Published 15 September 1996 Style Magazine 167th article
Done to a T: from left, Jacqui Barry, Michael Winner and Yvonne Lakins and, seated, Sonia Banks (Vanessa Perry)
It's nice when banks are forced to diversify. Particularly when The Royal Bank of Scotland serves a historic tea at FlitWick Manor, a country hotel in Bedfordshire. "The bank foreclosed on it and bought it out of receivership," explained Mrs Sonia Banks, the manageress. Mrs Banks, decorated in floral blue, looks like the lady who runs church socials. She was very efficient. "Two gentlemen from Uganda acquired it from a gentleman who has a hotel near Cheltenham." "So it was the gentlemen from Uganda who went down the tube?" I checked. "I didn't say that," said Mrs Banks. "You said that."
I had seen Flitwick Manor in a guide book. It being a sunny day, and as it was only an hour away off the M1, I thought I'd have a go. I phoned up. "Do you serve tea?" I asked Mrs Banks. "If guests want tea, we do it," she said. "Suppose I want tea and I'm not a guest?" I asked. "We'll start baking," said Mrs B. I decided, as it was 11 in the morning, they'd have time. "I shall get the kitchen mobilised," promised Mrs B.
Later, we arrived on a gravel terrace overlooking fields and a 600-year-old cedar of Lebanon. A girl in pink assured me: "I've seen the chef cooking for you." What, I wondered? The sandwiches were not a good start. A lot of them, but clumsy. Not terrible, just failing in spectacular. Claridge's remains well ahead. Then came the cakes. Enough for a party of 12. A girl in a white blouse and blue dress attempted to list them. "Scones. shortbread, chocolate biscuit (amazing looking with choccy cream oozing out from a "sandwich"), strawberry feuillete and . . ." she burst into giggles at the sight of a round and yellow thing with chocolate and caramel. Then there was fruit cake, banana strudel, profiterole, a large bowl of cream, home-made strawberry jam. The ginger cake was masterful, scones tip-top, so was something like white shortbread. I attempted, in the cause of duty, to try everything. Even I was defeated. The mineral water was Ashe Park, light but okay. Better than that awful Blenheim they serve at Wiltons. They kindly got some Malvern in for me last time. They bought fizzy. I've been drinking still water there for 50 years!
I don't know how the Flitwick chef, Duncan Poyser, does proper meals, but his tea ranks with the greats, such as the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town, Ston Easton Park near Bath and Claridge's. I could get a Doctorate of Philosophy in cakes. People even listen to my expertise. At Kaspia, the caviare restaurant in Mayfair, I complained bitterly of the new cake supplier Bagatelle. I have no remorse that they no longer buy those, they make their own. A considerable improvement.
The oddest thing concerning desserts are people who rave about Marks & Spencer. Some rich folk serve you the most awful pud and say with a gleam in their eyes, "What did you think of the strawberry tart?" To be polite, hating it in reality, I said on one occasion: "Very nice." "Fantastic isn't it?" said my millionaire hostess. "Yes, great," I muttered, coward that we are in those situations. "It's from Marks & Spencer!" said the hostess triumphantly as if she had just won the lottery. "Goodness me!" I responded. I accept M&S is a great British institution. I understand people buy blazers there and change the buttons so nobody knows! But, other than for vegetables, I have found them not comparable to the real thing.
I recently changed my fish account from Chalmers & Gray to Bibendum. Salmon arrived and as new guests appeared we, naughtily, restocked from the local M&S. "Drier, harder to chew" opined one. "Not as fresh, not as moist," said another. The Bibendum salmon was terrific. M&S good value. Why did I fire Chalmers & Gray? At six in the morning the doorbell rang; their man said on the television intercom: "I've come with the fish." "Why at six?" I asked. "Because your housekeeper wanted it before I went to the City," said the rep. "Shove it through the wrought-iron gate," I suggested. I went back to bed. After five minutes, he rang again. "You're fired!" I screamed. I'm like that at 6.05am. When we called later, a lady said: "Mr Winner wanted it early because he was going away to the country." I never go to the country. A weekend at a house party would drive me and the other guests insane. They had the orders mixed up. What has this to do with tea at Flitwick Manor, which is where we started? I can't imagine. Nor does it matter.
I was amused to read Michael Winner's comments on napkins (August 25). I wonder whether it is not considered the thing to use napkins. My husband and I attended one of this year's garden parties at Buckingham Palace. We were not given napkins with our delicate refreshments, although we were given enormous dinner forks with which to eat our miniature pastries. The caterers also ran out of glasses, so we had to drink lemon squash from cups - although we were offered saucers with them!
Margaret Davies Crawthorne, Berkshire
As frequent readers of Mr Winner's column, we know that he is interested in finding the perfect afternoon tea. We think we have found one of them, in the Palm Room at Edinburgh's Balmoral Hotel. We have no doubt that Mr Winner would have thoroughly enjoyed the generous helpings of scones with clotted cream and jam, delicate sandwiches of salmon, salad and ham, scrummy cakes and the huge pot of perfect Earl Grey. And all for £10. Our only regret was that we ate all of this far too close to supper.
R Twombly, J Watty Kilronan, Aran Islands, Galway