Published 4 April 1999 Style Magazine 299th article
Striking the right note: Adam Stevenson and Michael Winner at La Gazelle d'Or
There are celebrated hotels in the World about which the cognoscenti speak in hushed tones. None is more regarded than La Gazelle d'Or in Taroudannt, a small, unspoilt Moroccan town. Here, it is said, President Jacques Chirac spends every Christmas. Michael Portillo has been recumbent by the pool. A Saatchi, I know not which, definitely attended. It's where I met my childhood heroine, Valerie Robson. We a discussed her role in The King and I. Her husband, John Profumo, was charm itself.
I reach La Gazelle d'Or from Marrakesh, courtesy of Vincent Ducro, a tall, thin, angular pilot who looks like Harrison Ford. He flies a single-engined, old propeller plane with struts supporting the wings. The views over the Atlas Mountains are spectacular. After sheep have been chased from, the runway, we land at a little-used airstrip. Adam Stevenson, manager of La Gazelle d'Or, meets us in a chauffeured Mercedes. We go to the Berber market in Taroudannt where a scarred man sells dead bats, dried lizards and other delights including amber, which I buy in bulk.
La Gazelle d'Or is owned by Mrs Rita Bennis, who spends much time at her flat in Notting Hill. The hotel was built in 1956 by a French baron; Mrs Bennis got it in 1981. It now consists of cottages set in large, beautiful and restful gardens. Wonderful flowers and shrubs vie with eucalyptus and jacaranda trees. Meals are served in the main house and by an idyllic pool. It is a magical world, very peaceful, near mountains, deserts and palm groves. The king of this domain is Stevenson, a slim Englishman who was barman and pianist at the Colony Club in Soho. This was also known as Muriel's Club because of the celebrated owner, Muriel Belcher. A 1971 magazine shows him there with Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Annie Ross and Tom Driberg. The 1970s live on in Adam's persona and demeanour.
Life by the pool is serene. Under olive trees and bougainvillea, guests bask on sun loungers while attentive staff in white flowing robes and white fezzes deal with everything, including a superb buffet lunch. Breakfast on the terrace outside the main building with a musical accompaniment of rare noises is spectacular. Rasping voices from north London are balanced by a delightful group of elderly Irishmen, one of whom, a bookseller from Sligo, speaks about dinner. "You don't come here for the food," he says. It falls silent until a cat walks by, clomping madly. Or thus it seemed, so utterly peaceful were the surroundings.
Adam asked me to wear a tie for dinner. You sit for in a domed room with Moroccan pillars and an open fireplace, looking onto a terrace with candles and lanterns on the ground and the tables. There is the sound of crickets. It's very romantic.
In the dining room ties were in the minority. "Tie, no tie," I dictated, looking round. "Man taking his jacket off, no tie and tartan trousers, man with sweater round open-necked shirt." Oh well, I'd done as asked. It was extremely posh. Everyone was very quiet. Vanessa had artichoke hearts and thought they tasted peculiar. I had le magret de canard aux apricots and a puree de pommes de terre douces. Feeble. But a beautiful setting and excellent service. Vanessa continued with vegetable couscous with a side order of onions and raisins, which "cheered the thing up no end". This was not a meal to die for. The millefeuille dessert was okay.
Adam was playing the piano. Brilliantly. Superbly arranged. From the heart. Melodies ranged from The Lambeth Walk to Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 2; We adjourned to an outer room, where Adam sat at the grand piano. An old man with a white beard and a turban squatted in front of a bowl of mint. He broke up the mint sticks, put them in a teapot and added sugar and hot water from a charcoal stove. Robed servants handed it round.
Adam looked neither to right nor left. Was he back in Muriel's Club? Was he in some hidden place of his own design? I would never know. There was no animation in the body or the face. But the playing was soulful. It transformed the atmosphere. He ended with Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. I clapped. If Adam heard the scattered applause, he made no acknowledgement. He stood stiffly, turned and walked away. As if another secret communion with who knows what had come to an end.
We went back to the suite and lit the log fire in the bedroom. There are few places left in the world like La Gazelle d'Or. Dinner may not have been three-star Michelin, or even one. Who cares.
If you have not already reviewed the Bistro in the Oxo Tower, I can think of no restaurant more deserving of your sparkling treatment. Our party, a journalist, an opera producer and a retiring academic, was hardly grand, but we weren't exactly in football colours, either. Yet when I dithered over the wine list, I was told by the waiter: "You want that one, it's the strongest." Despite this, the food was rather good, and in fairness one doesn't go to the Oxo Tower looking for good value, so it doesn't really rankle that we have had far better meals (with far more charming waiters) in Italy for a tenth of the cost. However, that we had a better meal in Shepherd's Bush for a third as much, does.
Mrs J E P Taylor, London W14
I applaud Michael Winner for his recent foray into high-class takeaways (Style, March 28). This may not be meals on wheels as most pensioners know it, but it is surely a good preparation for his impending dotage.
Tom Parsons, Taunton, Somerset
My daughter and I are avid followers of your column. Everything you do or say has style. In fact, even your style has style.
Alan Brown, Newcastle upon Tyne
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