Blackrock Dublin

The Dublin Cookery School, which DonQui Oaty wrote about in his last post, is located in Blackrock — a Dublin suburb on the coast, a few kms south of the city proper. It is unlikely DonQui would have stayed in Blackrock had it not been for his course at the Cookery School and that would have been a pity.

First impressions, as the airport bus drops DonQui off outside a bland looking shopping centre, are not auspicious. The area seems to have quite a suburban feel to it with lots of traffic and modern buildings.

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Yet tucked away behind the shopping centre, towards Dublin Bay, is a pleasant park and a number of quiet streets filled with coffee shops, pubs and eateries of all kinds from Indian to Italian and, of course, Irish. There is also a small quirky antiques market with yet more places to eat and drink. Some are little more than small stalls, others are cafés, and there is also an up-market restaurant.

This is more like it DonQui thinks!

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Just because it is on the coast of the Irish sea don’t expect a beach holiday in Blackrock. The view of Dublin Bay is atmospheric but it is not the sort of place to tempt DonQui to dip his hooves in the water. On a late spring/early summer’s day the weather is typically Irish with cloud and rain interspersed with all too infrequent sunny periods.

Over three days DonQui tests out many of the local eateries and watering holes. There are many more he would have liked to have tried but he will have to save these for another visit. In no particular order these are his views of the places he tried out:

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The Mellow Fig: From the outside it looks like a fairly traditional ‘caff’ where one might expect tea and a bacon and egg breakfast. Inside it is anything but that. With pastel colours it clearly caters to ‘yummy mummies’ in search of a light lunch or, yes, breakfast. The pastry and cake counter looks divine. DonQui’s breakfast at the Mellow Fig consists of an excellent croissant and one of the most perfect cappuccinos he has had in ages, The topping of high quality chocolate flakes rather than the usual cocoa powder is a very nice touch indeed.

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Rage: Although there are other things on the menu this place specialises in flame grilled steaks and that is what DonQui goes for. Nicely seared on the outside and evenly juicy inside, his sirloin steak lives up to expectations. The whiskey and mushroom sauce is divine and the accompanying triple-cooked chips are just as DonQui likes them — crispy on the outside and soft in the middle. His strawberry Eaton mess desert (see photo above) is a wonderfully calorific sweet to finish off with.

Flash Harry’s: Named after DonQui’s fictional hero — Harry Flashman as portrayed in George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books rather than in Tom Brown’s School Days — he had to try out this bar. With football on the many television sets and a pool table outside the main bar area this is not the sort of place a non-sports fan like DonQui would normally frequent. That said Flash Harry’s has a decent selection of beers on tap and is pretty relaxed.

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Café Ciamei: This great little casual Italian restaurant is at the north end of Blackrock market.

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Their pizza’s are excellent with nice thin crispy crusts even if they are not cooked in a wood-fired oven. Duchess’ seafood risotto is indifferent but the atmosphere makes up for it. They also have superb proper Italian coffee. DonQui’s espresso is a tiny high-powered caffeine shot of the sort one might expect only to find in Italy.

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Dunne and Crescenzi: This was DonQui’s only disappointment. Billed as an upmarket Italian restaurant DonQui expected much. The atmosphere and very helpful waitresses lived up to expectation but unfortunately the food did not. At best it was ordinary and certainly not worth the prices nor the marketing.

Instead of fresh basil DonQui’s caprese salad came with pesto. The pesto was good but it was not a proper caprese and the tomatoes were tasteless. The main of grilled chicken supposedly came with a truffle and mushroom sauce but there is no hint of truffle, the chicken is overcooked, the accompanying roast potatoes are barely roasted and have frost damage.

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It is not often DonQui leaves much of his main dish but in this instance he does. To their credit, when DonQui tells the pleasant waitress of his views she is most apologetic and not only does not charge him for his main course but she throws in a free glass of wine. The house wine, it must be said, is really top-notch.

The owners started off selling fine Italian wines, salumi and cheeses and their wine certainly more than lives up to expectation. DonQui sees a nearby couple sharing a charcuterie board and given how good it looked he wishes he had ordered the same. He does not sample the cheese as when he asks if it had been left out of the fridge to let the flavour develop he is told that it had not. There are few things more sacrilegious in DonQui’s view than eating good cheese straight from the refrigerator.

