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Spiced Prunes from The Manse Boutique Inn

28 May

Weekend getaways can be so restorative, especially in a place as magical and charming as Prince Edward County.

Neil and I fell in love with the County a few years ago when we first visited for the annual event Taste the County and then again for The Great Canadian Cheese Festival. Every time we’ve been back since we’ve fallen deeper and deeper for this exceptional region of Ontario.

There’s no shortage of things to do and see from visiting wineries, farms and local artisans, to antique hunting, beach-going, walking the main streets of the small towns, and of course, eating. You do not go hungry when you visit the County. 

With so many local farmers and food producers, there’s a real sense in the County that people truly care about good food and using the freshest local ingredients. 

On our most recent trip to PEC, we had the pleasure of staying at The Manse Boutique Inn in Picton only three weeks after its grand opening and it was absolutely spectacular. Aside from the stunning setting in the century old building, the food at The Manse is definitely a draw thanks to Chef Chris Wylie who runs the inn with his wife Kathleen.

Breakfast is included when you book one of their seven lovely rooms and it was a highlight of our weekend. Chef Wylie smokes his own bacon, cures his own salmon and takes a lot of pride in his food, which was apparent to Neil and I through chatting with him.

Chef Wylie’s delicate cured salmon on potato pancake

House-smoked bacon & the most amazing ‘Hoito pancakes’ at The Manse

He was kind enough to share his recipe for his delicious spiced prunes, which he serves at the breakfast buffet along with thick Greek yogurt and a homemade nutty granola – a perfect breakfast in my books.

Thanks to Chef Wylie for sharing this recipe with Communal Table readers!

Spiced Prunes

500 ml Earl Grey tea

150 ml Marsala wine

100 g brown sugar

Large zest of one orange

1 clove, whole

1 cinnamon stick

1 star anise

250 g prunes

Combine all ingredients, bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove zest and spices. Serve the spiced prunes with the syrup along with yogurt & granola.

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Chef’s Plate at Royal Playa del Carmen Resort, Mexico

12 Apr

Royal Playa del Carmen Chef's Plate

When Jenny and I decide to treat ourselves to a vacation, my obsession with research inevitably kicks in. Whether we’re headed to a big city like Rome or a small town like Picton, Ontario, I’m determined to track down the best food in a place. And while we love travel, we’re not necessarily all-inclusive resort people. In fact, before I met Jenny I’d never been to an AI. But in our first year together, she convinced me to go to a resort in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, and it turned out to be pretty amazing. Of course, the beach was great, and we were lucky to get good weather. But one of the things that impressed me most was how good the food was at the resort we ended up choosing after my endless hours of research (the Valentin Imperial Maya resort). I was expecting mediocre meat, no veggies and a week of stomach issues, and we got the exact opposite.

It was only a couple years later, after more research (and a bad experience at a Punta Cana resort that shall remain unnamed), that I figured out that a lot of Mexican all-inclusive resorts offered dining choices that were generally of a higher quality than in some other countries. And so, when we decided to head back to Mexico for some R&R at an AI this past winter, I was determined to find another great resort with high quality food. We settled on the Royal Playa del Carmen, and it definitely didn’t disappoint. Not only does RPDC have six different restaurants and a coffee shop, but guests also have access to the restaurants at sister resort Gran Porto Real just across the street.

RPDC also has one “exclusive” restaurant for guests staying in oceanfront or higher rooms, called Chef’s Plate, which we were offered the chance to check out. The Chef’s Plate is smaller and more intimate feeling than most large all-inclusive resort restaurants, with an open kitchen that allows diners to see what 28-year-old head chef Felix Dzib May and his team are cooking. The restaurant offers 7 different rotating menus, each focused on a different cuisine: Iberian, Brazilian, Italian, French, Middle Eastern, British and Mexican. The night we had dinner at Chef’s Plate, they were serving the British menu.

Royal Playa del Carmen Chef's Plate Kitchen

Like many molecular gastronomy restaurants, the cohesion here between the main components of the dish and the more science-focused touches was a bit muddied at Chef’s Plate. And some of the elements promised on the menu didn’t actually end up on the plate – a problem we’ve noticed at several otherwise great all-inclusive resort restaurants. But overall, what was served was artfully plated, well-executed and, most importantly, tasted great.

