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Let them eat cake

Published 7 April 2002
Style Magazine
456th article

Sacher crowd: from left, Alexandra Gurtler, Elfi Kammerhofer, Michael Winner and Elisabeth Gurtler (Georgina Hristova)

I'd never come across a lady general manager of a hotel until I met Elfi Kammerhofer. She's boss of the Hotel Sacher in Salzburg. I rate her as one of the best managers ever. She was a superb host. Quite unlike Andrea Scherz junior, who messed up my booking at the Palace Hotel Gstaad, where I'd planned to be. The Scherzes, junior and senior, creep about looking miserable. I never felt they cared about their guests. The only time any executive behaved in a welcoming manner at the Palace was a Mr Ferrari, the resident manager in 1994. He was excellent, but left. Possibly because he intruded on the gloom created by the Scherzes. Cheerful and exemplary hotel managers include Dr Rusconi at the Cipriani in Venice, Maurizio Saccani at the Splendido in Portofino and Peter Crome at Chewton Glen in Hampshire.

Georgina surveyed the Sacher's presidential suite. "There's no dressing table," she said. "How do you make up? It's like a communist apartment. Even the pen by the phone has a communistic shape." She noted her bathroom had a shower curtain, while my bathroom didn't. There was a large sitting room, a bedroom and a small dining room. The view was of the River Salzach, some hills, a castle and the old town of Salzburg. There wasn't an enormous amount of furniture. There were duvets on the twin beds. Ridiculous for a quality hotel. There should have been blankets and sheets.

Each morning, Elfi appeared with road maps for my self-drive tours of distant lakes and mountains. She herself drove through the convoluted streets of Salzburg so we could follow until we were safely pointing in the right direction. An interesting trip was to Berchtesgaden, site of Hitler's country retreat, in nearby Germany. We dropped in for lunch at a modest guesthouse, Gasthof Rehwinkl. There I had one of the best vegetable soups ever, some remarkably tender and tasty pork and a delicious home-made apple strudel.

In the Zirbelzimmer restaurant in the Sacher, the maitre d' advised the panelling was from the original 1866 house. Zirbel is a type of wood. On the walls were carved deer heads with real horns and antlers. I have an imposing one in my kitchen. It's a beautifully carved 18th-century deer's head with large, real antlers. Count von Trapp of Sound of Music fame found it for me in Innsbruck.

I had bouillon of beef with vegetables, semolina dumpling and liver dumpling. Then crisp roast fillet of char, from a local lake. Georgina had a main course of fillet of pike perch in smoked gravy on lentils, vegetables and potatoes. Goose liver with poached pears arrived as a freebie starter. Elfi entered, distressed about the shower curtain. "I can't believe it," she said. "Neither could I," I chipped in. Then came another freebie of gratinated lobster.

Later, with the meal extending beyond reason, yet another freebie dish arrived. I said: "I don't want all these extra things, take it away."

"The chef wanted you to try it," said the maitre d'.

"I'm not here to taste things for the chef I just want the food I ordered," I said. As they took it away, Georgina, who'd been complaining about the service slowed by freebie extras, murmured: "That looked very good."

"Well, you're not having it," I responded.

Later, I had the Sacher-Torte. Nice, but not a patch on the chocolate cake at Harry's Bar, Venice. The food was generally excellent.

We flew to Vienna in a small propeller plane where the door didn't shut properly. The freezing draught nearly killed me. The famous Hotel Sacher in Vienna, big sister to the one in Salzburg, is far more elegantly furnished. I was greeted by the owners, Mrs Elisabeth Gurtler and her daughter Alexandra. Lunch included tafelspitz, which is boiled beef with apple horseradish, chive sauce and roast potatoes. It was memorable. The hotel fought a lengthy legal battle over its chocolate cake, the Sacher-Torte. It was ruled that other places could call it Sacher-Torte, but not "the original" or "real" Sacher-Torte. I approve of any country that goes to court about chocolate cake. I made three movies in Austria. I like the place and the people.

The Sacher guide drove us past a Viennese monument. "That's to the Russian soldiers who liberated us in the second world war," he said. "Liberated you!" I exclaimed. "From what? You were allies with the Germans. You fought side by side with the Germans. You got rid of jews like the Germans. You were as one. How dare you tell me you were liberated?" The driver looked peeved. "That’s not what we were taught at school," he muttered. They should stick to chocolate cake.


In Barbados on holiday recently, I had dinner at the Lone Star in St James. I have been there in previous years, but wanted to give it another chance, particularly as it has been described by Michael Winner as "the Ivy of the Caribbean". Was he referring to the Ivy in Hartlepool, Chesterfield or Dagenham? While the setting is lovely, the food is distinctly ordinary. The only resemblance to the Ivy in London WC2 is the size of the bill.
AD Dawson, Richmond, Surrey

His shortcomings notwithstanding, the attraction of Mr Winner is his scathing criticism of poor service. In spite of, or perhaps because of, his eccentric behaviour, he has become the ombudsman for all those who love good food and wine, but often run into appalling service and food that leaves much to be desired. We should all do as Mr Winner and not be grudgingly but silently accepting. I am probably as openly critical as Mr Winner when visiting restaurants, especially in Britain. But then I didn't move here for the food - it was love of my wife that brought me.
Rolf Soderlind, Thames Ditton

When I read Michael Winner's remarks about the Copper Kettle opposite King's College in Cambridge (March 24), I felt compelled to defend that establishment against the charge that it serves "horrid, plastic-wrapped, tasteless nonsense". In the late 1970s, my future husband was a student at Corpus Christi college, and our favourite Saturday lunch was a plate full of rich tomatoey lasagne at the Copper Kettle. Last year, I took one of my daughters for a visit to Cambridge and, out of nostalgia, took her to lunch at the same restaurant. The lasagne was as delicious as ever, and when I complimented the chef, he said he had been taught to cook it by his uncle, who ran the restaurant 20 years ago.
Jacqui Shabankareh, Leatherhead, Surrey

Over the years, Michael Winner has praised modest eateries as well as top restaurants, proving that he doesn't just do "posh nosh". It seems that some of your correspondents could learn from his example. I have to admit to a certain amount of schadenfreude when I read how someone has dined at hideous expense, only to find that it all goes horribly wrong.
Jane Martin, Petersfield, Hants

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