In the days leading up to our trip to Barcelona, every time I mentioned our destination, people who had visited promised us we would love the city. From family to the ticket agent at airport, everyone wanted to tell us their favorite sight and thing to do–and eating topped the list of things people wanted us to do!
One of the best part about Barcelona is the food–especially the tapas! Our favorite at Vinutus was the french fries with fried Iberian jamon, and a fried egg.
The bar at the hotel Arts Barcelona had the best non-traditional interpretation of patatas Brava with paper thin rectangular slices that were stacked in layers with the traditional sauces. Their riff on Iberian ham was unbelievable—slices of ham wrapped around a bit of puff pastry and topped with olive oil “caviar.”
We had our best dinner at Boca Grande and next time we are planning to go back to have drinks at Boca Chica—the unbelievably cool bar upstairs from the restaurant. The tapas at Boca Grande were adventurous, the service was outstanding, and the wine recommended to us was spot on.
The vibe of the restaurant was definitely hip and cool, and while very busy, welcoming. And, trust me on this one, you’ve got to make a trip to the restroom when you visit.
We tried the Michelin-starred restaurant Enoteca, we couldn’t try the degustation menu because one of the girls would not have eaten any of the courses except the beef. We compromised and did the appetizer, bread service, and petit four add-on and ordered several dishes. That plan gave us some of the courses of the degustation menu
and we were able to get the meat dishes the girls liked (and my selective eater got bread until the beef course.) The best thing that night was the Catalyan peas.
I forgot to take a photo of the menu, but I think the peas were like 38 euros and, as crazy as it sounds, they were worth it! If someone really loves raw seafood and has some room on the old AmEx, Enoteca is a great place. Overall, however, the dinner was very expensive and my personal recommendation would be to eat at Boca Grande a few times for the same cost. We ordered bottles of wine and my husband’s first glass had a white chunk on the outside of his glass that he didn’t notice until after his glass had been poured. He pointed it out to the waiter who gave him a new glass and he apologized, but we lost a glass of wine out of our bottle and nothing was said about it. And I hate wasting wine.
I channeled my inner Jackie-O at lunch on the Costa Brava. We had a beachside table, waiters in striped sailor shirts, and 3 euro wine. If I go missing, look here first.We enjoyed amazingly fresh seafood (mussels, then cod) for lunch and a million dollar view.
Saturday–the Catacombs, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and the wheel-Roue of Paris
We met back up with Cedrik on Saturday morning and he had pre-purchased tickets for us to tour the catacombs. Without advance tickets, be prepared to come early and wait in a line that can stretch around the block. Despite knowing that the catacombs were full of bones, it was quite jarring to see the remains of six million people stacked in the walls. We descended a surprisingly long spiral staircase into the catacombs where the passages are narrow and the ceiling is low. At 5’5″ and under, we weren’t hitting our heads, but our taller guide had to duck at points throughout the tour. Parts of the path were quite slippery from water leaking in and some tiny stalactites were growing from the ceiling. I was glad I took the tour because it was fascinating works project, but I’m not sure I’d want to do it again–and never in the dark, or on Halloween… The return to the street is via spiral staircase as well, but while steep, it’s not herculean.
After a quick coffee and late breakfast, we headed back to the Louvre for our guided tour.
In my admittedly limited experience, knowledgeable tour guides can add so much depth of history and understanding to viewing art and historical sites like the Louvre and Versailles that they are worth every euro. In addition to the descriptions of the paintings and their place in art history, our guide pointed out features in the Louvre that showed its past purpose as the palace of the king and its evolution throughout history right up to the leftover catwalks from Fashion Week in one of the courtyards. Not to mention, a good guide will put you in a position to see the Mona Lisa clearly, without having to wade through the sea of humanity and selfie sticks to get to the front of the line. Hint, it’s a magic spot diagonally on the Mona Lisa’s left.
