Money can’t buy you love, so save your pennies with Emma Freud’s guide to romance on a budget.
Before we go any further, I feel I need to establish my credentials in the romantic arena: I was the Kissing Consultant on the movie Love, Actually.
There was a lot of competition for the role, but I secured it by managing to have four children with the director – literally sleeping my way to the top.
There wasn’t much call for my special skills during the first half of the shoot, but when we arrived in Marseille to film the sequence where Colin Firth proposes to Lucia Moniz in a Portuguese café, my moment had arrived. As she descended the staircase in her waitress outfit, the kiss that ensued was the climax of their story and it needed to be landmark. I designed a trademark clinch for Colin: the double-handed head-hold, followed by the gentle brushing of her lips with his thumb just as his mouth descended onto hers.
I think it worked well – a teenage life spent on hay bales with several Suffolk lads was not wasted after all. So in the light of that major professional qualification, please trust me as I impart a few pearls of Valentine’s Day wisdom.
Avoid Valentine's evenings
The ‘Expensive Restaurant’ experience can be grim. About 20 years ago, my current boyfriend and I had (as usual) booked nowhere, and every single place we tried was full. We ended up begging a grumpy concierge for a table in a frighteningly posh London restaurant. As we entered, we saw that each table had been made up for two, with dozens of couples sitting in long lines like Stepford husbands and wives, eating from a set menu and taking part in an unspoken competition for who can look like they are most in love.
Then, just after the petal-strewn starter, a ‘single rose in cellophane’ supplier entered the room – the sour cherry on the claggy cake of the doomed romantic night. He dispensed flowers to each of the women whose partners had remembered to order one at the time of booking. My partner hadn’t. So we sat there for the rest of the overpriced, overlong meal feeling like overstuffed, unromantic, penny-pinching failures.
That was the last time we ate in a restaurant on February 14. Since then, we’ve always celebrated Valentine’s on Feb 13 – a night where you can get a table for two in any restaurant in the country, with no set menu and no lines of competing couples.
Keep it simple
The best Valentine’s night I ever had involved quite a bit of planning, but was cheaper and more memorable than any restaurant dinner. The (same) boyfriend and I spent it in a beach hut during a small storm… with heated blankets, a bottle of wine, a flask of homemade soup, fairy lights and a transistor radio. I’ve rarely been happier. So this is my big suggestion…
Have a night picnic
Find an outdoor venue… a bus stop, park bench, bandstand, balcony, a little patch of garden or any sheltered public or private space. You’ll need a small portable fire bucket – there are lots for around £10 on Amazon. Invest in a battery or USB-charged heated blanket – mine cost £10 on Ebay.
Borrow a huge golfing umbrella if there’s no shelter (or buy one for under £20), arrange a rug and cushions on the ground or bench, place some battery-operated fairy lights (from £3) nearby or string them from a tree. Bring a small speaker to connect to your phone and find a classic soul playlist. And wear layers of scarves, hats and gloves so that you overheat rather than shiver.
Valentine's picnic menu
I've put budget recipes for a flask of hot buttered brandy spiked with (seasonal) blood oranges, a flask of warming roasted red pepper and sweet potato soup – gorgeous with some fresh soda bread – and a makeshift chocolate and brandy fondue for pudding. Then, finish it off with marshmallows on sticks to toast over your fire bucket.
The whole menu will set you back less than £15, is light on carbs to keep the evening sparky, heavy on the alcohol which is… fun, and not overly lengthy to eat, just in case you develop frostbite. It’ll be cold outside, but sizzling under the umbrella in every way, and if you do nothing else, you’ll laugh yourself into love for braving a picnic on a chilly February night.
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Good Food contributing editor Emma Freud is a journalist and broadcaster, director of Red Nose Day and a co-presenter of Radio Four’s Loose Ends.