Category Archives: Reviews

Yet more chocolate

You’d have thought that, given the vast quantities of chocolate that I simply had to taste as part of my stint as one of the FreeFrom Food Awards judges this year, my pretty much non-existant sweet tooth would be more than satisfied until well past Easter and yet, here I am, wanting to share yet more chocolate that we have found over the last few months.

Finding safe chocolate is always something that makes me rejoice and the marketplace is becoming much more populated by great dairy-free products. As a parent, nothing beats being able to buy allergy-friendly Easter eggs or chocolate Advent calendars, or even Christmas selection boxes for your child, especially when that is perhaps something they’ve never been able to to enjoy before, which was certainly the case for both G and M when they were small. These days, thanks to the wonderful Moo-free chocolate, my 2 no longer have to feel quite so different from their friends and can enjoy treats that taste incredible to them. Similarly, it can be incredibly frustrating when many manufacturers don’t take the next step and make those dairy-free treats, soya-free too, something that renders them unsuitable for M.

However, the following 3 products are new discoveries to me and ones that I would definitely recommend to anyone looking for a tasty dairy- and soya-free chocolate treat:

So Sweet Couture, Hooey & Boo Chocolate Bars: These were an unexpected find during our birthday stay at the Bluestone resort last September. Mike and I found them when we visited the Bluestone village shop and on discovering that they were both DF and SF, I immediately snapped up 2 bars to tuck away for the Christmas stockings. We opted for a mint bar for G and a raspberry bar for M, which were both a huge hit and I don’t think I was even offered a taste of either one. Needless to say, G and M give these bars a huge thumbs up and I’m waiting for the perfect opportunity to buy both the Orange and White Orange bars that are also available on their website.

Ooh! Chocolata: Another pre-Christmas purchase, though this one was much closer to the big day itself and fortunately available much closer to home. Mike and I were at our local greengrocers looking for the perfect Christmas wreath for our front door when these items were spotted. Another vegan and soya-free chocolate range and this time I opted for the honeycomb and minty crisp bars, knowing that both children would be happy with either flavour. Just as with the Hooey & Boo Chocolate bars, these didn’t make it much further than our flight out to NYC on Boxing Day, but that simply means that I know they were a big success and nobody’s going to complain if a few more bars find their way into our house as we head towards Easter as well as make our way through weeks of GCSE exam revision and instrument practice.

CoCo Chemistry: I don’t quite know why nearly all of our best discoveries happen when Mike and I out and about exploring together, but this was yet another one that we stumbled across on our recent day out for my birthday. We were visiting the beautiful National Trust property, Lacock Abbey, and decided to spend some time wandering through the village itself, mostly because I wanted to pay a visit to the wonderful Watling Goldsmiths to give Mike some not-so-subtle hints for future present ideas. It was a rather grey and miserable day in February, but everything brightened up considerably when we entered the doors of this wonderful chocolate emporium. I wasn’t expecting to find anything for G or M, so was delighted to spot this vegan chocolate slab on their shelves. In fact, they have a good selection of vegan chocolates, although I only conceded to buy one for my pair to try. It’s currently safely hidden away, ready to be pulled out for a more suitable occasion. I don’t know what the vegan chocolate tastes like, but if it’s anything like as good as its more normal counterparts, it’ll be delicious!

 

Eating Out with Allergies in New York

As an allergy Mum, I try to do as much research as I can about eating out before we go and our Christmas trip to New York was no different. There were some absolute givens in our restaurant choices – Hard Rock Cafe New York anyone? – but we’re always open to adventure and seeing what we can find whilst we’re in town. My research had truthfully started 3 years ago, when Mike and I visited on our own and we found ourselves taking notes each time we found somewhere that might be able to feed the children or, at very least, allow us to buy some safe foods to eat in our hotel room. We travelled with our suitcase full of food as usual, so I knew that we would have enough snacks to keep G and M going once we arrived on Boxing Day and for the days to follow.

5 Napkin Burger was a restaurant we had actually found on our first night in NYC 3 years ago and we were delighted to discover that they are able to cater for gluten-, dairy- and egg-free diets too. Within 10 minutes walking distance of our hotel on 43rd Street, this proved to be the perfect location for our first night in NYC with the children and they enjoyed the meal so much that we went back a couple of days later with my Mum in tow. The restaurant was beautifully decorated for Christmas as well, which made it the perfect start to our surprise holiday. The burgers were succulent and tasty, the servers managed the pernickety nature of G and M’s food orders without batting an eye and the food was quite simply fabulous. I was impressed to see a small range of GF ciders, beers and other drinks also prominently displayed on their menu, making it a truly excellent restaurant for the free from diner.

Statue of Liberty Crown Cafethis was one of several unexpected successes whilst we were in NYC. Mike, the children and I needed to grab a fairly quick lunch after our climb to the Crown of the Statue of Liberty as we were headed off to the One World Observatory and 9/11 Memorial Museum next. I was hopeful we might find something that G and M could eat, even if it was just a plate of fries, so was delighted to see that the Crown Cafe also served gluten-free burgers. G chose to try their hot dogs, whilst M kept it simple with a grilled chicken burger. The portions were generous, the food delicious and more than enough to satisfy the appetites of my hungry pair.

Ellen’s Stardust Diner: This is a NYC must-do and somewhere that I knew we would have to visit with G and M. The breakfasts there are amazing, but definitely not M-friendly with the prevalence of eggs on the menu, so we instead opted for a late lunch on our penultimate day in the city. The queue at Ellen’s is nearly always lengthy, but it’s definitely worth the wait, in my opinion, and so it proved once again. The skies were grey and overcast, and fortunately my Mum had joined the queue whilst we headed back from a morning spent at the American Natural History Museum. We were seated at one of the upstairs tables, which were perfectly placed to allow both G and M to have uninterrupted views of the main restaurant itself. The menu is unquestionably limited for those with food allergies, so we were glad to spot a gluten-free pasta and meatballs option which M plumped for, whilst G stuck to her favourite of hot dog and fries, this time without a gluten-free roll. M had a generous serving which more than beat even his healthy appetite and G was left pleasantly satisfied by her meal. The highlight is, of course, the entertainment provided by the waiters and waitresses working in the restaurant and G and M spent a long time discussing who was their favourite as well as which of their teachers they thought might enjoy going to the diner.

Hard Rock Cafe New York: No holiday would be complete without a visit to the local Hard Rock Cafe (assuming there is one) and Mike ordering the local legendary burger. Centrally located in Times Square and less than 5 minutes walk from our hotel, we managed to fit in lunch before our afternoon at Radio City Hall. The good thing about the Hard Rock Cafe is that the children always have a few options to choose from and this time M decided to try something a little different and ordered the Smokehouse BBQ combo of baby back ribs and pulled pork. For her part, G stuck to her favourite of the BBQ pulled pork sandwich with fries and devoured every morsel as usual.

Grand Central Market, Grand Central Station: This was a great find for picking up some bits and pieces for a quick and easy lunch on the go. We discovered the NOGLU gluten-free bakery, where G and M were able to choose from a selection of baked goods including croissants for G and cookies for M. It was then on to Sushi by Pescatore to pick up some California rolls for M as well as a selection of sushi for Mike and me. Add to all of that some fresh fruit, salami and goats’ cheese and we had a perfect packed lunch to enjoy between sightseeing stops.

#FFFA20 Confectionery

Now, I fully accept that there may be some of you out there wondering what on earth a PWD* is doing even considering judging a category at the #FFFA20 called “Confectionery”, but let me assure you, it means that I don’t tend to over-indulge in the first few mouthfuls and with 35 entries in total – 32 of which were chocolate-based – that’s definitely a good thing! On a more serious note, my Freestyle Libre gives me the opportunity to have tight control on my blood sugars at all times and helped me keep things on an even keel that afternoon.