For our final afternoon, we said farewell to Cedrik and decided to walk to the Eiffel Tower. From our hotel, we walked through the Place de la Concorde and headed along the Seine river. The falling snow made what is always a picturesque walk even more magical, at least until our feet got wet on the way home. The top of the tower was closed because of snow and we did not pay to enter the monument, but it’s still a fun visit to walk around the outside for our Eiffel Tower photos. On previous visits we bought tickets to enter the base and definitely recommend entering the park at least once.
On our way home, we finally rode the Big Wheel at the Place de la Concorde. While the epitome of touristy kitsch, the Wheel has great views and was a fun way to wrap up our trip.
We returned home to the U.S. on Sunday morning and I had checked many of the boxes for what I wanted out of this trip: I had gotten to see some of the French wine country, toured Versailles, explored different parts of the city, visited the Musee d’Orsay, and I was coming home with the same number of kids that I had brought with me.
We took a taxi to Versailles, it should have taken about 40 minutes and cost (based on my internet sleuthing before we embarked) about 45-50 euros. Just outside of Paris, traffic ground to a halt for at least thirty minutes before our driver was instructed by the police to put his car in reverse and join the slow-moving train of cars carefully backing down the motorway to the previous exit. A terrible accident ahead had blocked the road and we had to basically return to Paris and go to Versailles via longer, alternate routes. It took us over two hours to get to Versailles and the between the fare and tip, about 100 euros.
The Purple Trufflehttp://www.purpletruffle.com had obtained reservations for us at Ore, the restaurant recently opened by Alain Ducasse at Versailles for one o’clock. We called the restaurant twice on our prolonged journey to let them know we were running late, and then very, very late, and they were able to hold our table for over an hour. You do not need a ticket to Versailles to eat at the restaurant-the entrance is to the left of the ticket queue. Because we were meeting our guide Cedrik, who had already purchased us tickets for a 3:00 entry to Versailles, our lunch was very hurried, but so delicious. A bowl of pasta –Coquillettes with jambon, comte, and black truffle was the best thing I had to eat in Paris. We ordered a nice half-bottle of Margaux to go with it. My oldest daughter and I basically had to cannonball the 75 euro bordeaux (and remember, it was only 375 ml) because somehow our food came out before the wine and our guide was at the table waiting for us to finish. Still worth it. I would have loved to have tried more on the menu, but entry times are strictly enforced.
The sheer size of Versailles boggles the mind and then the elaborate decoration and art on the walls and ceilings add to its awe-inspiring grandeur. Cedrik explained the various stages of waiting to see the king that the rooms served and even pointed out some centuries-old tags on the window frames.
We were lucky enough to rent the last golf cart to tour the grounds and visit Marie Antoinette’s “little” mansion where she could play milk maid. The gardens, even in the last days of winter, were so beautiful.
The fountains were still turned off and much of the smaller statuary was covered (we were told the end of March is when the outside gardens start to come out of hibernation), but I really enjoyed our tour. Since it was a beautiful sunny day in the fifties, many locals were on the grounds biking and running.
Unable to find us a taxi at any of the taxi stands right outside the palace, our guide bought us tickets (which we reimbursed him for) and we rode the RER C train from Versailles to the Musee d’Orsay. Having done it and despite a little anxiety when our guide changed his mind from getting off with us at his regular stop at the Musee d’Orsay to getting off at an earlier stop to run errands, I can say it wasn’t difficult to take the train. The upcoming stops scroll on the message board in the train and the station to which you are arriving is plainly displayed on the walls of the station as you roll up to the platform. And, there is a decent interval from when the train arrives to its departure. I was glad that I had noticed that the train doors do not open automatically, but need to be opened by the first person leaving the train car. The ride took about 40 minutes (we were very lucky and were able to walk onto a departing train) and it was literally just a few blocks from the palace grounds to the train station and, for us, we just had to cross the Seine to our hotel from the Musee d’Orsay station—and WAY cheaper than 100 euros!
New post tomorrow!
Thursday at Musee’ D’Orsay
On previous visits to Paris, we were unable to get tickets for the Museum D’Orsay, but had no problem on this visit. With proof of age, visitors under age 26 can get a discounted ticket and the museum accepts U.S. driver’s licenses as proof. The museum also has a coat check, free of charge, They only accept coats, no hats or scarves. My daughter tried to check a pullover as well, but the coat check personnel declined because whatever is checked has to be put on a hanger.
