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All by myself

Published 22 December 1996
Style Magazine
181st article



Stuffed: Michael Winner with Maie and Max Ricco at L'Assiette de Marie (Denis Serveur)

Vanessa had chickenpox. She was covered in red spots. She looked ridiculous. We'd just arrived at the Hotel de la Mirande in Avignon when it flowered. There was no alternative but to leave her in her room. I would adventure alone. How will I make out, I wondered? Martin Stein, the co-owner of La Mirande, offered a route map. I would go to St Remy-de-Provence, where he had forewarned L'Assiette de Marie I'd drop in for lunch. It was a pleasant drive. St Remy is where Van Gogh lived for a year, and the surrounding countryside was full of those mad, thinnish, dark green trees. St Remy itself was delightful, a substantial old town in its middle. I asked directions in French, just about understood the answers, and arrived at a very quaint little restaurant. A young waitress greeted me. In pidgin French I asked for the owner. In another room was Max, in a brown hat. He looked Van Gogh-ish. The waitress turned out to be Marie herself, at 22 the chef and co-owner, wife of Max, second name Ricco.

The place was provencal picturesque. I mean that nicely. All three small rooms were stuffed with old hats hanging on mirrors, old gramophones, photos, advertising signs, antique clocks, an accordion on the wall there, an old coffee machine behind the bar. It was the opposite of minimalism. Maximalism. I greatly liked it. Max went to the fridge and opened a bottle of champagne, Albert Le Brun - local, I think. Then he sliced me some Corsican ham and Corsican sausage. Corsica being where he and Marie came from. Marie wore American stars and stripes on her black sweater, although she pointedly told me she didn't like Americans. Max, looking more like Van Gogh by the minute, cut his finger slicing the sausage. Will he take his ear off next, I wondered. That would be a laugh. I was given a table for eight. Max sat with me. He added a bottle of red wine, Domaine de Trevallon 1992. A tape played American 1950s music; June Allyson sang Thou Swell.

Marie recommended fish soup with garlic, toasted bread and grated cheese. It was superb. Conversation turned to various artistes I'd worked with - Bronson, Brando, Loren and the group. They hadn't heard of The Sunday Times, but I assured them that it was the finest paper in Europe, if not the world. They were too polite to comment on that. They dished up some amazing cannelloni and a whopping great plate of lasagne. The cannelloni was apparently a speciality of Corsica, best I've ever had, a wonderful sauce with it.

Max was now finding my French a little tiresome. "Do you speak Russian?" he asked. I nodded "No." "Chinese?" "Japanese . . .?" he laughed at his little joke. He said his friend was the boss of tourism for the area, spoke good English and would be here, if phoned, in a second. A few minutes later a lady joined us, Catherine Bon-Rollin. She spoke even less English than Max. I was given cake chataigne, special to Corsica, also a tiramisu and a creme brulee. Word must have reached them I was a pig. After a large soup and two main courses, I could only sample each of them, all brilliant.

After lunch we went to Catherine's hotel, Chateau des Alpilles, in the nearby countryside. Max decided I had to meet his English friend, someone who had been terribly important in British Airways, but a search of his house and grounds failed to find him. Then Marie realised I hadn't signed their celebrity book, so it was back to the restaurant. Above, an old man with a pet cockerel looked down as we waited to be let in. I was assured if I went to Corsica that Max's family and Marie's family would turn out in their hundreds - parents, aunts, uncles. I would be a visiting hero. All this took so long I only had time to drive through les Baux-de-Provence to Arles, quick peek at the Roman amphitheatre and a few other buildings, then back to the hotel where Vanessa was suffering dreadfully.

The next day, a highly dramatic drive in the rain through the incredible autumn colours of the provencal countryside, with towering white rocks and vineyards aglow with yellow leaves. Lunch in an antique-filled town, l'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue in Le Jardin des Quais, near the railway station. Nice garden, very unpretentious, French dogs barking at each other from this table and that, excellent meal. Another few hours driving through fantastic mountain villages and towns perched on the hills. Pity Vanessa missed everything. Still, I enjoyed it. I decided I quite like going around with me.



Letters

I was at the Altnaharrie Inn when Michael Winner was in attendance. I was more than there - I sat at the great man's table. He spoke to me. And all of this before a morsel of food was served. This prelude to any meal should make a man's evening memorable, but I have to say that the conversation with Le Winner was more piquant than the cuisine. I learn from Winner's Dinners that the Altnaharrie Inn is the proud owner of two Michelin and three Ronay stars, whatever they might represent, yet the dinners we were served on two evenings were competent, sometimes delicious, but never unforgettable. When I am presented with a bill for more than £700 for two dinners, two breakfasts and a bedroom the size of an oxygen tent, with, I might add, a very unappealing shower, I would like to leave with monumental memories that will stay with me for years to come. The two memories I brought away from the Altnaharrie Inn were of the magnificent scenery, among the finest I have had the privilege to gaze upon, and of Mr Winner's witty conversation, his charm, his intellect...and the man isn't even paying me to write this letter.
Laurence Marks, Oxfordshire

I am writing in response to Mary Portman's letter (November 24) on the unacceptable behaviour of children in restaurants. What an idiosyncratic view of children she has. Children do have rights and it is an infringement of these rights to refuse them admission to hotels and restaurants. Elsewhere in Europe they are admitted freely to such establishments. Children need to be socially integrated, at parents' discretion, otherwise how will they learn good behaviour patterns and acquire social graces? It is the responsibility of parents, not hotel management or other guests, to ensure their children behave in any situation. My eight-year-old son has accompanied my husband and me to elegant establishments in France, many of which have been discussed on this page. He has always been treated with respect, but the French do not seem to suffer from "paedophobia".
Irene Shuell, Cheshire