Published 10 June 2001 Style Magazine 413th article
Bay watch: back row, from left, Georgina Hristova, Nigel Lightburn; front row, from left, Brian Sack, Michael Winner (Simon Stringer)
I've never known such drama as getting into the Sharrow Bay hotel, Cumbria. I'd heard good things about the place, situated on Lake Ullswater, so a year ago I phoned the owner, Brian Sack. We chatted about theatricals who much visit Sharrow and other people we knew. Brian was my new best friend. At the end I said: "I'll phone soon and make a booking." There was a pause. "We'll have to have a director's meeting about that," said Brian.
In March this year, with foot and mouth closing down Cumbria, I decided to wave the flag. I'd go there, spend money and do my bit for Britain. I telephoned, but Brian was in London. Ian Whittaker, the assistant manager, was delighted I'd be coming. Then he asked me to hold on. For along time. I guessed Brian must be on the line. When Ian returned, he said: "We have no room."
"But you were empty minutes ago," I said.
"We have one small room with the bathroom over the corridor," explained Ian. Ten minutes later, my phone rang. It was Brian Sack. "You can't go to Sharrow without me there," he proclaimed. I'd been told he'd be back on Thursday and I would have arrived on Friday, so what had that to do with anything? Brian reiterated the hotel was full. "You must come when the azaleas are out," he declared.
The next day, my secretary phoned using her name and was offered a large selection of rooms at Sharrow Bay. Undeterred, I wrote to Brian saying: "I smile as I say you and Ian have been lying your heads off, but I'll see you both come azalea time."
I used the weekend to visit the superlative La Reserve de Beaulieu, on the Cote d'Azur, and luckily hit five days of boiling-hot weather in the period of our awful winter.
Later, Brian wrote offering dates he'd be glad to welcome me. So I booked the private jet and there was Brian, giving up his day off, to greet me. Unfortunately, the azaleas were not yet out and the daffodils were dead. Other than that - and being given a poky little room, which Brian assured me was their best - I had a great time. Sharrow Bay is dominated by the pixie-like personality of Brian Sack and his dead "beloved friend", Francis Coulson. Francis founded the hotel in 1948. Brian joined a couple of years later. There are photos of Francis everywhere. There's even a replica of his gravestone in the garden. The hotel is crammed with delightfully kitsch objects, Brian being the supreme example. I mean that as a compliment. To see the smiling imp himself, now 78, hosting the dinner tables until after 11pm and on duty again at 9am for breakfast is to witness supreme professionalism.
When a hotel owner says at dinner, "The idea is if you give out love, you get love. And we have to train the staff to feel the same way we do," you either vomit or admit the overpowering sense of dedication and concern Brian exhibits is truly marvellous. I think it's marvellous. I'm not sure it's reached some of his French staff, who seem to speak no English. But in general it's pervasive. What will happen when Brian floats up to the great super-kitsch heaven, I thought. But his managing director, Nigel Lightburn, whom he refers to jokingly as "my illegitimate son", has been bequeathed the hotel. Nigel is first-rate in a quite different, but equally dedicated, way. It's nice to think somewhere as unique as Sharrow Bay will continue.
The food is absolutely superb. The sandwiches, cakes, scones and biscuits in my first tea were all historic, except for one dodgy layer cake, which tasted of refrigerator. The dinners were excellent, from the home-made bread - the breakfast croissants are beyond belief - to the pea soup, the fillet of English lamb and the banana tarte tatin. The breakfast kipper was highly memorable. Brian instructed me to have the full English fry-up. "The best in the world," he boasted. It was good, but the greatest English breakfast is served by a Frenchman, Raymond Blanc, at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons.
On our last night, Brian and his new friend - a local piano teacher - performed in the lounge. Brian sang songs by Sondheim. A famous English actor stayed in the dining room gazing into the eyes of his boyfriend. He missed a great performance. Brian and his hotel are a delight. Even when I investigated the next-door room and found it to be infinitely bigger and better than mine, I could not complain. I was overtaken by the all-enveloping love that inhabits Sharrow Bay. That could be Brian's greatest achievement.
I would take issue with Simon Parker Bowles when he says that "brandade demands a strong and salty flavour" (June 3). We have served cod brandade to Michael Winner many times in my restaurants and he has never had cause to say it was so salty that he still tasted it in his mouth four hours later. In fact, he has always enjoyed it. Salt cod for brandade de morue should be cut into small chunks and left overnight under running water to extract the salt. If this is not done, it will be extremely salty. Obviously, Simon Parker Bowles's knowledge of food is limited.
Marco Pierre White, London
I would like to set Michael Winner straight about Bakewell tart. Top cooks correctly refer to it as Bakewell pudding. Bakewell tart, according to those living in Sheffield and elsewhere, refers to a person living in the village of Bakewell.
NT Shepherd, Bristol
Following Michael Winner's review of the Griffin Inn at Llyswen several years ago, my family and I have enjoyed many wonderful Sunday lunches in this great pub. However, I must report that the old owners have now taken semi-retirement (apparently to help their daughter start a restaurant in Hay-on-Wye), and yesterday at the Griffin we had our worst lunch ever. The manager's excuse was that they had changed butchers that week. The only redeeming feature was that we only had to pay for our drinks, and both beef and lamb were immediately wiped off the menu. The new owners are SA Brain & Co, the Cardiff brewers. They should immediately take note that reputations can vanish overnight.
Ian Butcher and family, Llanelli, Wales
How lazy can a kitchen get? Well, how about this? At the Harbour Inn in Southwold, a supposedly first-class restaurant, the "creamy mashed potatoes with succulent locally produced sausages in rich onion gravy" was made with instant mash. When I mentioned this, I was told: "You managed to eat some before noticing." That's okay, then.
Chris Carter, Norwich
I would like to add my name to Mr Winner's "Bring back sole Capri" campaign. It is a unique dish - sole with mango and banana - and separates the flamboyant, extrovert, zest-for-life section of the community from the rest. Come on, the Ivy, give it a try.
Christopher Fogg, London
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