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Come back, Blighty, all is forgiven

On a visit to northern France, our man faces unfettered arrogance from customer-get-stuffed-attitude hotel staff near Lille

Published 13 November 2011
News Review
956th article

Michael with, from left, Anne-Gersende Toulemonde, Olivier Malewicz and Jean-Claude Kindt (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

The English are no good at hospitality, but compared with the French they're Academy Award winners. The French, with rare exception, are the most belligerent, customer-get-stuffed-attitude people ever.

The worst in a country of unfettered arrogance are those in northern France. I decided to book a very expensive hotel near Lille called Chateau de Beaulieu. Nothing to do with the great La Reserve de Beaulieu in the south of France.

The staff endlessly failed to acknowledge the booking. Every time my PA Natalie rang they said, "We've been very busy." It was well out of season, so I doubt that.

We asked, as always, for a self-drive hire car to be available for me at the hotel. The email response from Claire in reservations: "We're not used to that kind of service. Mr Winner will have to go and fetch the car himself from the offices near Bethune station."

When I went ballistic, the general manager, Claudine Meurin, emailed, "We did not understand Mr Winner's request", and said the staff would have the car at the hotel. By now I'd given up and chosen another hotel, this one in Lille, L'Hermitage Gantois. One of the most bizarre places I've ever been to.

The front desk manager, Anne-Gersende Toulemonde, said a taxi from the Eurostar terminal to the hotel would cost €80. At the rate I got that was £77.66. The journey from station to hotel took exactly five minutes. When I queried this, Anne-G T said, "It's because he's a private driver." Figure that out.

The hotel is a lot of old houses bunged together. The main "courtyard" is like a town square, but covered over, the glass roof supported by gross and clumsy stainless steel poles. Underneath are bright blue-grey leather sofas. The whole thing could have been nice but is ghastly.

Off it is an untouched 15th-century chapel. Also a dining room with a vaulted ceiling, a pleasant old room totally spoilt by two large stainless steel beams going the full length of the room with downlights. The French love adding modern rubbish to old buildings. That's because they have no taste.

The food, from the chef Olivier Malewicz, was okay to dreadful. Not improved by horrendous piped music. The foie gras was fine. The staff forgot Geraldine's glass of rosé. My salmon was overcooked and very salty.

On another night, when we were the only diners present, the service was achingly slow. An hour after we came in, I asked, "Is there any chance of being served?" Nothing happened. Eventually came a very tough beef stew, which I couldn't eat.

In the hotel's second restaurant, the L'Estaminet Gantois, the food was better.

Good lamb stew, excellent peach tart. This has a street entrance and operates separately. It's full of reproductions of the Victorian artist Sir Luke Fildes's painting The Village Wedding, done in my bedroom, which was Fildes's studio.

The owner of this hotel fiasco is Jean-Claude Kindt, who regaled us with melodramatic stories of his life after he quit acting. I countered with complaints about my £77.66 taxi drive. When we left I saw he'd taken it off the bill.

The Gantois is a place to avoid. Lille is a place to avoid. Better to stay home and watch the spin dryer.

  • You think I'm just a pretty face. Nonsense. I have an honours degree in economics from Cambridge University. If the current financial situation and the pathetic attempts at solving it came up in a Cambridge lecture or exam when I was a student, none of us would have believed it possible.

    What on earth is the point of the eurozone? Who benefits from it other than incompetent governments whose countries need bailing out? Switzerland sits out this mess having had the brain not to join the EU. Its currency value rises. It is stable and indifferent to the plight of eurozone members around it.

    It was summed up for me by a stallholder from the north of England selling fruit and veg. When interviewed on television he said, "Why should I worry about the Greeks? They never did anything for me." My feelings exactly.

    Since this is supposedly a column about food (never liked Greek food anyway - a nation cannot live on yogurt alone) you'll be riveted to know that as I wrote this I was snacking on Guernsey gache, a sticky bread with currants and some salted Sark butter, given to me by Zoe Ash, who came to interview me for a Guernsey magazine.

    I don't know if Guernsey and Sark will have to prop up Greece, followed by Portugal, Italy and who knows what other failed economies.

    It's unbelievable, isn't it?

  • From Sam Evans: Hymie is suffering from stress. The doctor says to him, "I could give you pills, but I'll give you advice. When I feel stressed I go home and make passionate love to my wife. Try that."

    Two weeks later he calls Hymie to ask how he's getting on.

    "Fine," says Hymie. "I did as you suggested, I feel much more relaxed. And by the way, that's a really nice house you've got."

    Michael's missives

    What a load of old codgers in last week's award photo. Titles they may have, but . . . you should form a non-boy band, Mickey and the Geriatrics.
    Shauna Simpson, Cheshire

    So many knights on show, but no round table in sight - although there was a Baldrick.
    Len Griffiths, Dorset

    There ain't nothing like a knight, nothing in the world, there ain't no queerer sight than Michael and six knights. Thank God hoi poloi had a commoner to represent them. Without you, the pudding would have been vastly over-egged.
    Christine Swann, Essex

    What a fine photo of you and your friends at the Belvedere - handsome, dignified leaders in their fields, and you. I reckon their wealth combined with your debt gives a net worth for the group of £2.50.
    Howard Bentley, Lancashire

    Your comments on mackerel risotto remind me of dining with an old friend, the talent agent Michael Summerton, who once ordered "chicken with black olives, served on a bed of olives, garnished with green olives". When it arrived he sent it back, saying, "I can't stand olives."
    Ken King, London

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