What is a good date?

by Sam Bilton on February 14, 2014 No comments

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The spectre of Valentine’s Day is rearing it’s ugly head again with all the sentimental guff it brings with it. It’s not that I’m against romance per se. I just can’t bear the blatant commercial rip offs. I saw a local florist advertising a dozen red roses for £50 the other day. Personally I can think of far better things for Billy to spend his hard earned cash on. A friend told me recently that Parisienne florists do fantastic deals this time of the year. Apparently you can buy one bouquet of flowers for your wife and get a second free for your mistress (presumably with the departure La Trierweiler this a deal François Hollande will not be taking advantage of). That sounds far more reasonable than £50 on a bunch of roses which will be limp and lifeless by February 15th.

Then of course there is the ubiquitous Valentine’s Dinner. Purported to be a ‘romantic dinner à deux’ they are anything but. Do you honestly want to spend the evening crammed into a restaurant with lots of other ‘doting’ couples receiving shoddy service from the over stretched staff and eating sub standard food from a “lazy, trite and downright patronising menu” (as Helen Graves sums it up in her new book Cook Your Date Into Bed, hence forth known as CYDIB)? I don’t and I can’t believe you do either. Combine this with the fact that classically romantic foods, like oysters, sometimes have unsavoury side effects then dining out on Valentine’s Day can be a recipe for disaster (Tim Hayward wrote a great piece in Fire & Knives on his bad experience with oysters during a romantic weekend in Norfolk. He’d planned to propose to his date, but his proposal was rudely interrupted by a bout of violent vomiting).

Of course, food can be romantic. It’s just that restaurants and those people who feel the need to celebrate this god awful day mess around with it too much. It shouldn’t be fussy or pretentious. I agree with Helen, author of the Food Stories blog as well as CYDIB, that food and dining should ultimately be fun. Dates don’t have to include food but often a meal seems to be the logical scenario whether you’re just getting to know one another or escaping from work or the kids with a long term partner for an evening out. So what constitutes a good date?

I love to cook but understand it isn’t everyone’s bag. So I really appreciate it when someone goes the extra mile to cook for me. Billy did exactly this for our first date. This was a BIG deal for him as he really hates to cook. Unfortunately, he got off to a poor start when he overfilled the blender with hot spinach soup which then spewed forth molten green liquid all over the kitchen cupboards, ceiling and his crisp (now-not-so) white shirt. Luckily there were no more upsets during his meal and we have now been together for 13 years (although it should be said that Billy’s forays into the kitchen have been few and far between since this incident). He can rest assured that he is not the only person to have experienced a culinary mishap during a date. CYDIB finishes with several dating horror stories from cooking a meaty feast for a staunch vegan to someone being knocked out by his date with a frozen chicken (apparently he couldn’t remember what he’d done to merit the bash on the head). So the moral of this story is to keep it simple to minimise the stress of the event (and perhaps consider removing any large frozen objects before your date arrives).

Everyone seems to assume that a food related date should focus around dinner or perhaps, at a push, lunch. What about breakfast or brunch? Now, for a lot people (the author of CYDIB included) the idea of having the first meal of the day with someone you are sweet on is simply horrific. I used to be of the same opinion but over the years my view has changed.

Shakshuka at NOPI

Shakshuka at NOPI

Breakfast is not a meal I usually appreciate. Even before I had kids it has always been a hurried affair. There is always some place to be or something to do. My normal breakfast consists of shovelling a bowl or slice of something into my gob whilst sorting out the washing/emptying the dishwasher/ answering emails at the same time as screaming at the kids to eat their breakfast/brush their teeth/stop fighting. On the rare occasions I get to enjoy a leisurely breakfast I really appreciate it because it’s a genuine luxury. Last year Billy and I got to spend a weekend in London and had a lovely breakfast at NOPI. I had a delicious middle eastern egg dish called Shakshuka. It felt (and tasted) so wonderfully decadent to dip the lightly toasted sourdough into the soft eggs with out a run down of the previous days football scores or acting referee to two squabbling boys. However, as I said it is very rare that I get to enjoy a leisurely breakfast (and even rarer one that has been prepared for me). If I have the opportunity to have such a breakfast at home then it would always have to be fluffy scrambled eggs preferably with smoked salmon.

Smoked Salmon Scrambled Eggs

The husband of a very good friend invited her to breakfast for their first date having met her one evening in a bar. My initial reaction when she told me this was “what a presumptuous sleaze bag”. I assumed he thought said friend would wake up in his bed on the morning of the ‘date’ having plied her with ample booze the night before. However, I was wrong and they went their separate ways that evening only to meet up the following morning for breakfast. It turns out he had prepared a wonderful picnic including (a bit weirdly) many of her favourite foods and had chosen the perfect spot in which to eat it. This has now transpired to be one of the most romantic first date stories I’ve heard.

So, yes I think breakfast can be simple, stress free and romantic. People are more subdued and less likely to be weighted down with the worries of the day in the morning (or maybe that’s due to a lack of caffeine). Eaten at leisure it’s something that can be convivial, intimate and relaxing without any chance of beer goggles coming into play. Not that I’m against alcohol on dates but who hasn’t had a date that has been impaired by too much alcohol? Incidentally, there is a great section in CYDIB on how to get rid of any unwelcome dates the following morning ranging from opening a can of all day breakfast (which I’ve never come across myself but sounds truly revolting) to serving scrambled brains for breakfast. If the thought of a date (even a breakfast one) without alcohol is simply too horrific there is also a cracking recipe for a Mustardy Mary (a take on the classic Bloody Mary) in CYDIB. But above all it’s the one meal of the day that should be simple (throw any pretentious ideas out with the tinned all-day-breakfast) and therefore should be relatively stress free which ultimately equals fun (and I say this things as someone who usually abhors mornings). Furthermore, if you are hell bent on going out this Valentine’s you are less likely to be sharing the experience with countless other couples if you opt for breakfast or brunch rather than the customary over priced, cliched dinner.

If I haven’t managed to persuade you that breakfast is the best meal for a date (Valentine’s or other wise) then you could do a lot worse than look to CYDIB for ideas. It contains some truly delicious yet simple recipes from Duck à la Pamplemousse (that’s grapefruit to you and me) to Drunken Baked Figs plus some innovative cocktails. And if your date is a complete disaster you can seek solace in some of the genuinely amusing anecdotes it contains.

‘Cook Your Date into Bed’ is published by Dog ‘n’ Bone Books at £9.99, and is available from all good bookshops or call 01256-302699.

Sam BiltonWhat is a good date?

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