A star has fallen

Tessa Bramley, chef-patron of the Old Vicarage

Tessa Bramley, chef-patron of the Old Vicarage

So the Old Vicarage at Ridgeway is one of the unlucky 13 in Britain which has lost the Michelin star, held since 1998 and the only one in Sheffield. It made front page news in the Sheffield Telegraph. But how much does it really matter?

True, it must be a bitter disappointment to chef-patron Tessa Bramley and her long-term chef Nathan Smith, who has been there for every starry year. They are most probably the victim of changing fashions rather than falling standards because reviews of the food have been mostly good or excellent although service is reportedly wobbly.

Chefs at the top of their profession crave stars but they probably mean more in terms of kudos with their fellow chefs than to the average diner. Relatively few people read the Michelin Guide, certainly not in comparison to the Good Food Guide and Hardens, compiled from public reports rather than food inspectors.

It may be difficult to the public to appreciate how much stars mean to chefs and how they feel when they lose them. French chef Bernard Loiseau shot himself in 2003 when he thought, wrongly, he had lost one of his three stars at the Cote d’Or in Saulieu. I have eaten there, sat next to his widow Dominique, and enjoyed the signature dish of frogs legs, garlic and parsley. Gordon Ramsay is said to have wept when he lost two stars at his New York restaurant, The London.

On the other hand, Skye Gyngell handed back her star at her café in a garden centre, Petersham Nurseries, because diners drawn there by the publicity expected glitzier surroundings. And in Sheffield Marcus Lane, who then owned Rafters, felt his Bib Gourmand (just below a star) put undue pressure on the kitchen and asked not to be considered the following year.

There is no doubt that winning a star brings customers. But that can mean more staff and more costs in keeping up the standards – and pricier food to match. Conversely, losing can cost. Forbes magazine quotes studies showing that dropping a star can halve sales. More than one restaurant has won a star and gone bust. There’s another factor. Michelin stars tend to turn restaurants into pricy, over-formal, reverential temples of food where people speak in hushed voices when eating should be a lively, gregarious, convivial and sensuous experience.

It is some years since I have eaten at the Old Vic, and then we had the night to ourselves, for my editor at the Sheffield Star felt few readers would be tempted by £40 a head lunches and £75 dinners. But it has been consistently good since I first went there (just six meals into my reviewing career!) shortly after it entered the Good Food Guide 27 years ago.

I have even cooked there. Once, for a story, I was a commis chef for the night (the lowest of the low) cooking samphire and vegetables to go with an amuse of cods cheeks. Tessa, on the pass, sent one of my plates back three times before judging it good enough. She was a kind but strict taskmistress. I was terrified there might be a food critic in that night!

Like any good restaurant, stories about the Old Vic abound. In the early days Tessa’s son Andrew, nicknamed ‘Lurch,’ would open the restaurant door (you rang the bell) and look you up and down as if to judge your worth. There is the story, probably apocryphal, of the loud pub landlord out dining who asked for a bitter to which the reply was: “Would that be bitter lemon or Angostura, sir?”

My favourite is of the late Michael Winner, reviewing for the Sunday Times, who on visiting the gents noticed a bowl of strawberries. He reached to pick one then wondered about the personal hygiene of previous visitors and desisted. Winner wickedly made much of this in his report, taking the wee-wee so to speak, but gave a favourable review.

For the Old Vic, losing that star may be the end of an era but it is not the end of the world.

The Old Vicarage

The Old Vicarage

No, grazie, Signor, bread, oil and balsamic is not Italiano!

Bread, oil and balsamic together is not Italian!

Bread, oil and balsamic together is not Italian!

It was some time in the late Nineties when posh restaurants in Sheffield brought little bowls of oil containing pools of balsamic vinegar and fresh baked bread to the table before the start of a meal. As things happen later in this city the rest of Britain probably had a head start.

They said it was Italian and as Modern British Cooking has lots of Italian elements I, for one, took that as true. You dipped your bread in the oil and balsamic, scrunched it gently against some rock or sea salt crystals on your plate and ate it. It wasn’t just posh, it was very Italian. Or so I thought.

