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Trial by snow and ice, but the chickens were friendly

Published 20 April 2003
News Review
510th article

Winner with waitress Verena and chickens at the Hotel Albula (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I may not look like a major explorer. But I am. Whenever I go somewhere new I get detailed maps and go forth relentlessly to see what there is to see, often driving over four hours a day. Thus I set out from Suvretta House to St Moritz. A five-minute trip.

St Moritz has gone. It may once have been pleasant. It's now full of Swiss modern architecture with no charm whatsoever. The Palace Hotel, a place of great reputation, looks dowdy and lost. We went for a coffee. The terrace, which normally reliable theatre producer Michael White said had a stunning view, overlooked what appeared to be council flats. We fled.

The next day was a serious drive. First to Zuoz, a pretty Swiss village with paintings on the chalets, a fountain in the main square, a church and a statue of a bear. In the Cafe Restaurant Klarer I had an extremely good lemon tart and a cappuccino. Then came real adventure. Through Pontresina and over the Bemina Pass. Past great glaciers, frozen snow on the mountains. It went on for ever. It was well past my lunchtime and I was still zigzagging along mountain roads. An endless desert of white snow. No houses, just hairpin bends. By 3.30pm I was weak from hunger.

An oasis turned up in the form a small roadside place called Ristorante Sfazu in the area of San Carlo. It's owned by the family Luigi Rossi-Gruber and Mrs RG, first name Verena, turned up. If you drop in to a restaurant in England, chances are you'll eat rubbish. Verena suggested her home-made tagliatelle. She put more logs on the stove with its see-through front. I had a Coca-Cola and sat warming myself at a wooden table. The tagliatelle was absolutely historic. It was done with fried onions, fried garlic, cheese and cabbage. Much fortified I drove back to St Moritz.

The next day I went to Bergun and Filisur. They're marked with a yellow surround on the roadmap, meaning they're worth a visit. I drove with incredible skill over the Julierpass to Tiefencastel and then turned right to Filisur. Lovely mountains, a pretty village. No apparent place for lunch. I soldiered on to Bergun. Also very pleasing. We took coffee at the immaculately clean Cafe Stube, to fortify me. Then I settled on the tiny Hotel Restaurant Albula for lunch.

Although the village was almost deserted, this was quite busy. The charming young waitress was Verena Krainer. Her boyfriend was the chef. We had some marvellous soup but I forgot to record what it was. This is because I was getting overexcited about the chickens. There were three of them on the ledge of an open arch between my bit of the restaurant and the other side. They were beautifully made and stood in straw. They had real feathers.

My house is like a museum. All old oil paintings and antiques. I thought chickens wandering round the mantelpiece would look amusing. But they weren't for sale. Verena said they came from a local shop.

I ordered a Berguner rosti mit Berguner hauswurst. Geraldine took a terrific salad from the bar, not tired old rubbish which you usually get in England. It was accompanied by a very good white herb sauce. "My rosti is like hash brown potatoes," I dictated, "on the top is an enormous, seriously tasty sausage. Most Germanic. Beautifully done hash brown, very light, not overcooked. Perfect." I asked for apfel strudel, but they hadn't made any that day. So I chose "zabione", which was excellent and, most unusually, had an ice cream in it.

Then we went to Ursula Meier's chicken shop, which was closed until 3pm. Even for chickens I couldn't wait. I decided to try the Albula pass, which had been closed two days earlier but was now open. It was a shorter way back. I can't imagine why it was declared usable. The road was covered in snow and ice. My dreadful diesel Volkswagen Passat had dark red needles against a black background. How anyone was meant to read the instrument panel I do not know. It skidded and slid from side to side of the narrow road. I gave up and took the longer, scenic way back through the Julierpass which goes up to 2,284 metres high. I thought you should know that.

I eventually got back to Suvretta House. I was interested how many readers wrote in with their views about the place. One said Mrs Jacob, who manages it with her husband, personally brought his dry-cleaning to the room. When I left after five days she said "Goodbye Mr Winter". That about summed it up.

Winner's letters

How snobbish of Michael Hubble (Winner's Letters, last week) to rebuke our hero for using the word "toilet". Mr Hubble takes a fashionable side-swipe at the French, but appears oblivious to the fact that "lavatory" itself is nicked from them. It's derived from the word "layer" - to wash.
William Mitchell, Dorset

My former English master used to castigate both "lavatory and toilet" as being equally bad euphemisms. He insisted that "WC" is correct.
Sir Alan Fersht, Cambridge

You should ask Michael Hubble to keep his ugly loo names where they belong, in Spain and France. When one crosses Offa's Dyke what name could be nicer and sweeter than the Welsh ty bach - little house.
David Jones, Cardiff

Regarding our restaurant sweet potato (Winner's Dinners, last week) our message to Mr Winner, using his terminology, is, "Calm down, dear, this really is a very good restaurant". If all he can criticise is the "pretentious" lack of capital letters in our name (not unlike esure, which he is currently promoting) and the taste of a meat he's never tried before, then we're not doing badly! Perhaps Mr Winner should stick to "totally historic fried egg sandwiches" rather than try more sophisticated fayre such as ostrich steak if his palate is unaccustomed to such flavours.
Cam and Tara Unwin, Reigate

So Pierre Richterich (Winner's Letters, last week) is unhappy with Air France's "pathetic attempts to provide vegetarian food". If there's one thing that France still leads the world in, it's treating vegetarians with contempt. Hats off to them. I've just spent 40 days living as a vegetarian and I can tell you that it's no life for a man.
Don Jones, Wiltshire

Seymour Relish (Winner's Letters, last week) should know I still travel with Mr Branston, pun intended. Recently the complimentary food on outward and return journeys was calzone, a folded pizza. I experienced great difficulty penetrating its rubbery case. Eventually I discovered it contained a miserable amount of something like vegetable soup. We arrived at Euston one hour and 10 minutes late!
Lorenzo Mustard, Dijon

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk