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Given the bird

Published 3 October 1999
Style Magazine
325th article

In it together: Dovecliff Hall's Nick, Jeanne, Tania and Brian Moore, with Michael Winner and Mary (Vanessa Perry)

A nice group met the helicopter as it landed on the lawn by Dovecliff Hall, a hotel outside Burton-upon-Trent. They were the owners, Brian Moore and his wife Jeanne and their son Nick. "I never thought the day would come when Michael Winner came up here to Staffordshire to this hotel," said Jeanne. "I never thought it would happen." "All good things come to an end," I responded.

In the lobby, a delightful old lady was playing the piano. She looked as if she came from a 1950s movie with Joyce Grenfell and Alastair Sim. The whole place had that black-and-white atmosphere of times sadly gone by. Amazingly, Mary Green had not been brought in just to play for me. There was a wedding and she was the icing on the cake. Brian explained that after he'd spent 30 years in the family engineering business making taps and dies, his children fancied catering. Well, let's face it, taps and dies are not everybody's idea of a laugh. So he bought a couple of restaurants and then this pleasant country-house hotel.

"Sir Edward Mosley used to live down the road," said Jeanne proudly. "This is the best she can drag up for the area," I dictated into my tape. "And it's Oswald Mosley anyway." Jeanne changed the subject. "We only allow residents in for Saturday lunch," she said. How this squared with a golden wedding of 13 people in one room and a wedding of 40 in the other, all non-residents, I didn't like to ask.

Our room was very cheerful. Views of gardens and grounds, not over- tarted-up. They had the taps the wrong way round on the washbasin, hot on the right. To make it worse, the "label" had come off, so I nearly scalded myself. Lunch was in a conservatory. I chose "rillettes of pork-belly pork cooked in its own juices, shredded set and served with pickled vegetables." It took longer to read than to eat. It was fine. For my main course I had baked supreme of chicken carved onto an asparagus sauce. Vanessa thought her sea bass was very good. My chicken was all right but ordinary. The veg were excellent.

"The meat comes from an old- fashioned butcher in Alfreston with an abattoir at the back of the shop," the son, Nick, told us. "So he killed this chicken, did he?" I asked. "Ah no, the chicken, that's the only thing he doesn't do." "How would he kill a cow?" asked Vanessa, who doesn't eat red meat. "He definitely kills cows at the back of the shop," said Nick. "He kills the lamb, the pigs, the beef. He's got this large electrical abattoir." "That's enough!" said Vanessa. "What's he like as a person?" "Very religious," said Nick. The pastry chef, Mrs Samantha Dowle, came and told me how to make a chilled praline parfait served with a raspberry coulis. It was splendid to eat, but I never understand recipes. That's why we have chefs; to do the menial work.

We went for a walk by a river, not too strenuous, of course, and back for tea. Very fresh sandwiches, real old-English tea with scones, chocolate cake and strawberry tart. The large wedding group appeared and asked if I'd be photographed with the bride. The next day daughter Tania was there. She'd been off duty. "What's your function?" I asked. "Mum says I fill in for whoever hasn't turned up," Tania said. For some reason, Mary was still tinkling away. "Do you just play the piano?" I asked. "I have an electric organ as well," said Mary. It was extremely delightful, the whole thing. Another world, really. Went back to normal when I left.

  • I recently caught up with a very popular Italian place, Scalini in Walton Street. Noisy, marvellous food, very good service. I came late and things were just whizzed down in front of me. Spare ribs, pasta, all really tasty. A man the other side of our table looked like Sylvester Stallone. When I asked who he was, my friend Robert Earl, thinking I was asking about someone else, said he was a photographer. It was Sylvester! By the time I realised this, there was scant opportunity to chat with him as I would have liked. Scalini is in premises once called La Popote and a great favourite of mine in the 1960s. I spent a New Year's Eve there. It was a very gay place. The cabaret was by April Ashley, a legendary sex-change person with long dark hair. This is not leading to revelations a la Michael Portillo. My sex life has been notable only for its conformity. "How dull," I hear you murmur. A reasonable observation.


    Last night I dreamt you were Jabba the Hutt and that you ate my girlfriend. Be that as it may, I am writing to let you know that if you would care to drop by, my girlfriend will cook you potatoes and carrots, served with a little salt and lashings of butter. This, together with the plaster falling from the ceilings, will illustrate to you why generations of Irish have emigrated to America and why this dish does not appear on the menu of any of the so-called fashionable establishments you so gracefully frequent. She does, however, make excellent scones. If you do come, please don't shout or bang the table as she is very quick-tempered. An admirer, Limerick, Ireland Sitting on the terrace of La Samanna on St Martin recently, we noticed a small plane descending with the name Winner on the side. A frisson of excitement was palpable in the hotel. Was the great man about to arrive? Unfortunately, a second glance showed the name on the plane to be Winair. But just for a moment...
    Dr NC Molden, by e-mail

    Having just come back from a year in Sydney, it is great to see that you haven't lost any of your tact. Just one thing: has anybody commented on the uncanny resemblance between yourself and a little old lady in the Denise Van Outen Nescafe advert? Especially the bit at the end, where she wrinkles up her nose and says "cheap shoes". Is it you in drag? I wouldn't have thought you would promote instant coffee.
    Alan Spinks, by e-mail

    My congratulations. You have developed the ideal recipe for a columnist dedicated to reviewing the supply of cooked food to the public. Mix humour with irritating remarks, add a good measure of brashness, a good dollop of intelligent criticism, a drop (or two) of grandiosity, and a generous amount of concern for the restaurant-going public.
    Michael Jefferson, by e-mail

    As a regular reader of your column in The Sunday Times and therefore conscious of the high standards you rightly expect, I felt I must alert you to Le Barnadin, a restaurant in New York whose standards of service, ambience and quality of food combine to create an unforgettable dining experience. I am sure you get many recommendations but should you find yourself in New York you owe it to yourself to enjoy such a meal. What is more, it is modestly priced and unpretentious. Should you be inclined to pay a visit, I would be fascinated to learn whether or not you shared my enthusiasm.
    Nick Luke, Milton Keynes, Bucks

    Send your letters to Style; or e-mail: michael.winner@ sunday-times.co.uk