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A nasty shock after the great Italian cheese debate

Published 10 November 2002
News Review
487th article

New friends: Winner with some locals at Albergo La Scallele (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I may not look like one of the world's great adventurers, but I'm outstanding at navigating the tiniest of roads. You can do this in England, where I once took Marlon Brando through the byways of Surrey and Sussex. He was so beguiled he later rented a house in the area.

Two weeks ago I asked the concierge at the superb Villa San Michele in Fiesole above Florence: "What happens if I drive north?"

"It's wild, it leads to the mountains," said Maurizio Ammazzini.

"That's for me," I thought. So off I went with Geraldine in my rented convertible Volkswagen. We were bathed in sunshine on the weekend England was raging with storms and gales.

I wiggled past extremely beautiful scenery to Borgo San Lorenzo, and then decided to go on to Marradi. This involved rising into the mountains and then down again. There were magical valleys with cows grazing, a mesmerising colour pattern of trees approaching autumn, rivers, waterfalls and hardly any traffic.

Marradi is a place that time forgot. In the Piazza Scallele, where no building was later than the 19th century, stood Albergo La Scallele. Peeling stucco on a once grand edifice, heavy old iron grilles on the lower windows, a rusting crown-shaped lamp holder over the entrance arch and when you walked into the stone paved hall, an aged, fading wall painting.

Turning right through an old door we came to the kitchen area and the restaurant. It revealed a tiled floor, whitewashed walls and rather strange paintings. It was a big room with a vaulted ceiling and tall windows looking onto the square.

There were two old men at one table, a single old man at another and a middle-aged Italian woman, Dolores del Marte, with a young son and her father at another. Sylvana, the waitress, gave us a very busy menu. Dozens of pastas, minestrone, veal, steak, everything. The old men looked so great I decided to take our photo in case they left. I sat with two of them and a third moved in from the next table.

I ordered tagliatelle al ragout. Rather unadventurous. Particularly when I saw Dolores's father eating an amazing steak. I later saw delicious looking meat in a local butcher shop. Geraldine had gnocchi with four cheeses. To start we had bruschetta. It was all wonderful.

Dolores had been an au pair in Golders Green, so she became our translator. She told us we were close to the border between Tuscany and Emilia Romagna, "and that area's very well known for its food". She explained Parmigiano cheese came from Emilia Romagna. Then she spoke to her father and it appeared highly doubtful. A debate ensued. An elderly man sitting alone in the corner joined in. The group decision was that Reggiano cheese was made in Emilia Romagna, but not Parmigiano - that comes from Parma.

Funny, I thought Parma was in Emilia Romagna anyway, and I'm just a poor boy from Willesden. All this exhausted me so I ordered a chestnut pudding, a speciality of the area. It was outstandingly good. I promised to send the three old men a copy of the photo, which I always do. Even though nobody sends me photos. Then I wended and wiggled my way back.

At the Villa San Michele, a great hotel housed in an ancient monastery, the home-made green noodles with mushrooms and herbs were historic, the fried scampi excellent and the home-made chips very tasty. I excitedly ordered "rhubarb in puff pastry with apple sauce and passion fruit ice cream". I got a biscuit millefeuille. Not puff pastry at all. The "passion fruit ice cream" was sorbet. That was a nasty shock.

  • Another disaster greeted me at home. My Louis Latour Corton-Charlemagne 1990 had gone off. Perhaps it wasn't stored at the right temperature. Serena Sutcliffe, head of wine at Sotheby's, told me 50-55F is okay. More and you're in trouble. Even my 1961 Haut-Brion faces danger. I'm knocking it back like crazy.

    In his new book, Vintage Wine, Michael Broadbent, who was chief of wine at Christie's, warns 61 Haut-Brion is "showing some age". As it's £4,000 a bottle in restaurants and over £500 at auction this is a great worry to me.

    I happily recommend Michael Broadbent's book, so I dare to mention The Winner Guide to Dining & Whining. It lists every place I've written about here, and more. You can get it in shops at £8.99 or from The Sunday Times Books Direct at the special price of £7.50 plus 99p p&p by phoning 0870 165 8585.

    Send me a self-adhesive label and I'll write something jolly on it so Auntie Flo can have a personalised Christmas present. Oh, I forgot. Auntie Flo hates me. Give it to Uncle Fred.

    Winner's letters

    I have just discovered that technology works faster than napkin waving when service is slow. I recently used my mobile phone to call reception when entertaining clients. A waiter appeared pretty damned quick.
    Eric Russell, Scarborough

    I must tell you of my experience of one of the allegedly premier restaurants in Belfast. Deane's is owned by Michael Deane and has in the past won a Michelin star. It does not deserve its reputation. Much of its business is through the brasserie, which is popular, I believe, because of its lack of competition. I have been to the brasserie a few times and have never been particularly happy with the food. I have never complained but decided to do so recently after a particularly bad lunch. The reaction was astonishing. Mr Deane called me the following evening, not to apologise but to attack me for criticising him. He quizzed me on which other restaurants I'd been to and what my idea of good food was. Whatever happened to "the customer is always right"?
    Patricia Johnston, Belfast

    Why is it that people believe tipping is mandatory? When you visit a restaurant, you look at the food and prices and if they fit in with your tastes and budget you go in. Why should it then be expected that we give a further sum to someone who is just doing their job? I'm a teacher and no one tips me when I give a good lesson. Tips should be paid only in exceptional circumstances.
    Nick Firkins, Wiltshire

    It is the custom at many British hotels to ask for notice the previous evening if requiring a kipper for breakfast. At one such establishment, with visions of the chef down at the fish market at 4am selecting my kipper, I asked the waiter the purpose of the notice. "It's so we can get it out of the freezer in good time," was the innocent reply. The kipper was very good, though.
    Keith Wood, Wakefield

    It seems your readers are as crazy about kippers as you are. My husband is part of the club. Every Sunday he has a pair of fresh Loch Fyne kippers grilled and served with tomatoes and plenty of pepper and vinegar. If you fancy coming down to try some, I'll even throw in a few bagels with smoked salmon and some schmaltz herring.
    Susan Altbach, Hertfordshire

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