 

I love judging this category as I have 2 food-allergic children who enjoy the occasional sweet treat and it’s always a great opportunity to find something new to tickle their taste-buds. After a busy morning trying the delights of “Meaty and Fishy Ready Meals” and a wonderfully refreshing light lunch prepared by Michelle and her #FFFA team, we were ready and set for the challenge ahead. And believe me when I tell you that tasting and judging so many sweet entries really can present some problems, especially when trying to give constructive comments to the 3rd dairy-free dark chocolate in a row!

These were my highlights:

M&S Fizzy Dinosaurs: In a category that was dominated with chocolate offerings, it was great to find these sweet treats. It took a while for us to realise that M reacts to gelatine, so we are always delighted to find sweets that are gelatine-free and delicious. He and I both love sour, tangy, fizzy sweets, so I knew the moment I tried these dinosaurs that they would be a big hit with my youngest…and the speed with which the bag I took home with me disappeared would absolutely support that!

Truffle Pig Truffles: We tried several truffle selections on the day, and these stood out from the crowd with their wonderful Butter Nut variety, which was perfectly reminiscent of their more well-known dairy counterpart, Ferrero Roche. The peanut butter content obviously means these are not safe for those with nut allergies and disappointingly to me, even though they are vegan and delicious, they are not soya-free either. A great treat that would be a brilliant gift and make the recipient feel truly spoiled, but not one for our household yet.

My Sweet Chickpea: The surprise success story of the day for me, and one that has proved to be popular at home too. There were 2 flavours that we were lucky enough to try: cappuccino and coconut, and both were delicious. The chickpea was not at all detectable, something which I tried out and proved with G, who was surprised to learn it was a key ingredient. Dairy-free, soya-free, hidden chickpeas and snack-size – what isn’t there to like about these?!

Moo-free Sea Salt & Lime Chocolate: I am not the biggest fan of anything salty and I definitely do not like caramel, so the whole “sea salt and caramel” revolution has passed me by, even though I’ve successfully created a safe version for G and M. So, I was intrigued by the lime and sea salt flavour offered by Moo-free and this will probably have me raving for weeks about it. A perfect balance to the sweetness of chocolate and very definitely more-ish. This is my winner of the day, not least because it was one of the few chocolates that was both dairy- and soya-free.

All in all, it was a great day of judging with lots of memorable products and not too many that completely missed the mark for me this year. The final award winners will be announced on 28th April, so keep an eye on your social media to find out who won those much-coveted golds.

*Person With Diabetes

#FFFA20 – 5 years on

Last week saw me back in London for one of my all-time favourite events of the year: judging a couple of categories for this year’s Free From Food Awards (#FFFA20). It hardly seems 5 years since I completed my first stint and I can honestly say that every year since has been fantastic. It’s a day spent with an amazing group of people from the free from community, be they bloggers, allergy sufferers, parents of children with allergies, food manufacturers or producers. Every year sees me widening that tribe of mine and I absolutely love getting to know new people and oft-times linking faces to names I’ve seen across the various social media platforms I frequent.

This year saw me return to 2 of the categories judged at my first FFFA in 2016 – “Meaty & Fishy Ready Meals” and “Confectionery”. As ever I’m always on the lookout for new possibilities for both G and M and even more so this year as we see the number of safe foods for M slowly, but steadily increasing. I find it fascinating to see what products are entered into each category, particularly with the “Meaty & Fishy Ready Meals” as the range of options can be so wide. From 10am, we were tasting and critiquing breaded fish, breaded chicken, sausages, burgers, a few microwave meals and even a prepacked sandwich. What was particularly great this year was that there was nothing that was really dreadful and whilst not everything might have been to my taste, the final award winners are all very much deserved in my opinion.

