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As Henry might have said - axe the fancy stuff, chef

The food at Thornbury Castle in Gloucestershire is on the whole rather good, but could do with being simplified

Published 26 December 2010
News Review
910th article

Michael at Thornbury Castle with, from left, the chef, Mark Veale, the helicopter pilot, Leigh Howell, and the general manager, Brian Jarvis (Gerladine Lynton-Edwards)

They say an Englishman's home is his castle. If so, then Andrew Davis, owner of von Essen hotels, must be all of a-dither. At last count (and he buys hotels like you and I buy bags of crisps) he had Dalhousie Castle in Scotland, Amberley Castle in West Sussex and Thornbury Castle in Gloucestershire. 'Twas there I went a-wassailing (whatever that means).

The place was around in 925 but came to prominence in 1533, when Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn stayed, and again in 2010 with my visit. It's stunning. We started with one of the best teas ever. Only let down by Tufa water. The scones, cakes, sandwiches et al made up for it.

The charming general manager, Brian Jarvis, informed me Kenneth Bell put Thornbury on the map. Mr Bell was apparently awarded an MBE for bringing French cooking to the UK. "Should've been shot for that," I suggested ungraciously.

Dinner in a lovely, candle-lit, tapestry-bedecked room began with a weak Cosmopolitan cocktail for £11 compared with a very good £8.50 one at the Wolseley. Who says it's cheaper out of town?

Food was superbly served by Pepe, an aged Spanish waiter who looked exactly like Manuel in Fawlty Towers 40 years down the line. In 36 years he proudly proclaimed he'd only had one week off for illness. Stupendously good were pumpkin soup, seared scallops with champagne risotto, cinnamon doughnut with spiced apple soup. Okay was Geraldine's rather overcooked turbot.

My roast crown of English partridge, croquette potato, bacon and partridge ravioli, beetroot fondant, braised chicory, parsnip puree and juniper juice was a confused disappointment. The bit of bird was dry, not enough gravy. Far too many disconnected items on the plate. Partridge is best served with game chips, bread sauce and lots of gravy. You can also have foie gras en croute. Red cabbage is nice, too.

The chef, Mark Veale, is very good, but as I headed for the helicopter I advised him to stop trying to be over-clever. "Simplify," I instructed, as if I knew what I was talking about.

The croissants and bread at breakfast were the best ever. They were bought in as frozen dough from the Fine Food Company in Wincanton, Somerset. The hotel baked them to perfection.

All in all, a place we greatly enjoyed. Even though I asked for every Sunday paper, including the News of the World, and only got three posh ones. When I phoned down to seek more, no one answered the phone for 20 minutes. The staff obviously thought I was joking when I asked for the red tops. Titter ye not. I was dead serious. Always am.

  • At the January 19 Sunday Times Dinner with Winner, your Belvedere visit can be sanctified by a photo taken with me and/or the more beautiful Geraldine. Bring your camera. My assistant, Dinah May, much featured on my TV show, a lady who, for 23 years, has withstood tantrums, rudeness, arrogance and hysteria (that's just on my good days) will take the picture.

    It's £150 per person for free parking, champagne-and-canape reception, three-course meal with wines, my cabaret speech, two of my books signed, that's MW's Fat Pig Diet and the current one, Unbelievable!, which has just gone into its second reprint. And, wait for it, my Christmas card for mantelpiece display now, next year, or both.

    For the dinner, call 0871 620 4027. It may be sold out but there are always people who can't come, so get on the reserve list.

    Unbelievable! is £14.99 in shops, only £13.59 including postage at The Sunday Times Bookshop (0845 271 2135). My autobiography Winner Takes All - A Life of Sorts is being reprinted. So why am I still £9m in debt? Is it because I'm a) stupid b) reckless c) adore borrowing d) tax advantageous e) other? Best response wins £100.

  • Nigel Havers behaved disgustingly on I'm a Celebrity ("You're not on about it again," I hear you say). At the end when everyone stayed to see Stacey Solomon crowned queen, Havers wasn't there. Too grand to hang around. You have to be grand to play King Rat in a Birmingham pantomime. Perfect casting. That's bitchy of me. So what? I'm a slut.

  • Geraldine and I had an incredible Christmas lunch at the Ritz. It's the most beautiful dining room in London, best service, John Williams is a brilliant chef. Our second Christmas lunch was with Michael Caine, also a brilliant chef.

    We'll spend new year in Gstaad's elegant Palace hotel with the best restaurant manager ever, Gildo Bocchini.

    Nearby is the hotel Olden, owned by Bernie Ecclestone. I heard it was for sale and mentioned this.

    "It's not," Bernie said. "Everybody should have one business that's losing money to keep them on their toes."

    I wish you a terrific 2011. If I can provide a smile, drive you to fury or hinder your happiness, it'll be a pleasure. Follow me on Twitter at MrMichaelWinner. If you think I'm ridiculous here, you should read my tweets.

  • Silly joke from the Ritz hotel doorman Michael O'Dowdall: I've got a new aftershave called Crumbs. The birds love it.

    Michael's missives

    You revealed last week that you could add and subtract. Amazing that one small head can carry all you know.
    Vincent Keane, Dublin

    The Savoy River restaurant looks and feels like a cafeteria. Eat in the foyer: the glass dome provides superb lighting, it's relaxing and the service more attentive.
    Richard Fry, Essex

    Re the Savoy, why do people with no savoir faire get their hands on institutions that don't need to change? A coat of paint or a roll of Pugin wallpaper would have sufficed.
    Paul Matthews, by email

    At the Marco Pierre White Steakhouse in Dorset, drinks ordered at the bar were meant to be brought to our table; eventually we got them ourselves. Bread at £4 tasted as if it had come from the "value" shelf at the local supermarket. We couldn't complain about the £152 bill for a two-course lunch for four as those in authority had left for a cocktail training session.
    Paul Kendrick, Bristol

    How long will it be before we see Michael doing stand-up at the Apollo with his tailpiece jokes? Some are funny, some a little bit threadbare.
    Gordon Staples, Wiltshire

    School-leaver goes for a job interview at the Hilton. The manager asks: "Do you really want this job?" School-leaver says: "I did. But now I've got serious reservations."
    Ed Atkinson, Abu Dhabi

    Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 3 Thomas More Square, London E98 1ST, or email michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk