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King of the hill

Published 27 August 2000
Style Magazine
372nd article

Buck's tizz: from left, Michael Winner, Maurizio Saccani and the chef Attilio di Fabrizio at the Villa San Michele, Fiesole (Georgina Hristova)

I absolutely agree that we should save the planet. Acid rain, polluted rivers, too many cars, deforestation, the disappearing natural world - it all depresses me greatly. But the cause of it is seldom mentioned. People. We're too late for birth control. We need a mass "vanishment" of population. I'll volunteer if five thousand million will go with me.

I'm drawn to these thoughts after looking at my old photo album showing Venice in 1953. It's more or less empty. St Mark's Square, the area facing the Bridge of Sighs, the Rialto, very few people around. Now it's so crowded you push through wall-to-wall bodies - and that's in a city without cars. When you add the car population to the human lot, it's disaster beyond belief.

I was recently in Florence and Tuscany. Unbelievable. New housing estates going up everywhere. Endless tourists taking every inch of the Piazza Della Signoria. A mile-long queue for the Uffizi gallery. And San Giminiano, which even in 1975, when I first went there for some filming, was quiet, is now a nightmare. Large bus and car parks all round, the village hidden behind horrid new buildings and, when you get in, just a milling mass of tourists. So I advise you to stay away from the mob.

There's nowhere better to do this than Fiesole, a charming, uncluttered little hill town from which the Villa San Michele, once an old monastery, looks down on Florence. This is one of the greatest hotels in the world. It has a lovely swimming pool, highly attractive gardens and rather strange black metal chairs that are very uncomfortable and sink into the lawn. They kindly offered me the Jim Sherwood suite (Jim's the super-boss), but it was away from the main hotel. I like to be in the centre of things. So I repaired to my usual very large room with high-up windows and an enormous bed on a dais.

The food is exceptionally good, although there was drama at lunch. Georgina ordered freshly squeezed orange juice, and it was. I had buck's fizz, but my juice tasted odd and was paler. I got some champagne, poured Georgina's orange juice in and it looked quite different. I was told my orange juice was a different colour because it came from the bar. Were they using different oranges at the bar? Or did they squeeze it in the morning, let it separate, then stir it together?

The hotel's general manager, the outstanding Maurizio Saccani, said at dinner that orange juice changes its properties quite quickly; it separates "and really after two hours it's gone". He's quite right.

Maurizio went on to consider whether you should filter fresh orange juice completely, or filter it half, or not at all. I'm prepared to discuss orange juice longer than most people, but here I gave up. I had grilled scampi and then Florentine grilled steak. Both were exceptionally good. The chocolate cake was seriously brilliant and the lemon sorbet was terrific. I'm amazed this place hasn't got a Michelin star.

Highly important people stay, ranging from Kofi Annan to Barbra Streisand. Barbra's been everywhere I go recently, in England and abroad. This is adventurous of her. She likes her grub. does Barb. When she was making a movie in England, she so adored my cook's fairy cakes that we delivered them to her house every day for a week. Then we got bored and gave up.

For dinner Mr Saccani suggested Chianina beef, which comes from Tuscany, south of Siena. This was totally historic. It's hung for 21 days and was marinated for a couple of hours in oil and herbs. The hotel staff even got me into the Uffizi gallery without queuing. I was so impressed that I almost decided not to mention their breakfast display was rather poor. I might have been influenced in that observation by the fact that I was having a major row with Georgina (her fault, of course) and summarily called the Learjet and left early. My relationships always seem to have the intensity and trauma of teenage romance. I must try harder to be my age. Although being my age, I see absolutely no point in acting like it.

On another occasion, when life had returned to the status quo ante, we helicoptered to Florence for the day from Portofino. The San Michele manager recommended a magical little lunch place neat the Piazza Della Signoria called Cantinetta Verrazzano. They refused to serve Coca-Cola, but everything else was brilliant. No space left to tell you more - just note the name and go there. That's if you can push your way through the human throng in Florence's jam-packed streets.


The way to deal with the bullyboy tactics of restaurants that demonstrate their contempt for customers by ordering them to vacate tables within a fixed time - as in Holly Browne's appalling experience at Asia de Cuba (Style, August 6) - is simply to refuse to leave. Make that final mouthful last for ages. Linger over the coffee. Query the bill in minute detail. What are they going to do? Throw you out before you've signed your credit-card slip? Some chance.
Charlie Catchpole, by e-mail

As regular readers of Winner's Dinners will know, I live in the same Kensington Kingdom as our self-proclaimed leader. However, unlike Michael I do not expect to hear a drum roll every time I walk into a restaurant, and if a waiter forgets the butter, I never give him a look that says: "Tomorrow you will be living in sheltered accommodation." As long as the food is wholesome and the staff is affable, I am happy. For me, dinner at the Ivy or Le Caprice is still an event - but, as the American comedian Henny Youngman used to say: "We're all different. I love my girlfriend, my wife can't stand her."
Don Black, by e-mail

Food writers often write how uncivilised it is for customers to make a reservation at a restaurant then fail to turn up. What about restaurants that fail to honour reservations made with them? We recently made a reservation for dinner at Belvedere in Holland Park. About a week before we were due to go, the restaurant rang to say that they had subsequently accepted a booking for a large party and were cancelling our reservation. I suppose popular restaurants can afford to treat customers in this offhand manner, but we will not attempt to go to Belvedere in future.
Derek Helps, by e-mail

Michael Winner mentions the Ivy so often that I thought he might like to know my experience of it during the war. We were only allowed by law to spend five shillings, which would allow us a choice of starter or sweet, plus a main course. The main course was normally Spam fritters or reconstituted egg powder on toast. So we feasted on the celebrity clientele that gave it its wonderful atmosphere: Googie Withers, Kay Hammond, John Clements, Eric Portman, Ivor Novello, Dame Lilian Braithwaite. They were always elegantly and smartly dressed. How unlike today's celebrities, who look as if they have been kitted out by their local charity shop.v Mr R Evans, Brighton

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