Published 11 January 2004 News Review 548th article
In the pink: Michael Winner with the Champion family (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
I once did a television programme called Celebrity Sleepover. I stayed in a council house on the Herts-Essex border.
Just before Christmas, when I was auctioneer at the NSPCC's Snow Ball, a lady asked, "Did you really like those people?" "Yes," I said, "very much. I still see them." The Madden family consisted of Denis, his wife Sue, daughter Rachel and son Matthew.
It was Denis's 50th birthday late last summer (yes, I've kept this little treasure for you all this time!) and I decided to play a joke. This meant driving to Furneux Pelham, a very pretty Hertfordshire village, on a Sunday.
As I sat stationary by a roundabout the car behind crashed into the back of my Saab Convertible with a loud bang. It was driven by Bulgarians. It wasn't their fault. They'd stopped behind when some Englishman in a BMW smashed into them pushing them onto me. Eventually the Englishman's insurance company paid out in full for my damage.
I'd told Denis I couldn't make his party. So before going I dropped in for lunch at a picture postcard thatched cottage, the Pink Geranium in Melbourn, Cambridgeshire. It's owned by Lawrence and Sally Champion. He was restaurant manager on my first visit to the dreaded Midsummer House in Cambridge years ago.
His wife Sally normally runs the front of house, but she was feeding baby Jake. There's also daughter Jordan, aged ﬁve. It's important you know these things. They may affect your view of the food.
The setting is a typically lovely English country cottage with a garden full of roses and other flowers and opposite a church. Not surprisingly, in view of its name, the cottage was painted pink. Lawrence said some if it was 500 years old. The chef, Gordon Campbell, had been at the excellent Vineyard at Stockcross.
I didn't like the table Lawrence selected for me. It was in the cottage itself, not in the adjacent conservatory. "I chose inside because the conservatory's too hot," Lawrence explained. "I'll go there," I said, moving towards a table in the conservatory.
Just before I made it, another party sat down. "Very bad timing," said Lawrence. "Dreadful," I agreed, wondering whether to pay them to move elsewhere.
Instead I ordered a parfait of foie gras and chicken livers with fig chutney. Apart from some rather weird jazz coming through it was a very pleasant place, idyllic. The homemade tomato and parmesan bread was good. So was the foie gras, I finished it and forgot to eat the chutney. So I started eating my lettuce leaves with the chutney.
Geraldine said, "It's horrific", referring to my table manners. She says this frequently. I'm used to it. The reason now was that I was using both my steak knife and the other knife by mistake. "It's horrific," repeated Geraldine, "quite terrible." "Just an ordinary day in Winnerland," I said cheerfully.
The Yorkshire pudding was very good indeed. But they didn't put any gravy on it. My roast beef was on a bed of spinach. I hate spinach in beds or any other form. The beef was a thick cut and tasted of nothing. It was very chewy. Geraldine said her fillet of brill was seriously good. My roast potatoes were a long way off good. They didn't have a crisp exterior.
I finished with griottine cherry and almond Bakewell tart with mascarpone ice cream. Geraldine advised me griottine were special black French cherries.
"Charming waitresses and staff," I dictated." "They're not marshmallows," said Geraldine. "They're very genuine." "Genuine marshmallows, you mean," I said ever wishing to be helpful.
I'm a world expert on Bakewell tart. My dessert was not a Bakewell tart. It was like an almond cake with cherries in it. It had little to do with Bakewell tart in texture or shape. But it was very, very good.
Then on to Denis in my dented Saab. I phoned him at 1pm when I was just a few yards from his house where the party was starting. "I'm sorry I couldn't make it, Denis," I said. "I'm ringing to wish you well." A few seconds later I turned up with my present. What a jolly little soul I am. Spreading happiness all round. Occasionally.
I have sat on the Sandy Lane beach gazing at the Caribbean sea reading your entries for our competition asking why I was taking seven pairs of nail scissors to Barbados before they were removed by the Champion family airport security. I await final entries.
Next week, if we don't get a correct answer, I'll place your letters in a sack and pull one out. That lucky person wins my £200 prize. Please spend it on total frivolity.
Please come to Dublin, Michael. Your culinary barbs would be a long overdue kick in the britches for some gastronomic pretenders this side of the pond. My wife and I were given the cold treatment (quite literally) by Dublin's Pearl restaurant. We were frozen out of it! Our complaint was met by another block of ice in the shape of the manageress who had all the communication skills of an overexcited cockatoo. The foie gras proved inedible, the prawns were overcooked and my car windscreen contained more bubbles than our introductory glass of champagne.
Edward White, Dublin
With Michael Winner looking as he did in last week's photo, heaven help The Sunday Times should they ever ask him to write a men's fashion column.
Dennis Pallis, Kent
Michael's amusing articles are peppered with the interesting characters he meets in various parts of the world. I noticed, while in Barbados, he and Geraldine were in deep conversation with a wonderful Gloria Swanson lookalike wearing a rather fetching hat. Was he discussing the appalling service at Sandy Lane that evening or did he direct her in one of his earlier movies? I am intrigued. Could the genial but ever expanding Mr Winner enlighten us?
David Pidgeon, Surrey
Along with other readers I'd be interested to know how much Michael's bill comes to at Sandy Lane this time around. Perhaps he'd also tell us about the Bajan synchronised massage. I'm told this is a relaxing two-hour extravaganza at £200 a go, during which you have the total attention of two therapists.
Gunvor Symonds, London
Your seven pairs of scissors were gifts for friends at Sandy Lane. Sterling silver and monogrammed. I'd expect nothing less.
Liam O'Leary, Ireland
The seven scissors were one each for seven tables of your friends to cut their grapes from the bunches provided by Sandy Lane.
Richard Hann, Bristol
After consuming five pints of Guinness here in my local I've come up with the definitive answer about your nail scissors. You use them to make holes in your belt for your ever-expanding girth.
John Finegan, Ireland
Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org