Published 27 December 1998 Style Magazine 285th article
Country life: Michael Winner flanked by Leo Brooke-Little and Sonya Kidney
"This man's a total schmock," I thought. "Why's he taking me 30 minutes each way, in driving winter rain, from Burford to Paxford, to go to some pub for lunch? A pub is a pub: who cares?" Thus, with a certain lack of generosity, I considered my friend Richard Hanlon as we went through end-of-the-world weather along tiny Gloucestershire roads. His idiocy was compounded by the fact that I'd driven to Burford in these appalling conditions from Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons and would have to drive back to London. Adding to car time in these circumstances was ridiculous.
I'd cooed about how nice Richard's cottage in Burford was (well, it is). I'd been the perfect guest . . . Oh, there it is, the Churchill Arms. Typical country pub. Village probably very pretty on a sunny day. I ducked through searing wind to enter the building. White plaster walls, old beams, some books on a shelf above the bar. "Big deal," I thought, "I've some all this way to see books above a bar." At least they'd reserved a window table for us (great view of rain) close to a log fire. They don't usually keep tables.
I like to eat lunch dead on one o'clock. It was 2.15pm, so I went to the blackboard. Someone was removing faggots from the menu and chalking up duck breast. "That's odd," I thought. "Home-made chips, £1.50. are described as a starter." We ordered and I went to sit down. A gale of cold air blew in from somewhere. "It could be because the window's open," said Richard as I complained. He closed it.
My parsnip soup arrived pretty quickly. The bread was good, with unwrapped butter in nice pats on the table. I tasted the soup. Suddenly, things started to look up. This was utterly delicious and memorable. I know I loved it because half of it ended up on my shirt. Richard was having brawn with red leek and pepper. He described it as "jelly with naughty bits". It came with a yoghurt tartare. I grabbed some; it was staggeringly tasty. Somewhere, lurking in this pub, was a very expert chef. "It's Sonya," said Richard. "She's from Barbados. She and her husband, Leo, also run the Marsh Goose in Moreton-in-Maish and the Hare and Hounds in Chedworth."
My main course of braised pork arrived with home-made chips. It was one of the finest main courses I've ever eaten. I'm not clever enough to describe why it was so good, but I hope you've noted the name of this pub, so you can try it for yourself.
"Sonya does the best sticky toffee pudding in the world," said Richard. I'd now decided he was a genius for finding this place. Well worth the drive. "I'll have it," I said. There are certain tastes that live with you for life. Sonya's sticky toffee pudding is one of thern. To describe it as incredible would be an insult. It is in some pudding stratosphere I have seldom, if ever, encountered. The sauce with it was light, the pud itself just the right consistency. "It's got dates in it." said Richard.
Sonya Kidney, a cheerful black lady, appeared after the meal. Her parents emigrated to England in 1963. She met her husband, Leo, while working at the Feathers in Woodstock. His second name is Brooke-Little. His father is Clarenceaux King of Arms. He is apparently responsible for granting new coats of arms in England south of some river. Before that he was north of the river.
Sonya spoke of working with Leo in the kitchen. "I expect to say, 'Will you do that?' not 'Can you do this?' " she explained. "And they say, 'Yes, chef.' You say to Leo, 'Can you do that?' and he says, 'Not at the moment.' " "There is some disharmony in the kitchen," I dictated into my recorder.
The Churchill Arms is my amazing tip for the new year. Get out your maps, find Paxford and go there. In case you think I'm overreacting, when I returned home one of the posh Saturday papers, in association with a food guide, listed the best 50 places to eat in Britain. Sonya was on it. Most of the places were rubbish. She deserved it.
I'm sure you'd like to know my current location. It is La Samanna in St Martin, a Caribbean hotel most famous in my world for being the place where the legendary film producer Sam Speigel died one Christmas while on vacation. Peter Ustinov, who was staying there, had to deal with the body. In case of trouble, I have given Vanessa a book on embalming. A more complete report will appear later. Assuming I survive.
Between 1949 and 1952 that great cinematic personage Orson Welles was to be found intermittently in Morocco for the filming of Othello. Now we hear of Michael Winner - another of the film world's more statuesque figures - making two trips to Morocco in the course of a year (Style, December 20). Coincidence or remake?
Lucien Hargreaves, London SW15
I would like to add my support to a previous correspondent's suggestion that you might frequent less "famous" eating establishments. Perhaps you could even make an occasional foray to one of the many food chains that now cover the land with their uniformity, such as Pizzaland or McDonald's. I believe that the threat of a random visit by you would provide immeasurable benefits for the whole population.
G P Ivett, Preston, Lancs
Michael Winner, your country needs you. There has been much talk in the press recently about the treatment of certain customers at the Altnaharrie Inn near Ullapool. Given your standing, it is surely your duty to infiltrate this institution and bring back a sit rep for an eagerly awaiting public.
David Shead, Bournemouth, Dorset
I was saddened to read of Michael Winner's unfortunate culinary experiences in Wales over the past few months. Could I humbly suggest he try the newly opened Le Gallois in Cardiff? The high standard of food, together with the wonderful atmosphere (greatly enhanced by the natural linguistic mix of Welsh, French and English) have quickly put it on the map of our capital city. I believe it's a "winner".
I Lloyd-Williams, Caernarfon, Gwynedd