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Out of Africa and quite possibly out to lunch as well

Published 2 May 2005
News Review
619th article

From left: the Whittomes, Amanda Holden and Michael Winner (Paola Lombard)

It's difficult, though not impossible, to criticise a hotel when the staff are so welcoming as they are at the Hoste Arms in Burnham Market, Norfolk.

It's massively to the credit of the owners, Paul Whittome and his wife, Jeanne. I've never come across people who so genuinely put "hospitality" into the absurdly named "hospitality industry".

Now down to basics. My suite was beyond belief bizarre. It was called the Penthouse. Yet it was on a low second floor with other rooms adjacent. The only thing sky high about it was the price - £396 a night.

This in a glorified pub in a "quaint" village. I was in the Zulu wing. Honestly.

You couldn't make it up. Apparently Jeanne had connections with Zululand.

The room featured lumpish lamps with ghastly oversized lampshades fringed with exotic fur and feathers; endless prints of African animals on fabrics and walls; six bright red things, which resembled straw hats, fixed to the wall; and a peculiar framed shield-like collage of animal skins. This is not a hotel where the animal rights people should hold their convention.

The bathroom had second-rate products in it and not many of them. The sinks were awful pudding basins with taps you had to operate like the joystick of an aeroplane. The bathroom windows were -if you'll excuse the word in a refined newspaper -at genital level. So if you mistakenly wandered about naked (in my case not a pretty sight!) people in the car park saw all.

Breakfast was a disaster. The coffee was tepid so we sent it back. Paola asked for tea bags, but not in the hot water because she'd brought her own. The tea bags came in hot water. The toast, if heated two seconds less, would still have been bread. The croissants were the most horrible I've ever tasted.

Another diner suggested they were probably the cheapest pre-packed from a supermarket. Paul, the hotel owner, wrote two books in which he reviewed restaurants. He published them himself. To review restaurants and then serve croissants like that is beyond belief.

The staff were vastly efficient.

I was brushing my teeth one morning and heard a clonk. A gold cap rolled down the plughole. The hotel returned it to me in a neat white envelope within half an hour.

Anything ordered for the room arrived with exemplary speed. Paul's superb manager, Emma Tagg, met our helicopter (we landed in a local garden!) to transport us in Paul's luxurious Bentley Arnage to the hotel. I'd asked for a rented convertible car. Paul gave me his Mercedes SL500. A terrible responsibility. But very generous. I don't accept freebies, so I sent him £500 for two day's hire.

I'm happy to say Sunday lunch was terrific. My guests were the lovely actress Amanda Holden (she has a house nearby) and her fiance, Chris Hughes. He's the only nice executive I've ever met who's in the music business.

Paola and Amanda had salmon fish cakes to start. They voted them tip-top. I had caramelised escalope of foie gras, pancetta, fried gnocci, sweet onion and broad bean salad. Great. One of the all-time tastiest courses.

I ordered a Batard-Montrachet, thinking it was a red wine. Then I got nervous. "I'll find out secretly," offered Amanda, as if wishing to hide my shame if it turned out to be white. Which it did. Amanda, darling, I'm beyond shame. We switched to Chateau Margaux 1986, reasonably priced at £237.30 ex service.

The roast beef and Yorkshire pudding were excellent. Amanda had the beef wrapped for her cairn terriers, Nobby and Fudge. She ate the veggies, which were extremely good. For dessert I had a trio of apple crumble, milk shake and mousse. It was a delight.

Paul started in business selling potatoes from a roadside caravan. He became one of the largest suppliers of potatoes to fish and chip shops.

Now he has this 36-room hotel. In the Zulu wing, little red lights run along the rim of each stair. It looks like an old MGM musical set. I expected Ziegfeld girls dressed in high heels and feathers to descend followed by a man in white tie and tails tapping toward me. Instead a couple checked out some bizarre animal sculptures on the walls. "He's got a very eclectic taste, hasn't he?" the lady said. That's putting it mildly.

  • PS Paul was demonstrating how to put the roof down on his Mercedes. I was in the driver's seat. It had been raining. The roof slid back - water showered all over me. I leapt out in panic.

    Paola started mopping the seats. "What about me! Mop me!" I exclaimed. Paola said: "This is leather!" She kept doing the seats.

    Winner's letters

    The gents' cloakroom of a beachside restaurant in St Lucia displays a very flattering photo of you with a sign below reading: "If you see this man please advise the management at once." My wife saw no such red alert in the ladies. Sexism or properly applied sensitivity, she wondered.
    Vic Gamble, Guernsey

    In my far off days in the army a welsh rarebit was thought to be a virgin from the Rhonda valley.
    Kel Prince, Loughborough

    I tried the welsh rarebit at Betty's Cafe last week, as recommended by Simon Reid (Winner's Letters, May 1). It was nigh on "historic". However, my companion's rosti was raw in the middle. The prices were certainly historic. Or should that be stratospheric?
    Ralph Oswick, Bath

    Seeing you grimacing in last week's picture, I assumed you regretted tightening your belt in line with your new diet after the unnecessary helping of cream from Paola, which you told us about. Then I noticed that poor little piggy was simply being crushed by Ian Pengelley's famous 5Aft left arm.
    Barry Kane, Nottingham

    I usually agree with you, but not when you praised the welsh rarebit at Fortnum and Mason (Winner's Dinners, April 24). It shouldn't be served on a soggy slice of brioche, topped with a sloppy type of hollandaise sauce, thickened with an innocuous cheese and slightly browned. A good welsh rarebit is made with a strong cheddar cheese, yolks of egg, cream, English mustard, beer and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce spread on a slice of bread toasted on one side only and browned under a grill.
    William Garfield, Edgware

    I must protest at the haste with which your new girlfriend, Paola, appears to have been selected. The post did not appear in the Appointments section of The Sunday Times, thus depriving me of the chance to apply. Does this mean I have to miss out yet again on La Reserve de Beaulieu?
    Gabrielle Cleasby, Larroucau, France

    I notice that Winner's Dinners appears week in, week out. Does the poor man never take a holiday?
    Geoff Paver, Oxford

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