Some fine old stuff

There cannot be many places in Western Europe which had their glory days at the end of the 5th century AD. Ravenna Italy is probably the only city which did. This is where DonQui finds himself — as ever on the trail of ‘old stuff’.   And what a wonderful collection of ‘old stuff’ it is!

San Vitale
The 6th century Basilica of San Vitale

If you are thinking of a few piles of rubble which mark where this or that ancient Roman building used to stand, think again. Not only are many buildings still in tact, thanks to the fact that they were Christian churches, but their interiors are covered with incredibly vibrant mosaics.

Galla Placidia
The 5th century mausoleum of Galla Placidia

Ravenna was the capital of the West Roman empire in her last years as it was more easily defensible than Rome thanks to the surrounding marshes. The Ostrogoths made it their capital in the 6th century and later the East Roman empire took it back.

train

To get here, DonQui flew to Bologna and then took the train. Compared to the sleek modern intercity which took him from Madrid to Toledo a couple of weeks back, the small regional train was far less swish but it did the job, getting him to Ravenna after a journey of 1 hour 30 minutes through fairly uninteresting countryside.

street

It is not just old stuff in Ravenna. The beautifully kept, elegant streets are filled with fine restaurants, stylish shops and fashionably dressed people.

food shop

It is just as DonQui expected — this being northern Italy after all!

Martins Caffe
Martins Caffe

At 7pm it is far too early to eat by Italian standards so DonQui goes in search of a watering hole where he can sit down to write. Spotting a young man with a computer in front of Martins Caffe he decides this will do the trick. Half the place is devoted to selling stupidly expensive handbags to fashionistas who inexplicably like such things. The other half houses a tempting bar. DonQui cannot help but admire the business acumen of the owners in providing a shop for ladies and a bar for their men-in-waiting.

bar snacks

DonQui sits himself down and orders a Moratti Bianca — a ‘white’ wheat beer which is perfect for the 27 degree evening temperature.  It comes complete with an astonishing array of tasty comestibles (at no extra charge) which does away with the need for supper given that DonQui had a very good lunch earlier.

Justinian
Mosaic of the 6th century Emperor Justinian at San Vitale

Tomorrow he will explore some more.

Rules

Before going off to see the antics of Nell Gwynn and Charles Stuart, DonQui thought it would be a good idea to have a proper lunch.

Rules 1.jpg

And what could be more appropriate than Rules — possibly London’s oldest restaurant although the title is contested by Simpson’s Tavern and Wilton’s.

Opening in 1798, Rules is probably the closest one can get to a restaurant of Nell’s time, not that they really existed back in the 17th century. Nell would have frequented taverns but the concept of a ‘restaurant’ did not really come into being until after the French Revolution. One theory is that in the revolution the chefs of headless aristocrats found themselves out of work and therefore started to set up on their own.

Started as an oyster bar by Thomas Rules it then expanded to include more substantial fare. Contemporary writers mention ‘rakes, dandies and superior intelligences who comprise its clientele.’

Just the sort of place for me’, DonQui thinks.

Serving proper food such as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, rack of lamb, pies and a wide variety of game, Rules is not the sort of place to bring a vegetarian, some Californian on a weird faddish diet, nor someone who is in a hurry. It is the sort of place to go to if you are looking for a long leisurely meal and old-school atmosphere.

DonQui booked in for a late lunch at 3:30, leaving plenty of time to build up an appetite before, and plenty of time to linger afterwards. He was surprised that even at this hour the place was full, with waiters in black and white weaving their way around tables of casually well-heeled patrons.

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With a lovely glass of bubbly Crémant de Bourgogne to sip on while he contemplated the menu, DonQui sees that meat from rare breed, slow maturing cattle is on offer. With Duchess on hand to help out, rib of beef for two seemed just the ticket.  After an appetite warming partridge salad to start with, DonQui was ready for the main event.Rules 4.jpg

Although he was well aware that Rules tended to go for old fashioned large portions, he was not quite prepared for just how much food arrive at the table.

It certainly looked good. So DonQui took a sip of Côtes du Rhône to fortify himself, girded his loins, and prepared to do battle.

