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Serving up my most memorable meals

Published 27 May 2007
News Review
723rd article

Michael after his unforgettable gnocchi at Sfazu, with owner Verena Rossi-Gruber (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

What is the most memorable meal (or meals) you've ever had?

For me an early recollection is my mother's meatloaf. She did it superbly. That's before she gave up cooking and concentrated on full-time gambling.

Around aged five I was put as a boarder in a coeducational school in Letchworth, Hertfordshire. It was vegetarian. They even served grass from the cricket pitch to help the war effort. Of course we all became ill. But we produced the best milk in Hertfordshire.

To escape the dreaded salad regime we'd go to the corner post office, a lovely Edwardian building, typical of an age gone by. There we'd buy little jars of meat and fish paste, scoop the contents out with our fingers and eat them. Joyful.

Then I switched to a worn-out tea room next to the Palace cinema in Letchworth. It had a wonderful mural of a balcony and gardens beyond. There I became addicted to sausages, gravy and chips. Real chips, not the bought-in muck you get today.

I said to my parents, "When I grow up I'll eat nothing but sausages and chips." I also told them I'd never, ever, read anything but Enid Blyton. I've matured since then. I read hardly at all, but the last book I greatly enjoyed was Walter, the Farting Dog. It was number one on the Sunday Times bestseller list of children's books.

At Cambridge the food was pretty ordinary. But I recall with pleasure my Saturday night meals with George Webb who owned an independent cinema, the Rex, and his manager, Leslie Halliwell, who became a famous writer of movie reference books. The chicken biryani stays with me as one of the great tastes of my late teens.

Moving on, there was a wonderful restaurant called Wilton's in St James's. It's still there, but no longer great. Every meal was close to perfect. Simple English food, marvellous produce. Jimmy Marks, who ran the place, was so fastidious he wouldn't keep fish overnight in the fridge. A nearby restaurant came and bought it from him.

My mother, who looked and spoke like a duchess, would sit down in one of Wilton's booths and say to the headwaiter, "Is your smoked salmon salty?"

The answer was always, "No madame."

Whereupon Mumsy would say, "Could I try some, please?" They'd bring her a taster of smoked salmon. She'd chew it as if testing a fine wine. Then came "No, thank you, I'll have something else." Or "Yes, I'll have some." This infuriated the boss's wife, Louise Marks, who was used to serving Churchill and other great figures.

There were many great meals I ate in the South of France in the Fifties and Sixties but only the bouillabaisse at Tetou in Golfe-Juan was, and still is, historic.

When I went to the USA in 1953 - from war-torn England - there was Howard Johnson, a milkshake and ice cream place with a wonderful counter, just like I'd seen in the movies. And the hot dogs. A good frankfurter in a bun and a chocolate milkshake, who could ask for more?

There was a marvellous man called Rico d'Ajou who had a nightclub in Mayfair. He put on superb cabarets, where the performers massively outnumbered the diners. But he did a roast duck with cherries that was super-historic.

I recall, also, a great English fry-up I had at Sandy Lane one New Year's Eve. The set menu, taking forever to be served, had sat around in the kitchen far too long. I opted for freshly cooked fried egg, tomato, sausage, fried bread, baked beans. Incredible.

But the most memorable meal I ever had was in Switzerland near the Italian border. Geraldine and I were staying in St Moritz. It's my habit to take long drives into the countryside, sometimes four hours one way and four hours back.

On this occasion I decided we'd drive over the Bernina Pass. So we drove, and drove, and drove. Nothing but great walls of gleaming white snow. Snow-covered fields. The road twisting and turning. No sign of human life.

Finally, around 4 o'clock, exhausted and starving, I saw an undistinguished cafe. We went in. There was a stove in the middle of the room, potted plants, ordinary tables and chairs.

A lady, the only person there, said, "I've just made something for my husband, you can have that."

She went away, leaving Geraldine and me expecting nothing. Instead she served us the most unbelievably delicious gnocchi, freshly made with herbs and vegetables. This was memorable.

The place is called Sfazu; it's in the area of San Carlo. It's owned by the family of Verena and Luigi Rossi-Gruber. Never mind your Gordon Ramsays and Heston Blumenthals. Verena Rossi-Gruber is the champ.

Winner's letters

Mr Winner had a terrible meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant last week. Lower down the very same page we were informed that in Elderon, Wisconsin there was a Testicle Festival where, for $5, you could eat as many as you wanted. It's a disgrace no one pointed this out to Mr Winner so he could have availed himself of this wonderful offer. Or perhaps he wished to stay in England for the Summer balls?
Jim Burton, Wokingham

I'm increasingly ashamed of my fellow readers who, despite your glacial recuperation, insist on attempting to demean your good self. Clearly you are inter alia, boorish, emulous, elitist and irascible, but none of us is perfect!
Dr Ian Murphy, Essex

Two ladies who lunch overheard in a Knightsbridge restaurant. "There's nothing on this menu that excites me." "Me neither . . . I say, Pippa tells me Michael Winner had vibrio vulnificus and lost weight." "He lost weight! That settles it . . . Waiter, vibrio vulnificus for two with a side salad and a decent bottle of chablis."
Norman Coxall, Weybridge

My dear friend Elaine and I were wondering if we could help you write your column one Sunday. We both scrub up well and would love to be in the picture with you.
Jane Archer, Kent