The museum is housed in a former railway station and the building is notable from the street by the huge clocks that I’m sure were useful for the early twentieth century commuters running late for their trains. You can get some spectacular views of Paris through the clock, be patient (it was field trip day and we had to wade through an ocean of French high schoolers) and you can get next to the clock face.
Their collection of Impressionists is like a who’s who of 19th-century art and they have many of the masterpieces of Monet, Manet, Gaughin, Rodin, Pisarro, Degas, Cezanne, Renoir, and VanGogh. For me, the collection of Monet’s winter landscapes was a revelation. The collection of sculpture is also very impressive. Unfortunately for us, the museum’s two floors of Art Nouveau were closed.
We ate a light lunch at the Cafe Campana. The setting is marvelous and is a nice break from touring. It has sit-down service and, especially by Parisian standards, our soup and salads came out very quickly. Alas, they forgot our bread basket–sacre bleu!–but they did have Lillet by the glass, so I still give it two thumbs up. The museum has a quick-bite food counter and what looks like a more formal restaurant on the first floor as well.
The Purple Truffle had recommended and made reservations for us at Semilla in St.-Germain-des-Pres for Thursday evening. It was a nice walk across the Seine from the Westin through a neighborhood of art galleries and restaurants and wine bars. The menus are only in French, but we used our phones to look up the foods we weren’t familiar with. The kitchen is mostly open, and if you have a table against the wall, there are hooks for your coats on the wall behind you! I decided on what was basically a deconstructed lamb tangine followed by a cheese course and a pear and gingerbread dessert. As I vacillated between two bottles of wine, the waiter recommended I go with the much less expensive bottle. So points for that. He may have given up on us when my daughter ordered a glass of dessert wine from the “Stickie” section of the wine list for dinner. One of my daughters ordered the sole and said it was the best thing she ate in Paris. New post tomorrow!
The Purple Truffle http://www.purpletruffle.com arranged for us to join food blogger and cookbook author Marion Flipo for a foodie tour in St. Germain. Our first stop was Eric Kayser where we enjoyed brioche with red-colored almonds, almond croissant, and a raspberry financier. Marion taught us that the boulangerie must be good at two things: bread, of course, and viennoiserie (what we would call breakfast pastries in the U.S.) We can vouch that Monsieur Kayser is definitely good at the viennoiserie. The Diana Ross of the trio was the financier. It’s unlike any pastry I’ve had in the US–it’s a dense moist cake filled with a dollop of raspberry jam. I have no idea how French women don’t get fat if this delight is in their gustatory repertoire!
Our second stop was at a neighborhood butcher. Coming from the land of pre-packaged meat, or at least the butcher counter offerings sealed off under glass, it is novel to see raw meat open without a barrier between the customer and the product. The butcher block for the cutting of your purchase is right in the middle of the shop. I’m not sure how American safety regulations would deal with a knife wielding-butcher hip to hip with his customers. The butchery also had house-made ham that was delicious, and while I usually don’t care for ham because it is very sweet and usually kind of slimy, the ham we tried was almost as dry as a prosciutto but not salty.
From there we headed to a Corsican deli to sample the charcuterie. While the French may not have considered Napoleon truly French, they do consider Corsica part of their culinary terroir. We had delicious sheep and goat cheeses, as well as cured hams from the flank and shoulder. Since we were in a real, working deli we could not spend time with the proprietor because he was quite busy with an influx of students. And here’s a great tip about water–all the bottled water we tasted in France was quite soft (it all tastes like Evian) but you can buy spring water at Pasta Luna that tastes like American bottled water.