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The beef, served along with the bone it was carved from, was delicious with a nice charred, salty outside while remaining rare in the middle. Ordered medium-rare it was on the rarer side of medium which was fine for DonQui but a little too visceral for Duchess. Fortunately there were sufficient outside pieces of greater doneness which suited her tastes. The Yorkshire puddings were magnificent as were the accompanying spinach and dauphinoise potatoes. DonQui is not keen on horseradish but Duchess, who is, assured him that it was creamy with just the right amount of bite.

Service was professional, helpful yet unobtrusive and the bill was… well… as magnificent as the food. Even by London standards Rules is not cheap, but then it is an experience as much as a place to eat.

Resolutely old-fashioned and English, in DonQui’s opinion Rules is a wonderful respite from the modern world’s obsession with the new, fast and transient. It is well worth saving up a few shekels for the occasional visit.

The British Museum

Finding himself in London with a bit of spare time on his hands DonQui decides to wander over to the British Museum.

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Filled with the loot of Empire there is tons to see — so much so that DonQui finds it better to visit only a few favourite galleries, leaving others to another time.

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Whether it is the Elign Marbles, looted from the Acropolis of Athens; the huge Egyptian collection; or the Anglo-Saxon treasures of Sutton Hoo; anyone with the slightest interest in old stuff is bound to find something of interest. Best of all it is free!

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DonQui is attracted to the special exhibition of Celtic artefacts which is on until the end of January. There is a charge to see the temporary exhibits but as Duchess is a member the charge is waived and she is able to bring in DonQui as a guest.

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There are some very impressive artefacts, well displayed with good explanations which give the historical and cultural context.
The exhibition covers the story of the Celts from their fist naming by the Greeks through to Victorian fantasy and modern revivals of Celtic culture.

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DonQui had seen pictures of the Gundestrup cauldron before but seeing it up close was something else.

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Running concurrently with the Celts is a smaller exhibition on faith in Egypt after the pharaohs. As he very keen on late Roman history there was quite a lot to interest him.

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After the two special exhibitions DonQui wanders upstairs to see the newly renovated early European gallery which houses the Sutton Hoo treasure. He has seen it before but the previous setting did not do it justice. The new gallery does.

On a cold January day, and if you do not want to spend much money, a visit to the British Museum makes for a good day out.

A Medieval Chicken

Back home now after his various wanderings, it is time for DonQui to get cooking again.

limona book

Now DonQui’s interest in history is as strong as his love of good food. When he was in France earlier in the year, he came across a beautiful little book — La Cuisine du Moyen Âge, by Brigitte Racine.

limona illustration

DonQui decides to try out the Limonia — a recipe for lemon chicken adapted from the Liber de Coquina which is believed to have been written by a Neapolitan chef in the 14th century.

The original recipe, which uses egg yolks to thicken the sauce, has been adapted by Brigitte Racine in her book and DonQui in turn also makes a few adaptions of his own.

Ingredients (for 2 people)
3 or 4 Chicken thighs
1 onion finely chopped
a handful of lardons (or thick smoked bacon pieces)
500ml/1 pint of unsalted chicken stock
oil and butter
juice of 1/2 lemon
lemon zest
a handful of blanched almonds
1 teaspoon ginger powder
salt and pepper.

Note: it is best to use unsalted liquid stock and not bouillon or stock cubes. The reason is that stock cubes are mostly salt and with the smoked lardons the dish will be too salty. In the UK DonQui gets his stock from Waitrose which he tends to stock up on (pardon the lame pun) and freeze until needed.

Method

limona lardons

Fry the onions and lardons in a little oil until the onions begin to brown. Take out and reserve.

limona brown chicken

In the same pot, brown the chicken thighs in a mixture of butter and oil

limona simmer

Add the ginger and pepper and put the onion/lardon mixture back int the pot. Stir together for a minute or so then add the chicken stock, bring to the boil, cover and simmer gently for approximately 30 minutes.

limona almonds

Meanwhile toast the almonds under the grill or stir fry in a little butter until they begin to brown. DonQui prefers the latter method as it adds a bit more taste.

limona lemon

After 20 minutes take the lid off the pot, add the lemon zest and let the sauce reduce for the last 10 minutes of cooking. If you want a thinker sauce then take the chicken out to keep warm while you reduce the sauce further. Add the lemon juice just before serving.

