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Essentially England News - Of Chocolate Mice, Magical Creatures, and a Most Unusual Dinner
February 04, 2018

Of Chocolate Mice, Magical Creatures, and a Most Unusual Dinner

Greetings from England, where it's chilly and I'm sitting with the tissues not too far out of reach. I thought I'd gotten one over on all the germs currently making the rounds, but no - February is paying me back for my repeated declaration that it's the month I like the least!

It's not actually as bad as all that this year. We get the occasional glimpse of sunshine, and while it's very cold, there are the first signs of spring if I look carefully. My primroses, who often start showing flowers at Christmas, aren't out yet, but we have our first snowdrop, the first crocus, and even a grape hyacinth or two. My rosemary bush has flowers, and the jasmine looks like a bunch of tiny stars have fallen from heaven and settled on the bare bricks. So, really, not at all bad!

To top it off, I've been holding tight to two ideas for days out I wanted to talk about - mostly because they make fantastic treats for a special someone and for many of us, February is the month for treats and chocolates, so this fits right in.

For my birthday last year, my husband took me to visit Warner Brothers Studios near Watford, the place where the Harry Potter movies were filmed. Even in November, during term-time, the studio was busy. It's also vast and took us a few hours to get around. The sheer number of exhibits, artefacts and props is staggering. For me, it fit in well with what I like best about JK Rowling's books: the myriad of well thought-out details.

You can easily spend days just looking at items. Unfortunately, I had to concede that my brain isn't designed to appreciate sixteen different versions of chocolate mice, marvel over all four hundred-odd of Professor Snape's potion ingredients, or the gazillion of knick-knacks Mrs. Weasley keeps around her living room. Not all in one day.

What revived the flagging brain cells was... food, of course! And that's where the idea for a Valentine's Day treat comes from. A lot of the pink festival centres around chocolates, and here you have not just a whole gift shop full of the most outlandish sweets JK Rowling could come up with, but also the ultimate chocolate feast to... well, feast your eyes on. And get ideas for creating your own.

I'm not entirely sure about the chocolate mice, but our Tiger may have something to say on that point.

The chocolate feast and the gift shop weren't the end of the treats either.

I had a distinct hankering to try butterbeer and .... yes! ... you can. It's okay, but not a patch on the butterbeer ice cream. That is truly and utterly delicious. So much so, I could have bought and snaffled half a cauldron of it.

And yes, I know this picture looks totally staged, but I swear that I was sitting in front of the Knight Bus!

The outside exhibition space is as fascinating as anything you can find inside. From Godric's Hollow to the Knight Bus and the iconic bridge that isn't actually part of the books, you can walk along, over and through places you've seen in the films. While we were there, the staff were staging a Death Eater battle on the bridge and the kids who were on site absolutely loved it!

The second of my favourite parts came when we went back inside. First, we got to find out how house elves, goblins, trolls, and magical objects like the Monster Book or the spiders are made and animated. Then we got to walk through Diagon Alley and - finally - we got to see all the concept art for Hogwarts and its surroundings. Seeing all the "discarded" designs and imagining those in place of what we've come to see as Hogwarts is something I won't forget in a hurry.

What I took away was even more of an appreciation for the people who created the films. The special effects section was fun, reading about all the animals working in the films left a lump in my throat - of course it would! - and seeing the concept designs for Hogwarts and then the castle's model was.... well, you have to see it yourself! I'm struggling with finding enough words and my dictionary is in the study! Dumbledore's study was one of my favourites, and seeing how the Monster Book of Monsters came to life was hilarious. 

It took ten years to make all the films and many of the people who were there at the start were also present on the last day. I hope they know that they created something truly spectacular. But I did wonder what they all did the following Monday.

A Most Unusual Dinner

If a film studio tour isn't that high on your list of Valentine's Day treats, or you don't have a film studio in travelling distance, then here's another option. It's dinner out... but with a difference. Steve has a knack for finding unusual experiences and this was one experience that will end up in a story sooner rather than later. It would also make one amazing treat for a birthday or anniversary. Well, it would for me. I like trying out unusual things and I love food... and here the two came together in a rather spectacular fashion.

There are plenty of restaurants in London, but as far as I know, only a single one where you have no idea what you're eating. And not because the chef very cleverly disguises his food. No, in this restaurant you don't know what you're eating because you're dining in total darkness.

Yes, you read that correctly. It's not just mood lighting turned low. It's pitch-dark. Which makes it challenging in quite a few directions. Finding your way to your table is one of them. Filling water glasses is another. Locating your dinner and then sorting out what's on the plate and how best to eat it.... you'll get where I'm going with this, I'm sure.

Another thing, which we hadn't banked on, was how vulnerable not being able to see would make us feel. Or how loud everything seemed all of a sudden. Maybe it was because diners compensated for being unable to see each other by talking more to one another. Or our hearing worked overtime to compensate for our lack of vision. 

Dans le Noir is a unique restaurant and provides a unique experience. You dine in the dark, the wait staff are visually impaired, and the food and drink on offer is a surprise. (Except for the cocktails, which you have before you enter the restaurant.) The menus are well thought out and cover most bases. You can pick from Vegetarian, fish, meat, and complete surprise.

Loving food the way we do, we were quite confident we'd  be able to taste what we're eating. Mostly, we were right. Sometimes we weren't - strangely enough, especially with the vegetables. And I was spectacularly beside the bridge with two of my meats when I thought I was eating chicken and mutton respectively, only to find out that... I wasn't. The restaurant asks all diners not to share the contents of the surprise menu, so I won't reveal what was on my plate, except for the fact that everything was supremely tasty.

I hadn't been prepared for something as unusual as this, but if you're in London (Or Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, Nantes, Nice or Auckland) I would recommend that you have dinner at Dans Le Noir. After all, trying out new things together keeps the romance young. And making unusual memories with each other does the same. Sometimes, cuddling up on the sofa with a glass of wine and a favourite CD is the right thing for a wonderful date. At other times, it's sharing dinner in the dark.

Have a lovely February.

And Next Month …

Next month, it should be spring. It's also our wedding anniversary, which we've celebrated with various days out over the years. I'm thinking a recap of some great places is in order... for anyone who is in need of a bit of inspiration of where to visit once the weather gets better. And I am hoping for the very first pink rhubarb from Yorkshire, to try as an apertitif with a glass of prosecco.

Until then, please take care.

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