Published 24 February 2002 Style Magazine 450th article
Air force two: Michael Winner and Georgina Hristova (Clare Sullivan)
I wouldn't describe Concorde as a gastronomic experience to be treasured. I've flown on it since its inception over 30 years ago. It's always exciting and a pleasure. I even remember the days when caviar was in evidence, and one year when, en route to Barbados, we got a superb little iced Christmas cake to take away. It was a notebook this time. But things are tough in the airline business, and for British Airways in particular.
I've always liked British Airways. The staff are exemplary. If only ground-based waitresses had one-quarter of the charm and attentiveness of BA cabin crews, life would be joyful. The food on all airlines is another matter. I recall once, on TWA, smearing back the sauce on a portion of duck to reveal green growth. I called the steward. "Ah. yes," he said. "It's mould." Then off he went.
Nothing so cataclysmic happened on my recent Concorde journeys to and from Barbados. The ticket price - nearly £14,000 for two - was quite dramatic enough. On the way out, Captain Richard Owen got us there in 3¾ hours. I'd hoped to see the Concorde chief Mike Bannister, but it was his son's birthday, which, amazingly, he considered more important than flying me. Our captain on the way back was Derek Woodley, who visited us on the Sandy Lane beach. He was staying half a mile away and would walk by, exercising, and stop for a chat.
On the plane, now refitted with lighter and more comfortable seats, the cabin-services director Clare Sullivan gave us two canapes, one shrimp, one pate. They were okay. Then we had Maine lobster with mango and spinach salad, which was perfectly acceptable.
The free-range chicken breast with wild mushroom confit was actively terrible. The man over the aisle from me wolfed it down ravenously. But then he'd been working on his computer.
Georgina had, and was satisfied with, roast aubergine, artichoke and pepper salad with buffalo mozzarella, pecorino and parmesan cheese.
The Concorde menu descriptions take nearly as long to read as the flight itself The wording on a little box said: "Varda chocolates developed these unique delicacies especially for British Airways and for your delight. Ingredients: Belgian butter, milk and white couvertures, cream butter, hazelnut paste and natural flavours." Georgina asked why chocolate wasn't among the ingredients. I had no answer. Later, someone told me couverture meant chocolate. My French dictionary said "bed cover". That's what the Varda things tasted of.
A reader wrote saying he booked the Splendido in Portofino and, far from the great view I rave about, had a sheer rock face just outside his window. He left and went to Ca' Peo, a restaurant with rooms, in the nearby hills. He greatly recommended it. Ca' Peo is historic. It serves some of the best food ever. But, I warn you, be very specific when making hotel reservations. Be relentless. Ask for details about the room. A year ago I booked "the best possible suite" at the Palace Hotel Gstaad for February 2003. They know me well, although I've always felt the lack of a good manager, particularly since the owner's son, Andrea Scherz, took over. Sensing trouble, I wrote recently to check the suite was, as always, on a higher floor. The lower suites are ghastly. They overlook flat roofs and electrical equipment. Mr Scherz responded: "if possible" my suite would be on a higher floor. My riposte was robust. Mr Schetz wrote, apologising for his "lousy reply", which he blamed on "a colleague".
I then asked for confirmation the suite was the same type as I'd always been given. Amazingly, Mr Scherz said it wasn't. It was a "junior deluxe suite", which was apparently a glorified room. I can't imagine any serious hotel manager downgrading the accommodation of a regular guest without telling him first. Dr Natale Rusconi at the Cipriani in Venice once apologised profusely because, for a day, he could only offer a more modest suite, as the hotel's owner was staying where I usually went.
Mr Scherz said an experienced traveller should know the difference between a junior deluxe suite and a deluxe suite. I had no idea how the Palace graded their suites. That's an in-house rigmarole. The suite I usually stay in looks as if it was furnished by Ikea on a bad day. It has a horrid grey plastic toilet seat below an advertising plaque for Swiss Clean Anti-Germ Solution. It personified "junior" to me. I didn't fancy dipping below that.
I'm going instead to the Hotel Sacher, Salzburg. I think the Palace should get an experienced international hotel manager, instead of relying on nepotism. Putting progeny in charge is a high-risk operation.
Jean Akroyd (February 10) writes of Michael Winner's £2,000-a-night bill for B&B at Sandy Lane: "A fool and his money are soon parted." Another phrase, used often by my father (a Yorkshireman, through and through), springs to mind: "More brass than sense."
R Letourneux, Lyon
You poor, sad people with lots of money to spend on dining out at expensive eateries in the south of England, Italy and France. I am tired of reading about how the duck was overcooked, the sauce too thick, the lemon meringue pie soggy and the chardonnay too dry. Doesn't Michael Winner realise that some families in this country spend as much on food in a week as he and his spoilt readers do in one night's unnecessary indulgence? Get a life, please.
Jean Weatherhead, Edinburgh
I used to like Cecconi's in London's West End, but a recent visit to its new incarnation was a dreadful experience. We booked for 9pm and waited 50 minutes before being shown to a table in the middle of the room, where everyone continuously walked past. When a better table became free, we moved to it ourselves. The lady responsible for the front of house was not in the least bit helpful. Finally, to add insult to injury, we were kept waiting 15 minutes for the bill. At that point, I left my business card so they could send it on and walked out.
Peter J Wood CBE, Reigate, Surrey
A sleepy afternoon at Tamarind Cove, Barbados, was enlivened by a whispered buzz: "Michael Winner is coming." And sure enough, the great man soon appeared on the beach. Is there a bumper sticker proclaiming "WE HAVE SEEN MICHAEL WINNER" (much along the lines of "We have seen the lions of Longleat") to display as a souvenir of this memorable moment? If not, there surely should be.
James Gilbert, London
It was refreshing to read Michael Winner's comments about the new restaurant at Claridge's (February 10), which completely matches our own experience. The food is not only grossly overpriced and pretentiously served, but the portions are minuscule. Instead of television surveillance of the tables, guests should be provided with magnifying glasses to find the food on the plates. We shall certainly be following Michael Winner to real food at the Dorchester.
Janice Silvert, London