I’ve just come back from Italy and eaten in a wide range of restaurants from posh to pizzerias and not once was I offered things this way. And, come to think of it, I wasn’t on my previous visit to Venice the year before. Because they just don’t do it.

They bring the bread first as a matter of course, to nibble and to mop up your sauce. The oil and balsamic arrive later with the main course, to dress your own salad if you order one, or to pour even more oil on your meal if you don’t think there is enough on. For good olive oil is a condiment along with salt and pepper to Italians. And, no, they don’t have big phallic pepper grinders either.

So there’s no plate on which to pour the oil, vinegar and salt at the start of the meal. Some people try to put the oil on a slice of the always excellent bread right there on the tablecloth but if I wait I can eat a space clear on my primo or secondo piatti and, Roberto’s your uncle, I’m away. And I did just that.

I asked Elena Trust, owner of the excellent home made pasta shop Stretti, on Sharrowvale Road, Sheffield, what she thought. “I’ve noticed it in restaurants in this country but we don’t do it in Italy. We dip some bread in oil to taste it but never with balsamic vinegar,” she says.

If Italians don’t do it, how did it come about in the UK? Well, Italians do drip oil onto bread to taste its quality, as Elena, from Piemonte, says. There’s no balsamic because that would mask the taste of the oil. And my research turns up a dish of toasted bread, rubbed with garlic and dribbled with virgin olive oil called spuntino but that’s for home, not restaurants.

As far as I can establish the practice started in the United States and, like most things, got copied over here. I have noticed it less and less in Sheffield these days. Posher restaurants, such as Rafters on Oakbrook Road, offer breads with butter (they make their own) along with the oil.

It’s not the only British misconception about Italy, according to Elena. “A Latte is a glass of milk. Milky coffee is a Caffè Latte.” She is also dubious about the Italianness of Americano coffee although I have seen it offered on many menus. That might be because they’ve got used to tourists asking for it. The real term is a Lungo, Espresso with water.

And in the interests of her native cuisine Elena would like to make it clear that antipasti is a starter dish in its own right, not something you have before the starters.

Another thing which raises her Italian hackles (we’re really motoring here!) is the use of the phrase al fresco for eating in the open air. “Fresco means fresh, at a cooler temperature. When Italians want to eat outside they say all’aperto, which means in the open,” she says.

Now whether bread, oil, salt and balsamic is Italian or not it won’t stop me having it at the start of our Italian evenings at home because it’s delightful. You just wonder why the Italians didn’t think of it themselves!

The meanest hotel in Europe?

The Hotel Ambasciatori, Sorrento.

The Hotel Ambasciatori, Sorrento.

Some months ago I wrote a light-hearted post about running out of the right sort of teabags in our hotel room abroad. Hotels happily provide tea and coffee free of charge for early morning cuppas but sometimes it is the wrong sort of tea – fruit tea instead of black.

I used to take the Mickey out of my parents who packed the PG Tips when they went abroad but after running out in Lisbon in March I took a leaf out of their book and stowed some in my suitcase for our Italian trip.

Free tea and coffee is a little gesture from what, after all, is called the hospitality industry but I hadn’t bargained that our stay in Sorrento at the Grand Hotel Ambasciatori would turn out to be in the Meanest Hotel in Europe.

Have an extra tea or coffee and we'll charge!

Have an extra tea or coffee and we’ll charge!

They charge you €0.50 for every tea bag and sachet of coffee once you use up the two teabags and portions of coffee provided (who wants mint tea or blackcurrant tisane, two of each, first thing in the morning?).

I have never, ever encountered this before. Now there is a notice to this effect but I thought it only applied if you used everything up on the first day – milks, sugars etc. But when, like Oliver, I went to ask for more they wanted to charge.

I told them what I thought which is what I’m telling you now, that this is mean-spirited and unworthy of an otherwise very nice hotel in large, floral grounds on a cliff top overlooking the Bay of Naples.

Luckily, we had plenty of tea bags of our own but it was the coffee which ran out. Oddly, they replaced the little milk cartons without charge every day. Morning drinks for two would have made the hotel just €7 a week but lost them a lot of goodwill.

On departing I left my surplus teabags in the room. No charge.