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Off the beaten track

Published 15 April 2001
Style Magazine
405th article



Well wishers: Gilles and Marie Christina Goujon with Michael Winner at Auberge du Vieux Puits (Georgina Hristova)

I'm extremely good with maps. I often journey on tiny roads through areas that time has forgotten. It's essential to stop frequently to check the route meticulously. I never laughed more than when stopping at a Dutch roundabout near the Hague. The other traffic was blocked and hooting. John Cleese was in the car with his wife. "Michael," he said, trying to be reasonable in the face of childish behaviour. "Michael, I believe there are other drivers who wish to pass. Do you think you could stop further on at the side of the road?"

"I'm working out which road to take, John," I explained, remaining static.

"Yes, Michael, but it's a very antisocial thing to do," said John, backed by a cacophony of honking.

By now I'd started laughing. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. John being reasonable in the face of bad behaviour is hysterical. "If you could just drive on . . ." he continued, his voice rising. I laughed so much I couldn't read the map.

We eventually proceeded on delightful back roads to Amsterdam, stopping only to photograph a house surrounded by thousands of garden gnomes.

Later, at Amsterdam airport, I left the hire car by the departure entrance. "I think you're meant to take it to the car-hire return area," said John, the same controlled reason on display.

"Yeah, but I couldn't see that," I said. "I'll just bung the keys at the desk; they can sort it out."

"We've got time," said John patiently. "Why don't we go together and find the proper car park? The girls can check the luggage."

So John and I got in the car, followed the one-way signs and ended up on the motorway. We were driving further and further away from the airport. We ended up on a narrow Dutch country road by a canal surrounded by fields. No sign of the airport. I stopped a man riding a bicycle for directions and we got back to Amsterdam airport just in time. "I'm not going through that again, John," I said, and left the car exactly where it was before. Later, the head of the airport wrote to me apologising for lack of "signage". He promised to improve it.

I mention this because when I first phoned Jacques Hamburger, the excellent manager of the Hotel de la Cite in Carcassonne, he tried to dissuade me from coming. "What will you do?" he asked plaintively. The Canal du Midi, on which visitors float about, was closed. So were many shops and restaurants. That's why I like places out of season. You're not battling endless tourists. The roads are empty, and if you're lucky with the weather, which we were, then it's terrific.

Jacques gave me road maps of the area. He'd highlighted some particularly lovely places. It's a beautiful landscape south of Carcassonne, stretching to the sea and the Spanish border. Wide expanses of vineyards, unspoiled, stone-built villages, rivers with old bridges, dramatic mountains. In Beziers, a 19th-century town, we basked in February sun at Brasserie Le Cristal in the main square and had excellent fish soup. I got a suntan. We visited the only attractive seaside town around - Collioure, on the Mediterranean. There, on the terrace of Al San Vicens, a Canadian lady tourist insisted on sketching me. It was very pleasant. The loup de mer, not the sketch.

"I'll have one of our staff lead you to Fontjoncouse," offered Jacques Hamburger. "It's along tiny mountain roads, very tricky."

"Thanks," I said, "I'll manage."

We were going to the Auberge du Vieux Puits, a two-Michelin-star restaurant owned by the chef, Gilles Goujon, and his Wife, Marie Christina. We tried the "Menu of the chef" which went on for ever, but was superb. Pumpkin soup with truffle and, under the truffle, a little bit of liver; then hot duck liver on something like a pear (you can rely on me for non-precision); then a scallop in pastry with a mushroom on top and more truffles. Georgina said: "You've been served three courses by now. Other people have only had one."

"As it should be," I replied.

Then came a galetre of potatoes with two types of caviar. "It's like a potato pancake with smoked trout inside and a grape sauce." I dictated. Then sea bass with tomato and turnip pie. The main course was hare and venison. Amazingly, I forget what the desserts were. But it's a marvellous place, if you can find it.

All this eating left us late for our further travels. We got to the medieval village of Minerve at half-light. Then a quick map-study and back to the hotel. Jacques needn't have worried. I'm highly self-motivated. Out-of-season places are my speciality.



Letters

I'm amused by the debate on Michael Winner's views of Arsenio's in Madeira. Robert George (April 8) says Winner missed the point of his visit because he didn't like the local Portuguese fado singing. Andrew Wiltshire (March 25) said: "Mr Winner proclaimed that the entertainment was ghastly." I checked Mr Winner's review in his book. What he actually wrote was that the singing was "very pleasant" and contributed to "a delightful atmosphere". Andrew Wiltshire says he read an enlarged copy of Mr Winner's article displayed in Arsenio's. According to him, Mr Winner called the starters "average". Mr Winner's starter was prawns in garlic sauce, which he actually described as: "Totally delicious. Memorable. This was a terrific first course." Hardly average -even by Michael Winner's standards.
Mr E Watson, Northampton

Having moved from London to the West Midlands a few years ago, I wonder if Michael Winner knows any chefs who would also consider doing so. I'm really not sure what is worse - the fact that all so-called restaurants are vacuous establishments serving, at the best of times, something close to disgusting, or that the local diners actually bother to dress up (white socks and stilettos) when visiting them. Wolver'ampton (pronounced with a silent haitch) caters for the region's elite with dishes such as "Lemon Sole Manure" (no joke) or, for those who really want to push the boat out, Lobster Fermidor with noisette potatoes (pronounced "noise-ette" by our porcine waitress). Please send Marco Pierre White to help!
Richard Barton, by e-mail

With reference to your recent correspondence, I am only 15, yet I still read Mr Winner's column, if only as a precautionary warning to myself never to become that arrogant and snobbish.
Eve Bugler, by e-mail

We recently spent three days in North Yorkshire, based in Settle. Serious walking was naturally out of the question because of foot and mouth, but we decided to go anyway and explore the surrounding villages. The highlight of our stay was The Little House in Settle, a small and attractive restaurant with superb food. Our meals there on two of our three nights made the whole trip worthwhile. We recommend it enthusiastically.
John and Davina Dwyer, Hexham, Northumberland

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