Wines from ancient grapes

Since Roman times Sicily has been the bread-basket of Italy. The industrial revolution passed by the island without stopping. The result today is an agricultural landscape of small family farms abundant with vines, olives, almonds, lemons, oranges and grain. These together with cheese from livestock and fish from the sea have produced a delectable and healthy cuisine that harks back to the days of the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans and Arabs. 

In order to more fully appreciate Sicilian cuisine, DonQui Oaty is spending a bit of time exploring its sources. He starts with wine.

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The sweet fortified wines from Marsala on the west of the island were made famous in northern Europe by the English in the 18th century.

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At the Alagana winery DonQui has the opportunity to see the grapes being delivered from the surrounding vineyards to make this most well known of Sicilian wines.

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DonQui had thought that Marsala was Marsala — strong, sweet wine. He learns that there are actually many types of Marsala wines. Although the sweet ones are the most well known there are also dry and semi-dry versions, tasting a little bit like dry sherry. Marsala ranges in colour from oro (gold) to ambra (amber) and rubino (ruby). The latter is made from red grapes while the others are from white. The amber wine gains its darker colour from simmering the grape must until it reduces and caramelises.

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DonQui is rather impressed by the Cotto which is the highly concentrated non-alcoholic grape must (musto). It can be used as an alternative sweetener in dressings, sauces and deserts. The locals recommend pouring it over chunks of rustic bread for a simple sweet treat.

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The west of Sicily is best for its white wines. DonQui particularly likes the dry yet fruity Grillo made from a grape unique to Sicily and particularly well suited to the climate and conditions of the Marsala region. 

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He is also rather fond of the sweet Zibibbo. This is an ancient grape variety related to Muscat.  The name is derived from the Arabic word for grape. It is as good a desert wine as DonQui has ever sampled. It is said that this is the wine favoured by Cleopatra and it is sometimes called Muscat of Alexandria.

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The volcanic slopes of Mount Etna in the east of Sicily are particularly good for red wines. In the past these were produced in bulk and exported to mix with northern Italian and French vintages. Over the past 40 years there has been a move away from quantity in favour of quality  something DonQui utterly approves of.

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At Gambino Vini, on the northeastern slopes of Mt Etna, DonQui has the opportunity to sample several excellent wines along with some rather tasty titbits.

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He particualrly likes the Tifeo, named after Typhon, the monster of ancient Greek mythology whom, according to legend, is the source of Mt Etna’s volcanic eruptions. This full-boddied wine has earthy, mineral tastes derived from the volcanic soil in which it is grown. The 2016 is just ready to drink but would benefit from a bit more time in the bottle. It would keep well for up to up to another 8 years according to the vintner.

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Even better (and quite a bit pricier) is the elegant Petto Dragone made from the Nerello Mascalese grape, originally brought to Sicily by the ancient Greeks.

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Later at a caffe DonQui samples a local brandy (Brandy Siciliano). It is quite rough and not at all up to the standards of a basic Cognac or Armagnac. The Sicilians still have a bit of work to do in this department.

After a few tastings DonQui is anything but an expert on Sicilian wine. He has, however, had his taste buds awakened by delicious new flavours from ancient and nearly forgotten grape varieties. He vows to learn more.

 

Casamia, Bristol

After enjoying his day at Jekka’s Herb Farm, Duchess treats DonQui to a meal at Michelin-starred Casamia — Bristol’s finest restaurant. Many of the herbs they use are sourced from Jekka’s farm.

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The entrance to Casamia

After the slightly disappointing experience at the Black Swan in Yorkshire, DonQui wonders if the multi-course tasting menu at Casamia will also be a little over-fussy. He need not have worried. The meal is utterly exquisite — each small dish of the 12 course menu is a wonderful gastronomic experience in its own right and the courses build beautifully.

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The open kitchen

Tucked away on a pedestrianised road beside the Bathurst Basin water, the contemporary styled restaurant has room for only 35 diners, creating a nice intimate atmosphere with the tables spaced well enough apart that there is no crowding. On arrival Duchess and DonQui are treated to a quick tour of the huge open kitchen where the enthusiastic young cooks prepare the dishes. 

