Thursday, January 17, 2013


I’ve been thinking a lot this week about toys. Post-Christmas, our house is ridiculously full of them. Nathan now sleeps with three stuffed animal dogs (two of them were gifts for Nicholas, mind you), plays with a fully-stocked kitchen, and uses a train table to run a railroad network as extensive as the one on the Island of Sodor. Our living room is covered with Legos and Elmo puzzle pieces, and our hallway resembles a parking garage for rideable toy trains. There was a time, pretty long ago, that Buckingham Palace and the other royal residences didn’t look much different. What was the toy store of choice to purchase gifts for the royal children? Hamleys, of course. For decades the British toy superstore held Royal Warrants—from the Queen Mother for supplying toys to Elizabeth and Margaret, and later to Queen Elizabeth for her own children. 
When Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip moved Charles and Anne into Buckingham Palace in 1952, they tried their best to recreate the nursery in their former home, Clarence House. It was “stuffed with handed-down royal toys—a model of Gibraltar with a working railway, cast-off royal garments to be used as dressing-up clothes, a miniature car.” Maybe some of Charles and Anne’s toys were hand-me-down’s, but this certainly wasn’t true of all of them. Hamleys took great pride in the fact that, when her children were small, the Queen was a devoted customer. The store does not currently hold a Royal Warrant—maybe because the royal family has so few small children to spoil these days? I wonder if the baby about to be born in July will prompt the Queen or Prince Charles to again patronize the long-famous store.
To write about Hamleys in a way that would make any sense at all to Americans, I needed to get over two pretty major hurdles: 1.) convince Hamleys to ship their products to America, even though their website says they’ll only ship to the UK and Europe and 2.) figure out a way to describe a place I’ve never visited. To solve the first problem I emailed customer service and within just a few hours received a thoughtful response and a very good solution:

“Although we don't deliver to the US from our online website, you can place orders from our Regent Street store over the phone, and have them shipped to you in the US from there. If you would like to do that, please feel free to call us on 0871 704 1977, select the option for the Regent Street store, and we can then put you through to the appropriate floor in Regent Street to make a purchase.”

Problem solved. To get over the next hurdle, I enlisted my friend Katie. If my friend Beth was exactly the kind of person you’d want to take with you to a dog show, Katie turns out to be exactly the kind of person you’d want to run an errand for you in the West End. She promised me on Monday that she’d try to get there “sometime this week” but when I woke up Tuesday I already had emails from her with great photos and even a short essay detailing her experience. She seems somewhat keen on becoming a regular England-based correspondent for this blog, and it goes without saying that she is hired. She will be paid in McVitie’s dark chocolate digestive biscuits. 

Let’s turn it over to Katie now:
“To say that Hamleys is the FAO Schwartz of yesteryear on cocaine would be a bit of an understatement. I HATE going in Hamleys. I do it twice a year (because my kids LOVE everything I hate about it), but that’s about all I can tolerate. It’s definitely an experience, though!

The whole “Hamleys” experience is built around and for the kids. They have every toy you could ever imagine (and many you’d never even imagined were possible), and they are all on display to play with and try out. That’s the cool part. What’s more, there is a ratio of about 1 Hamleys employee for every five shoppers who is lurking around every corner to throw a Glitter Fairy in your face or poke you with their magic wand, or say “HEY THERE! Turn that frown upside down - YOU’RE IN HAMLEYS!!!” Thus, the reason I hate the store. This time, I had a guy stand in front of the escalator with his magic wand so that I had to run into his wand, and when I inevitably ran into his wand at the end of the escalator he said, “WHY did you just run right into my magic wand? You didn’t even try and move out of the way?! HAHAHA!” They have kids’ music blaring on the loud speakers, which causes the employees to sing along and spontaneously break into dance and of course, try to get you to dance along. Everyone wants to “help” you shop, and everyone tries to sell you something else. So, if you happen to bring your kids along, it becomes a VERY difficult battle of the wills to escape with JUST the doll (or My Little Pony, or whatever) you went in there to buy.”

(Isn’t she fabulous? Seriously, she nailed it.)

I wanted to know a little more about the store and its connection to the Royal Warrant, so I enjoyed reading this timeline on the store’s website. Hamleys was begun as part of the dream of toy-lover William Hamley, who opened a toy store called Noah’s Ark in London in 1760. His grandsons carried on the tradition by opening another toy store called the Joy Emporium, which was popular in London during Queen Victoria’s reign. Although the store was forced to close during the Great Depression, Walter Lines bought the store and reopened it as Hamleys. It was awarded its first Royal Warrant in 1938 by Queen Mary, and during the 1950s by Queen Elizabeth as a “Toys and Sports Merchant.”

