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Loud cuckoo land

Published 30 June 2002
Style Magazine
468th article



Michael Winner with Johanna and Dietmar Maier at Hotel Hubertus (Georgina Hristova)

The cuckoo went completely crazy. I think it was on substances. It popped out of the clock above our table and cuckooed 20 times when the clock showed quarter past six. In the real world, it was quarter past seven. Maybe the bird was frightened by the chairs. They were high-backed Victorian-type things, covered in animal horns and antlers. They frightened me when I considered all the poor little animals killed to provide chair decoration.

I was in an Austrian village called Filzmoos, having been directed there by the superbly efficient manager of the Hotel Sacher Salzburg, Elfi Kammerhofer. I sat in the Hubertushof restaurant, the pride and joy of the small Hotel Hubertus. This semi-charming place boasts 19 out of 20 possible points in the reliable GaultMillau Guide - the highest rating it's known to give. I risked being cuckooed to death - the bird certainly tried, it came out every 20 minutes but at least I expected to eat well.

A man in Tyrolean attire came over. "Are you the boss?" I asked. "The boss is my wife," replied Dietmar Maier. He's had the restaurant for 30 years. For the first 10, he was the chef. His wife's cooked for the past 20. "She's better than me," he said.

We started off with very fresh orange juice for Georgina and a buck's fizz for me. Everyone knows if you pour orange juice into champagne, it bubbles up. Here it erupted, spilling onto the floor and table. The waitress looked surprised.

They use their own bottled mineral water, which they assured me was the best. It came from their private spring. It was thin and horrid.

The menu offered pigeon."Where's it from?" I asked Herr Maier. "St Mark’s Square in Venice," he replied, fancying himself as a comedian. "It's full of pigeons."

"Please, I'm a food writer," I responded, thus considerably lowering myself in the eyes of right-thinking people. "Is this pigeon from Bresse?" I asked. In all posh places, it says the pigeon is from Bresse. Gordon Ramsay says it, so does Marco Pierre White. Bresse must look like a remake of Hitchcock's The Birds. Endless pigeons flying around, pooing on restaurant representatives trying to catch them with huge nets. Or maybe Bresse folk breed them in pigeon farms.

Herr Maier said: "The pigeon is from Bresse." I don't know why, but I doubted him. It didn't matter. I wasn't ordering it. Then Herr Maier's wife, Johanna, appeared, a lovely blonde lady dressed head-to-toe in flowing white. She looked like Ophelia. She could float in their very own spring water between the tables for a cabaret. No, hold on. Here comes food. A freebie starter of yellow pepper soup, a spring roll with langoustine, and a tartare of something with lettuce leaves on top. Very delicate. Georgina said: "Yes, definitely."

My first course was called four types of trout. A smoked trout, a trout mousse, a trout dumpling in soup and a salad. I only made that three types of trout. Then we had rabbit ravioli. The pasta surround was tough and heavy. We'd now been there for an hour and a quarter, and hadn't got the main course. When it came, it was veal with either kidneys or brains. "I must ask which," I dictated into my tape. It's unbelievable, someone writing about food who doesn't know the difference between kidneys and brains. I do, really. I just got carried away.

Whatever it was, it was accompanied by mushrooms, with rice. spinach and garlic. Absolutely ghastly. A clear voice emanated from my tape: "We had veal brains with the veal. Not the brains. It seems to be the glands." Has anyone heard of eating glands? Thinking it over, yes. They're called sweetbreads.

I continued with delicious poppy-seed dumplings in zabaglione. Georgina had a small chocolate souffle, chocolate mousse, chocolate ice cream and a poached pear.

Also in the Salzburg area, I had a very homely east European goulash soup in the Cafe Brunhumer in Zell am See, which is on a lake. I finished off with a large pink cake with a layer of marzipan under the icing, just the sort of thing I like. And at the Seehotel Schwan in Gmunden, a very pretty town, a tasty beef soup with egg and a spicy goulash. The apple strudel with cream was terrific. The pleasure was diminished by a noisy group at the next table. They also intruded on the view of the lake and distant mountains.

At the Hubertushof, everyone had spoken very quietly. An exemplary clientele. Perhaps they didn't dare interrupt the cuckoo. If I had a hammer, I'd have smashed it. I couldn't really bludgeon it with a chocolate mousse, could I?



Letters

I'm saddened by the apparent decline of Wiltons (June 16), and in full agreement with Mr Winner's views on unnecessary changes. I wondered if he might try the food at the Connaught's "new" restaurant when it opens, now that his friend Mr Ramsay intends to tinker with what was, to me, the last bastion of quality English dining. "Change and decay in all around I see" should be sung by all of us, I fear.
John Roberts, by e-mail

I read with ever-increasing amazement Michael Winner's description of the food he and Georgina ate at La Roseraie (June 9) in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Not only does this glorious hotel grow all its own produce and herbs organically, but when I was there, the guests, who were all discerning travellers, feasted with rapture on fabulous food. And does he not know that the olives are bitter to accompany the sweet flavour of the fruits, both of which are added to the main fish and meat dishes? Come on, Mr Winner. I am beginning to think you have forgotten the joy of eating truly fresh and delicious food. Does your jaded palate need to be given a well-deserved rest from overindulgence?
Judith Howard, by e-mail

The reason for France's early departure from the World Cup is really very simple. Cast your mind back four years, to when the French, in their infinite wisdom, banned British beef imports. One can barely begin to imagine the detrimental effect of all those training sessions without the undoubted benefits of British roasts and steaks. Quelle catastrophe! Advice from you, Europe's foremost culinary expert, would certainly make the French sit up and take notice. And for a multitalented man such as yourself, running les bleus would be a doddle.
Iain Chapman, Marciac, France

I heartily agree with F Brady's comments (June 16) on the Brick Lane Beigel Bake, with one big exception: when did a beigel become a bagel? If you are in any doubt about how to pronounce it, let me tell you, once and for all, as an original East Ender, that it is pronounced "bygel". And yes, Mr Winner, it is worth the trip.
Edith Davidson, by e-mail

We were in Derbyshire last weekend and were able to partake of some local bakewell tart. It was perfection. Why? It had been made by the president of Brassington Women's Institute. Michael Winner, for once, was absolutely spot-on.
Rosemary Platt, by e-mail

Send letters to Style; or e-mail: michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk