped mop a lot of it up with bread. I’m very helpful like that.
A delicious burger for Mummy:
Ham and chips for the children (which was delicious) and then a few puddings:
A brownie with ice-cream to share and a very disappointing creme brulee/scrambled egg concoction for me.
And it looked so promising. I also managed to break not 1, not 2 but 3 glasses in Le Royalty. The waitress had every right to look moody. We left a good tip to cover my clumsiness.
And the weather? Yes it did rain a fair bit. But we expected that. The upside of the rain was the lush greenery and flowers:
And the best morsel that passed my lips all holiday? This baby:
A pain au chocolate beurre noisette – crunchy roasted hazelnuts and chocolate shavings on top with a sugar nibbed streaked crunchy hazelnut and chocolate butter inside. I WILL be trying to recreate this beauty at home. We bought it at the motorway service station on the way back to Calais for a whopping 1.65 Euros. Amazing. Don’t you just love France?
But there’s no place like home. In fact there’s no place like your own comfy super king sized bed. Would we return? To the place – yes. To a very back to basics static caravan? Possibly not. We spent a bit more money last summer on a posh caravan in the Loire Valley and I think that’s the right option for us in future. Better beds and a proper sofa. I must be getting old.
I’m a big of a fan of The Restaurant Man. Like many a greedy girl or boy I have not so secret dreams of one day opening my own eatery. With Baby Bell #3 on his/her way in June it’s looking highly unlikely. I can’t see I’ll have the time or energy by the time the last rugrat is at school to open a restaurant. Or even a cafe. In my next life maybe.
So my dreams are lived out vicariously through those brave souls who open their restaurants with the help of Russell Norman , owner of the renowned Polpo, guiding their endeavours. He’s kind, firm, unflappable, clear and frankly a good blueprint for any trainee primary school teacher. I aspire to his zen like manner.
Imagine my excitement at lunching at The Ape & Bird, his latest opening, slap bang in the middle of the tourist hell that is Shaftsbury Avenue. I feel I can say this given I worked on Great Newport Street back in 2002 – 2003. I saw it all; the tourists knocked over by buses, girls screaming at night into their boyfriends faces for losing their theatre tickets, drunk city boys stumbling from China Town with vomit streaked jackets, folks from outside the M25 clutching maps and handbags – lost and afraid. It’s not my favourite part of London but it is on the cusp of Soho, which I am very much in love with, despite the prevalence of PVC wielding shops.
My good university pal Lucy booked us in, being a too cool for skool girl who works in film (She looks after the costumes of Brad, Ange and the like. I’m not kidding, she really does. Oh the stories she can tell! Of course I can’t repeat any of it. Sorry.) She knows about new openings, hem lengths, why bird tattoos will last the test of time, what’s hot etc. Now the Ape & Bird is right next to a Pizza Hut, so as we entered into the thing of beauty that is the main A & B bar, we glanced across at tired tourists eating their pizzas and felt a little smug. We were in the know. Oh yes.
We pushed through a red velour curtain that keeps out the cold of the street and the noise of the taxis into what can only be described as bar heaven. The curtain was indeed an adult version of the wardrobe that takes children to Narnia. The bar was brushed, polished copper, the window sills stuffed with fresh herbs in scratchy terracotta pots:
The tables were pure pub heritage fodder – dark wood, quite small but just right to ram in enough covers to be able to hear what other folk were chatting about. Embarrassingly, as an out of towner these days, I found myself gawping open mouthed at the ceiling, drinking in the attention to detail. (My husband designs pubs, hotel rooms and shops for a living, I just can’t help myself.) Look at this for a ceiling light:
The service is exactly what one might expect from Norman’s girls. For they were ALL female, those beautiful, skinny waitresses. It was efficient, smiley but dare I say it, delivered with a hint of insincerity. One waitress in particular was smiling so much I swear she’ll have had face ache come Sunday. But it didn’t matter given these girls were all ruthlessly efficient; nothing goes wrong on their watch. Bottled tap water was bestowed upon the table, drinks orders taken. And then the menu:
I do love a paper menu with a date printed on it. It matters not that the house menu may be seasonal rather than daily. I just like it. It makes me think everything is cleaned thoroughly every day – the menus binned along with the defunct lemon slices. I ordered the cheeseburger at £9:
Which came in a brioche bun, all the trimmings and was just a little bit pink in the middle. I ate it daintily with a knife and fork, what with not being alone and in front of the TV. My very cool friend ordered offal, for that’s what cool people do:
Her devilled kidneys on toast were a starter and priced at just £6. Now at this point myself and my teacher pal started to frown. Her starter was the same size as our mains. Here’s teachers sausage and mash at £12:
Now this is the type of thing that has the potential to annoy me. I know that’s very childish, but there it is. I like fairness. I like volume. I think a little more mash was required personally but then I am not boycotting carbs like I did in my London days. Maybe I am just out of touch. Luckily my cool pal had insisted we order sides including truffle cheesy chips:
Next time I’m just ordering a bucket of these to sit face down in. They really were that good. I may have eaten more than my fair third share. I’m into equality, but I am pregnant too. Principles can be bent when with child. We also ordered the cauliflower cheese. This is what was left of it by the time I’d remembered my camera:
It was delicious. Not too saucy, if that makes sense. The spring greens were also just as you’d want them to be; with a little crunch, well drained and barely seasoned.
Now I do have some bad news so I want you to brace yourselves. There were a couple of issues that were just not right. The first was my bannoffeebocker glory. At £7 it sounded both reasonable and very naughty. It was large I’ll give them that, but I didn’t finish it, and I finish almost everything. It just wasn’t sweet enough. And that’s from a girl who always picks crisps over chocolate. The cream that topped the banana and toffee concoction seemed to have been mixed with yoghurt. Either that of crème fraiche. It had a definite tang that wasn’t delicious at all in a bannoffee dessert. I hunted for sweet toffee sauce and bananas to mix into the cream but there simply wasn’t enough. I was disappointed. I should have complained but was so engrossed in conversation I just left it and ordered tea.
My other issue is a simple one. The Dijon mustard had scrapings of ketchup and burger in the pot. Such a simple thing but for a girl who can’t bear toasts crumbs in the butter it meant my burger went mustard-less. A crying shame.
So, the verdict? I would absolutely return. It was bright, it was airy, it had smiling waitresses who didn’t forget your order or seem to hate you (well not openly), it had good food, the bill was reasonable for central London and it had that all important Russell Norman calm. An oasis in the madness of theatre land. Just sort your mustard pot etiquette out and employ me as a pudding consultant and it’ll be damned near perfect Norman.
With my husband’s 40th looming I wanted something more than a wet weekend in a British spa town. I wanted glamour, good food, a little bit of language misunderstanding, nothing too far away, or too close by – and of course some weather. I chose a wet weekend in Paris and have the paunch to prove it.
We trained it down to London and Eurostarred it across the Channel. All so easy and far more chic than the last time I traveled by Eurostar from Waterloo. St Pancras is a station to be proud of. We Brits should celebrate it and maybe even campaign for a public holiday in it’s honour.
Our hotel was in the 7th, fittingly named Le 7 Eiffel, a few minutes stroll from the massive aforementioned sight. La 7 Eiffel may be guilty of being a little on the camp side. Pink light emits from the facade, bathing the street in a kind of Hello Kitty brothel light. They had goldfish, of course too.
The hall and room carpets look like bricks; except they don’t, they look like carpets with brick print on. The room was lovely. I wish I’d taken photos to share but by the time I’d thought about it we’d trashed it with our ugly guidebooks, British de caf tea bags and wheelie case unpacking. I’d booked a superior room complete with balcony that was too cold to use and a sitting area we used to hang our bought wares in though didn’t sit in once. The room was super cool, mostly white and had the usual iPod dock, waterfall shower and flat screen. Would we stay there again? Yes, though I do wish hotels in general would sort their curtains out. We were treated to two, both fashioned from diaphanous white muslin, utterly pointless and fine-ish for winter but in summer a possible reason for 6am wake ups. Just give me a new born’s black out blind any day. Anyway, here’s reception:
Dinner on Friday was at Laperouse in the 6th, by the Seine, and holds the prize for the most expensive meal we have ever eaten and paid for.
Some years ago, when I had an office job in London, I sampled many a posh restaurant, but it was always the company money I was spending. So frankly, i don’t think I ever really stopped to evaluate whether the food was especially good, or good value. This old school, we’ve-been-around-since-1766-place was worth every last 236 Euros that we paid of our own hard earned money. And that was without me drinking properly. Just the one glass:
The service was impeccable, delivered by bow tied waiters with perpetual smiles. Mr Bell enjoyed his first taste of foie gras to start with, which he ate with such aplomb I don’t think he looked up.
