Published 23 October 1994 Style Magazine 69th article
Historic cuisine: Tino Marichiodi and Jean-Pierre Fava of the Bas-Breau in Barbizon (Arnold Crust)
Robert Louis Stevenson stayed at the Bas-Breau, Barbizon in 1879. I followed some years later. I didn't actually stay, but I ate. Barbizon, an extraordinarily well-preserved village about 45 minutes from Paris, is one of my "finds" in France which I'm really not very keen to tell people about.
But it has recently become a bit over-crowded so I suppose a few more won't make much difference. The village consists of lovely houses of unusual design, half-timbered, with old slates and patterned, leaded windows with stained glass. Many were studios for the Barbizon artists, a "school of nature" from the middle to end of the 19th century. They included Harpignies, Daubigny, Corot and Rousseau. Some of the studios are open to the public.
The Bas-Breau is a small hotel with a large dining room that was once known as the Barbizon Inn and still has that feel of goodwill and personal welcome. I have always had incredible meals there and wonderful service, but recently, anointed with my new second-string occupation as food "expert", I was met by both the manager, Tino Marlchiodi, and the local owner, Jean-Pierre Fava. It didn't surprise me to learn that the manager's been there 25 years and the place has been in the owner's family for three generations.
The food is historic. There's a lovely garden you eat in in summer and a large, very nice dining room for non-summer. We knocked back a salade de cepes d'ete, some grosses langoustines de Loctudy roties (very juicy), blanc de gros turbot braise sur l'arete with caviar, canard sauvage "colvert" roti and I really don't know what else! One wonderful thing there, which is totally unique, is a cheese called Fontainebleau, named after the nearby forest. It's rather like candy-floss or a cold cheese souffle made with cream and sugar. It has to be eaten the same day it's made. Light and whipped, it is one of the great tastes of the world. The only thing that makes me mad about the Bas-Breau is a picture by Jean-Ferdinand Chaigneau that hung on the wall for sale for a long time, sort of dark countryside with sheep. I kept meaning to buy it for £4,000. Of course I never did and now it's gone and worth much more. I greatly miss it. Oh well. We've all got stories like that.
Back in London, Marco Pierre White promised to send me an inscribed copy of his new book Wild Food From Land And Sea, but it arrived unsigned. Marlon Brando did the same thing, and I'm in his book. Obviously these authors are so exhausted from writing, a signature would be the last straw. My cook, Edith, loved Marco's book, but then she's a bit of a fan. She goes to his Restaurant and eats there! I must definitely be over-paying her. I went the other day and decided the place looked like a Victorian brothel (not a bad thing, really) and that the oil paintings on the wall were about as mismatched and ropy a lot as you could find anywhere. But the food is startlingly good. And after a dodgy first few weeks the service has settled down beautifully. No question, Marco is the most exciting cook we have in Britain.
Talking of excitement, I got a bit hot under the collar the other day. The Daily Express printed a lovely photo of my ex, Jenny Seagrove. They described her outlook as "brighter", she was "smiling, relaxed and bright-eyed", she was now obviously "enjoying life". And why? Because "Michael Winner is no longer in Jenny's picture". But just a minute, the photo illustrating this transformation was taken when Jenny and I had dinner together at the Savoy after the first night of Sunset Boulevard last year. After we'd been together six years! I ate at the Savoy again recently after seeing She Loves Me at the Savoy Theatre. Food was good, and so was the show. It's a really terrific evening of fun. And it has one of the great restaurant dance-scenes ever put on the stage. It's when the hero and heroine finally go to meet each other and the whole thing is taken over by a lunatic head waiter. I had the feeling I'd been there before.
I know it's rotten to gloat at someone else's discomfort, but I couldn't help smiling when I read The Good Food Guide massively demoted Alastair Little at his eponymous (good word that) restaurant in Soho. I ate there only once, taking some Americans I was trying to impress. I hated it, they hated it, the deal I was trying to put together never went through! I wonder if that's cause for legal action for loss of opportunity?
My wife and I have just returned from an enjoyable holiday in Middleham in the Yorkshire Dales. In Appleby, we discovered Lady Anne's Pantry, a delightful cafe-cum-restaurant with old world charm. The food was delicious and home cooked. There were 12 tables, all served by one lady, who was helpful, friendly and efficient. I have also stayed at The Little Brown Jug near Hever golf course in Kent. The food was well served, plentiful and home cooked, with a varied menu. In my opinion, English home fare is in the premier league.
David Conway, Bushey, Herts
After a lifetime of dining in impersonal hotels, I was overjoyed to discover a very agreeable place to dine near my office. The Six Bells in Kingston upon Thames serves sumptuous food in pleasing surroundings some establishments do endeavour to provide good food at low prices.
Sean South, South Harrow, Middlesex
Isn't it amazing how people see the same thing so differently? Mr Winner clearly did not think much of the Sheraton Park Tower and obviously thought even less of Derek Picot. My experience has been precisely the opposite. I have stayed at the Sheraton many times in the past eight years. I try the other big hotels on occasion, but I always return to the Sheraton because I find it to be so much better than the others. As for Derek Picot, he's the only manager whom I have found to actually seek out and talk to his guests. Other managers may respond to complaints, but I've never found them to actively look for opinions. He also seems to have a happy knack for recruiting first-class staff, training them well and generally running a hotel full of happy people, be they staff or guests. Except, that is, for Mr Winner.
David Ward, Bedale, North Yorkshire