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.

A bit of France in Suffolk

In the heart of rural Suffolk lies Lavenham — England’s best preserved medieval town. In the heart of Lavenham is an unexpected little corner of France.

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Over thirty years ago, the 14th century ‘Great House’ on Lavenham’s Market Place was bought by Régis and Martine Crépy. They converted it into a fabulous 5-room boutique hotel with a gourmet French restaurant.

DonQui is staying at The Great House for a couple of days while he explores Lavenham. It is as quintessentially French as the rest Lavenham is medieval English. The owners, staff, chef, and ambiance are all French. It seems to DonQui as if he has crossed the channel as soon as he steps over the threshold. For the francophile DonQui this is all very good news, especially the prospect of a French style dinner in owner-chef Régis Crépy’s award winning restaurant. He is not disappointed.

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He and Duchess opt for the 3 course set menu which at £36 is great value for top end cuisine from a renown chef who is often on the premises.

Spying the fantastic looking cheese board on the way in he decides to add a cheese course before desert which he and duchess will share. With 19 AOC cheeses it is reminiscent of the cheese board he sampled recently at Domaine de Barive.

 

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The food more than lives up to expectations. It is modern French cuisine using mostly local ingredients although the cheese is imported from France and the scallops come from the Isle of Man. The dishes are perfectly cooked, very well balanced, and not overly fussy. There are also a very good selection of wines by the glass. DonQui generally prefers this with a multi course meal as it allows him to sample different wines with different dishes.

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Highlights include the queen scallops with an avocado-lemon mousse and seaweed butter, which DonQui has as his starter. The accompanying mousse gives just the right amount of citrus taste to set off the delicate small scallops.

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Duchess pronounces her main of skate wing with capers and tomatoes as ‘astounding.’ Skate is not a fish DonQui has been particularly keen on in the past. When he has a taste of this one he is most impressed. The fish takes the taste of the capers and tomatoes beautifully and DonQui decides he will try cooking skate wing himself at some time in the future.

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The meat dishes are just as good as the fish. DonQui’s only mild criticism is that the additional portions of vegetables and potato do not match the standard of the main dishes. They were also quite unnecessary.

IMG_0529The cheese selection is a delight, all perfectly ripe and served at room temperature. DonQui likes having cheese before a sweet to finish off his wine. Unfortunately in many English restaurants a cheese course is brought straight from the fridge and is therefore often tasteless.

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The deserts are just as good as the previous courses.

The hotel rooms are spacious and comfortable. The modern furnishings and conveniences tastefully fitting in to their ancient surroundings. One of the rooms has a Jacobean four poster bed which DonQui and Duchess decide to try out on a future visit.

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Breakfast is a typical French-style buffet. The smell of the croissants and bread being baked on-site are a perfect alarm clock for DonQui.

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Cooked options from poached eggs on toast to a ‘full English’ are also available.

DonQui thoroughly enjoyed his stay at The Great House. It is not inexpensive but given the very high quality it is value for money. He will definitely come again. Lavenham itself is also well worth a visit and DonQui will no doubt have more to say about the place before too long.

Rumour has it that Régis Crépy is looking to sell up in order to open a new restaurant in London with his son. If you want to experience this wonderful French oasis in the heart of Suffolk you may wish to go sooner rather than later.

Crêpes Suzette

Before leaving his culinary tour of Domaine de Barive, DonQui wishes to mention one more outstanding experiences at their restaurant. This is their Crêpes Suzette.

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Crêpes Suzette may be a little bit old fashioned but then so is DonQui.  Although they are mostly renown for the flashy at-table presentation, the taste of pancakes with citrus, butter and Grand Marnier, is pretty hard to beat.

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They are prepared at DonQui’s table by the skilled, experienced waitress who takes her time. She concentrates more on making sure the pancakes are perfectly prepared, rather than the accompanying theatre.

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That is not to say that the preparation is without theatre at the time of flambéing.

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On the plate the dish looks simple and it it. The taste, however, is sublime.

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.

Great Food and Wine

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For his second meal at Domain de Barive’s Restaurant des Épicuriens DonQui has the time to experience the full set menu. It is utterly superb – each dish an absolute delight.

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After as relaxing Leffe beer on the terrace, which comes with a selection of tasty nibbles, DonQui makes his way to the restaurant where he orders the Menu Château.

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The meal is preceded with a ‘petite touch de salé…’ or ‘amuse-bouche’.

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Along with this there are a selection of breads and two different locally produced butters.

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DonQui chooses the Melon with Maroilles (a local semi-soft white cheese) as his starter.

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Then comes the Scorpion fish with polenta and a tomato-basil sauce.

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Followed by the most exquisite duck breast.

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Feeling that the expansive cheese board would be a bit too much, DonQui opts for the Faisselle (a soft fresh cheese). There are two options for this — savoury, with herbs and shallots, or sweet with fruit coulis. DonQui goes for the sweet option.

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Finally comes an incredible apricot desert.

Each course is a  absolute delight. The amounts are just enough to savour the tastes but not so much as to feel too full afterwards. Apart from the bread there are few carbohydrates. This allows DonQui to fully enjoy every course and not feel bloated afterwards.