When using lemon juice DonQui always adds it at the end as the vitamin C is destroyed by long cooking.

limona serve

Season to taste and serve covered with the sauce and almonds.

limona final

To be true to the medieval origin of the recipe DonQui served the chicken with beans, kale and bread. The latter would have been the most usual carbohydrate accompaniment to a 14th century meal. The potato was unheard of and rice was an expensive import, not cultivated in Europe until the 15th century. Pasta would have been a historically correct possibility as variations on it had been around in Italy since Roman times. Contrary to popular myth, pasta was not brought to Italy from China by Marco Polo.

Very simple to cook, DonQui thought the taste was utterly delicious. With its lemony/ginger/almond sauce it had a depth of flavour that reminded him of modern Moroccan cuisine. DonQui has since seen that the original recipe was thickened with ground almonds, much like some Indian dishes. He will try doing that next time.

For Latin readers the original recipe from the Liber de Coquina is as follows:

De limonia: ad limoniam faciendam, suffrigantur pulli cum lardo et cepis. Et amigdale mundate terantur, distemperentur cum brodio carnis et colentur. Que coquantur cum dictis pullis et speciebus.
Et si non habentur amigdale, spissetur brodium cum uitellis ouorum.
Et si fuerit prope horam scutellandi, pone ibi succum limonum uel limiarum uel citrangulorum.

England’s Atlantis

DonQui is relieved to arrive back in England to crisp, sunny, autumn weather. Although it certainly feels cold after Tanzania’s mid 30° temperatures, at least it is not grey and rainy.
It being that day of the week, DonQui decides to partake in the English ritual of a walk in the country followed by a Sunday roast at a suitable pub.

One of his favourite places to do this is Dunwich.

Dunwich beachNow not many people have heard of Dunwich and with good reason… Like Atlantis, most of it lies under the sea.

Yet back in medieval times Dunwich was one of England’s most important towns. It was in the top ten listed in the Doomsday Book of 1086, growing in size and prosperity over the next 300 years. Trade with Flanders and the royal shipyards made Dunwich the most important port on the East coast, second only to London. It was here that King Edward III’s fleet was built for the invasion of France in the Hundred Years War.

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However, the sand cliffs on which Dunwich is built are highly vulnerable to erosion. A great storm in 1347 swept away 400 houses as the cliffs crumbled and fell into the sea. In the years that followed the once great port silted up and the Blyth River changed its course. By the beginning of the 17th century Dunwich had lost 3/4 of its original size and the erosion continues still.

Dunwich greyfriarsToday all that remains of the once great medieval city are the ruins of the Greyfriars monastery and St James’ chapel which once administered to a leper colony. Both of these buildings were inland from the original city walls. All that was once inside the walls is now under the sea.

Dunwich museum

The more than 5000 inhabitants of medieval times has shrunk to a modern population of less than 200. A rather good little museum tells the story

Dunwich Ship

Tucked in amongst the cottages of modern Dunwich is the Ship Inn — one of DonQui’s favourite pubs in the area. After a circular walk over the cliffs, through Greyfriars’ Wood and around the monastery DonQui is ready for a pint and some roast beast with all the trimmings.

Dunwich inside

The Ship is a free house serving an ever changing selection of local beers and ciders. This is a rarity in these parts where most pubs are tied to Southwold’s Adnams’ brewery. Now in the past there was no love lost between Dunwich and Southwold so it is perhaps not surprising to find the Ship maintaining its independence. Although DonQui is a great fan of Adnams’ beers he finds it refreshing to have a wider choice every once in a while.

Dunwich bar

He samples the Jenny Morgan, and finds it quite refreshing with a light hoppy taste. Brewed by Green Jack of Lowestoft it is apparently named after a girl in an old mariners’ song who waits at home for her sweetheart who is out at sea.

Dunwich menu

Unlike many pubs on Sunday, The Ship offers other options in addition to the traditional Sunday Roast. However it is roast than DonQui wants, choosing the beef while Duchess goes for the pork. They also decide to share the watermelon, feta, pumpkin seed and basil salad as a starter. It simply sounded too interesting to pass up and DonQui was glad he didn’t — it was utterly delicious.

The Ship always does an excellent roast and this time was no exception. Both were very good but DonQui thought that the pork possible had the edge on the beef. Unfortunately he tucked into the food right away rather than taking photographs.

Dunwich knickerbocker

However he did remember to capture the image of the rather spectacular knickerbocker glory which served as an excellent shared desert.