Published 20 September 1998 Style Magazine 271st article
Home front: Michael Winner with members of the Women's Institute at Betws-y-coed, Gwynedd (Vanessa Perry)
I had tried without success to get through a particularly stodgy, somewhat stale croissant at my least favourite hotel, Henllys Hall in Beaumaris. So I started my journey to Betws-y-coed in not the best of moods. But the drive through the Snowdonia national park was so staggeringly beautiful that I cheered up no end. Betws-y-coed is a quaint little town of grey stone houses with slate roofs, spread out along a single roadway, with a river running on one side with mountains behind.
I parked the car and noticed across the road a Women's Institute fete at St Mary's church. That's for me, I thought. There were some enormous evergreen trees with little stalls beneath them offering a bedside cabinet for £2, some Sainsbury's vacuum cleaner bags and a 1955 road atlas of Great Britain.
Inside, the church hall was full of marvellous things. A-large table was stacked with home-made jams, cakes and pies. Nearby, Anne Knowles, wearing a red striped apron, stood by a hot griddle. Anne is famous for her Welsh cakes (two for 30p), her drop scones and jams. I tried the cakes and scones with her strawberry jam - £1.80, and the best I've ever eaten. The cakes were totally, beyond belief historic. This was a serious taste experience. I added a cup of tea and read the notice board. The Morris Beachy Singers from Texas, USA, were an imminent attraction; also advertised was Weight Watchers and a ceilidh and barbecue at 8pm at Cwmlanerch Farm. The WI president, Moya Panting, explained this was pronounced cayley and meant a dance.
Looking for further sustenance, I bought an onion, cheese and tomato pasty from the trestle table and persuaded Anne to heat it for me on her griddle. I don't care if you think I'm unsophisticated, I have never eaten anything better in my life. These ladies have extraordinary skill. Simple it may be, but the result is pure heaven. I still have some of Anne's strawberry jam left at home and it beats anything in that line I've ever bought. A lady with short blonde hair, Charlotte Irley, came up and said I was there because I'd heard she'd played Sporty Spice in the local show. She made a fruit cake that was being raffled, iced with unbelievable skill by Elsie Oughton with beautiful flowers, leaves, sweetpeas, and a purple and pink ruff. A cake that would grace any shop in the world.
I proceeded to buy five tickets for a pound from a tombola stall run by Marion Betteney and conveniently won a greeny-blue face flannel (needless to say, Henllys Hall didn't offer any) and two large bars of soap, to boost the revolting slivers the hotel provided.
We then wandered up the high street, where Vanessa decided to inspect a small bivouac-like tent erected on a little green. I bought some "Real ice cream made on the farm - Denbigh Farmhouse Ice Cream" from a van by some tables and chairs next to the river. It was at best reasonable. The ice cream seller didn't know the name of the river, so we both entered the Potteries factory shop, where everyone had a different opinion. We finally decided it was the Llugwy running into the river Conwy.
By this time Vanessa had entered the SiopTanderwen, a local health-food shop and bakery. She bought a tuna roll with cucumber and some sparkling Decantae Welsh mountain natural mineral water. I chose a brown cheese salad sandwich and we both had some "Gourmet, hand-cooked potato chips, probably the finest you'll ever taste", made by Kettle Foods of Barnard Road, Norwich.
We crossed a pretty stone bridge to sit on a wooden bench overlooking some little waterfalls and the river. There we ate our purchases. "This is better than lunch at the Ivy, isn't it?" said Vanessa. To which I replied very firmly "No", thinking nervously, "I do hope the Ivy and Le Caprice stay as brilliant as before Chris and Jeremy sold out to the Belgo group." My sandwich was fine, the chips were a bit heavy; Vanessa said her roll was good. The water was described as "bubbling through rocks and the beautiful Snowdonia foothills". As it was fizzy, I couldn't really taste it.
We walked back over the bridge and a man came up. "You won't get much good food here, pal," he said. Later, Vanessa was in a shop. A lady who'd been at the Women's Institute fete came over and remarked, "When I read Michael Winner I always thought he was full of his own self-importance. But he was absolutely lovely with those ladies." If only I could meet everybody. I'd be the most loved man in the world.
Has Michael Winner considered doing a remake of Fawlty Towers starring John Cleese et al, with Vanessa and himself as guests and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson as a chambermaid? Judging from his column, Henllys Hall would make a good location.
J A Snell, Chichester, W Sussex
Following Michael Winner's visit to Henllys Hall Hotel in Beaumaris, Anglesey (Style, August 16), the local press has, predictably, printed articles of righteous indignation. None of these actually dispute his findings, but merely whinge that he had the audacity to make them, and seek to draw attention away from what he said by maligning his character. Mr Winner also visited another hotel in Beaumaris that weekend, in the cellars of which is the piano bar that I manage. That evening, I was entertaining another renowned British film director and personal friend who, upon hearing of Mr Winner's imminent presence said to his wife, "Drink up darling, we're off. I can't stand the man," and duly left.
Max Pemberton, Beaumaris, Wales
Has Michael Winner ever pretended to be an ordinary mortal and tried to book a table at the Ivy in London? I was held with a dreary tune playing in my ear for nearly five minutes before I was able to speak to a live body. At my innocent request for a table for four at 8pm on a Friday fairly soon, I was told that there was nothing on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday until next year, but if I could let them have the table back by 8pm it might be possible. I was hoping to celebrate my son's A-level results, but I would probably be better off booking for his graduation.
Gilly Smith, Dorking, Surrey
I have to say that, like you or loathe you - and I believe you are converting me to the former - I always head straight for your column when my Sunday Times arrives.
C D Jeffries, Weston-super-Mare, Somerset
On my return from holiday, I was shocked to read Mr Winner's comments about Osteria Da Fiore in Venice (Style, July 12). My husband and I are both lovers of good food and wine, and are fortunate enough to have dined in top restaurants all over the world. But I can truly say that, of all the places we've eaten, we have never found food to compare with that served at the Osteria Da Fiore.
Eileen Grossi, Southport, Merseyside
Your reason for not reviewing the Altnaharrie Inn in Ullapool puzzles me. We paid an extra £30 per person for a room up a steep slope behind the main house. While the bedroom was comfortable, the bathroom was cold with a stained carpet. Breakfast, like dinner, was nothing special. We are amazed you have made an exception with the Altnaharrie, and think we are due an explanation.
M B Bygraves, Northwich, Cheshire
In his review of Ca Peo (Style, September 6) Michael Winner sees fit to tell us that, on the menu, the dishes were all described in Italian. Fascinating stuff, but what exactly does he expect when he lunches in a restaurant in Italy?
T Roberts, London SE8
I was astonished by the letter from Beverley Bennett (Style, August 16) extolling the virtues of French restaurants. In my recent experience, most food in France is filthy.
C White, Manchester