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There is a direct bus to and from Dublin airport every hour and the city centre is quickly and easily reached from Blackrock station via the Dublin Area Rapid Transit (DART) train. DonQui stayed in an excellent Airbnb apartment which was much more spacious and at a fraction of the price of a Dublin city hotel. Next time he visits Dublin, DonQui will probably stay in Blackrock again. There are still plenty of great looking restaurants for him to sample and it was very pleasant staying in a place with a local neighbourhood rather than touristy feel.

The Art of Cookery

No matter how good you think you are there is always room to improve your skills. So it is that DonQui finds himself in Ireland attending the one day Cheat’s Guide to Gourmet Cooking course at the Dublin Cookery School.

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Feeling a bit like a contestant on Master Chef, Don Qui fastens his apron and sets about trying to reproduce six gourmet dishes: three starters, two mains, and a desert.

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Each dish is first demonstrated, the tilted mirror above the demonstration counter allowing DonQui to see what is going on in the dishes and pans from above as well as from in front. Then armed with notes and a printed recipe he joins the others to take his station before a stove top where the various utensils, and pre-measured ingredients have been laid out.

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Short-cutting the prep time along with the fact that others did the cleaning up suited DonQui very much. He found himself wondering if there could be some way of reproducing this at home.

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The point of the course is not just to cook the dishes but to learn the tips, tricks and techniques used by chefs. Some of these — such as blanching vegetables in advance and finishing them off in a pan at the last moment — DonQui already knew. Others, such as how to produce the perfect poached egg, are new to him. Indeed DonQui has never poached an egg before and he approaches the exercise with some trepidation. The same could be said of the hot salad dressing.

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DonQui feels very pleased with himself when each of the dishes turn out as they should. He is particularly proud of his asparagus salad with lardons, black pudding and poached egg.

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Over the next few weeks DonQui will try the recipes and techniques at home to see how they turn out whens he tries them without adult supervision. On the assumption they work out he will publish them on his blog, revealing some of the tips he has learned.

 

 

London’s Airports

Many visitors to the UK don’t realise that London is served by 6 Airports. Depending on destination or point of origin there may be no choice but if there is, where you land or take off from can make a huge difference to your comfort as well as the length and cost of your overland journey.

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DonQui Oaty has previously extolled the virtues of tiny Southend Airport which is the furthest to the east of London.

Now he is flying to Dublin from London City Airport which is DonQui’s favourite London airport. Amongst its advantages is that it is actually in London and easy to get to or from on the DLR (Docklands Light Railway) and Underground, without needing to resort to the long and expensive train journeys all the other airports require. Unlike the often chaotic, hectic larger airports, London City (LCY) is quite civilised and comfortable. As a creature who likes his comfort, this is rather important for DonQui.

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As it is actually in London, LCY is, necessarily, a very small airport with a short runway suitable only for quick hops to nearby European cities. Therefore there are no transcontinental flights but there are good connections to other international hubs such as Amsterdam and Paris. As LCY tends to cater to business passengers the flights can be on the pricy side compared to the budget fights out of Stansted, Luton, Gatwick and Southend.

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There are no lounges but the whole departure area feels a bit like a business lounge so there is no need. There are plenty of seats, good food and drink options and no hordes of package holiday-makers.

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It has been pointed out to DonQui that there are no opportunities to to stock up on toiletries or cosmetics in the departure area to get around the 100ml security limit for liquids and gels. Therefore if you wish to cary such things you will need to check a bag. DonQui has a pre-packed plastic bag with small sized amounts of such things for his travels so this does not bother him.

So what of London’s other airports? Here is DonQui’s biased guide, moving around London in a clockwise direction from the west:

Heathrow: Often hard to avoid if you have a transcontinental flight, Europe’s busiest airport can be hectic and daunting although it is well organised. With 5 huge terminals you need to know which one your airline will be using as although T1-3 are within walking distance of each other T4 and T5 will require bus or train transfers. Heathrow is convenient for the west but the Heathrow express into Paddington station is expensive. If you are short on cash you can take the regular commuter train at a fraction of the price or the Tube (Subway for North Americans). Both of the cheaper options take much longer — 45 minutes on the Tube vs 20 minutes on the Heathrow express.

