The connoisseur: Sir Rocco Forte
The chairman of Rocce Forte Hotels, which he founded in 1996, is a regular visitor to all of his luxury European hotels, but has a soft spot for Verdura in Sicily. Here, he reminisces about fishing in Iceland, his most memorable meals and who he can’t travel without
I can’t wait to go to Italy. My blood is Italian and I feel happy there. My wife’s family has a house near Castagneto Carducci in Tuscany and she likes going there, but I prefer to go to my resort in Verdura in Sicily, so in the summer we usually do a bit of both. After a couple of days in Verdura, I relax completely and stop looking around with a critical eye. It has golf and water sports and the food is very good. For me, it’s the perfect place.
I love to bring home fresh vegetables from Italy. I’m not really one for souvenirs. I prefer to bring back baby artichokes, which I adore, when they’re in season. And, of course, white truffles.
I’ve had so many memorable meals abroad that it’s difficult to pick a favourite. I love food, but I don’t call myself a foodie. I’m not someone who likes going to three-Michelin-star restaurants very much. I much prefer to go somewhere with simpler food and a nice atmosphere. I have a wonderful chef called Fulvio Pierangelini working for me at the Hotel de Russie in Rome. He used to have a restaurant called Gambero Rosso in San Vincenzo, near my wife’s family’s house, and we would often eat there. He really understands food and knows how to bring out the flavours. A lot of chefs mess food around because they think it makes it more interesting. Fulvio can make, say, spaghetti al pomodoro e basilico, which is a relatively simple dish, and yet the locals flock to the Hotel de Russie to eat it because it’s so special.
The best hotel I’ve stayed in (apart from any of my own) is the Plaza Athénée in Paris. It’s on Avenue Montaigne, which is one of the prettiest boulevards in the city. I like the internal courtyard, which has climbing plants going up the walls and red awnings in the summer. Alain Ducasse is the consultant chef and the food is very, very good indeed. The fashion industry gathers in the secondary restaurant, Le Relais Plaza brasserie. The whole place has a particularly French atmosphere.
The secret of a great hotel is its staff. Obviously location and décor are very important, but the staff’s commitment to delivering quality and looking after the guests really makes the difference. And that means wanting to do it in a genuine way, not just taking the ‘have-a-good-day’ lip service approach. You really notice when hotels make a special effort. I stayed in the Bvlgari Hotel in Milan recently and the general manager saw that I liked wild strawberries, which I’d asked for at dinner. When I went up to my room, there was a little bowl of them. Touches like that make you feel important and taken care of. That’s really what it’s about.
My wife is my favourite travel companion. She loves sightseeing and going to galleries and because of her I do more of that than I would otherwise – and I enjoy it.
I never travel without my Ferragamo folding bag. I prefer to have carry-on luggage rather than put it in the hold, but you can’t pack suits in these trolley bags because they get all crumpled up. So I have a folding travel bag, which means my suits don’t need pressing at the other end. It’s starting to get a little the worse for wear, but I can get three or four suits in and they stay in pristine condition.
Reading is my way to destress on holiday. It’s the only time I get to do it. I was in Mustique over New Year and in two weeks I read ten books, including Barbara Amiel’s memoir, Tom Bower’s biography of Boris Johnson and some trashy thrillers. When I go to Sicily, I like to read the Inspector Montalbano novels by Andrea Camilleri, who sadly died two years ago.
I’d love to go back to Iceland. I went fishing there for 40 years and it’s a beautiful place. My father first took me when I was 17, and I have very good memories of fishing for salmon with him. The rivers were hugely prolific. In the early days, the fishing lodge where we stayed had no running water and no electricity. If you wanted to take a bath, there was a geyser about two miles away. If it was a cold day, you had to get in the water pretty quickly! One of my lifelong friends is married to a former president of Iceland and they’re always trying to get me to go back. Tourism there has really developed now and it’s a very interesting destination to go to.
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