From savory, we moved onto to the sweeets. We stopped at the world-famous Patrick Roger for his chocolate. From sourcing the cacao to the one-of-a-kind flavor profile of lime and basil, every step of the chocolate making process is controlled for the best quality and inimitable flavor. Look out Hershey’s Chocolate World – I kinda think it would make one hell of a ride. And last, but certainly not least, we visited the chocolaterie of world-famous chef Cyril Lignac. We feasted on a chocolate flan made without eggs! Marion shared that they used corn starch to in place of eggs in the chocolate flan—truly a piece of culinary wizardry. The marble cake we tasted was simple, but rich. New post tomorrow!
Today was orchestrated by the Purple Truffle http://www.purpletruffle.com and Francois, our driver for the day, arrived at our hotel to take us to the Champagne region of France. As Francois drove through the outlying suburbs of Paris that turned into picturesque countryside, he elaborated on the history of the region and pointed out monument markers for WWI cemeteries, pastoral villages, and, of course, the vineyards. Everything that grows in Champagne is controlled, from how much juice you save each year to who can buy or sell the harvest. We learned there are different ways to run the vineyards. The big houses both grow and buy grapes to make their wines, some vineyards sell their grapes and do not make wine under their own label, and the last type of champagne houses control their wine from planting to bottling.
Our first stop was at Le Gallais in Boursalt and we were lucky enough to meet winemaker Charlotte Morgain. What is now the domain of Le Gallais at one time belonged to Veuve Cliquot, and the real Veuve Cliquot built a castle for her granddaughter as marriage gift that resides on the Le Gallais property. The tasting was fun and delicious!
We had lunch at Brasserie La Banque, a restaurant and champagne bar in Epernay . I’ll confess my oldest was battling a cold and I was exhausted from a jet-lag induced sleepless night, so we did not enjoy any of the champagnes available by the glass with our meal.
Our next visit was at the family-owned Paul Dethune house in Ambonnay. Our tour was led by Sophie Dethune and we had to step over the hoses of her husband as he tended the tanks-the very definition of family run! Their champagnes are aged in barrels and, for me, gave the champagne the body and structure I’m looking for in wines. Sophie is passionate about both the history and future of Champagne, and convinced me that it is worth the time and effort to find the bottles from the smaller houses. There really is something to supporting anyone who is tilting at the windmills of globalization.
Our last visit to was shortened because of overrunning our time at lunch and Paul Dethune, but we were graciously hosted by Henri Giraud Champagne in Aÿ. The Giraud house is investigating how using barrels made from the wood of different sections of the nearby Argonne forest can influence the taste of the wine. The Giraud Brut Naturale was my daughter’s favorite. Our driver Francois kept us entertained and learning more about France as we drove the ninety or so minutes back to Paris. New post tomorrow!
The house collaborates with artists and thanks to that, the tasting room has a truly eclectic feel.
We found the best place to eat breakfast–Maisie’s Cafe. Tucked onto rue Mon Thabor, Maisie’s has gluten-free, organic food. We loved our avocado toast! For around 22 euros we had two orders of avocado toast, a filtered coffee and a house-made lemon cure juice. They were even kind enough to bring some almond milk for my coffee—American habits die hard.
We had a guided tour to the Louvre scheduled for Saturday, but we wanted an extra visit for us to wander around on our our own and headed out after breakfast. After purchasing tickets, we found a doorway labeled coat check. There are free lockers to put your coat and whatever else you don’t want to carry around the museum. The lockers close with electronic combinations that we set and then we were able to browse the museum with free hands! There are are also special storage receptacles for your umbrella—especially handy for the large umbrellas that you can borrow from the concierge at your hotel. We snapped a photo of our locker number so our jet-lagged brains would not have to remember it.
The Louvre is massive, with some 600,000 items in its collection,so the best bet for a day is to have a plan. The big three are the Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, and the Venus de Milo. But there is so much more! Spend a few minutes online before your visit, and decide what you are most interested in seeing. Have a plan, but don’t be afraid to let yourself be swept away by what catches your eye— it’s the most famous museum in the world for a reason!
We stopped for a snack and coffee, and brunch for my daughter who slept through our breakfast at Maisie’s Cafe at the Le Cafe Mollien where you can get a set-price breakfast, lunch, or snack. It’s ready-made food counter with an ordering line, but the coffee is good and even on a day where the outdoor seating was closed, it was not hard to find a table.