Here’s a look at what we had. We have a general policy of not using flash for restaurant photos – one of the main reasons we don’t do a lot of restaurant reviews on Communal Table. As a result, the first photos are a bit unclear – eventually we gave up and resorted to using our flash in the mostly candle-lit restaurant. RPDC Chef's Plate Ravioli

Course 1: Fried lobster ravioli, served with a light and flavourful tomato consomme and topped lime lime “spheres” that didn’t quite mesh with the rest of the dish.

RPDC Chef's Plate Soup

Course 2:  Cream of leek soup, topped with bacon “powder”. More proof that you really can’t go wrong with bacon.

RPDC Chef's Plate Scallops

Course 3:  Scallops Mousse. To be honest I didn’t really get the connection between the description of this course and what I was actually eating, and I’m not entirely convinced it was the same scallop course promised on the menu. But what we did get was really good. The scallops were nicely cooked, which isn’t always a given in any restaurant.

RPDC Chef's Plate Beef Wellington

Course 4: Beef Wellington. As you can probably tell, this marked the point where we started using the flash on our camera. A wise decision, considering that this was easily the best course of the evening. I loved the presentation of this, along with the fact that the beef was almost perfectly cooked and really tender.

RPDC Chef's Plate Grouper

Course 5: Grouper. Another dish where what was presented didn’t match what was on the menu. But as a take on the classic battered English fish, this was great – really tender fish in a flavourful coating.

RPDC Chef's Plate Dessert

Course 6: Chocolate Souffle. I love souffle, and it’s not something I’d expect to get at an all-inclusive resort restaurant. While this wasn’t the best souffle I’ve ever had, it was certainly moist and chocolatey, and a great end to a surprising and delicious meal.

Ultimately, while I’m not sure I’d pay the extra cost to stay in the room categories that offer access to the Royal Playa del Carmen’s Chef’s Plate (our Oceanview category room was pretty amazing), we loved our meal and the opportunity to get a glimpse at one of the more innovative and high-end dining experiences you’d find at an all-inclusive resort.

A Culinary Getaway at Hockley Valley Resort

10 Dec

Hockley Valley Resort

As we get closer to the snowy season in Toronto, many people will make the short drive out of the city to Hockley Valley Resort in Orangeville. Over the past 25 years, Hockley Valley Resort has become well known for its skiing. And given my complete inability to ski or snowboard, it’s probably not surprising that I’d never given much thought to visiting the resort. That all changed this past summer when I found out there was far more to the place than just winter sports.

Over the past couple of years, Hockley Valley Resort has gone through a transformation under president and general manager John-Paul Adamo. As the son of the owners, Adamo has basically grown up at the resort, where he cooked in and then ran the kitchen. Since taking the helm, a large part of Adamo’s focus has been on capitalizing on Hockley Valley Resort’s location in fertile Dufferin County and making the place a culinary destination.

Hockley Valley Resort Garden
The vegetable gardens at Hockley Valley Resort

Jenny and I had the chance to see the fruits of his labour firsthand when we visited in August. One of the first things you notice as you pull into the resort’s parking lot is its two-acre vegetable garden. The garden was planted in 2009 on the spot where Hockley Valley Resort’s tennis courts used to stand, and it now supplies a large portion of the produce used by its kitchens (what doesn’t come from the Hockley garden is sourced from local farmers). In the summer, a woodburning oven that sits in the garden is used to bake pizzas.

Hockley Valley Resort Charcuterie Salumi
A sampling of some of the great charcuterie at Hockley Valley Resort

The self-sustaining food ethos continues inside as well, with a cold room full of made-in-house prosciutto, capicollo and pancetta.  The meats—as well as other meat products from local producers like Pingue and Il Tagliere, and an assortment of cheeses from around the world—show up on the menus of the resort’s wine bar, Babbo, and its Restaurant 85.

“Growing up in an Italian family, garden-to-table cooking was the norm. I remember going to my grandfather’s house and watching him in the garden. Cured meats, wine, bread and cheese were staples in our house and I was introduced to them at a very young age,” Adamo told me when I asked him about what influenced his decision to produce so many of Hockley Valley Resort’s food products in-house. “Moving to Florence and Switzerland for three years only reinforced my roots and beliefs when it comes to food and how we should be eating.”

