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.

Amalfi

Back from his African travels, DonQui Oaty now finds himself on the coast of Southern Italy. He is hoping to do a bit of work while at the same time taking in the ambiance and soaking up the sun.

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He is staying just outside Amalfi, sitting on a shady terrace, tapping away on his computer as he looks out over the Mediterranean.

He likes it here.

Why?

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It is not just the stunning scenery, although it is truly stunning.

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It is not just the winding medieval covered alleyways, although they are most atmospheric…

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… as is the fabulous Romanesque cathedral.

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It is not just the fabulous food — the superb fresh fish, the locally made mozzarella, or the perfectly ripe fruit and vegetables which seem to burst with flavour — although the food is indeed fabulous…

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… with the taste and scent the huge sweet local lemons permeating everything from risotto to limoncello.  .

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It is not even the superb wines although DonQui really enjoys them, especially the whites and rosés…

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… such as the Lacryma Cristi (tears of Christ) wines from the slopes of Mt Vesuvius not too far away.

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It is certainly not the hair-raising coastal road which is choked with noisy traffic and which the local bus drivers navigate with a frightening insouciance, flirting with the local girls rather than watching the road ahead. This despite the fact that there are only a few centimetres to spare between the edge of the road and certain death.

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DonQui Oaty especially likes Amalfi because here donkeys are properly respected. The donkey (ciuccio) is the mascot of Amalfi and his hard work, dedication and long-suffering heroism is celebrated in art.

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The Donkey Head Fountain is dedicated to this noblest of animals.

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… while shops and art galleries are stocked with donkey inspired ceramics and souvenirs.

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All this is right and proper thinks DonQui. After all the precipitous cliff paths around Amalfi are far more suited to donkeys than humans.

Fish and Chips

So what have immigrants ever done for us in the UK?

Apart from providing competent plumbers and increasing the number of working youngsters to pay for baby boomers’ pensions — they have hugely improved the quality and variety of the food we now regularly enjoy.

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We have Jewish refugees to thank for fish and chips while Britain’s other national dish — chicken tikka masala (photo above) — was invented by Bangladeshi immigrants.

Now DonQui has a rather problematic relationship with fish and chips. Every once in a while he gets a craving. Then he trots down to the chippy (fish & chip shop for non-Brits) with great expectations which invariably end in disappointment. Really good fish and chips need a light, crispy batter and the chips should be nicely browned on the outside while remaining soft in the middle. All too often the batter is thick and greasy while the chips are pale and limp.

Not good.

Living by a seaside resort town — Southwold in Suffolk — one would think that it would be fairly easy for DonQui to find decent fish and chips.

Not so

The fish is fresh, to be sure, and generally speaking the batter is fine. His main problem is with the flaccid, pale, sorry excuses for chips — caused by cooking at too low a temperature without double frying.

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The news that a new chippy is opening in Southwold fills DonQui with some hope. After months of renovations, and missing the high summer season, the Little Fish and Chip Shop has just opened. Selling fresh fish out front and frying around the back, it looks very promising.

fish and chips 1DonQui decides to give it a go, ordering haddock with a small portion of chips. Plaice is DonQui’s favourite fish but it is too thin and delicate for deep frying in batter. It really has to be either cod or haddock. While haddock tends to be preferred up north and cod down south, DonQui has to agree with his northern cousins on this point.

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Cooked to order, first appearances are encouraging. The chips actually have colour and the batter looks crisp and dry. The lemon wedge and parsley on top are a nice touch. Served in a box it makes it easy for DonQui to take home without wrapping. Wrapping, of course, will keep it warm longer but has the nasty side-effect of the trapped steam from the hot food turning everything soft and soggy. Therefore, as he does not have far to go, DonQui leaves the lid on the box ajar to let the steam escape, puts it in his wagon and canters off home.

Although he only ordered a small portion of chips, it seems that there is more than enough for two people, let alone one donkey. Usually when he orders fish and chips for two he asks for one portion of chips for two pieces of fish. But as Duchess is away he puts half of the portion on his plate and although he has a few more later on he cannot not finish them all.

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Sprinkling salt on the chips and dousing everything with malt vinegar, DonQui tucks in.

It is good, perhaps very good. Not the best fish and chips he has ever eaten but it definitely fulfils his main criteria. Not greasy at all, the chips are nice and crisp on the outside remaining lovely and soft in the middle. The fish is fresh, delicate and flaky while the batter is light enough for DonQui to happily eat it all rather than pulling it off and leaving it to one side as he often does with sub-standard fish and chips.

Done well, fish and chips, is a truly wonderful British food staple which people in other countries often do not understand. When he lived in Germany, DonQui’s German friends could not get their heads around the combination, thinking that fried fish needed to be served with boiled potatoes not chips. Yet they were perfectly content with chips as an accompaniment to fried, breaded schnitzel. As for putting vinegar on it… the very thought made them cringe in horror. But just as the acidity of lemon enhances a schnitzel, or indeed fish, so does the vinegar — cutting through and balancing the oil in which it has been fried. It has to be proper malt vinegar, mind you, nothing else works.

The sad thing is that it is not that easy to find really good fish and chips, even in Britain.

Trout with Sea Vegetables

On his way back home from London to the Shires, DonQui decides to pick up something simple but tasty for supper.

As it so happens he has to pass by the nice Mr Waitrose’s shop on the way, so he drops in to see what is on offer. As is always the case when he stops off at Waitrose, DonQui ends up buying far more than he had intended. His shopping basket is filled with buttermilk (for pancakes) and Canadian maple syrup (amber mind you not just the ordinary medium) to go with it. Some coconut cream for stir fries; liquid unsalted stock for sauces; and thin streaky bacon (difficult to find in the UK) for breakfast. As it happens there is also a Rioja, a Chablis and a Calvados on offer at reduced prices and so these too manage to find their way into DonQui’s shopping basket.

At the fish counter there is one remaining large trout filet. This will do for supper, DonQui thinks, adding a medley of ‘sea vegetables’ (samphire, sea aster and okahijiki – or Japanese land seaweed) to his purchase.

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DonQui cooks the trout ‘en papillote’ baked in the oven for 15 minutes with herb butter, lemon and parsley. Waitrose seals the fish in a parchment parcel for him in store. Previously DonQui has cooked fish like this by simply placing it in an ovenproof dish and covering with tin foil. He serves the trout filet with boiled charlotte potatoes tossed in parsley and butter alongside the sea vegetables. The latter are incredibly easy to prepare as all they need is a 2-3 minute stir in butter.