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Like clockwork, Switzerland serves up a treat

Published 14 August 2005
News Review
631st article



Adolfo Blokbergen and Michael Winner outside the Hotel du Raisin

Switzerland was the first foreign country I ever visited. In August 1946 I stepped onto the balcony of my room at the Palace hotel, Lucerne, and reeled back gasping in amazement at the view of the lake and mountains beyond. It was so far from war-ravaged London. It still is. Now our war is different. Terrorists, muggers, rapists. London is once again a battleground.

Every time I go to Switzerland I think: "Would it be nicer here, in this orderly, clean, well-run place, just sitting by a lake?" Then I return to bedlam.

One of the first films I directed was for the Swiss Tourist Office, called, fairly unremarkably, Swiss Holiday. Francesca Annis's father was the Thomas Cook representative on the production.

If I did go to live in Switzerland - please stop waving "goodbye" and cheering, I haven't decided yet! - I could do worse than start in Cully.

This is a small village on Lake Geneva with a row of beautiful Edwardian houses overlooking the tranquillity of the lake. There are snow-peaked mountains opposite and other mountains covered with vineyards behind.

There's a little hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Raisin, owned by a chubby Swiss chef, Adolfo Blokbergen. Nothing has changed since before the war.

The dining room, with its log fire, is homely. I've always found Swiss food exceptionally good. It's not too fussy. I've seldom had a bad meal there.

Mr Blokbergen gave me a fish called omble, which came from the lake. Then I had lobster followed by stuffed pigeon.

The omble, served with a champagne sauce, was as good a white fish as I've ever eaten. "The fisherman came in at 10.30 with two pieces and we took it," explained Mr Blokbergen.

Then lobster, which had an orange sauce with it. I dictated: "Also a multicoloured thing of pasta. Never seen that before. Green, red, black, yellow and repeated.

Like in a strip." I finished with a ginger souffle. Incredible texture. Very tasty. Altogether a marvellous meal in an atmosphere of peace and quiet.

Two words which did not apply at the pool of the hotel Splendido in Portofino, Italy. With its staggering view of the harbour, a castle on a pine-clad hill and an 18th-century church, this is a beautiful spot.

Suddenly an American woman yelled about her stay in Sardinia to a couple nearby.

Then her three children screamed and screamed! Very loudly. One went down steps the other side of my lounger providing a stereophonic blitzkrieg.

The pool attendant, Daniela, is good. But she must take control.

If I sat screaming I'd rightly be asked to shut up. When I once mistakenly used my mobile phone, Fausto Allegri, the ebullient guest relations manger, pointed out this wasn't allowed by the pool.

The husband of hysterical woman walked by and said: "I hope we're not disturbing you." "It's a nightmare," I responded quietly, "ghastly beyond belief." Then I made speech 23B to Daniela and any member of staff I could find. "If you can't protect guests by your pool I'm leaving tomorrow."

They obviously spoke to the screamers. Because that evening I was sitting with the hotel's managing director, Maurizio Saccani, having a fresh peach juice bellini prepared by the superb barman, Antonio Beccalli.

The American woman called over: "We must have a dance tonight." Her husband put his hand on my shoulder and said: "Hi pal." I guess we were united in misery.

The next day we moved our pool position to a splendid raised area which Paola discovered. An elderly English woman - this happens to me endlessly at the Splendido - came over and said: "I'm here because of you, Mr Winner." "I hope you're enjoying it," I replied.

"We are. We left our grandchildren at home," she said, referring to the kiddie-din.

The Splendido food was historic. Ravioli with vegetable and herb filling and walnut sauce, incredible strawberries.

In Portofino, Luigi Miroli's restaurant Puny remains the best. My friend Sylvester Stallone was there. Michael Caine the week before. The Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is a regular.

I forgot to pack my cut-off jeans for a boat trip to another great restaurant, Trattoria Gianni Franzi in Vernazza, where Lady Rogers of the River Cafe goes to learn about Italian food.

So I bought some red short trousers from Marisa's shop in the Splendido.

I shortened them further with nail scissors. Rather too enthusiastically. "You look like a cross between a mental patient and a rent boy," observed Paola. Nothing new there, then.



  • PS: I wish Fausto would cut his dangling grey locks. He resembles a failed violinist or an ageing hippie gone wrong. Yet he's sharp and witty. I think Fausto's hair is his flag of individuality. What's yours?



    Winner's letters

    I've just returned from an outstanding Sunday lunch at the Ledbury, Notting Hill, which you slaughtered on July 31. You're right, you don't know much about food.
    Brian Harris, London

    You praised the Buca di Sant'Antonio in Lucca so we travelled by train from Viareggio to try it. The carriage doors failed to open at Lucca forcing us to alight at the next stop, where we became involved in a violent dispute between a lady and a gang of thugs! Eventually arriving at our destination we found the welcome very warm but the food not outstanding enough to compensate for the horrendous journey. Not Michael's fault, of course!
    Bernice Foreman, Middlesex

    I'm in the rare and disconcerting position of agreeing with Michael Winner! The Swan in Southrop (Winner's Dinners, last week) is indeed very good. And always full of atmosphere. Not being a pud person, I'll have to take Mr Winner's word that they are historic!
    Bharat Jashanmal Gloucestershire

    At the much praised Tom Aikens in London the starter and amuse bouche included three layers of tasteless mousse in a bottle with a straw! Raw asparagus and courgettes came with a very unpleasant, warm wine! With the prospect of the main courses being as inedible we paid £70 and decanted to an enjoyable restaurant nearby.
    Barrie Coppin, London.

    I presume you'd previously honoured the Lapa Palace hotel in Lisbon. The "Winner" champagne cocktail - consisting of champagne, cognac, port wine, cointreau and apricot liqueur sounds dreadful. That's why I assumed it must be your concoction.
    Elizabeth Lambert, Yorkshire

    Five million pounds for the space shuttle to travel from California to Florida. Sounds like one of your trips!
    Andy Jones, London

    No, Mark Gould (Winner's Letters, last week) the Hampshire area isn't full of pretentious pubs and restaurants. Hopefully you're not far from the Lord Bute hotel in Highcliffe, Dorset. They've got tablecloths, fine crockery and attentive staff who smile. On Wednesdays, you get jazz as well. It's £21.95 for a three-course dinner!
    Ros Glickman, Hampshire

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