We continued on our museum visit and stopped briefly at the gift shop. I have to admit I was tempted by the vividly-colored reproductions of the Venus de Milo, but if you want an umbrella, coasters, lip balm, or breath mints with the Mona Lisa printed on it, this is the place to get it.
All we wanted for dinner was a quick bite at one of the many sidewalk cafes near our hotel because Tuesday was going to start early. Sigh, while the food came out in a reasonable time frame, the check did not. New post tomorrow!
Sunday in the Marais District
There is nothing like the first morning you wake up in a new city! Without any scheduled activities, we slept in and planned a leisurely day of and exploring the arrondissements beyond our hotel.
Fuel for our exploration came from Angelina’s. A Parisian institution on the Rue de Rivoli, Angelina’s is considered a must-stop, although it took me three trips to Paris to finally go there! We visited on a Sunday morning around 11 am and only had to wait a few minutes to get seated. It was very fun and would have been worth a longer wait–and the line often stretches out of the doors down the street. I chose the Healthy breakfast option, it included a whole grain roll(called cereals on the menu), a yogurt with granola, a small bowl of fruit, coffee, and a juice. My daughters enjoyed the tray of pastries with juice and coffee (petit-déjeuner parisiene) and the petit-déjeuner Angelina with the pastries, a roll, fruit, hot chocolate or coffee and included two eggs. The famous hot chocolate tastes like melted chocolate, and it was a little too rich for me, but my daughters loved it.
With our trusty Google maps to guide us, we set off to see Le Marais. One of the best parts about visiting Paris is the ease with which you can walk nearly everywhere your legs could take you. There are clearly marked crosswalks with pedestrian signals at most intersections and safety in numbers because everybody is walking somewhere.
Known as the bobo district (bourgeois bohemian) Le Marais is not exactly a bargain hunter’s paradise, but the prices are much more accessible than the shops on the Champs-Élysées. On Sundays, some of the streets are closed to vehicular traffic and the shops are open late. You can find French staples like Petite Bataeu and international chains like Uniqlo. The storefronts are charmingly old Paris and there are many cafes and bistros to grab some more sustenance to power through shopping, or at least a glass of wine for those, like me, who are less inclined to shop-till-you-drop.
We loved American Vintage and the Danish designer store dMn. In most French stores, the clothing is curated into collections, and if you are on the cusp of seasons, the previous selection will be on sale. The salespeople at Gerard Darel helped my daughter find a pair of jeans–even pulling her size off the mannequin. And the French salespeople are much more outspoken than in the U.S. about what they think you should try on and about fit. The saleswoman at Gerard Darel was very kind, but firm with my daughter that she did not need the smaller size and called me in for reinforcements. At the lingerie store Princess Tam Tam, my daughter did not like the silhouette of a bra she tried on and was taken aback when the saleswoman assured her she could find a bra more suited to her “physique.”
We crossed the Seine to grab dinner and get ready for our visit to the Louvre on Monday! New post tomorrow!
I wish I could say I’m one of those people who loves to travel, but I find it incredibly stressful to constantly be presented with the unknown, the unplanned for, and the unfamiliar. Fortunately (or unfortunately when it’s all going to hell), I do love to see new places, walk the streets I’ve read about, and find it absolutely thrilling to be able to see in person something famous. I love reliving a trip and how the experiences enrich my understanding of the world. Although, sometimes I think I would prefer to download the memories of a trip a la Total Recall than deal with the stress of going to a foreign land! Until that is an option, I find the best way to balance my travel phobia and my desire to see the world is to hook up with experienced travel companies. For this trip I used the travel company The Purple Truffle http://www.purpletruffle.com to arrange our activities on Tuesday, Wednesday morning, Friday afternoon, and Saturday morning. I’m sharing our day-by-day itinerary for those who, like me, are not intrepid world travelers ready to hop on the next train or bus to see where it takes them, but would rather know in advance that the doors on the train to and from Versailles do not open automatically.
