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Paola aside, there wasn't a cracker in sight

Published 10 July 2005
News Review
626th article

Michael Winner and Nigel Power outside Buckland Manor (Paola Lombard)

Paola, who is marvellous, said she wanted to see the English countryside.

I offered her some of Oxfordshire and a bit of Gloucestershire. Then she decided she'd had enough.

She's very fond of Hitchin in Hertfordshire. She wants to show me that as retaliation. I lived there for six months when I was five but I don't remember it well.

We stayed at Buckland Manor, a beautiful hotel, some of it 13th century, near Broadway in Worcestershire. Buckland "village" is a lane with a few houses, no post office, no pub - and the hotel.

The suite was delightful, understated, nice architectural prints, leaded windows, a view of fields, gardens and sheep. The bathroom was immaculately done in inlaid wood. Very posh. I thought highly of the manager, Nigel Power. He was courteous, helpful and discreet.

The food was less satisfactory. At dinner I felt I was in an old people's residential home. The canapes were glumpy. Heavy, unsubtle, to say the least. We both took one tiny bite of the bread and put it aside. It was awful. My melon was cut up in tiny little pieces with a dried fig, some strawberries and poor quality ham.

Paola said: "Are you in a hurry? Have you got a train to catch? You're gobbling it down like you haven't eaten for two years!" After the starter we got melon and Grand Marnier sorbet. Pretentious.

I had Dover sole. The mashed potatoes with it were cold. For some extraordinary reason the top of my sole was covered in salt, so only the under part, which hadn't been salted, was pleasant. The service was fine, but Paola described her salad as "like something you chuck out of a packet from Tesco's. Not remotely special".

When she turned to the cheese, Paola became distressed. She tried a piece of melba toast and then a very odd biscuit. "How can they not have crackers?" she asked. "Because they haven't got them, dear," I offered helpfully. "Everybody's got a cracker in their cupboard," continued Paola. "Well, these people haven't," I volunteered. I agree, cheese should be accompanied by water biscuits.

I ordered pain perdu served with wine poached pear and citrus sabayon. "I've no idea what that is," I observed. "Pain perdu is a brioche type of thing," explained Paola. It was a disaster. Heavy, nasty. There were some very chewy pieces of dried fruit popping around in cream. A highly unsuccessful dessert.

I tried a jelly petit four. It was ghastly. Paola reminisced that she didn't get celery or walnuts with her cheese. "The coffee's absolutely awful," she said, after taking a sip. She was right. "The best coffee in London is at San Lorenzo. The Wolseley is second," she declared, pushing her cup away.

The day before, at Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire, I had a very good risotto except Paola wasn't mad about Raymond adding sour cream.

"Did you notice it?" she asked. "Absolutely not," I replied. "You didn't notice the sour cream?" repeated Paola in amazement. "Then you know nothing about food."

That's been said, accurately, many times before. We both agreed the apple souffle was amazing.

As he showed us some of his exquisite suites Raymond told us how good his bread was. He should instruct his staff to hand it out. We waited for ever at lunch.

In the end I had to ask for it.

For dinner I had a confit of foie gras with rhubarb compote and a toasted ginger brioche, then a delicious pigeon baked in a salt crust. All the food was fantastic.

The restaurant staff I saw were the gloomiest bunch ever to haunt a dining room.

That's amazing as Raymond is effusive and cheerful. He went round tables smiling at everyone.

On a guided tour of his gardens and greenhouses he greeted all the guests we passed. His reception staff smile. Why can't the restaurant people? Raymond produced a historic crumble with rhubarb from his garden.

I smiled at that. The restaurant staff didn't.

Last Sunday I said Italians were unfailingly charming. Next day I went to Cipriani in Mayfair to receive a stony non-greeting from a surly receptionist. After we'd entered, Paola looked round at Stefania Alban who then offered a snooty "Hi" as if that was enough.

Stefania traversed the restaurant as if smelling something horrid. When I looked up, from time to time I'd see her at the front desk stroking the jackets of managers Pierre and Marco. "She's interested in cloth," I thought. Perhaps her father, like mine, was a tailor.

On my way out I told Stefania her greeting was not exemplary. She chased us into the street and harangued Paola. I was wrong. Not all Italians are hospitable.

Winner's letters

I'm eternally in your debt, Michael. In a lifetime of pondering just what it was that made Italians different from the rest of us, I had never managed to put my finger on it. And then, eureka! The answer right there in last week's remarkable column. The simple truth, gleaming forth from the page like an intellectual beacon, fuelled with your virtually forensic insight. It's their "Italian-ness" that causes it! How could I have been so blind? Thank you profoundly for so gently leading me from my wilderness of ignorance in your characteristically erudite fashion. I write in humblest admiration.
Bryan Owram, Yorkshire

You were right last week about the difference between French and Italian restaurants. We took our son to the two-Michelin-starred Midsummer House, Cambridge, for his graduation. Although we protested at the table being almost more in the kitchen than in the restaurant, we were told firmly they would be full. They were not! The food was impeccable. But the welcome less so.
Bernice Foreman, Edgware

It appears to be open season on the Hoste Arms. When I visited we had a most agreeable meal, despite the fact that one of our party had a full ice bucket knocked over him by a barely apologetic waiter! And in reply to Mr Downer (Winner's Letters, last week) who wrote about oysters that didn't work. What were they, battery operated?
Toby Messer, Barnes

I feel sympathy for the much maligned Gavin Rankin (Winner's Dinners, last week). AA Gill awarded Rankin's restaurant, Bellamy's, four out of five stars. You struggled to give it "quite good", which you equated to "terrible". Who should we believe? As for Gavin Rankin's lack of presence in the drama of spilled water - perhaps he suspected your overreaction. Or maybe he just doesn't like you.
David Marr, Suffolk

You've told us about La Colombe d'Or in St Paul de Vence. The ambience, setting, views and location are indeed outstanding. But the menu was over-large in size, not in choice. The meal, uninspired, basic and boring. We tried in vain to find something tempting. Having eaten out on the Cote d'Azure for a fortnight, this was perhaps our worst meal.
Tim Bent, Leicester

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