Prue Leith: British hotels still serve filthy food

Also in her diary: Doctor difficulties, Liverpool’s grands projets, Kenneth Baker’s brainchild, further adventures with bats

28 May 2016

9:00 AM

28 May 2016

9:00 AM

Why do we assume all doctors are good? We don’t think there are no bad cooks or bad plumbers. But everyone thinks their surgeon is the best in the world. Recommended to one such, I booked an appointment. He rattled off his spiel about the pros and cons of surgery, physio or jabs for a bad shoulder, while looking at the ceiling and at his watch. He waved away my scan: ‘I never look at those. Just heaving oceans of muscle. They all look the same.’ He favoured surgery, but I asked for a jab. It hurt like hell and made no difference. So I went to another ‘top of his profession’ consultant, who gave me a jab, while looking at the scan on a monitor to hit the right spot. It worked. After nine months, I can move my arm. Yippee.

You might believe really bad food was hard to get in the UK now: B&B breakfasts are ambitious, pub food has changed beyond recognition, the country glitters with Michelin stars. But when were you last in a big three-star hotel? It’s like going back to the 1950s. The misnamed Futures Hotel in Plymouth serves a ‘steak sandwich’ of overcooked roast beef, reheated in thick gravy and sandwiched, gravy and all, in factory bread. The Weston Hotel in Burnham-on-Sea gave me beetroot and goat’s cheese salad with less than an ounce of goat’s cheese and no beetroot.

I exempt Holiday Inn from these moans when they have Marco Pierre White doing simple, flavoursome food in the bar. The Double Tree by Hilton in Bristol have gone further and opened a great MPW Steakhouse Bar and Grill. The only downside is the sight of the great man everywhere: on huge posters, framed pictures, cartoons. When my daughter was 16, his tousled angry looks glowered from her bedroom walls. Can it really be that the good ladies of Bristol still consider him a pin-up?

Almost 30 years after the event, I finally got to see the reclaimed and renovated Liverpool docks, containing the biggest clutch of Grade I-listed buildings in the country and a constant stream of tourists happily spending money in museums, attractions, restaurants and bars. The Albert Dock tells an amazing story, from modern marvel in 1848 to rapid decline 50 years later when the sailing ships it was built for disappeared. Silted up and derelict, by 1980 the talk was all of demolition. Today it’s a marvel of regeneration. We often hear that the British are useless at grands projets. The Scousers aren’t.

I was in Liverpool to visit Hugh Baird College, the brainchild of the former education secretary Kenneth Baker (now Lord Baker), who has always had a bee in his bonnet that schools should equip children with skills as well as knowledge. Hugh Baird’s cohort of 14-year-olds come from schools that have been unable to interest them. Yet at Hugh Baird they thrive, doing plenty of English and maths and also getting City and Guilds qualifications in a trade. I watched students in air-hostess uniforms going through safety routines in an aircraft cabin, cooking and serving in the public restaurant, styling real customers’ hair in the beauty salon and arranging flowers in the florist shop. I went on a tour of Liverpool where tourism students gave the commentary in an open-topped bus. Discipline is strict, but the students love the place. All are expected to get a job or go on to university for a degree in tourism, engineering, design or health. If he wasn’t there already, I’d be rooting for Kenneth Baker’s elevation to the Lords.

I’m having a struggle with the planners. Before you can even submit an application to turn a barn into a cottage, you need to have the bat man round, and he costs a grand per visit. I thought all would be well when five, yes five, ancient droppings were all he could find. But no, his report declared the house eminently suitable for a bat roost, even though bats obviously don’t think so.

My heart sinks because I have been here before. My last bat encounter (when I was renewing our roof) ended with me having to take down the scaffolding and lay off the builders all through the winter and most of the spring, until the bats left for their holidays in May. Whereupon the scaffolding went up again and the builders scrambled to finish the roof in time for the bats’ return at the end of the summer. By then their old abode had had a makeover with hessian-covered rafters to make perching easier, a new entrance under the roof tiles and an optional bat-box in case they wanted a sleepover next door. I was tempted to put out a notice: ‘Welcome home. Central heating on. Milk in fridge. Sleep well.’

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Prue Leith is a restaurateur and the author of Leiths Cookery Bible. Her sixth novel, The Food of Love, is now in paperback.

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Show comments
  • Malcolm Knott

    This bat business is a racket: part of what David Cameron called ‘the Green crap’ (we have to get rid of).

    • Frank

      Actually I believe that it is another of these pesky EU laws! Possibly intended to stop the French from eating them with garlic?

  • newname

    I was expecting to read about dirty food, as in the (nameless) hotel kitchen I worked in many many years ago in Bournemouth during a summer holiday, where the head chef was usually out of action due to alcoholism, the pastry chef worked with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and when I took a tray of cakes that I had dropped back to the kitchen, they were rearranged on the plates and I was sent back to the lobby with them. Missing beetroot? Luxury, lass.

  • BorderReiver100

    ‘I exempt Holiday Inn from these moans when they have Marco Pierre White doing simple, flavoursome food in the bar.

    I was amongst a group of 50 staying at a Holiday Inn, a couple of weeks ago. Regrettably Marco Pierre White had been nowhere near the place and nor, in my opinion, had anyone who could cook, count or organise a buffet meal been either. The food was dire and on one night actually ran out before some had been served. If a Holiday Inn cannot produce a meal of reasonable quality with limited choice for an undemanding group of 50 people they shouldn’t be in the business.

  • Sargon the bone crusher

    The British do not know how to cook. For them, the oven is nothing more than a plate-warmer. Food is poisonous in most of the Dark Island. Most British look ill and unwell – in part because of their dreadful food

    • Roderick

      Drivel. The food choices available now in Britain are a complete transformation from what they were in my youth (in the 70s). The gastro-pub is just one example of how it is possible to provide good eating at moderate cost.

      • Sargon the bone crusher

        Oh rubbish. You come out with this predictable PC guff.

        It is pot pourri of God – knows – what from God – knows – where.

        It is a society based on money food status.

        Fine dining crap,

        All the while the hordes eat utter garbage in massive quantity. The fancy kitchens defy the ‘ can’t cook, won’t cook ‘ burn-the-bra feminist creatures ( men with mammaries) to do anything at all – and most of them would be challenged to prepare a vegetable.

        Which, by the way, is what you are.

        • Roderick

          As it happens I do know something about the food business and am a member of the Chaine des Rotisseurs (do look it up, you might learn something).

          You on the other hand resort to a cheap little ad hominem in a vain attempt to disguise your ignorance.

          • Sargon the bone crusher

            Woderwick and the Chain of Wotisers!!!!
            Chaine des Rotisseurs
            One step up from the old Berni Inn.
            You patronising self-important dummy.

      • Father Todd Unctious

        Gastro-pub? Where did you get that from? Hilarious.

        • Roderick

          To be stalked by one troll is (mildly) amusing. To be stalked by two is, I must agree, hilarious.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            I am not a troll. I do not stalk. I only call out inaccuracy.

          • Roderick

            So, non-troll, where is the inaccuracy? Compare say, a 1970s-era Wimpy Bar with a modern-day pub-cum-restaurant. You have tried one, I assume. Do you not notice a difference?

          • Father Todd Unctious

            I am querying your terminology. Some pubs do decent food, usually at a price. Where did you get Gastro-pub from?

          • Roderick

            Gastro-pub is a shorthand term for a pub-cum-restaurant. It usually provides much better eating than the traditional pub stodge, and at a lower price than an equivalent-quality restaurant. Try Googling it.