Saturday arrival in Paris.
The hardest part about flying to Paris on the red-eye for me is that by the time I am getting sleepy (about 5 or 6 hours into the flight, so around 10 or 11pm EST), the airline is bringing up the lights to serve a light breakfast. And that means no sleep for me. Our arrival was around 8 am and customs and baggage were painless and relatively quick. We just followed the crowd and queued up. The Purple Truffle had arranged for airport transfer so a driver was waiting for us and took us straight to our hotel. On previous trips, we’ve taken taxis from the airport to the hotel.
We stayed at the Westin Paris-Vendome http://www.thewestinparis.com. There are a zillion hotels in Paris, but the Westin is located such that we were able to walk to the Marais district, the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay, St. Germain, and the Eiffel Tower. The staff is friendly and our rooms, while small, had large windows that opened and adequate clothing storage so that we could unpack our suitcases. On the occasions that we did take taxis, the doorman spoke to our drivers in French to make sure we arrived at the correct destination. And after a terrible taxi ride in 2010 where we ended up at the Louis Vuitton store in St. Germain, not the Champs-Élysées where our rendezvous point was, I always write the address of my destination on a notecard and make sure the doormen talk to my taxi driver. Ok, I realize that going to the wrong Louis Vuitton store may not exactly sound tragic, but it was scary being in an unfamiliar part of the city with myself and two of my kids and unsure how to get back to my husband and other two kids. See part about how much I hate the unfamiliar, plus the taxi driver was really mean and yelled at us. Written addresses are the way to go for this adventure-adverse control freak.
We booked our rooms to include the previous night, and had asked the hotel to hold them until our arrival the next morning. Thankfully, the Westin kept us in the same rooms for our entire visit, and did not have to check in and out of rooms. Rooms in Paris (or anywhere really) are not cheap, but being able to check in and freshen up makes the first day so much easier. On previous trips, we’ve been lucky and were able to do an early check-in to at least one of rooms. I guess one advantage to traveling as a family needing multiple rooms is that it increases the odds for a room being ready early!
After showers and resting for a few hours, we headed out for lunch. We found what would end up being “our” cafe–the L’Imperial. The food was decent, service friendly, and they have menus available in several languages. All three times we ate there, we sat near French speakers. For all I know they were tourists too, but I think it’s an indication that L’Imperial was a typical French cafe if it wasn’t catering to just American visitors.
We walked to the Champs-Élysées, and had a chuckle over how many American chains had opened up on the storied boulevard since our last visit to Paris 2010. If you are dying for a taste of home, there is now a Five Guys on the Champs-Élysées. Based on the suggestion of our driver, we had planned to ride the Great Wheel of Paris at sunset, but apparently everyone has that idea! The line was so long that we figured it would be dark before we boarded and saved that ride for another day. New post tomorrow!
I’m taking my two daughters who are in college to France over their spring break and, while unbelievably exciting, the stress is mounting. My high-school aged daughters are staying home with my husband and whatever extraordinary circumstances that could crop off for school and life, of course, have materialized.
Here are my tips to avoid burnout before ever reaching the City of Lights…
- Don’t schedule your plane flight for the day one of the passengers is driving home from college six hours away. There is buzz that another winter storm is headed for the mid-Atlantic and Northeast and my daughter has to drive home to catch our flight. We thought we were taking a side trip (see lesson 3) and worried that we would not have enough time in Paris if we waited the extra day to fly in..
- Reschedule the installation of your master bedroom closet storage system for when you get back. Seriously. The painters are here this week to get the closet ready for installation. So every single thing that was in my closet is now on the floor of our room in a basket, box, or overloaded extra hanging bar. I can’t find anything. The worst part is that the things I had started gathering to take on trip have gotten buried under the clothes and shoes that came out of the closet. Those travel-sized toiletries I bought for the trip? No idea where they are.
