Water, Reeds and Alligators

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Ever since having seen James Bond zip around the everglades, DonQui Oaty has rather fancied giving it a go for himself.

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Finding himself in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, DonQui gets his chance. At the Sawgrass Recreation Park — only 30 minutes from Fort Lauderdale — he hops on board an airboat and is whisked out over the sea of sawgrass and bullrushes (or cattails as they are called here).

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It is not long before he spies an alligator approaching.

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The curious reptile comes right up to the boat…

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…along with a snapping turtle.

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The able and informative ‘Captain Bob’ steers the airboat through the reeds. At times the boat zips over top of them, Bond-like, on a cushion of air. At other times the boat slows so that DonQui can take in the flora and fauna.

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In all it is a most enjoyable hour out.

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.

Beyond Amalfi

Feeling in need of a bit of exercise after all the good Italian food he has been eating, DonQui decides to go off and explore the Valle delle Ferriere behind Amalfi, away from the coast.

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He is advised that it is a moderate hike which involves some climbing but that there are steps up the steeper bits. Being a fairly sure footed beast, DonQui sets out in the morning intending to beat the late rising tourists and fast rising sun.

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The steps from the end of the town lead up steeply and it is a pretty exhausting climb.

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DonQui pauses from time to time to catch his breath and take in the views as the steps go up and up over the lemon groves at the back of the town.

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A few overhanging fig trees give some shade over the 30 minutes it takes DonQui to reach the end of the steps and the start of the woodland train.

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While the views looking back towards Amalfi are quite spectacular.

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Feeling a bit like Tolkien’s Last Homely House, the Fore Porta Organic Farm is the last watering hole before the wilderness beyond. As it is still early the Fore Porta is just setting up, so DonQui resolves to stop off on the way back for a bit of refreshment.

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Then he heads off down the trail, glad that the slope has levelled off. He is equally glad that, despite the tourist crowds down in Amalfi, up here is is utterly alone.

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Passing ruined paper mills abandoned centuries ago and now covered with vines and other vegetation, DonQui feels a little like one of Conan Doyle’s explorers discovering lost cities and lost worlds.

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The trail follows a fast moving stream which cascades through, over and down the rocks.

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It is this stream — the Ferriere — which powered the ancient paper mills when Amalfi was a centre of paper making in the late middle ages.

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It is almost an hour before he encounters the first humans. A small group of them have stopped at a waterfall to splash about a bit. DonQui decides to cool off in the water for a moment or two then heads on to rediscover the peace of being alone again in this wonderful setting.

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The vegetation, the abandoned mills, the fast flowing water and the solitude set his imagination off again.

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He can almost imaging the leaves parting at any moment to reveal a Lost World dinosaur as he crosses a rickety wooden bridge.

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Unsurprisingly he does not encounter any fearsome beasts but the many smaller ones he does come across do help to fuel his imaginings of their larger cousins.

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After another 30 minutes without meeting any humans he does come across a group of indigenous people camped by the river. They seem friendly enough and DonQui reassures himself that they are not likely to slaughter him for food.

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One hour in from the Fore Porta DonQui comes to the end of the trail where a succession of waterfalls provide a magnificent vista.

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These are not huge cascades but rather various trickles and sprays of water which fall down the cliffs, creating a wonderfully primeval atmosphere of water, rock and vegetation.

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The trip back down towards Amalfi is a little faster and as noon approaches more people are to be seen along the trail.

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One most welcome group is a troop of boy scouts offering lemon water and lemon pieces sprinkles with sugar. They provide DonQui with a most needed energy and hydration boost in exchange for a donation to whatever they are collecting for.

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DonQui’s final stop at the Fore Porta is also most welcome. Here he sips on a lemon granita before heading back down to Amalfi.

In Search of the Perfect Pizza

Pizza is a serious matter in Naples — the city in which it was invented and perfected. In DonQui’s humble opinion, pizza in Naples if far better that pizza more or less anywhere else on the planet.

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Standards are maintained by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (True Neopolitan Pizza Association), or Vera Pizza for short. It aims to promote and protect ‘true Neapolitan pizza’ in Italy and around the world.

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DonQui has a few tricks to ensure that his pizza lives up to expectations. Firstly he looks for a place that uses a traditional wood fired oven. Secondly he only ever orders pizza in Italy at night. Good pizzerias will fire up their ovens in the evening and it will take until close to 9pm before the ovens are properly hot enough to cook the prefect pizza. Thirdly he goes for simple classic ingredients, no bits of pineapple, pulled pork, curried chicken or other Anglo-Saxon atrocities for DonQui.

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The classic Neapolitan pizza is the Margarita which is said to have been invented in Naples in 1889 for Queen Margarita in the early years of Italian unification. In a clever move of political sycophancy, its creator managed to replicate the colours of the new Italian flag: red (tomato), white (mozzarella) and green (basil).

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Anchovies, capers and black olives are other traditional ingredients which DonQui quite likes. Here the local anchovies are not as salty or overpowering as tinned anchovies can be outside Southern Italy.

Finally DonQui looks for a place that is not too fancy-looking while still pulling in a substantial local crowd. The many places lining the Via Partenope close to his hotel look inviting but DonQui worries that they might be overpriced tourist traps. A quick skim through TripAdvisor seems to confirm his fears with comments about dodgy surcharges and surly waiters abounding.

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At the very end of Via Partenope, at the corner of Piazza Vittoria, sits an establishment with promise. It is just before 9pm and Sorbillo Lievito Madre al Mare is filling up with locals. Offering pizzas with top organic ingredients cooked in a wood fired oven it is little wonder that it is a popular place. There are even gluten free options, not that DonQui cares about such things.

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DonQui manages to get one of the last available tables as a queue forms behind him. Those arriving later put their names down on the waiting list and look on enviously as DonQui tucks in.

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By 21:30 a fairly large crowd has built up, all waiting patiently for their turn for a table.

The choices are interesting. Although the menu is in Italian only, DonQui is able to decipher enough to understand the basics. He had thought he might order a simple classic margarita but the Cetara catches his eye.

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With fresh tomatoes grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, smoked Provola cheese, capers, olives, oregano and Alici di Cetara, it sounds most intriguing. Alici di Cetara is an oil infused with anchovies. Reminiscent of garum, the infamous fish sauce which the Ancient Romans added to just about everything, DonQui decides he wants to try it.

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To say that it is delicious would be an understatement. The thin, springy crust, slightly charred from the super hot wood-fired oven is an absolute delight. The combination of cheese, tomatoes, basil, olives, capers and anchovies are a perfect taste of Naples. The pizza is large enough for him to share with Duchess and the bill is most reasonable — far less than any of his other previous Neapolitan meals.

DonQui is unaware that Gino Sorbillo is one of the most famous pizza chefs in the world. His coastal establishment is the second of his Naples outlets and he is soon to open one in New York’s Times Square. DonQui feels quite pleased with himself that he managed to discover Sorbillo’s seafront establishment before knowing any of this.