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The bride was blushing, but only from lugging

Michael and Geraldine head off to the Ligurian coast for the best views and food in the world - but not all is world class

Published 9 October 2011
News Review
951st article

Michael and Geraldine at the Hotel Splendido (Daniele Canepa)

The best line about my wedding came from the brilliant American comedian Joan Rivers. Told by a mutual friend I was getting married, Joan responded: "And David Blunkett's flying Red Arrows."

Now: the honeymoon. Normally Genoa is Italy's toughest airport for endlessly scrutinising and making notes on passports. This time we got through the private jet area without anyone asking for them at all.

The Hotel Splendido in Portofino is simply the best. Marvellous food, hospitable and capable staff, the greatest view in the world: a pine-covered hill, an old castle on top, the harbour and the Ligurian coast.

Portofino, a fantastically preserved port, houses the best Italian restaurant in the world right next to the worst. The best is Puny, run by the owner, 80-year-old Luigi Miroli. I've seen Silvio Berlusconi there, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, many glitterati.

We started with fresh scampi caught that day and bought in the next-door town, Santa Margherita. The sauce, butter, herbs, whatever, was pure great taste. The texture of the scampi, unlike the over-travelled rubbery stuff you get in London, was perfect. Then flat pasta with a brown sauce. Beyond belief delectable. Followed by baby octopus, which I normally hate. Then sea bass cooked in salt. Everything had a memorable flavour.

The next day offered the only clouds on our honeymoon. The sea was still, so we headed for Vernazza, part of the Cinque Terre, five magical villages on the coast.

As I didn't fancy clambering on and off a rubber dinghy to get to his boat, the hotel skipper, Roberto, asked us to go to the other side of the port. Geraldine was lugging a heavy bag with my tape recorder, camera, Uzi submachinegun, rocket launcher, two harpoons and jelly babies.

Just things that all tourists carry. Roberto did not offer to take it to the boat for her.

Light rain was forecast for Vernazza.

Before long, as we sat in the open speedboat, it started to rain. Roberto grabbed an oilskin outfit and hat for himself. Geraldine went into the cabin. I braved it out in what was now a downpour. Why no weather protection for the passengers? Halfway there, Roberto gave up.

Back in Portofino we headed for Chuflay, the restaurant of the Splendido Mare, the port offshoot of the Splendido on the hill. I'd eaten there some years before and found it horrific. But Carlo Lazzeri, the superb restaurant manager of the Splendido, said it had improved. The freebie starter of fried anchovies and zucchini had a nasty batter, no good at all. Then brodetto di pesce, a local, thick soup with rockfish, vegetables, herbs and fresh olive oil. Totally tasteless. The tagliolini with crushed anchovies was absurd. Crushed anchovies do not go with pasta. The dessert, zabaglione, was like heavy oil, no lightness, no flavour.

Matters took a turn for the worse.

Geraldine is allergic to gluten, so we said: no gluten for Geraldine. It seemed something contained gluten, because within 10 minutes of the meal she was severely bloated and tired, so spent a nasty afternoon. She'd eaten breakfast that morning at the Splendido. Eaten many meals at the Splendido. Never an ill response. She ate nothing else until lunch at Chuflay. Gluten could only have been served there.

Carlo apologised. Ermes de Megni, the Splendido manager, said food and beverage staff assured him no gluten was served. To quote Mandy Rice-Davies, they would say that, wouldn't they? Strange, because all the other Orient-Express hotels and restaurants in Italy are masterful.

  • Went to Berkshire last Saturday for Terence Conran's 80th birthday party, beautifully organised by his wife, Vicki. Normally I insist on knowing who is sitting near me or I don't go. Didn't ask this time but had a great group: opposite Terence, close to Mary Quant, the handbag queen Anya Hindmarch and the Dutchman Marc Bolland, boss of Marks & Spencer.

    I grabbed the mike for a final speech and said: "For eight years Terence Conran and I were bitter enemies. For the last six we've been friends. Terence is considering his position. There are two words I haven't heard this evening, which I think should be said to our hosts: 'Thank you.' "

  • I was amazed to see on the front page of last week's Sunday Times that the prime minister (David Cameron, in case you've forgotten) was apologising to women for having said "Calm down, dear" to a Labour MP months ago. He explained he had been using my well-known catchphrase.

    Unbelievable. The country's in financial chaos, lawlessness is rampant, we're involved in two useless wars, everyone's going broke, yet Cameron considered his pre-Tory conference message should be about total trivia. Calm down, dear. Concentrate on serious matters.

  • Stewart Hamilton, from Eastbourne, reports that Hymie once said: "A man is incomplete until he is married. Then he's truly finished."

    Michael's missives

    We mere mortals have to go through FBI interrogation and are relieved of our credit card details just to make a reservation at the Ivy. I'll be disappointed if full-body scanners are not installed at the door.
    Martin Boreham, Suffolk

    If you can't get the restaurant table you want, take your own. Then you'll always have your chosen table. If transport is difficult, buy a collapsible one - available in any camping shop for a fiver.
    Tim Burton, Berkshire

    You found it funny in Lille's museum that a bear should paint. You clearly missed other things painting in the same museum. Boots (Dirk Bouts), fish (Pieter Codde) and a policeman (John Constable). Art is in the eye of the beholder, n'est-ce pas?
    Nick Jones, La DrĂ´me, France

    Delayed for six hours at Rome's Ciampino airport, I ordered stew and fried potatoes in the restaurant. When I complained that both items were at ambient temperature, I was told to use the microwave in the corner. Should I have tipped them, or should they have tipped me?
    John Munro, Essex

    Why is it that none of Britain's hotel chefs can cook sausages? They're always armour plate on the outside, red raw meat in the centre. I've bitten into so many it's a miracle I still have any teeth. Yet humble B&Bs cook sausages with no problem at all.
    John Williams, Surrey

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