- Don’t rely on the reputable travel company that you’ve used with great success in the past to arrange your 4-day side trip to Bordeaux if the American expert on France has left the company and the company’s French liaison is on holiday in Africa. Exactly one week before our plane flight, I got an email that regretfully informed me that they are unable to make any arrangements. I waited as long as I possibly could—just 13 days before our flight–to make airline reservations. We thought 8 days in Paris would be too long (and Paris is so expensive!), but if we spent 4 days in Bordeaux, the remaining 4 days in Paris would be perfect. And, believe me, I know there are worst travel blunders than spending over a week in Paris, but if the travel company had been upfront and told me nothing was coming together, I would have spent fewer days in France and not had to deal with the stress and worry of a flight on the same day the girls were driving home.
- Don’t assume that just because you are a seasoned worst-case scenario specialist that you’ve really thought of everything that could go wrong at home. My sweet Golden Doodle became lethargic last week and after abdominal ultrasounds, blood panels, MRIs, and a spinal tap, the neurologist diagnosed him with meningitis. I thought I had made contingency plans for everything–the midday walks, the closet installers, rides to lacrosse practice, school transportation, who is keeping an eye on my mom and what my mom is keeping an eye on, and plans for dinner while I’m gone. I had nothing on my radar about what to do if a perfectly healthy puppy came down with a life-threatening illness. Thankfully, the antibiotics and steroids appear to be helping and he is home from the hospital. He’s on multiple medications and I’ve already made the charts and checklists for his care. I’m feeling conflicted and sad because he has stuck to me like glue since his discharge and I know he is going to be lonely during the day while I’m gone.
- Don’t wonder out loud if you should cancel your trip because the dog might miss you during the day.
Today will be the 29th Valentine’s day I’ve shared with my husband, and while I’ve never had the strewn rose petals, Champagne dinner in view of the Eiffel Tower, and piece of jewelry that costs as much as a car kind of day, I think we’ve started to get it right. Or at least we get the wine right.
Our first Valentine’s day, my husband (then-boyfriend) and I had only been together a few weeks. I was SO excited–it was the very first time I’d managed to have a boyfriend on Valentine’s Day. If I wasn’t as old as dirt, I would have dreamt of Instagramming the flowers and jewelry and general envy-inducing romantic gestures I was sure would ensue. I was crushed when he regretfully announced that we wouldn’t be able to do anything on Valentine’s day because he had a huge test the next day. Never one to interfere with scholastic achievement, I heartily endorsed his decision and said I understood. I did, however, plan to surprise him by dropping off a card and some valentine cookies to sustain him during his all-night study session. I walked the 3 miles between our colleges in the Pittsburgh winter (meaning it was windy as hell and either drizzling or drizzle sleeting) with my gifts. I arrived at his fraternity to find his room empty, but the raucous cheers from downstairs led me to the dining hall-cum-beer-pong arena. My boyfriend was well into a closely contested umpteenth round of beer pong. He drunkenly assured me that he loved me SO MUCH and the new plan was to get up really, really early and study then. Oh well, he must have been charming as well as smart because he managed to pass the class and keep his girlfriend. The next year, his college arranged a Valentine’s dinner complete with servers and white tablecloths at a price so reasonable that even as poor college students we were able to attend. It was lovely with the candle-lit tables and a three-course meal—but not exactly romantic because everyone was so excited about the getting a steak dinner for cheap that half of his fraternity went with us. It ended up being memorable because one of the guests at our table got clonked in head with the serving platter, not once, but twice by the grumpy, harassed servers.
The next few years are a mash-up of missing dinner together because of law school or grad school night classes. I think we managed one Valentine’s dinner out a restaurant before the kids started coming along. We had no family close by to watch the babies and I think available teenage babysitters are myth, like Bigfoot–except some people claim to have actually seen Bigfoot. So began our tradition of Valentine’s dinner at home.
Some years we did the full fondue dinner with cheese, fillet mignon, and chocolate and other years I was so exhausted by organizing and running four classroom Valentine’s parties that we ordered pizza, especially the year that I decided on February 13 that all of our kids would bring in handmade heart crayons as favors. I didn’t realize how many crayons we would have to unwrap and chop to fill the heart mold (and in a moment of foolish frugality I had only bought 1 tray of heart-shaped molds) to make 100 or so heart-shaped crayons. I underestimated how long it would take to melt crayons in a low temp oven. Based on the number of melted crayons I found in my minivan, the outdoor table, and the swing set, I thought it would only take a few minutes. Add to that the painstaking precision with which the kids chose the exact color combinations of each heart, and that the 1000 broken crayons we already had were not enough and I had to run to the grocery store to buy several more overpriced packages, I’m sure you get the idea. The next year, everyone brought in Fun Dip valentines.
Now, there are no more classroom parties and while the kids are old enough not to need sitters (but they don’t babysit either), I have Valentine’s Day down pat. I buy a couple of fillets for the kids, prime porterhouse for us (they think the delicious fat is gross) and round it out with potatoes and a something green (for us, they think anything green is gross, too.) And then we choose a rocking bottle of red and a pink flavor of Italian soda. For less than we’d spend on a mediocre bottle of wine at restaurant, we have a divine meal and a sublime Cab. And I can guilt the kids into doing the dishes J
A few months ago, I decided to try a meal delivery service and after a quick once-over of sample menus, I selected Sun Basket. I settled on 3 meals a week and to serve four. My two oldest had just returned to college and one of the two still at home is a whitecarbavore (I made that up, but she pretty much lives on pasta with butter and parmaggiano reggiano, brie, really rare filet mignon, and cocoa puffs) We find the four servings to be plenty, but I often, especially on practice nights, will make a carb—either rice or pasta to go with the meal.
On the practical side, it is wonderful to open the bag and all the ingredients are there. As a hopeless forgot-my-shopping-list-at-home-again shopper, it is quite thrilling to have everything for the meal in neat little plastic jars or bags. The pre-made spice mixes have been amazing—flavorful, and not overloaded with salt. An added bonus is that I don’t have to buy several spices that I only need a pinch or two of and then they languish on my overcrowded spice shelf for years.
The best thing is that for three nights a week, I don’t have figure out what to make for dinner. I use the Sun Basket app to make my meal selections and that is the only decision I need to make about dinner until the weekend. Sometimes I think the overwhelming variety of ingredients, the endless Pinterest recipes, the globalization of cuisines make me less likely to cook dinner. When I can cook anything, sometimes I end up cooking nothing.
My meals for the week arrive at my door by Monday afternoon, packed with an environmentally-friendly freezer pack. The meat is in vacuum-sealed packages and everything else for the meal is in a labeled paper sack. The only things I use from my pantry are oil, salt, and pepper—really! Keeping in my mind that I get double of everything for my four servings, I need to store the ingredients in my garage fridge. (I could go on and on about the evils of the French-door refrigerator’s lack of storage, but realize that refrigerator space is needed if you want to try a meal service.)
It’s definitely not cheap– I pay around $150 each week for 12 meals and that food takes care of 3 dinners for three people and 2-3 lunches for me during the week. Considering the convenience and that the ingredients are primarily organic, the seafood is often wild-caught, and the meat is humanely raised and antibiotic and hormone-free, I think, however, there is good value in the price.
Our reviews of the dinners have been overwhelmingly positive. The lamb merguez and falafel meals have been all-stars. I love that I can adjust the recipes to fit my family’s personal tastes and habits, like I use half the amount of onion called for in any recipe and leave out any red or green peppers. It’s almost like having a personal chef—I choose what we want to eat, someone else sources all the ingredients and the ingredients are all gathered together, then I get to do the part I like best—cook! Well, I guess it is more sort-of-like having a personal chef because there are still the dishes and kitchen to clean up, but most of the meals are made in one pan and I use a couple of bowls for prep or salads.
I saved the best for last—using a meal delivery service cuts down on the time I have to spend grocery shopping with people who cannot steer their cart while talking on their phone, meandering aimlessly down the aisle, but with an uncanny ability to effectively block all attempts to pass them on right or the left.
Note: I’m not affiliated in any way with Sun Basket (other than I’m a customer) and I did not receive any compensation from Sun Basket for this review.