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A bird in the hand is worth it for the fry-up alone

Published 10 September 2006
News Review
686th article

Michael with Carol and Leslie Hendry outside the Bird in Hand (Paola Lombard)

In my opinion (the one that counts) we British can boast of two gargantuan gastronomic achievements. One is the traditional English tea with crumpets, scones, fairy cakes, thinly sliced sandwiches et al. The best place for that used to be the Ritz, Claridge's or the Dorchester. But I haven't checked them out for a while.

Our other fantastic contribution is the Great British Fry-Up. Using every inch of my skill I can, on a rare day, get the following ingredients onto the plate in good order: fried eggs, grilled tomatoes, fried bread, sausages, baked beans, mushrooms, crispy bacon.

When I'm asked what my last meal should be (and, amazingly, I frequently am) I reply, "The great British fry-up." Never mind your Gordon Ramsay and your plates decorated with moronic squiggles. GBFU beats them all.

I ordered it on New Year's Eve 2002 by the sea at Sandy Lane, Barbados.

Now they have the sense to do a marvellous buffet. Then they attempted, with unfailing disaster, a set meal for 300 people. Instead of waiting for overcooked steak and many more pretentious offerings, I had a great, freshly cooked fry-up.

It was five and a half years before I ordered this magical meal again, at the Bird in Hand pub in Gosmore, a delightful Hertfordshire village.

They gave me a nice table in the window facing a fireplace, which, being summer, was unlit. The menu offered home-made steak and kidney pie, chicken and mushroom pie, liver and bacon with mash.

I'm not sure how you can call liver and bacon home-made. But let's not quibble. Desserts included spotted dick. treacle pudding and chocolate sponge. My sort of menu.

Leslie Hendry. the co-owner, serves; his wife Carol cooks. There was also roast beef, lamb and chicken. First I ordered steak and kidney pie with a jacket potato and veggies. Then I spotted the egg, bacon, sausage and beans and switched to that, adding a slice of beef as well.

"I'd rather have a jacket potato instead of chips," I said. Princess (aka Paola Lombard) chipped in (geddit?) with "You can't have the jacket potato with a fry-up because you dunk the chips in the egg." Thus spoke a true expert.

Princess had large onion rings, baked potato, lettuce, cucumber, chilli and tomato. She threw in a bit of sausage. egg and chips. It was all splendidly robust. The chips were bought in, but perfectly good and enough for a family of 20.

To finish I had treacle pudding with custard and Billy Boy, a local ice cream. The bill was only £18.20. I gave them £25 because everyone was so pleasant.

I wandered into the kitchen and looked at the steak and kidney pie.

"It's a lot more home-made than what you had," explained Carol.

"But I like a fry-up," I said. "I don't get it very often."

"It's not good for your heart," cautioned Carol.

"It's not good for your stomach either," I responded.

Princess is very sensitive to noise. I hear a chorus of "Then how on earth can she accompany you?" At the Cadogan hotel she walked out of two rooms because they were noisy. Even at the Ritz, where she had a beautiful suite, she was concerned about traffic five floors below.

So I put her in the Berkeley hotel, Belgravia. The suite was newly decorated, elegant and superbly tasteful in a semi-modern way. I've never seen accommodation so well decked out. Everything from chocky bars - I ate three - to television in the bathroom. And totally quiet as it faced the church at the back.

I was very impressed with the general manager, Klaus Kabelitz, and all his staff. Courteous, smiling, hospitable. Top marks for everything. Princess loved the breakfast and even the coffee. Being of Italian parentage she's very fussy about that.

Then, at the last minute - total collapse! Princess was standing on the steps of the hotel as I arrived in my Suzuki Grand Vitara to pick her up. The night before I'd dropped her off in the Bentley. Perhaps the doorman didn't like cheaper cars. Because he just stood there, a few feet from Princess, doing absolutely nothing. He saw her pick up her suitcase and carry it to the car. He watched in a stupor as she pulled down the front seat and put it in the back. He remained indolent and inefficient as she got in and closed the door. He continued to look atrophied as I drove off.

Mr Kabelitz should send him, and any of his colleagues who are that inept, to the Ritz hotel in Piccadilly for a lesson in doorman charm and efficiency.

Winner's letters

Last week's photo gave the game away about Mr Winner's apparent weight loss. The stitch marks on his neck clearly indicated where his head had been sewn on to a slimmer torso.
Rodney Wood, Cheshire

I was tempted to respond to last week's invitation to see the real thing - the large (what else would one expect at your place?) oil painting of the church of Santa Maria della Salute hanging in your dining room. But I was put off by your comment not to bother to call if I wanted good food and ambience. Now we know why you eat out so much!
Albert Rose, Northumberland

Reading of your dinner at the hotel Monaco & Grand Canal last week, I found it amazing that with your obvious affluence, the experience that years usually grant and the ritzy locations you visit, you manage to eat so badly. It must be a combination of ill luck or ill judgment that you do so in the more exalted watering holes of Europe. Have you considered subscribing to an upmarket guide? Otherwise have the girlfriend do research for you.
Glenda Brett-Holt, Malta

Our local pub, the Fenwick Arms in Claughton near Lancaster, hosted Gordon Ramsay's nightmare television series. I criticised his pea and ham soup as being too sweet. He admitted using frozen peas (ugh!) The roast beef had been taken off the bone, rolled and cooked again until it was as dry as Gordon's wit. Gordon and I spoke at length. He said I was Lancashire's answer to Michael Winner. An honour I hold with pride. If you need a break please contact me!
Steve Hinds Lancashire

I understand the kitchen porter (Winner's Letters, August 27) is a cardboard cut out beaming a fixed smile and slit eyes, positioned weekly for your photos and digitally embellished for each occasion. The person known as Michael Winner passed on several years ago from heart failure after digesting large quantities of cholesterol.
Donavan Winter, London

Michael said he likes quiet restaurants (Winner's Dinner August 27) so he can hear all the interesting things he has to say. I've always known he liked to be me deep in conversation.
Gordon Staples, Wiltshire

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