Hockley Valley Resort Lounge
The lounge in Hockley Valley Resort’s Restaurant 85

There’s more to come in the resort’s culinary transformation, too. Its latest restaurant, Cabin 1865, is set to open in late December, with chef Michael Potters (known for his time in kitchens around Toronto, his own Harvest Restaurant in Prince Edward County, and a brief stretch at Angeline’s this year) running the show. A smokehouse is also in the plans, for in-house production of everything from bacon to smoked cheese and fish. And expanded baking facilities will allow the resort’s chefs to make everything from breads to wedding cakes.

Hockley Valley Resort Patio
Dining al fresco by the pool at Hockley Valley Resort

And Adamo has big plans for the small vineyard that was taking shape on the grounds of Hockley Valley Resort when we visited. “This is the brainchild of my father, who has always been the visionary. He sees our area as the next big wine region. We have just under 1,000 vines planted this year. There are plans for 2,000 to 4,000 vines next year, with production of sparkling wine to start in three years.”

Hockley Valley Resort Menu

Of course, food alone doesn’t make a great vacation spot. During our visit, Jenny and I had the chance to enjoy Hockley Valley Resort’s spa and their outdoor pool (they have an indoor pool and a hot tub as well, both undergoing renovations when we were there). And as we sat on the outdoor patio enjoying one of the Pasta Sociale dinners they hold throughout the summer, and later drove around the surrounding areas, we both talked about how it all reminded us a bit of the time we spent in Tuscany last summer. While we may not take advantage of the skiing that’s made the resort a winter destination for a quarter century, it’s nice to know that there’s a place so close to home that we can visit when we need a small taste of Italy.

Hockley Valley Resort Pasta

The overhead photo at the top of this post was borrowed from the Hockley Valley Resort Facebook page.

Finding My Favorite Wine With LCBO’s goLocal Promo

27 Sep

LCBO goLocal wine Ontario

I’ve always loved the idea of Ontario wine – that is, the idea that our province is home to a wine-producing community that wine aficionados from around the world recognize alongside some of the old-world giants like France and Italy. Unfortunately, try as I might, I’ve never quite managed to fall in love with Ontario wines. Many of the local wines I’ve bought from LCBO shelves just haven’t done it for me, for several reasons: I’m a red wine drinker, and while Ontario produces both reds and whites, it’s usually the rieslings and chardonnays that get the accolades. And as much as I enjoy reds, while I haven’t met many Cabernet Sauvignons or Tempranillos I didn’t enjoy, the Cabernet Francs and Pinot Noirs that dominate Ontario vineyards haven’t dazzled my palate.

Niagara winery wine Ontario

These were the preconceived notions I took with me on a recent media tour of the Niagara wine region to mark the start of the LCBO’s goLocal campaign. I joined several dozen food and wine writers on a Via Rail trek to St. Catharines, where we were split into two groups, each group boarding a different shuttle bus to explore different wine producers. This year marked the twentieth consecutive year of the LCBO’s annual fall promotion of Ontario wines, and the theme of its 2011 campaign – find your favourite – seemed apropos considering my apprehensive attitude toward local wines. We were going to be given the opportunity to taste our way through more than a dozen whites, reds and sparkling products from the Niagara region, and I was determined to leave with a better understanding of our province’s wine industry and, hopefully, to have found a few bottles that I loved.

barrels wine Ontario

Over the course of the day, my group met with winemakers from Hillebrand Estates, Trius, Vineland Estates, Peller Estates, Angels Gate, Henry of Pelham and Diamond Estates (producer of the Dan Ackroyd line of wines). Being given the chance to connect with the producers, listen to them talk about their passion and knowledge for winemaking and the Niagara region, and taste a number of their wines back to back made me realize just how lucky southern Ontarians are to live so close to such a vibrant wine-producing region. This is key to really understanding local wines, because while standing in your LCBO and trying to choose an Ontario wine from a wall of products and labels you’re not entirely familiar with can be intimidating, spending a few hours immersed in the land that bears these wines and having the experts walk you through the differences between each grape, blend and vintage can help you zero in on something you’ll enjoy.

tasting room Niagara wine Ontario
Hillebrand Estates winery tasting room being prepped for a busload of food writers.

