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Defying the terrorists with some poolside pastries

Published 1 June 2003
News Review
516th article

Going native: Winner with Berber tribespeople at La Mamounia (Geraldine Lyton-Edwards)

Would you risk your life for a chocolate eclair? I did. I travelled to Morocco at Easter, shortly after the Gulf war but before the more recent outrages in Casablanca. The Foreign Office had warned Britons travelling to Morocco that the threat of terrorism had increased. This has now been upped to "a clear threat from international terrorism".

I remember when the West End of London was beset by terrorism. In the Seventies the IRA was bombing restaurants galore. Chicken wire appeared over the windows of many establishments to prevent bombs packed with nails being chucked in by passing Irishmen.

One IRA gang was caught when it fired shots at Scott's restaurant in Mount Street, having previously bombed it, killing one person. The police were out in force that Saturday night and pursued the perpetrators to Balcombe Street in nearby Marylebone. There, after a famous siege, they were apprehended. We never stopped dining out.

There were a lot of Englishmen at one of the great hotels, La Mamounia in Marrakesh. But more French people, including the ex-minister of culture Jack Lang, with whom I exchanged a few bons mots, and that marvellous actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, who sadly couldn't speak following a stroke. I would still recommend La Mamounia for the non-faint-hearted.

My visit started with a tiny tantrum. I'm used to lying in prime pool position facing the vast gardens of old olive, orange and lemon trees. To the left of my sun-lounger, and also in front, was a glorious display of flowers. When I arrived the beds sported only brown earth.

"Where have the flowers gone?" I asked with peak petulance of Mohammed Chaab, the unflappable deputy general manager. He muttered something about replanting.

"It is now 6pm," I said. "By tomorrow morning, early, I expect to see those beds brimming with flowers." And you know something? They were.

The pool buffet remains absolutely outstanding. The pastry chef, 33-year-old Gael Ruscart, produces stuff that looks like other dessert displays, but unlike most tastes terrific.

The food in the hotel's Moroccan restaurant is also exceptional. Lamb with everything and a pigeon pastilla almost as good as the one at Le Tobsil, Christine Rio's ace villa in the medina.

La Mamounia throws in a belly dancer for good measure. Every Sunday Berber tribesmen from the Atlas mountains, which provide a stunning backdrop to the view from my suite, come poolside in full regalia. They march around blowing horns and hitting drums. Then they do traditional dances. I called them in during the week for our photograph.

A lot of people now go to the Amanjena, part of the super-posh Aman group. This is a recently built Disneyland version of old Morocco about 30 minutes out of town adjacent to a golf course. It's luxurious, but cold and rather inhospitable. Although it does boast a Thai restaurant as fine as any in Thailand.

They change managers too much at the Amanjena. The last two were a dour Swiss couple. Now they have a Dutchman, Ferdinand Wortelboer. He's jollier than the Swiss (who isn't?) but needs to get a grip on things. When I visited the Thai establishment the restaurant manager departed at 9pm, leaving me with sloppy service. He obviously wasn't on red alert.

Later, we walked through the deserted, spooky arched corridors to discover there was no doorman and no sign of my chauffeur and Mercedes. Geraldine looked for the toilet, WC, lavatory or whatever I'm now meant to call it. She couldn't find anyone to direct her. When she did, it was two staff members, on duty and kissing. Eventually, the doorman appeared and located my car.

That would not have happened at La Mamounia. They have marvellously fancy-dressed door people out of some old movie. Robert Berge, the director-general, looks like a French governor in 19th century Africa. He got the Legion d'Honneur while I was there.

If you get fed up with the souk - where if you pay over one-third of the asking price you're silly - you can drive into the Ourika valley. This is spectacularly untouched. Mud houses cling to the mountainside. Hanging bamboo bridges over a river link some of them with the road.

Have lunch at Ramuntcho, owned by Jamali Abbouo. The tall picture windows face the red earth of the Atlas mountains. I had toast with goat's cheese, a sliced open, roasted chicken, flattened like veal. And a meringue glace a la Chantilly.

On the way back I bought three Berber rugs from a hut, all wool, beautifully patterned, for £22 each. What? You're frightened to go there? That's your problem.

Winner's letters

Not wearing a tie is bad enough, but shouldn't a man of Michael Winner's age at least tuck his shirt in?
Simon Long, Birmingham

Yorkshire pudding with roast lamb (Winner's Dinners, last week)! Yes, Michael, I agree, you are common.
Dennis Pallis, Buxted, East Sussex

You're spot on about the Dorchester (Winner's Dinners, last week). I attended an awards ceremony there. The staff were aloof and suspicious of what they clearly perceived to be riffraff. At midnight two of us left for the lobby to sit and talk quietly. A waiter asked: "What would you like to order?" When we said "Nothing", he responded: "You can't sit here. That's what the screen is for. Otherwise everyone from the ballroom would come through."
Patsy Hammond, Manchester

Why don't you out-Branson Branson and make BA an offer for a redundant Concorde? A man of your stature could not revert to reaching Barbados in the lesser manner of a first class seat aboard a 747.
Andy Webb, East Sussex

A report in The Times stated that after a judge's ruling on Parma ham, the Italian ham and cheese producers hailed the court's decision as "historic". Has Michael's pet word, which has always had a hammy flavour, at last found its way home?
Will Holland, Battersea

My wife and I stayed at Chewton Glen. The room service and general ambience were excellent. The dinner was cold and poorly served, primarily because a well-known chef was eating there and he got all the attention. Our main courses were returned and replaced - with a fairly indifferent apology without any offer of a drink or other minor compensation. No attention was given to my complaint when I completed the guests' form when we left. Disappointing!
John Thorne, Slough

How nice of you to buy lunch for the old ladies in Frederick's (Winner's Dinners, last week). It was a lovely gesture. I hope you can do the same for me and my husband if you're ever in our neck of the woods.
June Miller, Warwickshire

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