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1086 - a bad year for decor, but the prunes were historic

Published 20 February 2005
News Review
606th article

Castle cooking: Winner with Brian Walker and chef John Benson-Smith (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

Tadcaster is somewhere. North, I think. I was yet again plugging my autobiography.

Guidebooks had produced two dreadful overnight places and I had no reason to think the Hazlewood Castle hotel would be any better. It was brilliantly signposted from the motorway and afterwards. But there was nothing showing you had to turn left to get to the reception area. Eventually we found it.

It's a castle, first mentioned in the Domesday Book, which has been a residence, a maternity hospital and a retreat for Carmelite friars. Now it was to reach its apex as a one-night stand for me.

The public rooms are pleasing and understated, although the poor, badly framed, reproduction oil paintings on the grand staircase should be dumped. The suite was excellent. Bit chintzy, but I don't mind that. They'd put out biscuits, scones, jam, slices of lemon, orange, lime, a bowl of fruit, still mineral water and an ice bucket. Highly intelligent. I buttered what I assumed was a home-made biscuit.

It was fine. There were no face flannels in the bathroom, but two packets of Smarties on the pillows. I like Smarties.

The dining room is called 1086. I suppose that's when the whole thing started. It was grotesque. Quite unlike the restrained elegance of the rest of the hotel. It resembled a Japanese restaurant in London gone severely wrong. Black tables without cloths, upright chairs, a bar with low hanging lights, pink bar stools, beige sofas -a total mess.

The restaurant manager, Simon Chiu, took our order and repeated it twice to be sure he got it right. That's clever. The petits fours were terrific, fried veggies I believe, also a pleasing dip of asparagus and truffle oil and marvellous, spindly cheese straws. Geraldine said: "If the rest of the food is like this, I'll have seldom eaten so well in England."

I asked to see the hotel's general manager and a chef turned up. He introduced himself as John Benson-Smith. He said: "I'm everything. I'm the equivalent of the chef patron." The owner is a man called Brian Walker.

The food was absolutely splendid. Stupidly (thus maintaining my normal stance) I ordered squab pigeon with foie gras and sweet potato to start and then roast partridge with puy lentils, cannelloni and red wine sauce to follow. Silly that.

They're quite similar animals. Both small birds that get shot a lot. Portions were enormous: "Each one big enough for 23 people," I dictated on my tape. But everything was superb.

Geraldine started with foie gras on a brioche and followed with fricassee of lobster.

After we'd finished our main course, staff attention wandered. "Wave your serviette around," suggested Geraldine. So I did. We got instant service. The freebie dessert was caramelised prune tart, definitely historic. My chocolate fondant with milk ice cream was very good.

Ordering breakfast was a nightmare. I called the restaurant and they didn't answer. I called reception and they said: "We'll tell the restaurant your order."

I tried the restaurant again. I won't go on, I'll get overexcited. The orange juice wasn't freshly squeezed. It had totally separated into thick and thin liquid areas.

In the lobby I said to John Benson-Smith: "Your restaurant's a bit odd." He said: "I designed it." I told him: "Stick to cooking, John."

Brian Walker, the owner, came to see us off and have his photo taken. He was in the building industry but thought it too much hassle. So he retired in January 2004 to concentrate on the hotel. I said to him: "If John gets out a paper and pencil, take it away from him."

John offered: "My inspiration for the restaurant design was the south of France."

"Please John," I said, "you must have been severely stressed."

Brian explained he was looking for his own home, found Hazlewood Castle derelict and decided it would be a beautiful hotel. I said: "Demolish the restaurant, Brian, and put a sign up showing how to get to reception."

Then I waited for my driver, Alan Hirst, who has his own car hire company. Totally against my advice he'd gone back to Manchester, 70 miles away, for the night.

"You'll be late tomorrow," I warned. Alan is one of those calm, know-it-all northerners. As opposed to me, a frenetic know-it-all southerner. "I'm never late," he said firmly. "Then if you're picking us up at nine you'd better leave at four in the morning," I advised.

Alan was late. He also took the wrong route going to another hotel and seemed always to have great dirty streaks down the front window of his BMW.

What I only have to put up with. But I know you care and sympathise. That's what keeps me going.

Winner's letters

I read with interest last week that you kindly send out autographed photos when requested. I cleared out my old dartboard in a spring clean and am looking for a replacement.
Gavan Quinlan, Dublin.

I'm trying to lose weight. Any chance of one of your signed mugshots? Then I can stick you to my fridge to warn me of what I could turn into with constant scoffing.
Patrick Finegan, Bailieborough, Ireland.

If you're spending £260 a day on Beluga and Sevruga caviar (Winner's Dinners, last week), save £90 by only having Sevruga. Save more by putting cheap blended whisky in your coffee (wholesale, of course) instead of Strathmill. Give me your savings and I'll prepare a salad to help you lose more than a pathetic 16lb.
Adam Butler, north Wales.

Having read your "tip" for losing 16lb by eating caviar on toast every night, I suppose your interpretation of the GI diet is Gross Indulgence.
Howard Broadwell, Nottingham.

Despite the overwhelming probability that it was included to provoke purist outrage, Mr Winner's description last week of "chucking" classic malt whisky in his coffee has inspired me to compose this couplet:
Nothing so tragic, no greater waste
than presence of money in the absence of taste.

Bryan Owram, West Yorkshire.

A column written by a normally kindly disposed person by extension attracts generous natured and very understanding readers. But when, last week, the lovely Geraldine was constrained to admonish you for piggish behaviour, you're pushing your luck.
Dennis Pallis, Kent.

Unlike you, I'm not a famous person. I therefore encounter problems establishing eye contact with waiters. I had a particularly bad experience in Ho Chi Minh City when I had to wave my arm vigorously at a waiter standing not 10ft in front of me. I'm thinking of buying a referee's whistle to overcome this problem. But I hope you'll be able to suggest far more suitable solutions.
Ian Buffam, Kuala Lumpur.

Why not cut yourself out of the picture and leave more room for letters?
Jeffrey Rubins, Cheshire.

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