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When it comes to the crunch, I won't be downsizing

Published 15 February 2009
News Review
813th article

It's said British hotels will benefit from people credit-crunched into not going abroad. On the other hand the corporate entertainment side that kept many country hotels going is subsiding. Why should I care? I don't own a hotel. Nor do I plan any downsizing.

The only shares I possess cost £25,000 many years ago. They were recommended by a blonde ex-girlfriend of the actor Terence Stamp. Anyone who takes share tips from Terence Stamp's ex-girlfriends deserves all they don't get.

My shares, in Xaar, a printing business, cost £4 each. They promptly collapsed. Now they're 57p. Not serious, as long as my Guernsey rollover fund holds up. If it goes under, Geraldine says I can be a stand-up comic and a taxi driver. Dream on.

Now to Rampsbeck Country House hotel, on Ullswater in Cumbria. It's a modest-priced place. If you want to go there, or anywhere, or buy anything, forget the asking price. Insist on a deal.

Ullswater is a particularly beautiful lake. The surrounding countryside is magnificent. The Rampsbeck public room decoration defies description. Blobs, badly mixed colours. Ghastly.

They finished redecorating a couple of weeks ago but left the dining room untouched. A pity, because it's one of the most hideous rooms ever. Various types of wall brackets, ludicrous standing lamps, cheap-looking, horrid carpet with yellow diamonds on it. Lovely view of the lake, somewhat diminished by the intrusion of dreary parked cars.

The food was up and down. My prune and walnut bread was better than I've had in any London restaurant. Historic. My chicken terrine was very good. Exceedingly fresh, didn't taste as if it had hung around. The brioche with it was terrific. Geraldine's salad delighted her.

"The rocket is so fresh it's like they picked it from the garden," she announced.

Then everything collapsed. Geraldine said her turbot was too dry. My roast beef was the worst I've ever tried to eat, so tough I couldn't cut it even with a serrated knife. It was stringy and tasteless.

"That's a shame because they've got cows around here," offered Geraldine. Perhaps they're tough, old cows, I thought.

The carrots were good. So were the parsnips. The yorkshire pudding was atrocious. The roast potatoes not great.

Geraldine's chocolate mousse was too solid.

"Mousse should only be chocolate and eggs," she declared. My apple and sultana rosti with toffee apple ice cream was well below average.

The service, largely from the charming general manager, Marion Gibb, was superb. The chef, Andrew McGeorge, should do better. I found it odd that, faced with a plate of uneaten roast beef and yorkshire pudding, the waiter asked, "Did you enjoy your main course?" Why did he think I left most of it?

  • Now to something important: profiteroles. I ate a magnificent profiterole in Lucerne, Switzerland, on my first-ever foreign holiday in 1945. They're not easy to do well. I became a connoisseur.

    So when Grant MacPherson, chef in name if not reality, said to me at Sandy Lane, "Try that profiterole", I looked in amazement at the soggy mess on display and thought, he's bonkers. Then I tried it and knew he was bonkers. It was slimy, horrible. I made my feelings known.

    I think it was the pastry chef who came over and said, "Now I'll bring you a real profiterole." What arrived was beyond belief. A bit of choux pastry obviously rescued from the deep freeze, tough, no texture, inedible. On top was a clumsy scoop of vanilla ice cream, around it some watery chocolate sauce. This was the worst dessert anyone ever gave me. I did not remain silent.

    MacPherson appeared with a recipe from the internet which said you could have ice cream, instead of the usual patisserie cream, in a profiterole. "Your ice cream wasn't in the role, it was dumped on top of stale choux pastry," I explained. Every recipe I found, including a Gordon Ramsay one, did not mention ice cream. But I accept you could put ice cream inside a profiterole, it sounds nice.

    The next day MacPherson returned. "Try these," he said, offering his third try at profiteroles. It would be unfair to say they were as bad as the previous two. They weren't much good, but they weren't a total disaster.

    Amazingly on New Year's Eve the pastry chef produced some exemplary eclairs. Which are not far removed from profiteroles. They were considerably jaded the next day having, I presume, spent the night in the fridge. Sandy Lane, with its great beach, elegant structure, generally delightful staff and (over Christmas at least) highly amusing guests, still has many good qualities. Grant MacPherson's food isn't one of them.

  • Here's a heartwarming tale of true friendship. Hymie Pockle opens the door.

    A lovely girl says, "Your pal Moishe Pippick sent me as a present. I'm here to offer you super sex." Hymie replies, "I'll have the soup." That's all, folks.

    Michael's missives

    You seem to have eaten so much in Switzerland I'm surprised you're not a swiss roll.
    Mike Petty, Cheshire

    Just after you told us in 59 years you never had to publish a correction you mentioned the French singer Jacques Brel. He was Belgian. Never mind, none of us is perfect.
    David Godden, Mandrevillars, France

    You could score points in your incipient vendetta with the fact that in The Day of the Jackal, Frederick Forsyth refers systematically to the Boulevard de Montparnasse instead of Boulevard du Montparnasse.
    Peter Beglan, Paris

    Anyone who reads Forsyth's pompous letters to another newspaper knows he's a self-inflated minor storyteller. Still, there must be a reason for him to exist. Perhaps your readers could stretch their imaginations to come up with one.
    Kevin O'Neill, Lincolnshire

    Frederick Forsyth is indeed opinionated and inaccurate, but true students can see where he's coming from. You're an acquired taste, not necessarily a pleasant one. Definitely an acquired one.
    Robin Deasy, Ireland

    Switzerland, "It's like England in 1950. Our golden era." What? The Korean war, fuel rationing, gangland killings, prohibition of political processions. Can I join you in your ever-increasing utopian bubble? I really do like the sound of it.
    David Keeble, Staffordshire

    Send letters to Winner's Dinners , The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk Michael with Marion Gibb and Andrew McGeorge at Rampsbeck