Overnight in San José, Costa Rica

On his way to Tortuguero on Costa Rica’s Atlantic coast, DonQui Oaty decides to break his journey in the Costa Rican capital. It seems more restful after a long international flight to spend the night in San José before hopping on a domestic flight to the coast

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San José is not the most attractive of cities

At first glance San José doesn’t seem to have much to offer. DonQui notes the urban sprawl, dusty streets and dull architecture. He is fairly certain that those that know the city will tell him that there is much to see and do. But it is a Sunday afternoon, not much is happening and the restful atmosphere of the low-rise Hotel Colonial invites DonQui to take a siesta rather than go out to explore Costa Rica’s capital.

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DonQui stays at the very pleasant Hotel Colonial

With its pleasant neo-colonial architecture, large spacious room and friendly staff, the Hotel Colonial is a great place to stay. It is right in the centre of town close to the Jade museum which would have been handy had DonQui decided to explore.

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The hotel courtyard

Instead, after his siesta, he has a coffee and plays a game of cards with Duchess in the pleasant courtyard by the small pool.

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Esquina de Buenos Aires Restaurant

The Esquina de Buenos Aires restaurant is right across the street from the Hotel Colonial. DonQui has learned that it has an excellent reputation and is hugely popular. He is, therefore, thankful he had the foresight to make a reservation as the place is hopping when he gets there for dinner and he would not have had a chance of a table without it.

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DonQui imagines he is in a classic black and white film

DonQui immediately sees why the restaurant is so popular. It oozes with atmosphere. The wood panelling, ceiling fans, posters from classic Argentinian films and old photos of Argentinian celebrities, make DonQui feel at though he has been transported into classic black and white film set in old Buenos Aires. All that is missing are two gentlemen in fedoras smoking cigars in a corner as they plan some dangerous adventure.

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The ‘mini’ striploin is plenty big enough

The food, drink and service are as good as the atmosphere. It being an Argentinian restaurant, beef steak is the thing to have. DonQui’s Bife de Chorizo (striploin) is superb and he is glad he ordered the ‘mini’ portion as at 250g of beef it is more than enough. The full portion is a whopping 400g!

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Banana crepes flambéed in rum

There is more than steak on the menu. Duchess’ sopa de zapallo y choclo (pumpkin and sweetcorn soup) is delicious as are the rum flambéed bannana crepes that DonQui has for desert. The house red wine, a Pequeña Vasija is excellent. Prices are a little on the steep side for Costa Rica but quite reasonable by European/North American standards. Reservations are essential.

rice and beans

Certainly, DonQui could have been more energetic to make more of his short overnight stay in San José. Nonetheless he thoroughly enjoys himself. He feels perfectly relaxed as he eats his breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans) with egg and sweet fried plantain the next morning. He is now ready for a proper adventure.

 

A Matter of Class

DonQui Oaty is quite excited to be flying British Airways First Class across the Atlantic. Not business class but real proper first class!

‘Will it be worth it?’ He wonders.

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BA’s exclusive First Class check-in and security area at Heathrow

On arrival at London Heathrow terminal five he is whisked into the private First Class check-in with its own security screening area. With no queues DonQui thinks this is how flying should be like — no crowds and no stress.

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The Concorde Lounge

The British Airways Concorde lounge is quite a step up from the usual business lounges.

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So DonQui settles down comfortably with a glass of good Champagne and a few nibbles to await his flight in comfort.

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The spacious first class cabin on board
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There is plenty of room for a Donkey with relatively short legs to stretch out and have a good snooze.

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There are some seriously excellent wines on offer and the food it pretty good too. 

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Without a proper kitchen on board it is never going to be haute cuisine but they make a good stab at it.

‘So is it worth it?’

 

DonQui’s view is that it all depends on what you pay. First class  is marginally better than business class on board but the private check-in and superior lounge makes it much better. Bear in mind that these will not be available at all airports. 

Having now flown across the Atlantic on every class of BA cabin, his assessment is as follows:

Economy is no better and no worse than other airlines — long queues, cramped seats and rubbish food.

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The BA premium economy cabin

Premium economy is a big step up for not that much more money. With much more spacious seating and better food it begins to turn the flight into a moderately pleasant experience.