The wine that ended up having the biggest impression on me was the 2010 Sauvignon Blanc from Trius. This was a surprise to me, in that I didn’t expect to enjoy a white wine this much. But the bright, fruity flavour and really fresh grape bouquet won me over. My runner-up pick (a bottle of which made its way home with me) was 2009 Angels Gate Gamay Noir. AJ McLaughlin, the company’s VP of sales and marketing, commented that Gamay Noir was a grape that didn’t necessarily have the same cachet as some of the more well-known Niagara grapes, but that it produced a “good crossover wine” that often appeals to white drinkers who aren’t big on red wines… or in my case, a red drinker who tends to avoid whites.

Angels Gate Winery Niagara Ontario
The Angels Gate winery in Niagara.

The LCBO goLocal tour reminded me that a visit to Niagara is easily achieved, from Toronto at least, and is a great way for wine lovers to learn more about what makes Ontario-produced wines so special. I may have started the trip as a skeptic, but I definitely left as someone who’ll be a bit more inclined to consider the local racks at the LCBO.

Check out lcbogolocal.com or winecountryontario.ca for info on Ontario’s growing regions, wineries and standout wines.

Celebrating Canadian Food: Chef Michael Smith, Prince Edward Island

30 Jul

chef michael smith prince edward island

Happy Food Day, Canada! While it makes sense to celebrate Canada’s food bounty 365 days a year, it’s a great idea to set aside one day where people across the country can come together to shine the spotlight on Canadian produce, meat, fish and dairy products.

For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been running interviews with some of the chefs whose restaurants are marking Food Day Canada by offering special menus centred around local food products. In today’s final installment, we have a few words from chef Michael Smith. While chef Smith is best known to Canadians as a popular Food Network personality, he’s also been a longtime advocate for Canadian cuisine. He was named official Food Ambassador in his home province of Prince Edward Island in 2009, and in January 2011, launched a web series called Food Country to showcase PEI food and the people who help produce it. Chef Smith is also one of the food personalities on the judging panel for the various awards that will be handed out as part of Food Day Canada 2011.

Enjoy the interview, and have fun celebrating Food Day!

What do you love about cooking in Prince Edward Island?

Prince Edward Island is a giant green farm floating in the bounty of the deep blue sea, surrounded by sandy white beaches and full of the ingredients, chefs and culinary artisans that make us one of the worlds great culinary tourism destinations. We are an island of food stories that you will share for a lifetime!

PEI has really been focusing on the promotion of its food production and culinary talent in the two years since you were named the province’s Food Ambassador. What does it mean for you to be part of this initiative, and what do you think it means for PEI to have you involved?

I learned how to be a chef in PEI. I learned how powerful it is to make local food connections, to make your cooking personal. Being Food Ambassador is my chance to give back to an island that has given me so much.

How have local factors such as geography, economics and demographics influenced your cooking style?

All over the world we cook with what’s in our back yard. This is what defines cuisine, when food tastes of time and place.

How has the local food scene on the Island evolved over the years?

PEI’s food scene has grown dramatically over the last 20 years, well past potatoes and lobsters. We have cutting-edge aquaculture, farmers markets around every turn, innovative crops, culinary artisans and organic market gardens sprouting everywhere. Our chefs have kept pace and we’re blessed with a thriving local food and restaurant culture.

What are your thoughts on the idea that there is a “Canadian cuisine”?

Canada is a giant land mass and we welcome customs from all over the world, thus we have many regional and ethnic threads woven into our giant tapestry of national cuisine.

How will you be celebrating Food Day?

I’ll celebrate Food Day with a chefs reunion at The Inn at Bay Fortune. Every year, many of the chefs that have cooked at the Inn return for one great big celebration meal!

Celebrating Canadian Food: Chef Jeffery Mickelson, Klondike Kate’s, Yukon

25 Jul

Jeffrey Mickelson Klondike Kate's Dawson City Yukon

July 30 is Food Day Canada, an initiative started nine years ago by Canadian food writer Anita Stewart to celebrate Canada’s food bounty and culinary skill. Chefs, restaurants and ordinary citizens all over the country will mark the occasion in their own special ways. In advance of Food Day Canada, we’re chatting with some of the chefs whose restaurants will celebrate Canadian food on July 30 to gauge their thoughts on our country’s food scene and traditions.

