Published 25 March 2001 Style Magazine 402nd article
Cite breaks: from left Jacques Hamburger, Georgina Hristova and Michael Winner (Horia Mamou)
The medieval French town Carcassonne is not everyone's premier holiday destination. But Orient-Express has a hotel in the walled city called, somewhat obviously, Hotel de la Cite. I phoned the general manager, Jacques Hamburger. "Hello," I said. "This is Michael Winner." That went down like a lead balloon. "Do you know who I am?" I asked.
"No," he replied.
"Well, I'm a film director and as a hobby I write . . ."
"Ah," interrupted Mr Hamburger, "you went to Reid's in Madeira."
This was psychologically revealing. I've madly praised Orient-Express hotels - the Splendido in Portofino, the Cipriani in Venice, the Villa San Michele in Florence, the incredible Road To Mandalay cruise up the Irrawaddy River in Burma. The only establishment of theirs I hated was Reid's. This is the one Jacques Hamburger mentioned this February morning.
"The hotel is empty," said Jacques, desperately trying to put me off. "Our main restaurant is closed, I'm going to Peru, it's out of season, very little is open . . . "
"Sounds great to me," I said.
An hour later, Pippa Isbell, the Orient-Express PR in London, telephoned. "We're very worried about you going to Carcassonne," she said. "We don't think we can provide the service you require, there's building going on . . . "
"Not at night, surely?" I said.
"I don't think so," replied Pippa. "You're determined to go this weekend, are you?" she added later, with more aggravation than a PR should reveal.
"Yes," I said. "I'll be there on Friday."
The Learjet touched down in Carcassonne. Jacques had postponed his visit to Peru and came to greet us. We drove past vineyards with stunted bushes as the famous castle, used in Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, came into view. Then through the 13th-century fortifications and into the old city. "In summer you can't drive here," Jacques explained. "It's very full." I'm sure it's a madhouse of wall-to-wall tourists. The narrow, deserted cobbled streets offered restaurants and trinket shops at every turn. It was lovely without anyone there.
The hotel's incarnation in mock-gothic style dates from 1928. The few guests included a nice couple from Scotland. On the walls were murals of life in Carcassonne through the ages. We were shown a claustrophobic suite. "Mr Saccani said you liked to have a view," explained Jacques when I asked to see alternative accommodation. Maurizio Saccani is the brilliant general manager of the Splendido and the Villa San Michele. Jacques had wisely rung him for a Winner briefing.
We were shown a nicer, larger room on the ground floor with French windows onto the garden. It had carved panelled walls with a mural above and a high ceiling. It used to be a smoking room. As they switched our luggage, I had a cup of coffee in the bar, which looked like a library. The wine list offered 1961 Petrus at £3,010 a bottle. That's a bargain. A few months ago, one sold at Christie's for £2,793. Normally restaurant wine is marked up at four times cost.
That evening we went to Chez Saskia, the hotel's bistro, situated on the other side of a paved courtyard. The chef had prepared some fancy stuff, but we both chose the cassoulet - a local preparation of duck, Toulouse sausages and white beans. It was excellent. Another night, in a nearby restaurant, the Comte Roger, owned by the chef Pierre Mesa, we had one that was even better. But mostly we happily ate in Chez Saskia, after exploring the countryside by day. We had some rather chewy ravioli, brilliant mushroom soup with foie gras and truffles, lovely baby-crab soup and excellent roasted langoustine. An English blonde lady, exiting with her photographer boyfriend, stopped at our table. "It's a great pleasure to meet you, sir," she to me. "I'm so glad you didn't interrupt us." Why she'd expected me to interrupt her I do not know. I'm extremely quiet in restaurants, except on very rare occasions when something greatly and repeatedly displeases me.
The hotel breakfasts were very even though they brought earl grey tea after I asked three times for lime-flower tea. On the first morning, we had horrible, thin, paper-tube containers of granulated sugar. I told Jacques I hated wrapped sugar. Thereafter we got cubes of white and brown in a bowl. The Orient-Express people needn't have worried. The trip was a delight. I particularly enjoyed the look of absolute horror on Jacques' face when our room safe wouldn't open. They had to oxyacetylene-carve the thing apart with sparks and smoke everywhere. And I'm really glad Jacques delayed his Peruvian jaunt to cater for my every whim. That's what all hotel managers should do.
I was surprised that Michael Winner was tempted to eat at Spoon (March 11) based solely on the recommendation that there were beauties at the bar. What would they know about real food?
Beath Bain, Solihull
As a regular reader of Winner's Dinners, I felt extremely sorry for Michael after reading about his experience at Spoon. However, I fail to comprehend how a celebrity of his status has to drive his own car. In future, he must hire a chauffeur.
Yehuda Hecht, by e-mail
To continue the great orange-juice debate: in Spain, juice cannot legally be called "freshly squeezed" if it has not been prepared within the last 24 hours. In the UK, however, there are still five-star hotels that charge scandalous amounts of money for concentrate, which they call freshly squeezed on the menu. The Spanish have undoubtedly got it right - orange juice should be dispensed to order. Mind you, I do have a vested interest: I import orange-juice pressing machines.
Tom Gregory, by e-mail
I recently visited The Compleat Angler in Marlow for lunch. Someone has obviously been fiddling with the restaurant's till. When our bill came, in addition to the food and drink that we had consumed, the computer-printed statement included the following item: "1xhairy arse, £0.00". Disappointingly, despite the 12.5% service charge, our free hirsute bottom failed to materialise.
David P Evans, by e-mail
My wife and I always find Winner's Dinners entertaining, but we had often wondered if his bombastic opinions are remotely reliable. The opportunity to test them out came last week when we observed an enlarged copy of one of his articles attached to the exterior of Arsenio's in Funchal, Madeira. In the article, Mr Winner proclaimed that the entertainment was ghastly, the starters average, but the grilled fish skewer was a dish to die for. I can report that he was right in every single respect. Alas, Arsenio's had not acted on his criticisms: if it had, we would not have had to put up with the dreadful caterwaul that passed as entertainment.
Andrew Wiltshire, Salisbury
I am very concerned. I read Winner's Dinners religiously, yet I am only 33. Am I suffering from premature middle age?
Min Edmonds, by e-mail
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