Luton: Relatively small and dominated by Ryanair — DonQui’s least favourite airline. As a result this is the only London airport he has not flown from so cannot give a view. The journey into London tends to take about 30-40 minutes to St Pancras

Stansted: London’s third largest airport to the north is not one of DonQui’s favourites. It serves mostly budget airlines so there are good bargains to many European cities but it is overcrowded and chaotic. The journey into London can take an hour and the so-called Stansted Express which goes to Liverpool Street Station is not very express-like.

Southend: A great little airport well to the east of London serving only a small number of destinations with budget airlines. The trip into London Liverpool St station will take almost an hour.

Gatwick: With two terminals Gatwick is a sort of budget version of Heathrow with some major airlines using it and with some intercontinental flights. Although smaller it seems more overcrowded and more unpleasant than Heathrow. One plus for Gatwick is the Bloc Hotel inside the South Terminal which is great for an overnight if you have a ghastly o’clock start. There are good (approx 30min) connections by train to Victoria and London Bridge stations as well as Brighton to the south.

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If by some unfortunate circumstance you are transiting through London and have to change airports then DonQui pities you. DonQui would rather walk over hot coals than attempt it himself. Only London City airport is actually in Greater London. All the others are many miles away.

 

Magic Garden Carpet

 

Getting his vegetable plot ready for planting is not one of DonQui Oaty’s favourite tasks. This is especially true if he has done nothing over the winter or early spring and let the weeds and grasses take over his allotment.

Fortunately he has learned a trick. This is to leave one plot fallow for a year with an old carpet covering it. Today he takes up the carpet he put down last year, exposing a weed-free plot. He moves it over to the next weed infested plot where he grew his beans last year. There it will remain and the weeds will bother him no more.

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The newly covered plot on the left of the photo will remain that way until spring next year – weed and hassle free!  The newly uncovered one on the right will be home to this years’ crop of beans

 

Asparagus with Hollandaise Sauce

It is Asparagus season.

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With some of the best asparagus in the country grown up the road from his home stable by Sea Breeze in Wrentham on the Suffolk coast, DonQui decides it is time to have some.

His usual way of having asparagus is grilled with shavings of parmesan cheese. This time DonQui decides to try his hand at hollandaise sauce — something he has never cooked before.

Egg based sauces have tended to frighten DonQui a little. The idea of slowly stirring eggs at just the right temperature so that they do not curdle or scramble has always seemed just a little to tricky. Today he decides to put his fears to one side and give it a go — and very glad he is too. It is not as difficult as he feared and result is absolutely delicious.

Here is his recipe. It is heart-stoppingly calorific so if you worry about such things you should look away now and make yourself a healthy plain salad. DonQui can almost feel his arteries hardening just by looking at the lovely buttery sauce.

Ingredients

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2 egg yolks. Separate the yolk from the white by cracking the egg in half and transferring the yolk back and forth between the shell halves, allowing the white to drip down into a bowl if you wish to use it later for a meringue or something else which needs egg whites only.

125g unsalted butter

a dash of white wine vinegar or cider vinegar

a splash cold water

a pinch or two of salt to taste

a pinch or two of cayenne pepper to taste

a squeeze of lemon juice (less than 1/2 a lemon) to taste

Method

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Gently melt the butter in a saucepan, skim any solids from the top and put to one side, keeping it warm enough that it does not begin to solidify.

Beat the egg yolks, adding the vinegar, salt, cayenne pepper and water in a heat proof bowl or jug that will fit into a saucepan. Better not to add too much salt at first as more can be added at the end but too much cannot be taken out.

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Place the bowl in a saucepan of water that has been brought to the boil and kept to a very low simmer. Whisk continually for 4-6 minutes until the egg mixture begins to thicken.

