Peter James: A treasured book, going on a cruise and a nine-course dinner

PUBLISHED: 15:45 02 February 2016 | UPDATED: 15:45 02 February 2016

Peter and Lara James in Casablanca

Peter and Lara James in Casablanca


Bestselling crime writer Peter James talks us through his gastronomic adventures and keeps us abreast of everything relating to his fictional detective, Roy Grace

These long, dark winter nights are a time when I love to sit in the snug warmth of my library and delve back into treasured books that I never tire of re-reading. Jerome K Jerome’s classic, Three Men In A Boat is one. It begins with three chums, gripped with hypochondria, discussing all the ailments they’ve been looking up in medical books and realising they are suffering from all of them. Luckily for George, Harris and the narrator, the internet had not been invented in 1889! There is a wonderful line when one talks about the benefits of going on a cruise, and another tells about a gourmet pal who had booked on a cruise because he had heard about the wonderful food served on board, and had then spent the entire week seasick in his cabin. When he finally got back on dry land, he watched the ship sail off towards the horizon and said, ruefully, “There she goes with all my food on board that I haven’t had!”

Lara and I have just returned from a wonderful cruise (having just finished my new Roy Grace novel, Love You Dead), to Casablanca, the Canaries and then gorgeous Madeira on board the Saga Sapphire, where I was a guest speaker. The service was superlative and every meal was five-star London restaurant standard. But what I love most about cruising – this was the sixth that I have done – is the diversity of the characters on board. Cruising, especially a company like Saga, attracts an older generation, and I love talking to old people because almost everyone has a story. I once met a charming old boy who was the brigadier who liberated Belsen. Another told me he had once spoken to Hitler. And on this one I met a charming man who had met Dennis Nilsen – when the serial killer had been employed as an executive officer at the Kentish Town Job Centre. And of course, almost everything I do ends up being research for a book…is it any coincidence that my next Roy Grace novel has a murder on a cruise ship?

I had some sympathy with Jerome K Jerome’s character on the last cruise I did, nine years ago, when we sailed from Southampton into a force 10 gale, in the Bay of Biscay. I was meant to be giving a talk the following day. But for the next 24 hours I was flat on my back in my cabin, wishing I was dead! No such horrors on this last cruise, where I’m happy to report we both devoured all the food, both on board and ashore, with relish.

The last time I was in Morocco was as a hippie in 1970, when I travelled around the country with a school friend, fetching up in Marrakech. We stayed several weeks in the Hotel du France in the medina, which then cost a princely ten shillings a night! My mother, taking pity on us, wired me some money to have a nice dinner on my 20th birthday and we went to the Hotel Mamounia restaurant. At the time it was rated as one of the ten best hotels in the world. To be honest, having had no alcohol for several weeks, we got completely wasted. I don’t remember anything of what we ate, but I do remember just how charming the staff were, and I’m told the hotel is still brilliant.

On our shore visit to Casablanca we were recommended Rick’s Café (of course!), not to be confused with the ersatz version in Hilton there. The restaurant is brilliant, with great food and charming staff, and a sight rarely seen these days – an ashtray on the table. Our waiter seemed genuinely disappointed that we didn’t want to smoke during our lunch.

Madeira was the highlight of our trip. It is a stunningly beautiful, Portuguese-owned island, immensely friendly and with great food, where Winston Churchill liked to go to paint. We had a drink in fabled Reed’s hotel, reassuringly stuffy and seemingly stuck in a 1930s time warp of service and elegance. The rite of passage for every visitor is to take the very hairy toboggan ride down a steep two kilometres of tarmac road, with two drivers on the back (see left). What they don’t tell you is that at one point you shoot across a main road, with the traffic held up – you have to hope – by a smiling man in a boater. We braved it and survived.

Back home we’ve been catching up on some favourite restaurants. We had a nine-course dinner in the Ledbury, our neighbourhood restaurant in Notting Hill, rated a few years back by the Sunday Times as the best restaurant in England – and it never disappoints. Then we had dinner with lovely Brighton entrepreneur and philanthropist Mike Holland and his delightful lady, Wendy, at one of my perennial favourites, the seafood haven of Riddle & Finns in the Brighton Lanes.

So, it’s time to see if our resolutions stand the test of the first few weeks of the New Year. Ours are simply to do our best to enjoy good food and the company of friends. I’m pleased to report that so far we’re adhering to them. I wish you all a very happy, healthy and safe 2016.

Peter James

Peter James’ The Perfect Murder returns to Sussex, co-starring Shane Ritchie and Jessie Wallace, for a week’s run at the Theatre Royal, Brighton starting 7 March. His third ever novel, Billionaire, has just been re-published after 30 years out of print. And his next Roy Grace novel, Love You Dead, will be published on 19 May.

He donates his fee for this column to his charitable foundation supporting Sussex charities and this month’s fee will be given to The Old Police Cells Museum in Brighton.

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