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DonQui buckles up in business class to enjoy a good night’s sleep

The big advantage of business class is the flat bed seat which allows for a proper sleep. You also get lounge access and priority boarding. The problem is that the cost can be be double or more that of premium economy.

DonQui prefers to book premium economy and snap up any upgrade offers if available as a full price business class seat is probably not worth the price differential.

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The first class seat takes up twice the space of a business class seat

The First Class experience is very pleasant but it is not significantly enough of an improvement on business class to warrant the sometimes eye-watering full ticket prices. It is really only worth it is you get a really good deal, or use air miles to get an upgrade which is what DonQui did in this case.

 

Exploring ancient Sicily

DonQui not only loves his food and drink, he is also a bit of a history fanatic, particularly when it comes to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

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Mosaic of a late Roman soldier

Fortunately for him the Greeks and Romans left lots of stuff behind in Sicily. The Arabs and Normans also left their marks. There are even a few traces of the Carthaginians which is pretty rare as the Romans did their best to eradicate everything Carthaginian they came across.

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Carthaginian and Greek foundations of ancient Lilybaeum

In Marsala (ancient Lilybaeum) there are traces of the early Carthaginian city. This probably looks like a pile of old rocks to most people but DonQui gets quite excited by it.

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Salt pans near Marsala

He is also fascinated by the salt pans which have been in operation (with a few breaks) since Carthaginian times. The salt is still harvested by hand.

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The temple of Juno at Agrigentum

Three magnificent Greek Doric temples still proudly stand at Agrigento (Greek Akragas, Roman Agrigentum). The beauty of their perfect architectural design takes DonQui’s breath away. 

While appreciating their beauty DonQui spares a thought for the 25,000 enslaved Carthaginian prisoners of war who were put to work building the so-called Temple of Juno (Juno being a Roman goddess) circa 450 BC . It is hardly surprising that newly victorious Carthaginians did their best to destroy it half a century later.

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The Temple of Concordia

The temple of Concordia is still pretty well intact thanks to the fact that it was converted into a Christian church in the 6th century AD

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Late Roman city walls and tombs at Agrigentum

Parts of the Roman city walls are also still standing. Carved into them are Christian tombs from the 5th-6th  centuries AD when Agrigentum was controlled variously by the Romans, Vandals and Goths. 

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The huge late Roman villa near Piazza Armerina

Some way inland lies the 3rd – 4th Century Roman villa at Piazza Armerina. It is utterly stunning in its scale and in the beauty of the incredible floor mosaics. 

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Hunting scene mosaic
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Expedition to India mosaic
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Mosaic of female gymnasts
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Mosaic from the floor of the master bedroom

DonQui has seen photographs of some of the mosaics before but nothing compares to seeing them in-situ.

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Norman cathedral of Palermo showing Arab influences

The Normans came to Sicily to drive out the Arabs in the 9th century AD, more or less at the same time as they took over England.

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The Norman cathedral of Monreale decorated by Byzantine craftsmen

The Norman conquerors of Sicily employed Arab and East Roman craftsmen to build some magnificent churches incorporating Arabesque features in the architecture along with Roman mosaics to rival Ravenna and Constantinople.

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The remnants of the walls of Syracuse

The ancient Greek City of Syracuse rivalled Athens in the 5th century BC. Its strong defensive position on a small island allowed the city to fend off many invaders over the centuries. Not much remains of classical Syracuse but wandering around the narrow streets, DonQui gets a sense of the ancient city. 

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DonQui enters the Labyrinth

Plunging underground he is able to explore the foundations of the Greek city below modern Syracuse. Trotting around the dimly lit, deserted underground passages, he feels a little bit like Theseus descending into the Labyrinth. 

Olives, bread and cheese

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Continuing his exploration of Sicilian food, DonQui Oaty turns his attention to olives, the second most important staple of Sicilian cuisine (after wine!).

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Olive grove in an ancient Greek quarry

The olive trees at Casa di Latomie near Castelvetranto on the west of the island, are rooted in the limestone of an ancient Greek quarry. They derive much of their flavour and nutrients from it. They are picked by hand from in order to ensure the careful selection of high quality olives. 

 

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1200 year old olive tree

DonQui is introduced to the great-grandfather of the olive trees. 1200 years old, this tree was a sapling when the Arabs took Sicily from the East Romans and grew into maturity when the Normans came. It is still producing fruit.