We are given no menu in advance. Instead we are advised to sit back and enjoy the journey. Every dish is brought to our table by one of the enthusiastic cooks who helped prepare it. They give detailed explanations and are happy to answer questions. The pride in their creations is palpable. 

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Parmesan tartlet

The meal begins on a high note with an incredible parmesan tartlet. The ultra-fine crisp pastry filled with a parmesan cheese mouse and topped with grated parmesan is a taste explosion with beautifully contrasting textures. It is one of the most wonderful things DonQui had ever eaten.

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Prawn on lava

Hot on its heals came a fabulous dish of Canary Islands prawn served on a lava rock evoking the islands’ volcanic state.

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A tiny but delicious salad

The dishes are very small — tiny even, but with 12 courses to get though this is a good thing. Every dish is exquisite and DonQui finds it hard to find the words to do justice to the tastes. In addition to the parmesan tart a couple of other dishes stand out.

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Trout with served with hot charcoal

The brown trout served with a white-hot piece of charcoal on top still cooking the fish is not just a piece of showmanship. The lingering taste of charcoal infuses the fish with its flavour and the crispy skin is served on the side, much like a piece of pork crackling. The monkfish tail with a champagne sabayon is also quite delectable and definitely one of the stand-out dishes. It is helped by the fact that DonQui opted for the wine pairing and a glass of the champagne which was used in the sauce is served alongside it.

A wonderful sourdough bread with tangy cultured butter is served as a separate course after the salad and before the two fish dishes. DonQui remarks to the chef that he is not a fan of bread being served before the meal. Inevitably he is hungry then and eats far too much of it. The chef replies that the bread is so good that it deserves to be served as a course in its own right. He is correct and it helps that the previous dishes have knocked the edge off DonQui’s hunger. 

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Duck breast

The meat courses are based on duck with a flavourful consommé preceding a beautifully cooked piece of breast with a crisp, spicy-herb skin and a rich sauce.

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The red wine is breathing

DonQui is very glad that he chose the ‘wine flight’ as Cassamia calls it. In doing so each of his dishes is accompanied by a different wine, few of which are familiar to DonQui. Amongst the most notable are the Equinocio Branco from Southern Portugal which goes very well with the opening courses and the French Uroulat Jurançon desert wine.

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Passion fruit desert with Jurançon wine

The deserts are as sublime as the savoury courses. There are several of them including a passion fruit concoction served in an elegant ceramic pot as well as a mix of strawberry based sweets. Perhaps the most unusually interesting is the tiny porcini mushroom fudge served at the end of the meal — the earthiness of mushroom unexpectedly and beautifully combining with the sweetness of the fudge.

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Strawberry second desert

This is probably the best meal DonQui has had in a long time. Given the restaurant’s reputation and its small size, bookings need to be made well in advance. 

Good food in Belgium

DonQui is off to Brussels for a few days in search of good food and beer. This shouldn’t be too hard as the Belgians take their food and beer very seriously indeed.

The problem is that there are so many options it can be difficult to decide where to go. Most of the top rated restaurants seem to serve up what has come to be known as Modern European — often small dishes topped off with some foam, a squirt or two of sauce, and a scattering of edible flowers or pea shoots. This is not what DonQui wants. He is looking for traditional Belgian fare washed down by a strong abby-brewed beer. 

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Brasserie de la Ville

After a bit of research DonQui stumbles on a little gem offering exactly what he is looking for. Although just off the Grand Place, the small Brasserie de la Ville (Rue de chapeliers 14) remains resolutely traditional in an area swarming with places mostly catering to tourists in a party mood.

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A calm, relaxed, atmosphere 

The atmosphere is relaxed and unpretentious with the quirky decorations adding character.

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A bit of a Tintin theme

There is a strong Tintin theme going on — even the menus are inserted into Tintin comics. 

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Les boulettes à la Liègeoise with pommes frites

After a delightful starter of scampis à l’ail (prawns in garlic sauce), DonQui goes for Les boulettes à la Liègeoise (meatballs in Liège syrup).  Liège syrup is made from highly concentrated apple and pear juice. DonQui has a bit of a penchant for sweet-savoury combinations. He thinks the combination of the slightly sweet, rich, brown sauce with the beutifully lean meatballs is utterly delicious.