My own highlights from this category include:

M&S Made Without Wheat Honey Roast Ham and Mature Cheddar Cheese sandwich:  Honestly, if I hadn’t known that I was eating something freefrom, I absolutely would never have guessed. Forget dry bread, hole-y bread, doesn’t-really-taste-like-bread bread…this sandwich was unquestionably as good as its gluten-filled counterparts and generously filled with ham and cheddar cheese. If I had to find a criticism, perhaps that it is a little limited in just being gluten-free, but that really is being incredibly picky. It didn’t really “fit” with the rest of the entries in the Ready Meals category, but with no “Foods to Go” category this year as part of the #FFFA20, I don’t object to it having been entered. This is definitely one that I would recommend to anyone needing or wanting to follow a wheat-free/gluten-free diet.

Co-op Irresistible Pork Sausages: “Wow!” – my honest comment after a taste of these sausages. We are, without a shadow of a doubt, a family that enjoys any meal including sausages and indeed G’s favourite and go-to meal is a plate of bangers and mash. These were delicious – juicy, succulent and absolutely more-ish, the description of these GF sausages as “irresistible” couldn’t be more accurate. We buy nearly all of our meat from our local farmers’ cooperative or from our small-holding friends, but it was great to discover such a good product at a competitive price in a supermarket chain.

Co-op Chunky Breaded Cod (MSC-approved): There were several free-from fish fillets to compare, as this photo shows, but this is the one that absolutely stood out to me. The crumb coating was crispy and robust and the piece I took didn’t fall apart on the fork before it had left the plate and reached my mouth. Well-seasoned, tasty and a balanced mouthful where the fish was definitely the highlight. Even better, the cod is responsibly sourced and MSC approved, which really made it stand out from the crowd.

Tesco Free From Chicken Korma with Rice: A more traditional ready meal in my eyes and a fantastic one at that. Not only gluten-free, but top 14 allergens free and included an interesting mix of brown rice and quinoa in the dish which made it stand out from a competitive crowd. It has been on the supermarket shelves for a little while as this was one of the dishes we were lucky enough to be sent to try just after their launch, but it reminded me just how good these ready meals really are. A rich creamy flavour, which was well-balanced and didn’t taste too watery despite being microwave cooked, something I have found to be the case with other similar ready meal options.

As you can see, it was a real mix of what I would consider the more traditional ready meals that are ready in minutes and foods that need little preparation other than cooking. It was great to see offerings from many of the major supermarkets and, whilst I didn’t mention them above, there were also some good options from both Aldi and Lidl. I love seeing more and more supermarket chains coming on board with their free from food choices and making them more available and affordable than they perhaps have been before.

A Night Out New York-style

I don’t think it’s possible to visit New York without experiencing something of its nightlife and we had 3 very different nights out during our stay.

Ice Hockey at the Prudential Center, New Jersey: Unsurprisingly, the first was an evening of ice hockey and the first time either G or M have been to a proper NHL game. As soon as our flights and hotel were booked,  Mike was on the lookout for who would be playing where over the Christmas period and as soon as the final schedule was released, big decisions had to be made. We were originally considering a New York Rangers game at Madison Square Garden, but the cost of the seats combined with what we considered to be limited viewing based on our previous visit to see the New York Knicks meant that it looked unlikely we would go.

In a moment of almost sheer desperation, Mike decided to widen his search to see whether the New Jersey Devils were playing at home during our visit and there he struck proverbial gold. Not only were they playing on the 27th, but much to Mike’s delight, they were up against his team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Even though we were crossing state lines, the trip to the Prudential Center in Newark by PATH train was easy and took us almost directly to the door. The children cheered their way through their first hockey game with G wearing proudly the NJ Devils hoodie she bought beforehand, mostly in a bid to rile Mike. It was a great family evening out for all of us with G and M now fully indoctrinated into the love of the sport and the right final result being achieved on the night, if you are to believe Mike and M!