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Oil and tapenade with tumminia bread

The olives, the oil and tapenade that DonQui samples are utterly delicious. The tapenade is served on crusty rustic bread made from tumminia flour. This ancient grain has a delectable nutty taste and is unique to Sicily.

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Animals are rarely seen in the fields of Sicily

Meat does not feature much in Sicilian cuisine. Milk and butter are noticeable only by their absence. Olive groves and vineyards dominate the landscape and, apart from a few sheep and and the odd cow or two, DonQui does not see any animals in the fields.

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DonQui’s Sicilian cousin

Livestock is mostly important for cheese. At La Masseria dairy, near Ragusa, DonQui encounters a whole menagerie including a distant Sicilian cousin.

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Shaping the cheese

At the dairy DonQui learns how caciocavallo is made. This a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese is quite mild.  Sicilians prefer to use it rather than northern Italian parmesan on their pasta. 

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A selection of medium-aged and mature caciocavallo

DonQui finds it pleasant enough but a bit too bland to get excited about.

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Fresh caciocavallo

He does rather like the fresh version which has not been aged and is served with olive oil and herbs. It is a bit like mozzarella but slightly firmer 

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Fresh ricotta

The curds are made into a delicious ricotta. The taste is vastly superior to any ricotta DonQui has tasted at home in England.

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The most wonderful cannoli

Sweetened ricotta is the filling for cannoli. These ones also have a few chocolate chips in them and they taste fabulous.

 

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.

 

Cooking like a Sicilian

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Getting ready to cook

DonQui has the opportunity to try his hand at Sicilian cooking under the watchful eyes of the chefs from Duca di Castelmonte, near Trapani.

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Duca di Castelmonte

Duca di Castlemonte is an old farm estate now converted into an excellent country restaurant and guest house. 

DonQui Oaty’s first lesson is in making a traditional Sicilian spiral pasta (busiate).

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Roll out a thin finger of dough

This is done by rolling out a thin finger of dough then gently rolling it around a wooden stick to produce an elegant spiral. The stick is first dipped in flour to stop the dough from sticking to it.

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Make the spiral by rolling it around a kebab stick

DonQui takes his time with the first one, learning that it is best to make them quite thin and not too long.

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DonQui begins to get the hang of it

Once he gets the hang of it he is able to produce them with confidence but it is a time consuming process which would be best done with several willing helpers. DonQui is fortunate that the dough (hard flour and water — no eggs) is pre-made for him.

The sauce is a Trapanese tomato pesto. The ingredients (for two) are:

2 pealed garlic cloves
approximately 2 tablespoons of blanched, lightly roasted almonds.
a small bunch of fresh basil (torn up)
a pinch of salt and pepper
a generous glug of olive oil
pulp of 4 red, ripe tomatoes; peeled, seeded and roughly chopped

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Peel the tomatoes by first immersing them in boiling water

To peel and seed the tomatoes: score the skin in quarters, cover with boiling water for about 5 minutes then let cool. The skins will peel off easily. To de-seed, squeeze the tomato over a bowl and the seeds and excess liquid will come out leaving just the pulp.

Method:

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Use a mortar and pestle to make the pesto

Prepare the pesto by first mashing up the dry ingredients and garlic, with a mortar and pestle, until it forms a sort of paste. Add the torn basil and pound together a bit more until well blended.

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After adding the tomatoes and olive oil

Add the tomato pulp and olive oil then mash it all together until well mixed. Set to one side.

Cook the pasta in salted boiling water (You don’t necessarily need to use home-made pasta). Drain and tip out into a bowl and mix in the pesto.

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The completed dish

Serve with a good sprinkling of chopped roasted almonds on top then enjoy.

It is one of the most divine pasta dishes DonQui has had the opportunity to taste. In his view it does not benefit from the addition of cheese.

Off on his travels again

Donk with passport

Clutching his well-used passport, DonQui Oaty is getting ready to leave his home paddock on a new adventure.

He very excited to be going to Sicily for a week.

He has often wanted to visit the island but has not managed it before now. His intention is to take in the many historical sites as possible, indulge in a bit of Sicilian cuisine, and enjoy the late summer sun.

No doubt he will be writing about his adventures as they unfold.