Then there are the frites. The Belgians lay claim to having invented chips (French fries) and have perfected the way of making them. Soft on the inside, crispy on the outside and salted immediately on coming out of the fryer, Belgian pommes frites are, in DonQui’s opinion,  the best in the world. The frites at the Brasserie de la Ville are just about perfect.

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DonQui’s Westmalle Dubbel

Don’t look for an extensive wine list — this is a brasserie after all. In Belgium, beer is the drink of choice with several wonderful brews on-tap and many more in the bottle. DonQui enjoys a Dubbel, brewed in the Trappist abbey at Westmalle.  With 7% alcohol this rich brown ale is for sipping and savouring rather than for quenching a thirst. It goes perfectly with his meatballs — far better than any wine would do. 

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Duchess’ moules-frites

As DonQui is tucking into his wonderful meatballs, Duchess throughly enjoys a classic moules-frites (mussels and fries). She was less impressed with her onion soup starter which she thought was a bit lacklustre. 

Everything else is fabulous, including the helpful, enthusiastic and multi-lingual staff.

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More touristy restaurants in the area

DonQui is rather sad to see the obvious tourist traps full to overflowing while this more or less traditional brasserie is only half full. He hopes that the Brasserie de la Ville will be able to hold its own against the swarm of identikit restaurants serving up variations of more or less the same thing.

Best Restaurant in the World?

DonQui is rather excited to be going for dinner at the Black Swan in Oldstead, Yorkshire.

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The Black Swan at Oldstead

This restaurant, in the middle of nowhere on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors, was crowned the Best Restaurant in the World in TripAdvisor’s Travellers’ Choice Restaurants awards in October 2017. It has one Michelin star which Michelin defines as ‘worth a visit’. As a Christmas present from Duchess, DonQui was giving it the three star treatment — ‘worth a trip’.

The Black Swan is a family run business with Tommy Banks running the kitchen and his brother James overseeing the front of house. The Banks family have transformed a country pub into a world renowned dining experience, knocking Martin Berasategui in Lasarte, Spain from the top spot it had held since 2015. 

 

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The menu

The isolated country setting looks idyllic although the single track road leading to it is less so. A warm, welcoming fire greats DonQui and Duchess as they settle into a comfortable seat to peruse the menu and sip on aperitifs. Despite the Black Swan’s global reputation the atmosphere is cosy and relaxed. The staff are young, friendly and very knowledgeable. 

 

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Celery and walnut tart

DonQui opts for an excellent Alsatian Pinot Blanc as his aperitif while Duchess is more adventurous with her Jerusalem artichoke cocktail which she thoroughly enjoys. To accompany their drinks they nibble on a delightful celery and walnut tart. DonQui is not a great fan of celery but he tastes none of the bitterness he normally associates with the vegetable. Instead, the combination of walnut, cream and celery blend together beautifully. 

Ushered upstairs to their table, DonQui and Duchess settle down to the remaining 11 courses of the tasting menu. DonQui also opts for the suggested wine pairings.

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Langoustine with salted strawberry

The langoustine with salted strawberry is exquisite — quite possibly the best single dish on the menu. As the other courses come DonQui increasingly feels that some are over-fussy with too much attention paid to artistic presentation and the chef’s technical skill which hides the taste of the fine local ingredients. 

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Scallops cured in rhubarb juice

Duchess is put off by the visceral rawness of some of the dishes from the venison tartare to the raw scallops in rhubarb juice. Why is it that so many chefs seem to think that raw food is the epitome of modern cooking? DonQui cannot order scrambled eggs in a posh restaurant anymore for fear of receiving a puddle of yellow liquid instead of something nice, light and fluffy.

The main lamb dish actually turns out to be three — sweetbreads, loin and rib. They are excellent. The loin is perfectly tender and pink, just as DonQui likes it and the rib is succulent and slightly salty. DonQui is too busy enjoying it to take a photo.