Rockettes Christmas Spectacular, Radio City Hall:  This is an experience like no other and one that I would heartily recommend time and time again. It was also the reason behind my Mum’s wish to be in New York during the Christmas period for her 70th birthday. For the uninitiated, the Rockettes are a dance troupe started in 1925 in St Louis, inspired by the British Tiller Girls of the same era. They are known for their iconic and incredible dance line and the impressive precision and impeccable timing of their dance routines. To watch 36 dancers perform routine after routine in absolute sync with each other is simply breathtaking and both G and M were totally absorbed from the moment the music started.

Their Christmas Spectacular is, quite simply, that. Spectacular; and utterly awe-inspiring in just how spectacular it is. Radio City Hall is an amazing venue and one that I would happily visit again and I would love to do a backstage tour there if the opportunity should come up in the future. There were some wonderful surprises in store as we watched, the most outrageous of which I won’t share, just in case you are ever lucky enough to visit yourself. Let me just say, that the nativity scenes were not quite what we had expected and definitely worth a watch! M loved the Santa Claus routine, whilst G was hard-pressed to pick her favourite, so amazed was she by their skills and dance moves.

Movie night at AMC Empire 25, 42nd Street: Christmas for the last few years has meant one thing when it comes to films and that has been our family visit to see the latest in the Star Wars saga. 2019 was no different and given the epic nature of this final film, it only seemed fitting to watch “The Rise of Skywalker” somewhere amazing and different. Our unplanned evening out did not disappoint and we lapped up the opulent luxury of the AMC Empire 25 on 42nd Street, just opposite our hotel. We are not a family who splashes out on the VIP seating in our local cinema, but even we know that that has nothing compared to our seats at this NYC cinema, which had the functionality to make them recline and to raise a foot rest so that we were truly comfortable for the duration of the film.

Our last foreign movie night out was during our last trip to Canada, when we went to see “Avengers: Infinity War”  at a wonderfully old-school cinema in downtown Toronto. The experience was just as magical, but so very different in just about every way imaginable. It was a fitting end to our busy few days in NYC and we left the cinema with 2 very happy youngsters.

Seeing the sights of NYC

When Mike and I visited New York nearly 3 years ago, we stayed in the fantastic Hotel Beacon on the Upper West Side just a couple of blocks from Central Park. We loved the location and the facilities and always thought that it could be a contender for if and when we ever visited with the children in tow. However, Mum was keen to stay closer to Times Square and so this trip saw us at the Westin Times Square instead. A great hotel on West 43rd street with the most amazing views from our 44th floor bedroom, but disappointing offerings when it came to allergy-friendly food. Fortunately, if there’s one thing you’re not short of in NYC, it’s restaurants and we found several within walking distance that were more than able to cater well for both G and M.

Our visit was planned to the nth-degree. With no input from the children except some less-than-subtle questioning about what they might like to see after G’s best friend visited NYC last summer, Mike and I had put together an itinerary that we thought would cover most of the must-sees in the city and it definitely kept us busy whilst we were there. My Mum has visited NYC a few times before and so didn’t necessarily want to do as much trekking around as we knew we would end up doing with G and M. I think we managed a good balance of the main highlights, leaving both us and the children enough to still see if we ever come back again and even managed to throw in some extra activities that we hadn’t done before.

The children were less than impressed with Mike’s yearning to see the inside of the Guggenheim museum on our first afternoon, especially after our lengthy wander across Central Park. I insisted that we took in both the Alice in Wonderland sculpture and the “Imagine” mosaic as we walked through and I think tiredness after our extremely early start was really kicking in by the time we made it to the Guggenheim. I only wish I’d been able to snap a photo of G’s face when I told her that we weren’t going round the museum exhibits, but simply going to stand in the main entrance whilst Mike looked up in awe and took several photos. She really was lost for words for a few minutes, though she quickly found her voice to comment on our 2 minute stop for a long time afterwards!

The Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, 9/11 Memorial Museum, One World Observatory, Grand Central Station and the New York Library for M to see Winnie-the-Pooh, we “did” them all. We usually choose to take a sightseeing bus to do a city tour when we visit anywhere new, but, given the busy traffic in NYC, instead thousands of steps were walked each day and we ventured onto the subway whenever time and location required. Our days were absolutely jam-packed, but we managed to do everything we wanted without too much hassle. Our fears about the winter weather didn’t come to pass and we definitely didn’t need the oodles of thermal underwear I’d had packed “just in case”.

No 6Hundred, Swansea

The lead up to Christmas is always busy for our family with an array of birthdays, wedding anniversaries and the end of term to contend with before the big day itself. December this year felt like an especially hectic one what with a 16th and a 20th as well as a special 65th birthday to celebrate. We were planning to spend Christmas itself in South Wales with my Aunt- well part of it at least (and there is more about that to come over the next couple of posts) – which gave the perfect opportunity to experience a girls only birthday afternoon tea at No 6Hundred in Clydach.

I’ll be honest, it wasn’t the smoothest of bookings, with huge confusion over both the time of our afternoon tea and our dietary requirements, and my expectations weren’t particularly high despite the wonderful allergy-friendly afternoon tea we’d enjoyed at One Aldwych a few weeks earlier. Mum and I popped into the cafe on the morning of the 23rd to triple-check the booking once again and also pass over some decorations we wanted them to use for the table. With nothing else possible for us to do, it was time to go home, rally the troops and make sure we arrived for our 2pm booking.

I am delighted to say that the afternoon tea was excellent and they managed to cater well for the gluten- and dairy-free requirements for G. The tea itself was unsuprisingly influenced by Christmas itself and included a skewer with pigs in blanket and stuffing for that seasonal touch along with some freshly baked mince pies shaped as miniature Christmas trees. G’s plate was just as impressive and, given how quickly she managed to clear it, evidently delicious. The cakes were not only gluten-free, but also vegan and looked amazing, though she commented that the dark chocolate tartlet was just a little too bitter for her tastes.

The rest of us enjoyed a fantastic tea as well, though we were definitely beaten once again by the number of cakes provided and so picked our favourites to sample as part of the meal itself. We treated ourselves with either a glass of prosecco or mulled wine to kick the celebrations off – water for G – which were the perfect start to a lovely day celebrating my Aunt’s 65th birthday. I was impressed by the food provided by No. 6Hundred, especially the GF/DF offerings available for G, but would love them to work on their booking and confirmation systems to make it a truly fabulous overall experience.

 

Charlie & the Chocolate Factory Afternoon Tea, One Aldwych

Given the morning had been spent tramping across the length and breadth of London, you can only imagine how delighted M and G were to eventually reach our final destination – One Aldwych Hotel. Ever since I had settled on taking my Mum to the Royal Opera House as part of her 70th birthday celebrations, I knew that I wanted to find somewhere for an afternoon tea which could cater for both children as well as the adults. Our last afternoon tea in London was over 16 years ago when I qualified as an accountant and treated the family to tea at the Ritz, all whilst pregnant with G. It was an amazing occasion and I really wanted to find somewhere to meet our expectations and previous experience if at all possible.

I spent weeks searching the internet and reading reviews before finally settling on the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory afternoon tea offered at One Aldwych. I already knew a little about One Aldwych as Executive Chef Dominic Teague won the inaugural Pathfinder Award at the FreeFrom Eating Out Awards in 2016 and I had read all about the work he had done to create a completely gluten- and dairy-free restaurant without advertising the fact.

