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Too hot to handle

Published 1 November 1998
Style Magazine
277th article

A question of taste: Dave Cowley, Helen Sandbrook and Michael Winner at the Gwynn Arms, Glyntawe (Vanessa Perry)

I knew it was a mistake when Vanessa said, "Go back, try that place we just passed." I was shooting along the A4067 between the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons. It was gone lunchtime. A wooden sign had advertised the Gwynn Arms at Glyntawe, located unseen off the road. I was for going on to Merthyr Tydfil. But I did a U-turn, went off right up a small road, and there it was, a pleasant-looking inn facing open fields and hills, little baskets of flowers and rambling roses outside. Inside it was predictable olde worlde pub decor, chairs with round backs and spindles, a multicoloured carpet, fake oil lamps, cases with stuffed animals, an owl here, a badger there, a stuffed fox with a dead rabbit thrown in for good measure. Dark beams, white walls and Frank Sinatra singing Strangers in the Night.

A blackboard offered a selection of six starters and 27 main courses, including 18 types of curry. Absurd, I thought. I ordered "Caribbean curry - chilli and banana, very, very hot". It was recommended by a local gentleman. An imperious woman seated with two other ladies and a posh-looking man said, "Well, I like your articles," as if nobody else did. The bar girl, Helen Sandbrook, told me she aspired to do a law degree, but didn't think she'd get a grant, so she'd go to Hong Kong as a waitress. I didn't want to delve into that so I asked who'd do the cooking. "The manager will be doing yours," Helen said. I'd seen him, a small man with sleeked-back hair and a little moustache. "Who would cook if it wasn't for me?" I asked. "The head chef, Alan," she said. "You mean the manager is above Alan?" I said. "Yes, Dave used to be a chef," explained Helen.

There was a speedy production of water with ice and lemon. Then a long wait. Vanessa went through a door off the bar, to the toilets. She came back considerably shaken. "Go in there," she said challengingly. "Just go in there and tell me what you think." Apparently the atmosphere had been rather unpleasant. A bit unclean. To put it very mildly. "I don't want to eat here," said Vanessa.

At that moment, the food arrived. My curry was so hot it made my eyes water. I was in pain. My fault really, they had warned me. I feel that, had it not been very hot, it would have been terrible anyway.

Vanessa had fish covered in a horrid-looking sauce. "What is it?" she asked. "It's a cream sauce with a little butter and some Drambuie in it to give it some consistence," said Dave. The poor girl took a tiny bit of what appeared to be a very tired fish, put her cutlery down and said to me: "Give it nought. You're an idiot if you give it any more."

On the way out, Dave asked if I could give him any tips about how to become a famous chef. I was so stupefied I headed for the car in rare silence. We carried on down the main road, undernourished, arriving soon at Craig-y-nos. This had a castle with an antique fair. As castles go it was not spectacular, but the fair was pleasant, with delightful Welsh ladies running the stalls. There was an extremely nice dining area and large, spotlessly clean kitchens which you could see into from the corridor. Vanessa bought a banana. Nobody knew the price, so I left a pound.

It was now pouring with rain. Driven by some fanatical desire to leave no corner of Wales unvisited, I twisted and turned to end up in a wild area signposted "to the Henrhyd Falls". I embarked on a highly dangerous walk down a very steep, winding pathway of slippery stones and tree roots that went on for ever. After a glance at the falls I staggered back up in my once-posh suede shoes, soaked and with no coat, passing a bedraggled group of tourists in full climbing kit. I grabbed at branches, slipped and slid, eventually making it to the car, collapsed inside and then shot off backwards into a stone wall.

Hertz charged me the £250 excess for the damage. "What did it cost you to repair?" I asked their Cardiff office manager. "Don't know," he replied. "We haven't done it yet." Later, the managing director said they'd sold the car with the damage on it, so they gave back my £250. Perhaps I should ask for a refund for the curry and the nasty fish. Not worth it really. I never heard of anyone getting money back from a restaurant. Did you?


Michael Winner is displeased that "there is a little corner of Claridge's that is for ever Essex" (Style, October 18). Given that the man himself hails from Willesden - hardly the height of metropolitan chic - is he really in a position to criticise?
D Willis, Brentwood, Essex

On a recent visit to Venice, I decided to spend a romantic evening at the Trattoria St Marco, which had been highly recommended by Michael Winner (Style, June 28). The only other diners were a party of eight, apparently celebrating a birthday with the owners of the restaurant, who joined them regularly at the table. Forty minutes after arriving, we were finishing our three courses and coffee and being shown the door - after which the restaurant closed completely so that the in-house celebrations could continue. The food was average, the atmosphere non-existent and the service literally breathless. Romantic it was not - thank goodness the gondolas run late.
A G Reeback, Stanmore, Middx

I am an estate agent in Hay-on-Wye and feel privileged to have the good fortune to lunch at Nino's (Style, October 11). His Welsh clam chowder is worthy of any Bostonian and his tagliolini con salmone is the stuff a full-blooded mafioso would kill for. Carry on cooking, Nino - whatever Winner says.
Lynette Jarvis, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford

I must write in support of Henllys Hall Hotel, which you've recently criticised repeatedly. We stayed there in September last year when it was, to be polite, not very good. But, when we complained, we were given a free break in May. The service and food had improved so much that we returned in July. We hope to go again next year.
John Green, Newcastle, Staffs