The matching wines are a mixed batch. The Sussex sparkling wine was touted as being as good as any champagne but DonQui does not agree. The Greek and South African whites are fine but not extraordinary.

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Baden Spätburgunder

On the other hand, the Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) from Baden, Southwest Germany, is exquisite. It is as good or better than many Burgundies he has sampled. With a slight peppery hint it goes superbly with the lamb. DonQui asks for a second glass. German wines are underrated in the Anglo-Saxon world, mainly because the good stuff is rarely exported. The best of them come from Baden.

The Black Swan certainly deserves its Michelin star but DonQui would not rate it as the best restaurant in the world. DonQui enjoys the meal and the atmosphere it but he can think of many others he has enjoyed more. These include the Great House in Lavenham, Suffolk;  Restaurant des Epicuriens near Laon, France and Jean-Luc Rabanel in Arles, France.

DonQui’s verdict is that the Black Swan is definitely worth a visit if you are planning to go to north Yorkshire but probably not worth a trip in its own right. Be advised that due to its popularity you will need to make reservations months in advance.

Harry Potter and Boots of Beer

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Lavenham, Suffolk, bills itself as England’s best preserved medieval town. As a bit of a history buff it is a place DonQui has wanted to visit for some time. Even though it is not far from his home paddock on the Suffolk coast, he has not managed it until now.

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In the heart of Suffolk, not too far from Bury St. Edmunds, Lavenham is not easy to find. There are no main roads and no rail lines. To get there DonQui has to wind his way along narrow country lanes with only just enough room for two cars coming in opposite directions to squeeze past each other. Perhaps this is why the place is so well preserved.

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If you like old timber-framed houses this is the place for you. Many of the wonky buildings have been standing since the 14th century. Walking around the compact streets DonQui feels as if he has stepped back in time — parked cars notwithstanding.

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Fans of Harry Potter may well recognise the De Vere house as Harry’s birthplace from the film The Deathly Hallows.

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Several other films have also used the backdrop of Lavenham’s medieval streets as a backdrop.

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Many of the houses have pink plaster. The colour is still known today as ’Suffolk pink’. Originally this colour was obtained by mixing pigs’ blood with the plaster. DonQui assumes that the modern versions are more likely made by chemical combinations to match the natural original.

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Most of the buildings can only be admired from the outside but the Guildhall can be visited. It has been restored inside along with some excellent exhibits of its origins in the Flanders wool trade.

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Later it became a house of correction where the ‘idle and disorderly’ (poor and homeless) were incarcerated in the misguided idea that hard work and cruel conditions would make them more productive members of society.

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These reproductions of original notices give DonQui an idea of the fate of those unfortunates. One woman was incarcerated for having brought two children with smallpox into the town.

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There is also a bit of relatively modern history to the place. RAF Lavenham was an active airfield during the second world war and was home to the USAAF’ s 487th Bombardment Group which flew 185 missions between May 1944 and April 1945 with the loss of 233 lives. The Airmen’s Bar in the Swan Hotel is dedicated to their memory.

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Original graffiti from British and American pilots adorns the walls along with modern additions from returning veterans and their offspring.

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DonQui particularly likes the ‘boot record’ from 1940 which lists the times it took various British servicemen to drink a ‘boot’ of beer. Ironically this is a German tradition in which a couple of litres of beer are drunk in one go from a glass in the shape of a boot. DonQui did this in his younger days when he was living in Germany. The trick is to keep the toe of the boot pointing down otherwise an air-bubble will cause the drinker to be drenched, much to the amusement of the on-lookers.

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DonQui takes his hat off to W.H. Culling of the RAF who drank the boot in an incredible 59 seconds on 5 July 1940 only to do it again eight days later in 40 seconds!

Lavenham has plenty of excellent watering holes. These include:

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The Great House. This is where DonQui stayed and he reviewed it fully in his previous post. As boutique hotel with only 5 rooms it must be reserved well in advance. If you cannot get a room there, DonQui recommends treating yourself to at least one meal in the wonderful French restaurant.

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The Swan. Home of the atmospheric Airmen’s Bar, the Swan also has rooms and two eating possibilities.

