Sunday, 24 July 2011

'Sue Chef' steals the show at Jamie's Italian

Just back from Mum's 60th birthday bash in Bath.

I'd set off yesterday at about 10.30am with a route carefully plotted to avoid the motorways and the inevitable summer holiday crush heading to the South West.

The journey took a modest three-and-a-half hours including two stops for a gentleman's toilet break and light refreshments break, and which also included some glorious Wilts/Gloucs scenery and towns along the way - the stand-outs were Tetbury and Cirencester.

Our booking at Jamie's Italian at 8pm was looming large.

The majority had gathered at the Riverside Cafe by Bath's Pulteney bridge when I arrived at around 2pm. My great Auntie Susie (aged 80) had been up at 4am to catch a flight from Newcastle and was there along with Mum, Dad, Jim, Karen, Steve, Kate, Simon, Abbey, Murray and Jane.

It was a cosy little cafe - nah, it was a shoebox - and we all squeezed around two tables like a throng of French Troglodytes for a casual catch-up, gift handover session and intake of caffeine. Mum gulped down two coffees - she was certainly getting in the drinking spirit already!

After a quick R&R at our farmhouse B&B on the outskirts of Bath, we were soon taxiing back to Bath to return to the finely-tuned birthday schedule.

Next on the agenda was a meet-and-greet for all at Brown's Brasserie at 7pm.

Tables were in generous supply but despite this, the majority (including me) were content to stand and sip. Lizzy, Davey, Beccy and Jess joined us and Davey's football trivia had us stumped for ages, namely, 'Name the three Irish players who've captained their teams to the Premier League and Division One title'. We got two pretty quickly, but can you get the last one!

We drank up by 7.45pm and swaggered and staggered to varying degrees over to Jamie's.

With a party of some 20 or so, we were seated around the biggest table in the restaurant right beside the hot drinks and beverages bay - how did that pass 'Elf and Safety'? - and I gave Dad a hand getting the table set up. Margaret and Simon joined us too.

Dad had gone to some effort organising everything.

Leaving few stones unturned in his prep, he'd hand-crafted green and red felt 'Happy Birthday Sue' hats for everyone and a white felt 'Sue Chef' chef's toque for Mum, as well as personally-engraved 'Welsh love spoons' - aka wooden cooking spoons with graffiti - for everyone. And finally, there were party poppers, a 'Happy Birthday' banner and baby trumpets too.

Mum's cake was a spectacle. The waiters carried it over carefully in its white cardboard box and as they steered behind Mum's head, they dropped it. Yep. It fell on the floor. Dad's jaw dropped.

The box was empty, but that didn't stop Dad for falling for it!

When the cake did finally arrive it was, indeed, a spectacle. Themed carefully around Mum's passion for cooking, the cake had been decorated liberally with a trinity of edible versions of her favourite culinary hardbacks. Rick Stein, the Barefoot Contessa and Jamie himself all featured with no room left for Mum's many other inspirations.

And for a final flourish, numerous Irish stew ingredients had been delicately inserted around cake perimeter - ahem...British stew.

Before and after the cake arrived, we added backing vocals to Dad's lead on some carefully selected songs - some highly personal, others highly controversial but all enjoyable. Dad then circulated a nice photo album he'd compiled in the truest 'This is Your Life' sense charting Mum's journey from naughty baby to even naughtier Mum to proud Grandmum - or 'Ninny' to apply her proper title.

All-in-all, it was a wonderful night and I turned in at around 1.30am.

It was great to catch up with family and friends and thanks go especially to Dad for all the effort he put into making it such a special and personal occasion. I know Mum appreciated - we all did.

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Sunday, 10 July 2011

Ben's Birthday Blow-Out

Ellen had ambitious plans for Ben's birthday party this year.

Fed up with other snobby Mums at the Nursery booking out large Village Halls and entertainers to celebrate their little ones' birthdays, she decided to do the same and booked out Parkside Village Hall in Ampthill for the afternoon.

Pencilled in for 1.30-3.30pm on Saturday afternoon, we sent out invitations to Ben's friends at nursery based on a list of his best mates as recommended by his nursery carer 'Mr Tom'. The guest list had about 12 names on it and we had confirmation that 8 kids plus parents would be attending.

When the big day arrived, we were up at working day time and in full swing with the preparations.

We downloaded music for the pass-the-parcel event on an iPod, enveloped the parcel with layer after layer of wrapping paper, made dips, salads and other nibbles too. After loading the car full of food, drink, plates, cups, napkins, balloons, banners, cleaning materials, i-pod, sound system, camera...let me just catch my breath....ah, that's better....we were ready to go.

Weather fine, sunny and a hint of warmth, we pulled up at the Village Hall.

It was an unimpressive relic from the 1970/80s with interior to match. The toilets and other areas took me back to primary school! However, it was more than spacious enough inside and we had all we needed facilities-wise.

Before long the kids and parents started filtering through the front entrance and generally looked lost until they were greeted. And before not much longer, all had arrived and were mixing and mingling with drinks and nibbles with kids playing together nicely.

I kicked off proceedings in the main hall with a game of pass-the-parcel.

Playing a selection of songs ranging from 'I Am The Music Man' to 'The Birdie Song', I tried to keep a beady eye on which kids had won each round to avoid the unhappy scenario of empty-handed kids crying their heads off, or worse, brawling with each other over the presents.

It all passed calmly and enjoyably and, no, we hadn't fixed it so Ben would win. The prize - a stylish stair 'slinky' that Ellen picked up from Wilkinson's - was scooped by blond-haired Jake.

We then laid out the food and drink on a large table by the main hall while the entertainer took over with the kids and earned his £60. That he did, loudly and actively, and the kids were enthralled with his range of activities, including penalty shoot out, obstacle course, throw-the-sticky ball-at-the-giant-dartboard, space hoppers for all and more.

He stayed for an hour and we unveiled the birthday cake to a hungry crowd shortly after.

It was a delicious brown chocolate sponge and cream cake iced ornately with the features of a monkey (how appropriate) and surrounded meticulously by a range of jelly sweets and sweetie bananas.

Ben didn't hang around when the cake arrived with candles on top. He inhaled so deeply he almost fell off his chair before blowing out the candles in one big puff. Then we did what all adults do at that stage - snatched the cake off the kids and went to carve it up.

Gill and Barry sprinted back to the kitchen like a pack of hungry wolves and had it sliced up in no time and we all tucked in and had a general chat about kids, careers, the weather - you know, the usual topics.

Before we knew it, it was 3.30pm and time to say goodbye to Ben's chums.

The time had whizzed by and we gave Ben his party bags to hand out to each of his mates as they left - not least, his 'wife' Gracie who'd turned out for her celebrating husband in a striking red polka dot dress. Ben kissed his other half goodbye and the hall fell quiet again.

Poor little Ben was upset it was over. A quick hug later and he was okay again.

We were really glad Ben had enjoyed his little birthday party. Ciaran had too in his quiet little way, but Ellen and I just had to glance into each other eyes to know we felt the same way - let's chill out now!

A back garden party next year methinks.

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