Published 26 August 2001 Style Magazine 424th article
Man's best friends: Michael Winner with, from left, Hebe, Tarka and Theope (Georgina Hristova)
"Where shall I go to lunch?" I asked Brian Sack, the delightfully elfin owner of the Sharrow Bay hotel on Ullswater. He suggested Michael's Nook in Grasmere, another Cumbrian hotel, which, like Sharrow Bay, has a Michelin star. Grasmere, in case you didn't know - and I didn't - was the home of our esteemed poet William Wordsworth. He wrote, in a sonnet: "Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room." I'm no nun. My accommodation at the otherwise marvellous Sharrow Bay was definitely narrow. I fretted.
Adventurous as ever, I set off in my Audi convertible sports car, rented for the staggering sum of £963.50 for three days. The rental company is called Bespokes, an inaccurate description of the car, which had a large scratch on the passenger door. Back in London, I rang their managing director, Marlo Ludwig. "I was just writing to you," he said. "Why?" I asked. "To apologise for the scratch," he said. "Don't apologise," I responded. "Think of the word 'discount'."
Michael's Nook, unlike Sharrow Bay, offers no view of a lake. It's a finely preserved mid-Victorian house, once the home of Reg Gifford, who now runs it as a hotel. In the lounge is a bronze figure of a dead horse lying on its back. "Mr Gifford won it as a prize," explained the manager, Richard Mackenzie Ross. "He shoots horses, does he?" I asked. "Tat's an unusual hobby." "It's a dog," said Mr Ross patiently. "So, he shoots dogs?" I said. "Not my idea of fun, but each to his own." "He exhibits dogs," explained Mr Ross testily. "His great dane won best of breed at Crufts last year."
Richard then showed us round the very finely furnished suites. After that, we took a walk before lunch. Nearly all the houses nearby were called Michael's this or Michael's that. "He must own the whole area, this Reg fellow," I thought. But apparently, Michael was a shepherd who lived further up the valley. He was a good friend of Wordsworth, who even wrote poems about him. So everyone in Grasmere invokes the name Michael.
We sat alone in the dining room and started with some superb canapes. "I'll ask for a second portion," said Georgina enthusiastically. The soup was a cold, white, frothy gazpacho with cucumber and horseradish. It was very tasty, had a tang to it. The waiter appeared with more bread. Georgina had eaten far too much already. "Walk away," I said, as the waiter came closer. He did a perfect U-turn and carried the bread basket off in the other direction.
I noticed, with amazement, a Chateau Petrus 1982 on the wine list at £995. This is unbelievably cheap. It sold recently at Sotheby's for £1,200, and is on offer at Gordon Ramsay for £3,000 before the gratuity. Ramsay's price is normal restaurant mark-up, and good luck to him. He certainly produces a great atmosphere and unbelievable-quality food to go with it.
My main-course rabbit at Michael's Nook was an enlarged starter. It was amazingly messed about. It was all wrapped in funny stuff, with little round things on the plate. Then, because I was thirsty, I had to order more Hildon water. That's the ultimate indignity, having to order a second bottle of mediocre Hildon water.
Reg appeared as I was eating a particularly pleasant bramley apple mousse with vanilla foam. The home-made petits fours were also exemplary. "Would you like to do something interesting?" asked Reg. "What?" I said. "Walk around my marvellous rhododendron garden and see the dogs," he replied.
So we strolled down the hill to a nearby house, where Reg produced three enormous, award-winning great danes. He assured me they were fully trained, but one word from Reg and they did nothing. Hebe and Theope kept fairly close. Hebe is the Crufts champion. Tarka ran around as if on cocaine. He refused to come into our photograph, but occasionally passed through at great speed going nowhere. Then he would run back in reverse direction.
There was a split second when all three dogs came into the picture. Reg must have stood back in amazement, because he's not caught on camera. He can console himself that he gets £1,000 each for the puppies, and his old stuffed parrot. Manuel, sits on a trellis as you enter his hotel. So there's absolutely no doubt Reg is an animal-lover. He's also bespectacled and was wearing a zip-up cardigan, a striped shirt and check trousers. "It's not a cardigan, it's a jacket," observed Georgina. Well, it may have been. I was too busy protecting myself from being leapt to death by three great danes. I never even got to see the rhododendrons.
Having read Stuart Matthews's letter (August 12), may I suggest that the next time Michael Winner mentions Lord Glenconner or his 1966 Rolls-Royce Phantom in this column, he invites Mr Matthews to join him for lunch. A restaurant by the side of the River Trent would seem to be a suitable venue.
Stephen L Phillips, Chirk
I read Michael Winner every week, simply to see how much egotism he can drop in between the chat about gluttony. In his column about the Ristorante Il Samaritano Da Benito (August 5), he hit the gong. Does he really hand out brochures about himself to strangers? Or was that a joke?
Rohn Hopper, Hove, E Sussex
How nice to read of Michael Winner's visit to the Ristorante Il Samaritano Da Benito in Ospedaletti (August 5) - or the Mad Chef's, as I call it. I have been there several times, and although the food is simple, it is good. It's certainly well worth a visit, if only to watch Benito's antics. Of course, the menu bears no resemblance to what you actually end up eating, as Benito decides for you. Nor do the prices: a friend who ordered a vodka and tonic was given a complete bottle and only charged for a double.
Ray Green, by e-mail
We recently took a visiting American couple to lunch at Le Caprice, in London. While we were eating, one of them took out a small camera to record the happy reunion. A waiter discreetly whispered in his ear that photography was not allowed in the restaurant, but that he would be happy to take a picture of us outside as we left. We left about an hour later after a very enjoyable lunch. As we went out, a different waiter slipped out behind us and took great care in composing a couple of photographs. What could have been an embarrassing incident was handled with professionalism and charm.
Lady Marsh, by e-mail
Like M Montgomery (July 29), Buzz Rodwell of Ipswich (August 12) seems to be getting his counties confused. According to my old granny, the correct saying is: "Staffordshire born and Worcestershire bred, strong in the arm and thick in the head." I have a sneaking feeling you may soon have to close this particular line of correspondence.
C Oliver, by e-mail
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