I started with a parmasean, hazelnut and truffle soup served with hunks of parmasean in oil nestling in a mortar, topped with a crunchy breadstick. I admit to supping this up with a sense of urgency that does not befit such a fine establishment. No one minded though.
A word about the atmosphere. We felt positively infantile in this restaurant and we are pretty good at pretending to be serious. It was grown up, full of very proper looking folks, taking their food and wine seriously. Dress up if you go. I wore my winter ski boots (I’m pregnant and it was cold, give me a break) and whilst no one made me feel out of place I did wish I’d made more effort. This is a restaurant with 6 private dining rooms that are always fully booked. You get the idea.
Mains were bass for me served with hazelnut cabbage and raw, very sweet cauliflower, cut so fine it was almost transparent. I wouldn’t have knowingly ordered so many brassicas in the same plate but I’m glad I did. It was delicious, though the portion was small. Don’t go to Laperouse and think you’ll get away with a main and some tap water. You’ll leave hungry and feeling like you arrived at the party late and still managed to leave early.
Mr Bell ordered the lamb with snails as a main and made groaning, animal sounds as he tucked in. At this point, with both feet firmly in the glutton camp we decided to seal out fate of an evening of indigestion and crazy dreams by ordering the cheese plate and a chocolate millefeuille. The cheeses were as pungent as you’d expect and want from a French plate, served with an unappetising looking salad, which upon poking revealed a hazelnut dressing complete with soaked raisins. The chef was big into hazelnuts but it all tasted so earthy and right for January then we’ll forgive him.
My millefeuille was rich, rich, rich, but perfect in every way. I did keep wandering what Paul Hollywood would have said if I’d served him a completely chocolate mille (ie/ no pastry!) as part of the Bake Off final but made a concerted effort to banish these thoughts for fear of ruining the night with nightmares of the silver fox shaking his head at my endeavours.
We walked half the way home, in the rain, from out first meal out in Paris, needing the upright motion to digest a little. Neither of us have ever eaten such beautiful, delicious food in such a grand setting. Price wise we promised to return for my husband’s 50th. We may save for the tasting menu. And I most certainly won’t be pregnant, so I’ll help out on the wine drinking front more.
We slept badly, as you might expect after consuming enough fat and animal products to keep us going for a week. Breakfast needed to be protein heavy and sustaining for our day of sightseeing and gallery going, so we gave Eggs & Co a go in the 6th.
A cute little joint that specialises in, you guessed it, eggs. I admit to loving this place at first sight upon spotting fried egg sweets nestling in Kilmer jars at the till. I lap kitsch up. This scene was happening behind my chair for example:
There’s an egg theme, check out the salt and pepper shakers:
We were led up some rickety stairs to a back room just tall enough for hobbits. We stooped our way to a small table and took in the chicken and egg related paraphernalia which tickled me but may have been lost on my very male breakfast partner.
My omelette with mixed herbs was perfect for a pregnant lady, with no especially runny centre. Purists may have been disappointed. The two al dente boiled potatoes served with breakfast seemed a little out of place but were welcome, after all we had sightseeing to do. The salad was fresh, crisp, well dressed and a perfect foil to the buttery eggs.
Mr Bell chose the eggs Benedict, complete with hollandaise, muffin, salad and potatoes. It was just right – the second egg yolk even staying runny by the time the first was finished.
We were both bitterly disappointed with the couple next to us who tried and failed to order an egg white omelette (the chef said no) and then ordered eggs florentine without any hollandaise. The waiter asked in a confused manned if they just wanted the sauce on the side. No, they did not. And they also wanted ketchup. I try not to be a food snob, goodness knows I have no right given some of the dross I enjoy indulging in, but I couldn’t help feel this couple had missed the point of Paris. But then food occupies my every thought – perhaps they have a less obsessive approach.
We spent the morning at the intestinal Pompidou centre, gazing at Kandinsky, Tamara de Lempicka and some painstaking architectural style 3D plans that pleased the part of my husband who spends more time at an architects practise each day than he does at home. We bought a very large cartoon style colouring poster of Paris and hot footed it to the Eiffel Tower.
