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No such thing as a free lunch

Published 8 December 1996
Style Magazine
179th article

Family affair: Martin and Hannelore Stein with Michael Winner

The bridge at Avignon only goes two-thirds of the way across the river Rhone and it crosses a four-lane highway. Perhaps it should be Sur le pier d'Avignon, but it doesn't have the same ring. It costs £3.57 per person to go on it. I was taking two days in Provence on the recommendation of Mrs Helen Hamlyn, wife of Paul. They own an incomparable jewel of a hotel, the Chateau de Bagnols near Lyons, on which they have lavished unbelievable money and care. I think it wise to take advice from people who know what they are talking about. Trouble is, there aren't many of them.

Newspapers are useful for general information. But as they can't afford to send their people luxury hotelling abroad, they are frequently guests, most properly announcing it. Therefore unlikely, in the real world, to say, "This place stinks!" I recall the previous editor of this newspaper writing for a glossy magazine something uncomplimentary about the Sandy Lane in Barbados, only to be told they wouldn't print it because they "had an arrangement" there! I have no arrangement anywhere!

Helen put me on to Martin Stein, who runs, with his parents, the Hotel de la Mirande in Avignon. This looks on to cobbled streets and the Popes' Palace, an impressive, fortress-like building knocked up in the 14th century. It is, indeed, a gem. A transformed 600-year-old town house that once belonged to a cardinal. It has 20 rooms. The Michelin describes it as "Ancien hotel particulier, beau mobilier"; the restaurant gets one star. It's decorated in wonderful provencal taste: tapestries here, old jars there. The rooms are not large, but of an exceptional standard. All the staff are discreetly excellent, including a dear girl who came as a trainee from a Manchester school. I wondered if being a trainee meant she wasn't paid. Either way, she seemed remarkably cheerful.

We got there at two o'clock so lunch was just a thick pumpkin soup, lovely taste, with croutons and bacon. The tables are very well spaced. Mine was 5ft from the nearest guest chair.

I went speedily to tea on wicker chairs in a glass-topped inner courtyard. The little madeleine cakes that Proust wrote about in his book Remembrance of Things Past were historic. So were the fig cake and some other sliced thing. At dinner, the candle-lit high-ceilinged dining room with its log fire was a discreet setting for me to eat rouget barbet en celeri remoulade. Then eminence de cuisse de biche, sauce poivrade. That was deer. I noticed how hot the plates were. Food was good, too.

Breakfast was the best ever display of croissants and the rest - home-made jams, honey, freebie stewed apple thrown in. Only thing wrong: they served hot milk with the Earl Grey. The second night I was a bit put out. The restaurant manager is efficient, but he won't win the charm-school prize. I was placed at a different table, not quite as good, I thought. Slightly put me off my filet de loup a la vapeur de melisse and an interesting old vegetable called topinambour.

Martin Stein had the misfortune to wander over. "I was told your table was reserved tonight," he said. "Nobody reserves my table, Martin," I explained. "Anywhere." When I left not only was "my" table unoccupied, there had been nobody else in the restaurant at all! A mild black mark, but La Mirande remains one of the all-time great hotels. Cared for, well run and that largely because the family Stein is there caressing it.

The last night I had to eat in my room before flying off because the whole place had been taken over for an anniversary party. The discreet charm was knocked aside as people added extra tables, brought in discotheques and other ghastly appurtenances, even though Hannelore Stein and son Martin worked like Trojans all day. Furthermore, no napkins came with the vegetable soup, and no knives for the bread. When I mentioned it in my usual dulcet tones, the knives that came up were whopping main course ones. "We didn't really think you'd still be here," said Martin. "You only booked for two nights. The kitchen was under a lot of stress." I accept that. I was lucky they let me stay on. Correction: they were lucky to have me.

  • NB: It was not a freebie. The Sunday Times did not pay my bill - will they ever? (Ed: no). I did not get a discount. I forked out £1,000 for two nights, hardly any food eaten, only one glass of wine. Worth it. I'd go again.