The Enduring Appeal of London's Oldest Department Store


The Enduring Appeal of London's Oldest Department Store

A must-visit, even if you don’t shop.

December 22, 2017
Afternoon tea done properly. Photo by Fortnum & Mason/Facebook

The world is wide, and we want to see (and eat) all of it. We've partnered with VisitBritain to take a closer look at the foods, producers, restaurants, and regions that make Great Britain a top destination for food-loving travelers.

Ask a Londoner about their favorite department store, and their eyes will likely light up with thoughts of loose leaf tea, shortbread and jam jars wrapped in duck-egg blue packaging, glass-covered sweets counters straight out of a children’s storybook, or the quaint decadence of grocery shopping over the plush tread of a red carpet.

There’s nowhere like Fortnum & Mason, the 310-year-old emporium which sits on Piccadilly, London’s best-known thoroughfare. Its co-founder William Fortnum, previously a footman in the Royal Court of Queen Anne, once sold leftover candle wax from the royal chandeliers. Now the store’s products reveal a coat of arms: the Royal Warrant of Appointment, meaning the Queen’s kitchen cupboards are lined with their products. Who doesn’t love a story of a tallow-thieving underdog done good?

The plush red carpets are right behind those doors! Photo by Fortnum & Mason/Facebook

Visit Fortnum’s any day of the week and you’ll see well-dressed ladies collecting cuts of beef for dinner, businessmen grabbing sandwiches, or tourists splashing out on wicker food hampers.

“Growing up it was always a magical place,” says British food critic and writer Tom Parker Bowles (who is also stepbrother of Princes William and Harry; his mother, the Duchess of Cornwall, is married to Prince Charles). “It’s just incredibly romantic and evocative.”

Parker Bowles wrote The Cook Book: Fortnum & Mason, a modern compendium of the store’s best-loved dishes, so he knows the place well. He spent hours nosing through the store’s archives. “I loved all the old stories. Like Queen Victoria sending these great blocks of beef stew to Florence Nightingale in the Crimea.”

Illustration: Adriana Gallo

The archives house ledgers detailing the order histories of famous customers. With everything then sold on account, there are records of what great writers like Charles Dickens, Henry James, and T.S. Eliot ate. And Winston Churchill’s numerous Beef Wellingtons, of course.

“Fortnum’s was the store that fed the aristocracy and the empire,” Parker Bowles adds. “Their hampers went off across the world; down the Nile, the Congo.” The explorer Robert Falcon Scott even packed their salty, spreadable beef extract on expeditions. It’s like “posh Bovril,” he explains.

But isn’t all this talk of colonial Britain a bit...passé? Parker Bowles agrees: “Of course, we’ll never move forward if we’re always sifting the past. Fortnum’s has continued to evolve because it’s about Britishness without being too flag-waving or too nationalistic.”

As such, the store has contemporary restaurants like 45 Jermyn Street, a light-filled place with red leather banquettes where Daniel Craig’s Bond wouldn’t look out of place. At the store’s deli counters, office workers queue for fresh pasta and Italian sauces for less than £5, from acclaimed chef Angela Hartnett.

Though he was taken by a section of recipes dedicated to the infirm in an old Fortnum’s catalogue (think soups, jellies, and restorative consommés for tired souls), The Cook Book is more interested in how people eat today. There are recipes for things on toast, like Welsh rarebit, scrambled prawns, baked beans with chorizo (Fortnum and Mason was the first British stockist of Heinz Baked Beans), and a clever take on avocado toast (served with a moat of Bloody Mary sauce). Parker Bowles is particularly partial to the coronation chicken sandwiches (another nod to Britain’s historical love of curry powder), which he makes at home in tall stacks.

Before we finish our call, I have two pressing questions. Where else in London should visiting foodies eat? He doesn’t hesitate: “St John. It’s what modern British food is all about.” He urges decadent seafood fans to get to Wilton’s or Scott’s. And seeing as it’s almost Christmas, we need biscuit recommendations. Which is better: Fortnum’s or Duchy; which are made by his stepfather, Prince Charles? “I couldn’t possibly comment! No way!” Clearly a man waiting on a Royal Wedding invitation cannot afford to be so forthright this time.

We've partnered with VisitBritain to take a closer look at the foods, producers, restaurants, and regions that make Great Britain a top destination for food-loving travelers. Follow along on Instagram to see what's going on across the pond at @lovegreatbritain and what Great Britain is eating at @greatbritishfood.

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Fern Smith

Written by: Fern Smith

Fern Smith is a food writer based in London.

1 Comment

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