Thank you a million times to the lady on my Facebook page who advised booking tickets online. I am impatient and grumpy when queuing so this really did save my beloved’s ears. The security man gave us strict instructions not to open our colouring map once at the top. Strictly no colouring allowed. Here’s a disappointed colouring fan:
We agreed as he looked like he meant business. We walked about, took some pics and queued to come back down. Can I be brutally honest? For me it was a waste of money and dissected the day. I think Mr B enjoyed it more but then his tolerance for heights is better.
Next we needed a late snack so set off looking for a patisserie shop with seats. After lots of false starts and a bit of a tantrum from myself (pregnant, tired and in need of food) we found Le Moulin De La Vierge around the corner from our hotel in the 7th.
Little over 3 Euros each gets you a sweet dream of a snack and a ceiling to die for.
We devoured a cream filled millefuille and a chocolate mouse cake nestling on a slightly soggy cake disc:
Finishing with cafe au lait and a PROPER hot chocolate. Take a look at this baby:
Next to Lemoine, 74 rue Saint-Dominique, to buy macarons for my dear Mother and Father who spent a weekend playing Lego with our sons in order that we should eat ourselves into oblivion.
We did of course buy some ourselves to sample with a cup of tea in the hotel room. Can heartily recommend the peanut, pistachio, rose, black currant and coconut. Mango was not our bag though.
A little rest on the bed and we set out for a local dinner. We wanted no metro ride so settled on Le Cafe du Marche, 38 Rue Cler, 7th, a rather ramshackle looking place on Rue de Cler, a pretty pedestrianised street home to independent cheese, wine, chocolate, cake, cookie and fruit and veg shops. Such colours!
Du Marche was full of French folks ordering steak tartare, house red and panda cotta. We went for the steak and the double cheeseburger which were both delicious, honest, served in less than 10 minutes and eaten in not much more. Sometimes after a night of fine dining a burger hits the spot.
We finished with cheese (for him, having no need for insisting on pasteurised wuss cheese like my pregnant self) and coconut tart, chocolate sauce and coconut ice cream. The cheese I am assured, was good. The coconut tart, I can assure you was poor.
With a margarine after taste and pastry softened and wangy, I wish I’d sent it back. My French is not good enough though and I refuse to send back inferior food with the prefix ‘parlais vous Anglais?’ – it’s what fools do.
Sunday was the big day – my husband’s 40th and also our return home. We celebrated with a breakfast fit for a 40 year old King, at Fuxia, in the 10th, a 20 minute stroll from Gare du Nord where we dumped our bags.
Now this canal side area is achingly hip yet also full of young families. It’s like the French get cooler and more attractive the more kids they have. I only the other hand have become more liable to covet Laura Ashley dresses and collect an extra chin per child. (Must channel my inner French woman.)
For brunch I had a cheese lasagne, the kind of dish an aunt might make for a visiting vegetarian. It sounds dreadful but my it was perfect. Every cheese your heart desires layered with fresh pasta and finished swimming in a white sauce.
Served with more parmesan and a very unhip 1994 style rocket and parmesan salad (yep, more cheese) free for me to spray with oil and balsamic. I think we found the key to the Parisian snake hips in these little spray bottles. No pouring and sloshing here, more a dab.
Mr Bell did what any birthday boy should do and ordered BIG.
The 23 euros brunch was a beast.
Mushroom pasta, omelette, salmon, salad, a pyramid of toasted quesadilla, hot eggy caramely panettone washes down with OJ and coffee.
He looked beaten, so ordered some red to make it slip down better. I drank the best tea I may have ever tasted.
Fuxia was so hip that by 1.30pm when we left it had a queue out the door. If you find yourself in the 10th give this place a visit. The staff even waved goodbye with a congratulations to my husband for finishing his marathon brunch. If you are in any way allergic to children or buggies maybe give it a wide berth. It was a little bit Mothercare in there at times.
And so home we went… Up the steps, past the park and weaved our way back to Gare du Nord. The only thing to ruin my good mood? Silly people thinking their bags deserve seats more than people. It might be Hermes love, but get it on the floor.
Of course my chivalrous, would-have-been-a-gallant-knight-in-Medieval-times husband offered his seat to a senior lady. Oh how I love him so. He rewarded himself with yet more vin rouge on the Eurostar home.
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