Last time, we spoke with chef Michael Howell of Tempest Restaurant in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. This time around, chef Jeffery Mickelson talks about his experiences cooking at Klondike Kate’s in Dawson City, Yukon. Mickelson, a B.C. native, worked from 2002 to 2007 at Klondike Kate’s before departing to spend some time working in kitchens around the world, including in Vancouver, Ottawa, Chicago, Mexico and England. He’s returned to the kitchen at Klondike Kate’s for 2011, and will be helping to prepare a menu celebrating the Yukon’s bounty for Food Day 2011. 

What do you love about cooking in the Yukon?

Cooking in the Yukon is really no different than cooking anywhere else. Obviously getting stuff here is always a bit of a issue, but as far as local producers go, it’s great. We get fresh birch syrup from Uncle Berwyn, various wild and cultivated berries from an emu farm down river, lots of amazing produce from Grant Dowdell’s farm. Our season is much shorter, but the producers can grow large amounts of goods in the short time. Our customer base is territorial and worldwide. We serve lots of regular Yukoners, and when summer is in full swing, the tourists are reliving the Klondike adventure. Myself and Wade (co-chef/owner) are out foraging all summer long, for various stuff including, nettles, herbs, mushrooms, wild greens, spruce tips etc.

How have local factors such as geography, economics and demographics influenced your cooking style?

We grow fast and big, and store our goods for the off season. You really need to know how to store and preserve the produce to get local stuff all year round. Our biggest problem is getting local meat. There is no meat inspection building in the Yukon, so we rely on a portable abbitore to drive around to inspect and slaughter animals that are destined for restaurants or grocery stores. The costs are so high for this service that, in the restaurant, it is hard to get people to switch to a local product at twice the price. There are not enough producers to provide inspected meat for the entire territory, and the government does not want to lower the costs of production (inspection costs, subsidies, etc.) to get it to the restaurants. Our busy season is in the summer, the same time the food is being produced. Come fall when we’re closing up shop, the meat is being slaughtered, which is great if you’re stocking up your freezer for winter at home. But to buy stuff that’s been frozen for six months at almost twice the price is a hard one to swallow. It is getting better though.

How has the local food scene in your region evolved over the years?

There are more producers, and more organic, natural foods. The restaurant scene in the Yukon is young and slowly evolving.

What are your thoughts on the idea that there is a “Canadian cuisine”?

We definitely do have a defined style of food, almost identical to the U.S. After all, we all came here at the same time, just spread out to different spots. If you look at any historical cookbook, Canadian or American, the recipes and food styles are almost identical.

How is Klondike Kate’s celebrating Food Day Canada?

Everyday at Kate’s is food day. We use all the local goods we can get our hands on and thrive on fresh product coming in the back door in season. We will be doing a Food Day-themed menu paired with Canadian wines.

Celebrating Canadian Food: Chef Michael Howell, Tempest, Nova Scotia

13 Jul

Chef Michael Howell Tempest

Last month, we had the opportunity to attend the first Great Canadian Cheese Festival in Picton, Ont. In addition to being able to learn about and taste cheeses from all over Canada in a setting that is quickly becoming one of Ontario’s greatest culinary tourism escapes, I loved that the festival pulled together chefs from all over Canada and gave festival-goers the chance to chat with them.

Jenny and I spoke only briefly with Michael Howell, chef of Tempest Restaurant in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. But in those few minutes, we really got a sense of the passion chef Howell, a Nova Scotia native who’s lived and cooked all over the world, has for both his trade and his home province.

July 30 is Food Day Canada, an initiative started nine years ago by Canadian food writer Anita Stewart to celebrate Canada’s food bounty and culinary skill. Chefs, restaurants and ordinary citizens all over the country will mark the occasion in their own special ways. In advance of Food Day Canada, we’re going to be chatting with some of the chefs whose restaurants will celebrate Canadian food on July 30 to gauge their thoughts on our country’s food scene and traditions.

First up, we talk to chef Michael Howell. 

What do you love about cooking in Nova Scotia?

I am blessed to be living in the heartland of Nova Scotia’s agricultural bounty. My restaurant is 500 metres from the Wolfville Farmers Market, less than five kilometres from five wineries, and most of my fresh product comes from within 20 kilometres of my business. ALL of my suppliers are primary producers – I do not have to use ANY distributors.