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Remove from the heat and slowly whisk in the melted butter, bit by bit until it’s all nicely mixed in to become a lovely creamy sauce. Season with a few squeezes of lemon juice. The lemon really transforms the sauce but DonQi doesn’t want it to overwhelm so he tastes it as he adds the lemon juice drop by drop. He tastes for salt and pepper at the same time and adds more if necessary.

DonQui is delighted with the result. At first he wasn’t sure if he had cooked the egg mixture long enough as it seemed a little runny when he took it off the heat. As it cooled down it began to thicken and in the end it turned out to be absolutely perfect. He has read that if the egg mix starts to thicken too much then a dash of cold water can save it. He did not have to resort to this.

Many recipes call for the addition of a bit of mustard. DonQui doesn’t really like mustard and he finds that a bit of cayenne pepper is a good substitute, leaving just a little tingle of heat on his tongue.

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Poured over grilled asparagus it made for a lovely dish with the addition of a sprinkling of sea salt a couple of grinds of black pepper and chopped hard boiled egg.

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Grilled asparagus tastes so much better than steamed in DonQui’s opinion. It is dead simple to do. Simply lay them in a baking dish, sprinkle with olive or rapeseed oil and place under the grill for 3 minutes on each side. Then sprinkle with sea salt flakes and a bit of ground black pepper.

Eating and Drinking in Lisbon

The food and drink DonQui samples while in Lisbon are all of the highest quality and, when compared to London, they are very reasonably priced.

Portugal is well known for excellent seafood and DonQui can only concur. From shell fish to sea bass and cod, all the fish dishes DonQui has the pleasure to taste are superb. Cod is perhaps not DonQui’s favourite fish but it is a Portuguese staple. It comes in all forms from fresh to dried and salted the latter harking back to the time of the late medieval Portuguese fishermen who discovered the great cod stocks at the Grand Banks off Newfoundland long before refrigeration.

Several restaurants had their menus broken down onto sections: meat, vegetarian, fish and cod. The ‘cod’ section, interestingly separate from ‘fish’ and containing at least as many options as the other sections on the menu.

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At Café Luso DonQui enjoys a wonderful grilled dried cod while being entertained by traditional Fado musicians and singers.

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DonQui was not sure he would like Fado. He had heard that they were soulful laments and not understanding Portuguese he wondered if he could properly appreciate it. He need not have worried. The base, guitar and mandolin backers play a joyful accompaniment to the excellent singers. The combination of soulful vocals and upbeat music reminds him of American country and western and he wonders if there may be an historical connection.

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DonQui is not in Lisbon long enough to become an expert on the best places to eat but one place stands out — this is As Salgadeiras Restaurante, a short trot from his Lisboa Carmo hotel in the heat of the Barrio Alto. From the outside there is not much to see but stepping inside leads to a warm, friendly place with superb food and drink. He does not have a reservation but arriving early (at around 19:30) he is able to secure a place and he is lucky to do so as it quickly fills up to capacity.

starterAfter delicious starters of prawns in butter sauce and melon with cured ham DonQui and Duchess share a roasted kid goat with chestnuts and roast potatoes. Having no knowledge of Portuguese wines DonQui asks the kindly waiter for advice.

This is a good call. The waiter not only knows which wines will go best with his meal but he takes great pride in the quality and range of what is on offer. When DonQui tells him of the paucity of Portuguese wines to be found in the UK, the waiter says: “We keep the best ones for ourselves,” as he offers a glass which is both superb and reasonably priced.

Better still is a snifter of Palacio da Brejoeira, Aguardente Velha which is offered to DonQui when he asks if there is a good Portuguese equivalent to cognac.

palacio-da-brejoeira-aguardente-velha.jpg copy“We have everything in Portugal,” is the reply and the glass is presented with great ceremony. A splash of the  Aguardente Velha is poured, set on fire, swisshed around the glass to warm it up, then discarded before the drink is offered. It is not cheap and the waiter warns DonQui of the price.

“Is it worth it?” DonQui asked

“Absolutely,” the waiter replies.

And it is.