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The restaurant is excellent, offering modern British cuisine of nearly the same quality as The Great House although it does not have quite the same ambiance. Duchess proclaims her goat’s cheese pannacotta with beetroot granita as one of the most interesting dishes she has ever tasted.

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The Swan’s Brasserie is more casual but with a bunch of tables and plastic chairs set up in a hallway, DonQui is not tempted.

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Attached to the Swan is an excellent Spa with a full range of treatments and a hot tub.

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Number 10 gets good reviews on TripAdvisor. The old timbered building and interesting menu posted outside tempts DonQui. When he goes inside to potentially make a reservation his ears are assaulted with the sounds of manufactured pop music of the worst kind. When he asks if this sort of stuff is played through dinner he is informed that it is. With a gentle snort he turns on his hooves and looks elsewhere.

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The Lavenham Greyhound is a Greene King pub. DonQui goes in for an afternoon drink and enjoys it. He cannot vouch for the food but the menu has fairly typical good pub food options. The bowls of soup he sees being brought to another table look good.

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The Guildhall  has a very good café offering tea, coffee and baked goods. Their scones are baked on the premises and DonQui tucks into one along with clotted cream and a blackcurrant jam while Duchess takes hers with raspberry jam. The scones are truly excellent. It is well worth a stop.

Burgers and Beer

There was a time, not that long ago, when finding good beer in the USA was just about impossible. Now, thanks to the craft beer revolution, DonQui is able to find a decent brew in the US almost as easily as he can in Europe.

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At the marvellously ramshackle Le Tub, in Hollywood, Florida, DonQui makes the acquaintance of a rather pleasant Yuengling Lager. Claiming to be from the oldest brewery in America it has a slight amber colour and more taste than your average lager. Apparently Mr Yuengling is a Trump supporter so although he enjoys the brew, DonQui will not make a habit of drinking it very often.

 

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With its eclectic furnishings…

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…and great view over the Intra-Coastal Waterway,  Le Tub seems the perfect place for a burger and beer.

Apparently Le Tub’s burgers were at some point voted by readers of GQ Magazine as the best in America, so DonQui decides to sample one. With 13 ounces of meat, the burger is not for the faint of heart but it is truly delicious.

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Although a bit out of the way to the south of Fort Lauderdale, DonQui is very glad to have been guided to Le Tub.

It is a perfect place to while away an afternoon in the Florida sun.

Cheese, Wine and Beer

No matter how good a meal has been, for DonQui, a good cheese course is often his favourite part of a long leisurely dinner.

Cheese and wine simply go together. It is for this reason he always takes cheese before desert, prolonging the savoury tastes and finishing off the wine at the same time.

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DonQui’s previously mentioned the superb cheese board at Domain de Barive’s Restaurant des Epicuriens. Before leaving he wants to try it again and he asks the sommelier to choose a glass of wine for him to accompany his cheese.

The sommelier peers over the cheeses DonQui has selected, thinks for one moment, pauses for a second, then makes a most interesting suggestion.

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Given the wide variety of cheese flavours DonQui has selected, the sommelier says that no one wine would go perfectly with all. What DonQui needs is three different accompanying drinks. DonQui silently tots up his alcohol tolerance, bearing in mind he had a glass with a previous course and a beer before the meal.

The sommelier reassures DonQui, telling him that for the price of one glass he could have three small ones. This seems like something worth trying.

DonQui had anticipated the sommelier would appear with red wines with his cheeses, or perhaps two reds and one white. He could not have been more wrong.

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To go with his local cheeses (on the left of the photo), he is brought a honey-coloured ‘biere du garde’ — a special ‘keeping’ brew from northern France which is reminiscent of some Belgian Trappist beers. There is champagne for the soft goats’ cheese (centre of photo) and a white wine from the Pyrenees to go with the Italian provolone and creamy Pyrenean white cheese (right of photo).

It all feels very indulgent but then DonQui likes to indulge himself. Left to his own devices he probably would have gone for a familiar hearty red wine for his cheese. He is glad that he did not. Not only were the sommelier’s choices absolutely perfect but they opened DonQui’s eyes to other new possibilities.