I’ve updated my 2017 post about the much loved store Fortnum & Mason. I hope you enjoy reading!
Fortnum & Mason has long been a favourite store for my mum and I especially at Christmas. It has become a bit of a tradition to visit this delightful epicurean store these last fourteen years or so where we take a yearly trip to London during mid to late November to start our Christmas shopping. By that time, the Christmas lights have been turned on and London is twinkling and glowing and the air is thick with festiveness; it’s an enchanting time of year. As my mum gets older, we have decided to dismiss all other Central London shopping in favour of indulging in all that Fortnum and Mason has to offer and there is no better time than Christmas to visit the store. In fact, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a visit and mum and I will continue to enjoy this special experience for as long as we can.
Fortnum & Mason celebrated its tercentenary in 2007, I remember well how the store commemorated this milestone. I think that’s when mum and I first started coming as my daughter had started full time school by then so we could stay out for most of the day. Fortnum & Masons was established in 1707 by Hugh Mason who operated from a tiny store in St James’s Market and from a spare room in his house. The Fortnum family (William Fortnum was a prominent builder) arrived in London with a view to reinvigorate London after The Great Fire. He was also a Footman in Queen Anne’s household!
Queen Anne insisted on having new candles every evening which meant a lot of left over wax which was undeniably, a complete waste; that’s when Fortnum saw this opportunity and exploited it to his advantage. His idea was to sell Queen Anne’s half used wax candles for profit. Fortnum convinced his landlord Hugh Mason to join the venture and so a grocery shop in St James’s Market was opened in 1707. This paved the way for the beginnings of this iconic store and that’s how it all began all those years ago. In 1738, the idea of selling food first came about. The new store decided to capitalise on creating food that was easily transportable for long distance journeys as many travellers headed west to London, they could stock up before their journey home. Trying out many ideas, Mr Fortnum and his staff developed an ingenious idea of wrapping a hard-boiled egg in sausagemeat and then coating in breadcrumbs and deep frying. Yes, our very own Scotch Egg was born, it was both filling and very portable and so began their venture into food. In 1794, the store even began operating as a post office where they provided letterboxes that were collected six times a day, that lasted until 1839.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the store supplied dried fruit, spices and preserves to British officers during the Victorian era. Apparetnly, Queen Victoria sent shipments of Fortnum & Mason’s concentrated beef tea to Florence Nightingale’s hospitals during the Crimean War. Fortnum’s also provided food for prestigious Court functions. In 1886, they bought the entire stock of a new tinned product made by H J Heinz called baked beans and so Fortnum & Mason became the first store in Britain to stock the now hugely popular tomatoey beans. The store was even referenced by the great author Charles Dickens “Look where I will, I see Fortnum & Mason. All the hampers fly wide open and the green downs burst into blossom of lobster salad”. In 1902, King Edward VII demanded to be brought the “finest tea in all the land” and so a challenge was set for Fortnum & Masons to bring back from afar, places like Sri Lanka and India, tea fit for a King and indeed they did.
Fortnum’s even sent the suffragettes hampers even though they had broken their windows and in 1914, hampers kept the British Expeditionary Forces going. They also provided consignments of hampers for the British Everest Expedition in 1922, it was said that they “simply couldn’t start without their 60 tins of quail in foie gras and four dozen bottles of champagne”.
In 1964, the famous Fortnum’s clock was installed to the front of the store, did you know that its bells are from the same foundry as Big Ben? They ring every 15 minutes. Another interesting fact is that for the first time ever, Fortnum’s sold a record at the request of its staff, it was “Do They Know It’s Christmas” on behalf of the Band Aid Appeal; so unusual a step was this, it made the national news. In 1999, Fortnum and Mason went global by launching their website, Fortnum’s was now accessible to everyone. In 2013 for the first time since 1707, Fortnum’s opened another store at St Pancras International Station serving the country’s travellers just as they had done over 300 years before. So now, you can pick up your much-needed tea and biscuits on your way home, what could be better! 2014 saw the addition of another store at Heathrow’s Terminal 5.
In 2016, The Fortnum & Mason Cookbook was launched, a collaboration with the acclaimed food writer and son of HRH The Duchess of Cornwall, Tom Parker Bowles. You can buy a signed copy from the store, I’m thrilled to say I have a personal message inside my copy because I bought mine at the Henley Literary Festival last year where Tom was promoting the book. If you love cooking, I urge you to buy this book, it has an array of traditional and much-loved recipes plus ones that are used by the store in their restaurants. In 2018, Fortnum & Mason introduced a Christmas cookbook and earlier this year, a book dedicated to tea, cake and other bakes simply called Tea & Cake. They’re beautiful books to cherish and make lovely additions to your coffee table or a very special gift.
Ownership of the store was passed down the generations but was acquired by Canadian businessman W Garfield Weston in 1951. He formed the company Garfield Weston Foundation which is a grant-giving charity. It own’s 79.2% of the British holding company Whittington Investments who now own Fortnum & Mason, the other 20.8% of Whittington is owned by members of the Weston family so Fortnum’s is still very much in the ownership of the Weston family and largely run by his granddaughters and Managing Director Ewan Venters. Former Director Ewan Venters was interviewed on the radio show LBC a few years ago about why the store is so popular and successful and long may it continue.