The dinner at As Salgadeiras is certainly the best DonQui has in Lisbon but other places stand out too.

officinaOfficina do Duque is a slightly up-market modern eatery with a relaxed atmosphere and innovative dishes. Confit lamb with mint sorbet and shredded oxtail were both excellent choices and the chocolate mouse afterwards was one of the best.

choc mouse.jpgThe latter is so good that DonQui cannot wait to take a photograph before tucking in but the empty dish and his slightly guilty look bears evidence of its decedent glory.

Beer in southern Europe often does not have the variety and flavour to be found in northern countries. Light, relatively flavourless lagers tend to be the norm and they are better suited to the hot weather than the richer, darker beers of Belgium or Britain.

IMG_0633.jpgWith relatively low expectations DonQui is delighted to stumble across  Duque, a tint craft beer brewpub, which offers shot glass tastes of the various brews which shatter DonQui’s prejudices.

street.jpgLisbon is full of little bars and cafés which offer a wide variety of food, drink and entertainment. Walking along Rua do Norte, DonQui is drawn by the sound of live music coming from a small place with maybe half a dozen tables. There is a crowd outside and when DonQui makes his way through it a table is suddenly vacated and DonQui takes the opportunity to sit down as the band plays a rendition of Sting’s “Englishman in New York.”

bar.jpgFronted by a charismatic 20-something cross between Janis Joplin and Susie Quatro the band is excellent. Although they play mostly covers they give them their own twist, their repertoire ranging from Bob Marley to Rage Against the Machine. By the time the night is over Duchess is on her feet bopping to the rhythms along with many of the other patrons.

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After shaking off the fuzziness of a fun evening, DonQui heads over to the Time Out food market. Here stalls from 24 restaurants and 8 bars are brought together under one roof including some of the very best restaurants in Lisbon. This seems like a great idea to DonQui but when he visits he feels it seems all too much like a food court in a shopping mall.

 

A Lisbon Getaway

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DonQui is in Lisbon for a couple of days. It is a spur of the moment idea prompted by a desire to visit a great city he has never been to before along with the opportunity for a bit of southern European ambience and warm sunshine.

 

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Readers will be well aware of DonQui’s love of food. When he stumbles upon the Mercado da Baixa he feels that he has come to the right place.

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After a grazing on some of the delicious free samples on offer he cannot pass up the temptation of purchasing some smoked sausages to take home with him.

For a major city, Lisbon is relatively small and compact which should make it perfect for simply wandering around. Perfection, however, is marred by the choking traffic belching fumes up his nostrils with cars, vans and motorbikes leaving their engines to idle as they wait to move on.

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Fortunately there are many pedestrianised roads but these too have their hazards. Uneven and very slippery cobblestones mean that he has to tread very carefully.

His chosen stable is the very pleasant Lisboa Carmo Hotel, on the Largo do Carmo square which is where the revolution of 1974 overthrew the dictatorship. Close to the Bario Alto with its many bars, cafés and restaurants, the Hotel is perfectly placed as far as DonQui is concerned.

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Despite the cobblestone hazards, DonQui enjoys the fact that he is able to walk everywhere he wishes to go without needing to use public transport. This allows him to slowly explore the city and there are plenty of interesting back roads providing respite from the traffic.

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When some of the many hills become a bit much he takes advantage of the funky funicular trams which whisk him back up to the top of the hill for a very reasonable price.

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The weather is just about perfect. Each day is sunny with the temperature reaching 27º C in the day and dropping down to around 15º at night. Neither too hot nor too cold it makes for a very comfortable few April days.

One of the great joys of southern Europe is the opportunity to enjoy a leisurely lunch or a drink outside with good food and wine at reasonable prices. Lisbon is no exception. Although there are perhaps fewer restaurants and cafés spilling out into the streets than DonQui might have expected there are still plenty of good places — the danger of traffic fumes not withstanding. The first place DonQui stops at for a beer is marred by the fact that he does not notice the bus stop nearby. When a tourist bus pulls up and leaves its engine idling for a good 10 minutes, DonQui decides to move on.

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A far better choice is Flor Dos Arcos, at the end of a winding ally in the medieval Alfama district near the Fado museum. Here he samples for the first time the delicious cheese that is offered (for a small price) along with bread and olives. With freshly caught sea bass to follow DonQui has an excellent lunch under the shade of an umbrella in a friendly, casual atmosphere.