Nova Scotia is a nascent destination for culinary tourism and yet there is a breadth and depth to the chefs cooking here that is equal to many far more cosmopolitan destinations. We choose to live here because of the quality of life as well as the quality of porduct available at our beck and call.

How have local factors such as geography, economics and demographics influenced your cooking style?

Seasonality is a mantra that many chefs espouse nowadays, and in some cases, rather exemporaneously. I truly try to cook seasonally with respect for local ingredients. I can get local tomatoes (from a greenhouse) 10 months of the year. I have another greens supplier that keeps me in exotica (radish sprouts, micro mix,  etc) 12 months of the year.

Seafood is ALWAYS available so I am only restricted by green veg and fruit availability. For several seasons, I have cooked an all Italian menu for the winter that reflects seasonality but also brings in the locals in the dead of winter – think squash and quark ravioli with sage butter or locally farmed (land-based farming) branzino with winter veg ragu. My cuisine is simpler as I get older – less complicated, more about purity of ingredients and flavours –  but I try to stay au courant so that I am not thought of as anachronistic by critics and so my young cooks  don’t get bored by simplicity…

How has the local food scene in your region evolved over the years?

I, and several other chefs (Martin Ruiz, Craig Flinn, Dennis Johnston, Ray Bear) are driving a culinary rennaissance here in Nova Scotia. We bring experience from all over the world to our little corner of heaven. We continue to travel and experience great cuisines and make an effort to stay relevant when we come home to our businesses. Our cuisine is distinctly steeped in seafood – that is inescapeable, of course. But we aren’t just about Digby scallops and lobster either. Many of us are beginning to grapple with the issues of sustainable seafood when it comes to procurement, so hopefully we are driving a new thinking when seafood suppliers think about the methods of harvesting and the species they are delivering to us, so that they respect an increasingly passionate scrunity of the products we are serving at our restaurants by customers concerned with sustainability and the health of our oceans.

What are your thoughts on the idea that there is a “Canadian cuisine”?

Canadian cuisine is indefinable. We are motivated by our ethnicity, by our regionality, by our urbanism. Anthony Walsh’s interpretation of Canadian cuisine is one pole (bringing the best to Toronto from all corners of Canada), Martin Picard’s is another (celebrating distinctly Quebecois cuisine steeped in French tradition). Our cuisine is interpreting our local ingredients wherever we are. Increasingly, like Italian cuisine, we  are regionalized. Tuscan cuisine is completely unlike Pugliese cuisine, yet they share a common thread of pasta,  and primi, secondi and dolce as a method of dining. I cook scallops, lobster, halibut, haddock and mussels as regional celebrations yet I still cook Berkshire pork, great rib eyes to make the steak lover salivate, and cool vegetarian dishes to satisfty the increasing number of non-protein eaters that are a part of the culinary landscape. There will never be a definable Canadian cuisine, unless the definition is melting pot influenced by regional ingredients.

How is Tempest celebrating Food Day Canada?

We are cooking a hugely celebratory multi-course dinner that reveres local ingredients:

Dulse crusted Roasted Elmridge Farm Fingerlings with Farmers Sour Cream and Acadian Sturgeon Caviar
Domaine de Grand Pre Champlain Brut

Arctic Char Tartare:
Sustainable blue Arctic char, Back Door chives,  opal basil oil, horseradish espuma, crispy Lakewood Market garden zucchini blossoms
L’Acadie Vineyards Sparkling Rose

Trio of Taproot Farms Sun Gold Tomatoes:
Panzanella with Fox Hill Cheese House mozzarella, Boulangerie la Vendeenne sourdough
Tomato water and ShanDaph oyster shooter
Stinging nettle and Fox Hill quark ravioli with tomato confit
Annapolis Highlands Vineyards Geisenheim Riesling 2010

Applewood smoked leg of Gaspereau Valley lamb with Chef’s Garden pirri pirri sauce, minted tabbouleh, our own ajvar, lemon verbena foam
Luckett Vineyards 2009 Triumphe

Noggins Corner peach tart, Ran-Cher Acres goat cheese and Cosman & Whidden Honey gelato
Domaine de Grand Pre Pomme D’Or

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