Published 14 September 1997 Style Magazine 218th article
Making room: Martin Roberts with Michael Winner at the Greyhound, Aldbury (Crispin Sallis [sic])
Crispian Sallis, my production designer, recommended the Sir Charles Napier in Chinnor. When he lived there, he always went. I rang from the car. "We're full, Mr Winner," said the lady. "But we'll find a good table. How many are you?" "Six," I replied on behalf of my film recce crew. "We can't do that number, I'm afraid," said the lady. I cried gentle persuasion. It didn't work.
"There's the Marquess of Granby," I spotted. "Two dine for £5!" "That's between 5pm and 7pm," said Crispian. "And there's a barbecue at the back with children climbing around on frames," added Mr Blezard. We passed Winkles Brasserie in Wendover. The Rose and Crown nearby had an enormous jolly red giant with a yellow hat in the garden. One o'clock was fast approaching.
We were going to the pretty Hertfordshire village of Aldbury. We'd had excellent croissants there at the Greyhound Inn the week before. I phoned Martin Roberts, the boss. "We're coming to lunch," I said: "Six of us."
Stating things as fact is a good way of getting what you want. When Nick Seewer, manager of the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town, said there was no chance of my getting in, and would I please make a reservation elsewhere, I said: "Nick, I'm arriving by private jet on Wednesday, I'm coming straight to you. Put a camp bed in the lobby. I don't care, it's your problem now." We got a suite.
Mr Roberts at the Greyhound was unconcerned. "We're used to hundreds on a Sunday," he said. That did not augur well.
A short time later, we passed the village pond and pulled up outside the ivy-covered Greyhound Inn. We were shown to a wooden table in a front room overlooking the village, with a bookcase, an old fireplace and a red, leather-covered chair, which I sat in. It was very wobbly indeed. I swapped it with one from a table for four next to us. The waitress later put her blackboard menu on it. Then three people came and sat there. Pity it wasn't four, because one would have sat in my old chair and I'd have enjoyed seeing it collapse.
By the door was a wicker basket with plastic bags. "Please use the bags to cover your dirty boots," said a sign.
The ﬁrst thing I tasted was someone else's duck pate. It was admirable. Nice texture. The bread was good, even though the butter was in foil. I had potato wedges with a chilli and garlic dip. The potatoes reminded me of World War II, when food was food and not chemical twaddle. "They look life-threatening," said Crispian, viewing my wedges. There were six of them, a meal on their own.
Then I went behind the bar to buy postcards and a lady came up and asked me to clear her table. She thought I was a member of staff. I ignored her.
I tried Crispian's salmon - first-rate. My lamb was the most generous portion I've ever seen, set around a large bone. Normally, I only like meat from my butcher, R Allen of Mount Street, or at Claridges or the Dorchester. This was every bit as good.
I'd asked Martin earlier if he made chips on the premises and he'd said "No". But home-made chips appeared for me, with some really old-fashioned, lovely cauliflower cheese and robust carrots and beans. Mr Purdie was upset they didn't have powdered mustard, which he always used at home. He declined to have it from a jar, something I've done happily all my life. Everyone sided with him. Mr Blezard said he coated meat in it, Crispian said he made salad dressing with it. An honour to be with such sophisticated people, I thought.
I hurried to the kitchen to ask Martin to he sure there was some treacle tart left for me. Earlier, the others had asked the waitress to keep theirs. Mr Purdie was highly upset when told that the only portion left was mine. "We asked the waitress to save some," he expostulated. "This is a serious disaster."
"I don't give a damn," I said. The tart was like schooldays: thick, not heavy on finesse, but tiptop. An Italian man in Aylesbury made the ice cream. It was very white. Crispian and Tom said the banoffee pie was really good.
All this is pretty remarkable for a pub with plastic tables and chairs out the back. "In high season we do 2,500 customers a week," said Martin. "We've pushed about 300 meals through today so far." It is rare that quantity and quality go hand in hand. The people of Aldbury, many of whom I met and liked, deserve a place as good as this. So do I.
How dare Duncan Brown of Kent refer to the fabulous Winner's criticism as "effluent" and demote the great man to the ranks of "any Tom, Dick or Harry" (Style, August 24)? Does not Mr Brown appreciate Mr Winner's wit and authority which everyone on the planet clearly worships him for - that he is, in fact, God?
Nick Rimmer, Pangbourne, Berks.
I read Michael Winner's account of his visit to Maison Novelli (Style, August 24) only a few hours after returning from dinner there and with the memory of a particularly enjoyable evening still fresh in my mind. The food was (as usual) superb - a fact that Mr Winner readily concedes, but which he seems to regard as of only passing importance. The wine was (as usual) served in a competent and agreeable fashion. And the service was (as usual) charming and efficient. Not for the first time, I am left wondering about the effect that Mr Winner seems to have on those whom he graces with his presence. Could this explain why his experience of restaurants is so often at odds with that of the rest of us?
Valerie Bethell, London EC2.
My experience of Maison Novelli is that, indeed today they must have recognised Mr Winner.
Canon Rex Davis, Subdean of Lincoln.