Our experience started with my initial contact with the hotel to see if they could cater for both G and M without too many problems. There then followed a flurry of emails between us to establish what safe foods could be prepared, keeping it relatively simple to suit G’s tastes and without pushing M’s boundaries too far. I asked for his meal to be MEWS-free and was impressed when they sent through to me a copy menu for what they thought they could make for both children. With a few tweaks here and there, we ended up with what looked to be an impressive selection of savoury and sweet treats, guaranteed to make this afternoon tea a truly special one for us all.

With one week left to go, there was just enough time to exchange one last email before we headed to London and I was able to order a MEWS-free celebration cake to mark the triple occasion – Mum’s 70th, G’s 16th and our 20th wedding anniversary – all in one fell swoop. I had also received a reassuring email from Executive Chef, Dominic Teague himself, explaining just how they would look after our table and take care to make sure the cross-contamination risks were reduced to as low as they possibly could be. Other than making sure that we had enough medicines with us to ensure that M was well-covered for the extra treats I knew he’d be trying, there was nothing more we could do until we arrived at One Aldwych itself.

On arrival, we were ushered upstairs to the beautiful dining space of One Indigo and quickly seated at our table. My one criticism of our afternoon is that service seemed to take a long time from beginning to end and we had been sitting at our table for a good 5 minutes before the restaurant manager appeared to introduce himself and tell us about what food we could expect to be served. However, everything settled, we then sat back to wait for our food to appear – and that was definitely worth the wait.

My one hesitation had been around the savoury items going to be served for G as she is not the most adventurous when it comes to food and although I had originally asked if she could have just plain GF/DF ham sandwiches, the final menu I had seen suggested that she would be given more than that. A little prompting ahead of time meant I’d agreed with her that she would try at least a mouthful of everything she was served, so you can imagine all our delight when a plate of safe ham sandwiches appeared for her as well as an allergy-friendly carrot puree and houmous tart, all of which she enjoyed with an enthusiasm just about matched by M as he enjoyed an incredible array of unexpectedly safe foods.

The pièce de résistance was, without question, the marvellous dessert selection that arrived for each of us. Cakes, scones, mousse and fruit kebabs made for a truly spectacular display and the selection provided for M was just as impressive as those for the rest of the table. The chocolate and raspberry celebration cake was wonderfully light, airy and delicious, though totally unnecessary given the amount of food we had to enjoy for the meal. My Mum, Mike and I were all delighted to be able to treat both children in such a way and one that we would never have thought was possible 4 or 5 years ago. My thanks go to Dominic Teague and his team at One Aldwych for giving us such a wonderful birthday meal – and for the boxes of leftovers we were able to take to enjoy at home later too!

A Sunday in London

After our late night at the Royal Opera House, you couldn’t have blamed us if we’d enjoyed a lie-in the following morning; however, always something of a glutton for punishment, I decided that we needed some exercise before we headed to the second part of my Mum’s birthday treat, the Charlie & the Chocolate Factory Afternoon Tea at One Aldwych, and so we set off from the hotel by about 9.15am. Suitcases packed and left at the hotel for pick-up before our train home, we set off along the South Bank towards Westminster bearing little more than handbags and the requisite medications needed for our meal.

It was an extremely foggy Sunday morning and whilst it wasn’t quite thick enough to classify as a traditional “pea-souper”, we could barely see to the middle of the murky Thames, something neither child had experienced on previous visits to London. We meandered past the Globe and had a quick look to see what productions are coming up as both G and M are keen to return to watch an outdoor Shakespeare play as soon as we reasonably can. It’s been a long time since any of us have walked the length of the South Bank and it was interesting to take note of the various developments that have happened in the meantime. As soon as we reached the London Eye, it was time to turn right across Westminster bridge, past the still scaffolding-clad Elizabeth Tower, home to Big Ben, and into Parliament Square to look at the parlimentarian statutes that can be found there.