If we know now that Hamleys in its present form is a bit...intense...maybe we’re lucky we Americans don’t have much access to it other than ordering online or via the telephone. Surely they can’t poke a wand at you over the phone? As I write this entry sitting on a couch next to two dinosaurs and a stack of children’s books, I’m thinking maybe I’m lucky I have no need to be in the British equivalent of FAO Schwartz on crack anytime soon. 

Where to buy: See the instructions above for having orders shipped from the Regent Street store in London to your home in the United States. If you’re in the UK or mainland Europe, you’re in luck; Hamleys happily delivers to you already.

Sunday, January 6, 2013


I guess it wouldn’t be January without sweeping plans for self-transformation and long lists of New Year’s resolutions. The usual items are there—eat more fruits & vegetables, less sugar; do more exercising and less lounging around—so much so that I heard eight different news programs this week about how I should go about revamping myself. Maybe it’s reaching the wise old age of 30, or maybe it’s the fact that running after two kids has me down to my college weight, but I’m really not interested in hearing dieting and exercise tips this week. On the off chance that you’re getting a little tired of it too, I promise you’ve found a safe haven here. This week we’re not going to talk about an exercise regimen (although it really is important and I really do endorse such a habit) or about dieting (diets are usually miserable failures) but about chocolate.

Are you kidding me? I’m tired of chocolate,” you might be protesting.
I get that. We’ve all sort of overloaded on sweets lately. We’re fresh off the holidays. That’s why I want to make clear that I’m targeting the select few of you who—like me—actually aren’t tired of chocolate right now. You could never get tired of chocolate. Like me you’ve stashed away the good stuff you received in stockings and gift bags: boxes of Moonstruck Chocolates, individually wrapped Baci truffles, tins of Ghirardelli hot cocoa, and Ritter Sport bars with whole hazelnuts (like the one I consumed between 2 and 5 pm yesterday). You’re freezer is not lacking in buckeye candy, fudge, or chocolate-covered Oreos either. You’re not looking for a way to get rid of the stuff. Just the opposite—you’re hoarding it. This week I’m writing to you, fellow chocolate addicts. This week is for us. Charbonnel et Walker holds a Royal Warrant from Her Majesty the Queen (and has since 1970) as “Chocolate Manufacturers.”

I first heard of Charbonnel et Walker a couple of summers ago when I read about it in Eugenia Bell’s beautiful little guidebook called The Traditional Shops and Restaurants of London. Bell recommends stopping by the storefront in the busy Royal Arcade of Piccadilly Circus. The historical narrative she tells of the store is wonderful. In 1873 King Edward VII was responsible for uniting the confectionery duo of Madame Charbonnel of Paris and Mrs. Walker of London. During a visit to France, he loved Mme. Charbonnel’s chocolates so much that he persuaded her to relocate herself and her chocolate-making talents to his city, making Charbonnel et Walker one of the very first chocolate producers in the country. Bell recommends trying the drinking chocolate—which I’ve unfortunately never sampled—or a small pink box of champagne truffles. The really special thing about these truffles is that the round boxes they come in are made to look like old-fashioned powder cosmetic boxes. The truffles inside are milky and decadent and melt-in-your-mouth delicious.

The story of how Charbonnel et Walker truffles have stayed on the list of Royal Warrants is also an interesting one. The Queen Mother was apparently a huge fan, and passed her fondness for them onto her daughter. Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon—dubbed the Queen Mother, or sometimes just the Queen Mum, after her husband’s death in 1952—was a well-liked figure in the United Kingdom ever since her marriage to Prince Albert in 1923. Their marriage was somewhat unusual since it broke the longstanding tradition of royals marrying royals, e.g. some distant cousin from another European royal family. Albert married an English girl (much like Prince William did three years ago), and the country was delighted with his choice. In the 50 years between her husband’s death and her own in 2002, the Queen Mother continued to elevate and strengthen the image of the English monarchy. She was known for being easygoing, for her good sense of humor, and for her sweet tooth. She also helped eased her daughter’s transition into becoming a ruling monarch. Elizabeth’s father was dead and her entire life was changing in the early 1950s, but none of this change happened without her mother by her side.

This is an excellent week for me to offer an opinion about Charbonnel et Walker truffles because I’m surrounded by all of my usual favorites. How do they measure up? They’re good...but they’re certainly not at the top of my list. I really like variety in my chocolates, and I think it’s fair to say these lack the flare and innovation I love so much about Moonstruck Chocolates, based out of Portland, Oregon. If you haven’t tried these, you absolutely should. Right away—go order some. And I’m not just saying that because Charbonnel et Walker have ignored all of my polite emails asking more about their company history.

(Still, if I’m completely honest, I’ll point out that the only photo I have of the inside of my own box of milk chocolate truffles shows it looking pretty empty.)

Where to buy: The availability of Charbonnel et Walker truffles in America is a relatively new thing. You can order from Saks Fifth Avenue. From time to time I also see them at Williams-Sonoma.