Published 20 December 1998 Style Magazine 284th article
Flying visit: Robert Berge, Michael Winner and Vanessa Perry at La Mamounia
The grounds of La Mamounia, in Marrakesh, Morocco, are full of olive trees, orange trees and grapefruit trees. There are massive rose bushes. My two sun loungers rest at the garden end of the pool, so I face all this and the Atlas mountains. On my left, a few blocks from the gardens, is the old souk of Marrakesh. The sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer echoes over the chit-chat of those lingering poolside. The pool itself has the most enormous palm trees growing from an island in the centre; other great palms, flowering bushes and flowers abound. The buffet includes astoundingly good chocolate and coffee eclairs and as superb a millefeuille as I've ever tasted. No wonder Churchill spent the winters here, paintbrush in one hand, eclair in the other. Well, that's my version. On this occasion I had to settle for a sighting of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Charlotte Rampling, Lord Carrington and a chat in the lounge with local resident Yves Saint Laurent.
The pool restaurant also does a good, though not outstanding, Moroccan salad, and very reasonable grilled fish and meats. For some reason on this trip I became a great fan of the Fanta orange drink.
A three-piece orchestra plays on Sundays. That's when Robert Berge, the small, dapper manager of La Mamounia, strolls, dressed all in white, greeting guests with the air of a man who had a wonderful supporting role in Casablanca which, sadly, ended up on the cutting-room floor. "I must go and see my countess," he says, his eyes misting over. Or, on another occasion, secretively, "If you walk in the gardens you may see the prince playing squash." By contrast, Mohammed Chaab, his excellent local assistant, is large and his brother, Mustapha, owns a Moroccan restaurant in Windsor.
I enjoyed La Mamounia one Easter three years ago. Visiting again last November I liked it even more. At both times of year you can sunbathe or enjoy the architectural splendours of Marrakesh, or simply stroll through the Arab markets wondering if those small, shrivelled animal parts on sale for use in witchcraft ceremonies really work - and if so, which should I buy: a dried-up toad, the leg of a rabbit, the iguana skin or the skull of what looks suspiciously like a dog?
The Moroccan restaurant at La Mamounia, as opposed to the various others on offer, is a bit bright, but provides food as good as you will get anywhere in Morocco. And be certain that the food there is excellent. I sat on a pink banquette having lamb maghdour-style with eggs; Vanessa tried sea bream in tagine, Fez style. Then I had a major taste experience: puff pastry stuffed with pigeon and almonds. The pastry is rather sweet, but that suits me. The 12 bowls of salads which preceded all this included two with meat, veal brains and veal liver with onions. The sweet tomato, almost pureed, is extraordinary. Although it was three years since they'd seen me, they remembered my still water, ice and lemon. The dessert is an enormous pie-like offering of thin, crisp, flaky pastry with custard cream between the layers, which the waiter smashes to pieces in front of your eyes. There is an Arab orchestra and the mandatory jolly belly dancer.
Marrakesh is only three hours from London. You can go by scheduled planes and thus not be insulted by Chauffair, which charged many - and I mean many - thousands of pounds for my Learjet journey while providing paper plates with plastic spoons. The food was dire, too. But boss Nick Probett is capable of better and on the flight back it was very good.
I had a marvellous experience sitting on the terrace for breakfast one morning. I found an empty table with coffee, milk and sugar laid on it. "That's a good idea," I thought. I poured the coffee. Then an elderly couple turned up with food from the buffet. They obviously wanted to join our table, so I decided, "I'll he gracious, I shall let them sit with us".
I beckoned them to the two empty seats. They looked extremely angry. "This is my table and you're drinking my coffee," said the man. German, of course. He indicated a chair tucked right under the table, and I noticed it had an expensive camera on it. I felt like staying. As the saying goes: "I've started so I'll finish." The English lady with him spoke frostily, repeating, "You've taken our table." "Oh. well," I thought. And I rose. "Why don't you take my coffee with you?" said the German. So I did. It's amazing how unsociable some people are when they're on holiday.
I am a postman at South Shore sorting office, Blackpool. You have been the hero of me and the lads here for a long time now. If you could spare a signed photo, I would be delighted - and it would make the other postmen green with envy.
Tom Walmsley, Blackpool
I read with particular interest Michael Winner's column about how he and the staff of the Cambridge University newspaper, Varsity, took taxis to Oxford to bring out an Oxford edition (Style, December 13). Mr Winner may be well known for bringing his films in on budget, but he certainly didn't bring Varsity in on budget that term. I was the business manager and had to go round trying to raise some income to pay for what was a delightful and famous extravagance. I well remember plodding around Oxford looking for any possible source of income. Come to think of it, I went there in a taxi too. So I wasn't helping much, either.
Bill Hopper, Alnwick, Northumberland
We had lunched before at Pont de la Tour near Tower Bridge in London and been put off by the cigar-driven ambience and noisy "suits" freebying on expense accounts. So on a recent visit we opted instead for the bar menu. Sparse decor, tiny tables inches apart, draughty environment, overpriced lager and a two-course lunch deceptively priced at £10. The minimalist theme continued with tiny fish cakes - served without frites, which were extra. Our anorexic's lunch (with one coffee and no wine) came to £40.61 - not worth the trip to the south bank. Shame on Sir Terence for charging so much for so little. As for serving fish cakes without chips...
John Cole, Southsea, Hants