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Floral tributes

Published 30 December 2001
Style Magazine
442nd article

Done for fragrancy: Denis and Susan Madden with Michael Winner (Georgina Hristova)

My new year gift is to recommend to you somewhere absolutely magical for 2002. It's the Columbia Road market in London's East End. I heard of this through my new friends, Denis and Susan Madden. I stayed overnight in their council house on the Herts-Essex border for a television programme. I enjoyed it greatly. I reciprocated with dinner for them and their two teenage children, Rachel and Matthew, in my house. We had royal beluga caviar - which the children hated - and excellent roast duck. This was accompanied by Chateau Latour 1961, which, at Gordon Ramsay, costs £3,500 ex service. Then Chateau Lafite 1982, which Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's sells for £1,400 a bottle. Add a reasonable 12½% gratuity and it's £1,575. It goes at auction for £259. To sell it for over six times cost is high, even for the posh end of the market. I paid £80 a bottle some years ago.

Denis and Susan have a flower stall every Sunday in Columbia Road. The pitches are handed down from father to son. They suggested a nice restaurant adjacent to their spot. I didn't expect much. But the market area is wonderful - small, crowded and picturesque. There are lovely early-Victorian terraced houses, the ground floors turned into delightful shops and restaurants. You can buy fish, bagels, antiques, old hats, knick-knacks, arts and crafts, everything. A very fine four-piece string orchestra played on a corner. There's an incredible variety of flowers, potted plants, bushes, trees, garden ornaments, ironmongery and more. I shall return next year with a van and spend money. The old pub there is the Royal Oak, where The Krays was filmed. "It's a gay place now," explained Denis. At Lee's Seafood there was a queue. "Best jellied eels in London," said Denis proudly. I bought five staggeringly good fried scampi for £2.20.

The cockney spiel from the stalls is a delight. "Decorate the mother-in-law's grave for a fiver! Any four cyclamen you like for a fiver!" When Denis starts shouting, he beats them all. He could be heard in Holland Park. On Sunday, that's only 32 minutes away. Next to Denis's stall is one run by his ex-wife. "She hasn't said a word since I met you," said Denis. "We can't go there. She's got the raving hump." So we went to lunch instead.

"The Perennial used to be a greasy spoon not many years ago," Denis told me as we gathered round a window table. "In the spring and summer, you can sit in the garden." I'd visited before my walkabout and nicked a near-historic flapjack from the bar. I told the owner, Paul Johnson, to be sure it went on the bill. A girl came over and said: "My name's Mia, I'm going to look after you today. I'm from Sweden."

Georgina ordered grilled goat's cheese on hazelnut-oil dressing, followed by pan-fried brill fillet with butter beans, tomato and chilli. Then she changed her mind - this is not surprising - and asked for the tuna loin on linguini. I had mushroom-and-fennel soup with Pernod, which was excellent. Delicious home-made soup. The first-course plates stayed on the table a long time. Marco Pierre White would have gone mad and waved them in the air. But, surprisingly, I kept quiet.

The lamb was all right. The bowl of vegetables with it was good. Georgina decided the carrots were organic because they were sweet. Denis checked his stall outside the window. It was being looked after by his assistants. Occasionally, he went out to drum up business.

The market closes at 2pm. Then the flowers go in a fridge until they're needed at his Saffron Walden market stall a few days later. Denis gets them wholesale from Holland. I spend a fortune on flowers for my house. Leone and her husband from north London bring them and arrange them superbly. I debated whether it was worth getting them cheaper from Holland and decided it would be too difficult putting them in all the vases. Also, Leone deals with my potted plants.

The service was so leisurely, I couldn't wait for a real dessert. I had another flapjack. Georgina said: "The service was all right. You just have to tell them to come over and clear things. There's nothing wrong with it."

"Then why do you have to tell them to come over if there's nothing wrong? They should come of their own accord," I responded rather pedantically.

Normally, I wouldn't have cared on Sunday. But I had to meet a producer about a movie in Cape Town. That's a nice place. Excellent food there. But rather a long way to go.


I understand Michael Winner's concern about the arrogance of French waiters (December 16). Our local rendezvous, Sharrow Bay, has a number of waiters from France, who seem to be quite out of place in a rustic Lake District setting. When I asked the manager why there was a lack of English staff, I was told: "The English don't like to be in service jobs." If this is true, it makes us even more snooty than the French.
Richard Watson, Penrith

I used to be terrified about complaining in restaurants until I went to live in the States and spent time with people who were expert at it. Now, back in Britain, I often find myself biting my tongue; my friends say they are embarrassed if I complain. I think Michael Winner is a great representative of British food as he always speaks out when disappointed.
Alison Walker, via e-mail.

I must take issue with Peter Goodman (Letters, December 16) and his politically correct stuffing. At the excellent Sunday Carvery in the Boat House, Amberley, the chef always refers to seasoning rather than stuffing, and it is definitely in Sussex.
Chris Halewood, Emsworth

Leave Lal Qila in Manchester alone (Letters, December 9). It is a curry house, not a haute cuisine restaurant. I have been going there every other Saturday for years, usually after a Manchester City home fixture. The football may not always be memorable, but the food is historic.
Marc Conway, via e-mail

It seems that Michael Winner slips a snide remark about Michel Roux and The Waterside Inn into his column (December 16) two or three times a year. This must stem from Roux's low tolerance of poseurs and Winner's own addiction to sycophancy. That said, I shall continue to read his column with horrified fascination.
John Noble, Geneva.

Having heard so much about the hotelier Ken McCulloch and Malmaison, my husband and I went to his Columbus hotel and restaurant in Monaco. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, but the mood was spoilt by a loud gentleman who roared at the staff and spoke rudely about what we thought was impeccable service and food. On paying the bill, I mentioned that I felt sorry for the waitress having to deal with such a difficult guest. Her reply was: "Oh no, madam, that's Mr McCulloch, our owner." He is, for sure, a "Winner".
Anna Winters, via email

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