As the only ones to have eaten breakfast at this point were M and G, our next decision was to head to Trafalgar Square and the wonderful Cafe in the Crypt at St-Martin-in-the-Fields for a small meal to tide us over until our Afternoon tea for lunch. Our journey took us past the Cenotaph, which still had the poppy wreaths from the Remembrance Day service displayed and we took 10 minutes or so to look at all the different wreaths we could see. Unfortunately, when we eventually reached the Crypt cafe it wasn’t yet open and so instead we decided to try out the recently refurbished cafe in the National Gallery.

Our experience at the National Gallery cafe was very much a mixed affair. On one hand they stocked both soya and coconut milk, which meant that both G and M could have a hot chocolate, something that was very much needed on that cold November morning. However, there were no allergy options for breakfast items or cakes and instead the children were left munching on some plain crisps and a couple of snacks I had tucked into my bag. Given we were ultimately en route to our afternoon tea, it didn’t matter too much on this occasion, but it would have been a much bigger problem on any other visit.

Once our appetites were satisfied enough to see us through to lunch, we had just enough time to browse the Christmas market in Trafalgar Square. The children enjoyed having a wander to see what was there and we came away with a new pair of gloves and a set of small hand-warming pads for M. Despite browsing several stalls, G was left disappointed that she still hasn’t been able to find a ring that’s a perfect fit for her fingers, but we will continue the search whenever and wherever possible. Finally it was time to head on to One Aldwych and the treat we were all hoping their Afternoon tea would prove to be.

A Night at the Opera

It’s a big year of milestones in our family this year, with my Mum’s 70th and G’s 16th birthdays as well as our 20th wedding anniversary. You may remember that in September we spent a family weekend at the Bluestone resort in Wales for my Mum’s birthday, but her celebrations haven’t stopped there and last weekend we headed to London for a weekend of stylish fun. The main reason for the trip was to fill a long-held ambition of my Mum’s, to go to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. As the only members of the family lucky enough to have been there before are M and me, thanks to his 2 lengthy December admissions at GOSH, I wanted to find something to see that I thought we all would enjoy and, spotting the performance of “Sleeping Beauty” by the Royal Ballet in their calendar, knew that this was the winning choice.

Our weekend started with the train journey to London and then across London to our hotel near Borough Market. We had agreed on an early dinner to give us plenty of time to get to the Royal Opera House, so after a short walk from the hotel to St Paul’s Cathedral and back for Mike, M and me, we dressed in our finest and headed across the road to the nearby Wagamama restaurant for what we knew would be an easy and safe dinner for both G and M. From there, it was a case of hailing a black cab to whisk us to Covent Garden and we found ourselves there with plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere of this incredible building before the performance started.

For anyone wondering what to wear to the ROH, the rule really is anything goes, just as their website suggests. From jeans to evening dresses and just about everything in-between, we spotted our fellow theatre-goers wearing it all. We had opted to dress up with G remarkably, and not too reluctantly, in a black skater-style lace dress, whilst M was suited and booted in a burgundy shirt, grey tie and black waistcoat. My Mum and I had talked beforehand about what to wear and both regretted not having dressed up just a little more. Mike had told me to take one of my long dresses to wear, but I chickened out at the last moment taking a knee-length dress instead and really wish I hadn’t. Similarly, Mum had opted for smart trousers, heels and a long top, but wished she had brought a dress. Obviously, we’ve reached the sensible conclusion that we will just have to go again and wear our finest!

Coats safely deposited in the cloakroom, we wandered about the gorgeous Christmas tree to spend some time in the bar area on the first floor, sipping our glasses of champagne and people-watching before finding our seats in the side stalls. I wasn’t sure how good the view from our seats would be, but I needn’t have worried as we had a great view of the stage and only missed a few bits happening on the very side of it at times. I was also nervous about whether the children, especially M, would survive the lengthy performance – 3 hours including 2 20 minutes intervals – but again, I didn’t need to. Both children were enthralled, even if M did drift off a little towards the end and they were excited to spot different dance steps that they have been learning in their own dance classes. The performance was absolutely incredible and the whole family enjoyed our night at the opera.