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Des Épicuriens offers a wide selection of wines by the glass. DonQui leaves the choices up to the young sommelier who suggests a different wine to suit each of the courses DonQui has ordered. His choices are excellent and DonQui is very glad that he went along with the sommelier’s suggestions. Despite a reasonable acquaintance with French wines, many of those on offer are quite unknown to DonQui. This allows him to sample wines that otherwise he may never have tried. The pairings with each course are perfect.

Personally DonQui is better than some which can show off a Michelin star or two. Too often he finds the food at many starred places a bit too fussy as the chef shows off his clever tricks. Here one gets an excellent modern take on great classic French food, alongside very knowledgeable and friendly service, in an atmospheric setting.

A Fine Domain in France

Needing to spend some time deep in the countryside of northern France, DonQui looks around for a good place to stay.

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Not far from the medieval city of Laon, he stumbles upon the Domaine de Barive. It is a great find.

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Set in in its own grounds amongst farmland, miles from anywhere it is approached by a long lane lined with poplars. With spa, outdoor terraces and a highly rated restaurant it looks like just the sort of place DonQui can enjoy a few days of tranquil contemplation along with a good meal or two.

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His room is comfortable and spacious. The bathtub even comes with its own rubber ducks, for those who go for that sort of thing.

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Breakfast is a typical French offering, made special by the fine selection of fresh, locally baked breads and pastries along with homemade jams. There is even champagne available along with juices, coffee and other hot drinks.

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Best of all is the Restaurant des Epicuriens. DonQui arrives late after a horribly long wait for his rental car from the very inefficient Avis counter at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport.

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As in most French restaurants, the set menus offer very good value for money but at 9pm DonQui does not feel like a full 4-5 course meal so he orders a la carte, choosing the ‘turbot en trançon’ (turbot filets with spinach in a crispy phyllo pastry) with kumquats and mushrooms in a champagne cream sauce.  It is utterly delicious.

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To finish off he opts for a selection of cheeses from the very tempting cheese board. The choices are so overwhelming that DonQui leaves it up to the very pleasant waitress to help him with his selections.

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Very knowledgeable and helpful, she suggests a sampling of 5 different cheeses, all of which are perfectly ripe, providing a wide range of different flavours.

A truly memorable meal

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Every once in a while DonQui stumbles across a restaurant which manages to combine great food and perfect atmosphere to create something truly memorable. The Villa Maria restaurant in Ravello is just such a place.

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Set on a beautiful leafy terrace overlooking the hills above Amalfi and the sea beyond, the location is truly spectacular.

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After sunset the Moon and Venus, being close together in the night sky, create a stunning effect.

The staff are super friendly and very helpful. When DonQui is not entirely sure on which dishes to order the recommendations are spot-on. The waiter gives DonQui a run-down on the ingredients and how the dish is prepared, steering him in the right direction every time.

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The wine recommendation is equally helpful, guiding DonQui through the pluses and minuses of the various local vintages. Although the waiter can no doubt discern that DonQui Oaty is a donkey of distinction, he does not linger too long on the first page of the wine list which includes some prime Bordeaux at over €4,000 a bottle!

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There are so many tantalising dishes on the menu it is hard to decide which to go for. Most of the are locally sourced with fruit, vegetables and herbs coming from the Villa’s own organic garden.

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In the end DonQui opts to start with ‘crunchy ravioli’ filled with local cheese and served on a bed of fresh herby tomatoes. The ‘ravioli’ is more like a super light pastry than pasta — hence the ‘crunch’.

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Duchess chooses zucchini (courgette) flowers also filled with cheese, deep fried in a sesame and ginger batter and served with a tomato coulis.  Both were superb, although Duchess was a little disappointed not to taste any ginger — something she is rather fond of.

DonQui decides to order Italian style — savouring each course before deciding on the next one.

Wishing something quite light after her appetiser, Duchess decides on ‘Organic garden vegetables with parmesan broth’ for her second course while DonQui tries the waiter recommended ‘Slow cooked amberjack with kumquat, sea asparagus and champagne sauce.’ Not having encountered amberjack before DonQui enquires what sort of fish it is? He learns that it is a large predatory fish with white flesh.

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“It is not as delicate as sea bass”, the waiter informs DonQui, assuring him that his local Ravello light red wine will go very well with it despite the accompanying champagne sauce.

The waiter is quite correct. The flesh has an almost bouncy constituency with deep flavour. DonQui finds it absolutely delicious, the taste perfectly set off by the accompanying quartered kumquats and champagne sauce. Sea asparagus turns out to be what DonQui knows as samphire.

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The deserts are as stunning as the previous courses. DonQui is rather tempted to try out ‘The mango and the coconuts become Italian classic like the fried egg’, if for no better reason than its enigmatic (presumably mis-translated) name. The chocolate eggplant trunk also sounds intriguing.

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On the waiter’s recommendation, however, DonQui orders the the cannolo with Aperol sgroppino (sorbet made from Aperol and prosecco), and the tiramisu. The waiter explains with pride that the tiramisu is ‘not classic’. It has been deconstructed and reinvented, retaining the coffee/marscapone/chocolate flavours served up in a very different way.

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Both deserts are incredibly good.

Dinner at the Villa Maria is without a doubt one of the best meals DonQui has experienced. At the end, the bill seems quite reasonable considering the quality and style. Without a doubt he will return one day — perhaps to stay a few nights at the villa as well as once again sampling their delicious food.