Home - Browse reviews - Bibliography

In snail country, a place worth shelling out for

Published 15 August 2010
News Review
891st article

Michael at Congham Hall with, from left, his pilot, Richard Gilderson, von Essen's executive chef, James Parkinson, and the hotel manager, Julie Woodhouse (Gerladine Lynton-Edwards)

I missed the world snail racing championship 2010. Had I known about it I'd have entered. With a fair wind I might have come second. The event is held in July at the Congham church fete. If you book for 2011, stay at Congham Hall, a Georgian mansion set in parkland, orchards and gardens near miles of Norfolk's sandy beaches. That's what the brochure says. It also announces upcoming additions including a spa. So you can go snailing, sailing, trailing and wailing.

Not that there was much to wail about. Except for the roast potatoes. They were dreadful. Surprising, because when I met the chef, James Parkinson, he said, "I can't stay and talk: I have to make sure the roast potatoes are up to standard."

"You'll have a problem beating Sir Michael Caine's," I said. Michael's are top, James's well below. They had no crispness on the outside and didn't appear to be properly roasted. You'll get a better roast lunch when you go there, because James doesn't normally cook. He's the von Essen group's executive chef, who appoints staff and administers. Congham's chef is now David Hammond. Hopefully a roast-potato genius.

The Norfolk trip started badly. I forgot my camera. Luckily the helicopter pilot (you should have one) lent me his. Otherwise I'd have had to put in a large photo of me to destroy your Sunday rest. It's a beautiful hotel, not overdone, very discreet, clients a nice class of elderly gentlefolk. An ex-RAF woman of 84 sat alone with a drink. "It's the champagne that keeps me going," she announced. Teddy bears are on sale in the lobby. For those, like me, in their second childhood. If I didn't already possess 56 teddy bears I'd have bought a Congham one.

When I dined with the marvellous Lord Alli (we're plotting a new television show), he said, "You're 75, Michael, but you behave like 19."

"Not 19, Waheed; 17," I remarked.

At Congham we sat in a bay window for drinks, got some fantastic canapes.

"The lounge is yellow," I dictated.

"Sudbury yellow," the manager, Julie Woodhouse, informed me.

"The dining room's pink," I dictated later.

"Old rose," advised Geraldine.

It's little details such as those that make life worth living. I had very good warm rolls, followed by a historic tian of Cromer crab. My roast beef was overcooked and cut too thin. Not a patch on the Wolseley, which has the best roast beef in London. To compensate, Parkinson's carrot puree and red cabbage were memorable. I tried a pleasant bakewell tart with vanilla ice cream; Geraldine, a baked apple from the garden. She pronounced that and her Cromer lobster "a triumph". So it's: executive chef a strong 7; Richard Gilderson, the pilot, 9 for lending his camera; Geraldine 10; and me off the top of the scale for being a blessing to mankind.

At last Monday's premiere of The Expendables I was touched by the enthusiastic reception I got from the crowd. I could have signed autographs and had photos taken with them for hours. Instead I cut short my efforts and entered the Odeon Leicester Square for the movie's 7pm start. With Sylvester Stallone rightly working the public like crazy, the film started an hour late. Preceded by the usual dreary speeches from its distributors. Don't these people realise it's meant to be an evening of entertainment, not a list-reading of everyone in their office? I guess they don't often get a big audience.

Stallone, a true professional, kept his speech to 30 seconds, introduced his co-stars and got off so we could enjoy the movie. At the party, I was again impressed with how good the food is at Planet Hollywood. Honest. Try it.

  • My hero is Jean Barnard, the US tourist who sued Qantas, claiming that a three-year-old boy screamed so loudly, her ears started bleeding. Jean wrote to her travel agent, "We're fortunate that my eardrum was exploding and I was swallowing blood. Otherwise I'd've dragged the kid out of his mother's arms and stomped him to death." I'd like Jean in restaurants when screaming kids run amok. If I made a noise like them I'd be told to leave. Jean achieved an out-of-court settlement with Qantas. I should issue writs on restaurants where my enjoyment is battered by noisy kids.

  • I never thought a London mayor could be worse than Ken. Boris Johnson beats him. Traffic moves slower than ever. The second world war was a blessing compared with what Boris is doing to our capital. Worst jam is going east through Admiralty Arch, at the end of the Mall. The lights are on red for a minute, green for eight seconds. So Boris cuts the two lanes down by reserving one for cyclists. Cycling should be banned in cities. Instead Boris floods London with rent-a-bikes. Concrete an area north of Golders Green and let them ride round it. On real roads they're a menace. Boris gets my award for silliest remark of the decade: cycling, you can "enjoy God's fresh air". Where's he cycling - the Outer Hebrides? In London, pollution suffocates. Why can't we drivers get some consideration?

    Michael's missives

    How clever of the locals in Croatia to dress down so that you wouldn't look out of place.
    Stanley Silver, Hertfordshire

    Charming photo - but why do you wear cut-off nightdresses under your jacket?
    Dennis Pallis, Kent

    I'll give up The Sunday Times if I see another picture of you wearing untidy loafers with a suit. And tuck in your shirt.
    Mike Morgan, Solihull

    Strewth! You've looked marginally dapper-on-a-budget in your past two photos. My partner asks if we can have the name of your tailor.
    Patrick Tracey, Carlisle

    I'm worried about my mental disposition because I agreed with you twice last week. First, that Gordon Ramsay talks a load of old cobblers (you were being kind) and, second, that some of the best meat comes from a trolley. I thought of inviting you to my club to sample our trolley. Then I realised you wouldn't be let in. We have a strict dress code.
    Bharat Jashanmal, Gloucestershire

    I thought I was the only person to have fallen off a treadmill. Like Geraldine I was going very slowly when suddenly the machine shot up to 100 miles an hour. I suffered terrible bruising. The next day I went to a fancy dress party. I intended to go as Shirley Temple but changed to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.
    Marilyn Madden, Hertfordshire

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