MODERN DAY FORTNUM & MASON
Fortnum and Mason is one of the only food stores to stock the French delicacy foie gras. I make no apologies when I say that my husband and I very much adore foie gras. In November 2010, the animal rights group Peta launched a campaign against the store for selling foie gras citing cruelty in the production process. Peta regularly holds demonstrations involving celebrities and other activists outside the store. A few of the celebrities supporting their campaign was the late Sir Roger Moore, Tamara Eccelstone, Twiggy and Morrissey. I was in the store on that November day and I was stopped and asked if I would support Peta in their campaign, I refused. I don’t like double standards and I am not about to lie to anyone about my love of foie gras as I regularly eat it when I’m Paris. I also don’t want to delve too deep into how it’s produced and whether it’s cruel or not as I’ll be writing a separate post on this delicacy, I will endeavour to describe how foie gras was made by geese naturally many years ago when they overate in readiness for migration and therefore produced a fatty liver. I care a great deal about animal welfare and I support various campaigns such as Respect for Animals who protect animals being used for their fur, they successfully stopped fur farming in the UK which I’m thrilled about.
Fortnum & Mason is famed for it’s vast selection of tea and its luxury hampers which the store first distributed to Victorian High Society for events such as Ascot and the Henley Royal Regatta. Henley has a special place in my heart as it’s where my husband has a business. These glorious hampers contained items such as Stilton cheese, champagne, quails’ eggs, smoked salmon and remain just a popular today with a very wide selection full of gorgeous goodies. My mum always orders about 3 or 4 hampers each Christmas for presents and I’ve had the pleasure of receiving these hampers quite a few times from my mum. I’m always so excited to open my hamper which arrives about 4 days before Christmas to discover what treats are inside. Let’s not forget to mention the emblematic wicker basket with the F & M logo printed on the front with the strong brown leather straps keeping everything safely tucked inside; it makes a great picnic basket too. In fact, you can fill with almost anything, when my children were small, I put all their toys in there, now they hold my treasured food magazines.
There is a large variety of hampers ranging in price from £60 right up to an eyewatering £6,000. Hampers can be personalised to include your choice of groceries and wines, mum always includes a Vacherin Mont d’or cheese, smoked salmon and a whole spiced ham. The hampers can be savoury or sweet based or a mixture of both and usually includes wine whether it’s a bottle of champagne, port, white or red wine depending of the type of hamper. I just love looking at them in the store and reading all about the delicious items inside. Fortnums is of course more than just a luxury food and grocery store, there is a floor dedicated to beautiful china, glass and other homeware including scented candles, cookbooks, a floor full of indulgent perfume and skincare plus a floor for the discerning gentleman.
The second floor is where you need to be if you’re a beauty obsessive like me. It’s an alluring boudoir with gorgeous scents, exclusive perfumery in delicate crystal-like glass bottles and a vast range of bath products, skincare and gifts. The smell is absolutely intoxicating as you enter the second floor, I can spend hours here.
The first floor is dedicated to everything for the home from delicate china and glass, beautiful and very expensive tea and dinner sets, cookbooks and of course the famous Parlour Restaurant with the widest range of creamy luxurious ice cream as well as light lunches and pastries.
The Parlour Restaurant is a casual dining experience, a place to have a light lunch, a morning coffee and pastry and of course THE ice cream, not just any ice cream, you get to create your own sundae creation and with a large selection of flavours, toppings and sauces, it’s frosty heaven! The Parlour Restaurant is a firm favourite of ours.
The ground and lower ground floors is where you’ll find store cupboard essentials; condiments, jams, preserves and honey; biscuits, nuts and a counter full of colouful French Macarons and the widest range of rare tea and coffee.
The centre island on the ground floor is a sweet lovers’ paradise. It’s full of all sorts of candy, fudge, marshmallows and preservcd and jelly fruit. A glorious colourful array of sweets to satisfy every child and adult alike.
If you’re a coffee connoisseur, you can choose your coffee beans which are ground and packaged for you.
Also on the ground floor is The Gallery Restaurant, formerly The Terrace.
With its own entrance overlooking Jermyn Street, the former Fountain Restaurant renamed 45 Jermyn Street is an elegant restaurant, if you like fine dining, this is the place for you. The lower ground floor is where all the fresh consumables can be found such as my favourite foie gras, salmon, charcuterie, cheese, vegetables, fruit and much more. You will also find the most comprehensive selection of wines and spirits and the aptly named The Wine Bar; a little gem of a place serving a wide range of wines and delicious food.
The third floor is dedicated to the discerning Gentleman. There are beautifully made hats which my husband would love as he’s very much a hat person wearing all sorts of weird and wonderful styles since he became follicly challenged! there’s sure to be one to suit all tastes. There are elegant ties made from the finest materials, accessories from walking sticks to traditional umbrellas, cufflinks to elegant pens from the luxury German company Mont Blanc. I’m sure men of all ages would love to casually wander around and then nip downstairs to the Wine Bar for a whiskey or two!
Also on the third floor and for the first time in 50 years sees the return of Fortnum and Mason’s Master Barber. Some of the services they offer are the popular wet shave and haircut, bespoke beard styling and hot towel head massage. Visitors to the Barber can expect a first-class service, who says that men don’t deserve a bit of pampering too. Can you believe that there is also a fully-stocked and complimentary drinks cabinet just in case a craving for an Old Fashioned a la Mad Men hits you while you’re being preened and prepped! Just to add, Mad Men is my favourite TV show which my husband introduced me to; now we have an Old Fashioned or two at home and it’s become our cocktail of choice when we’re out and who else can make smoking a cigarette with a glass of whiskey in hand so ultra cool other than my crush, Don Draper!!
Fortnum and Mason is renowned for its tea and of course that Great British Ritual that is Afternoon Tea. Formerly served in what was the St James’s Restaurant, it is the brand new Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon which was opened by the Queen, the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duchess of Cambridge in 2012 when the Queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee.
It’s an elegant and refined space, light and welcoming, not at all stuffy. It’s somewhere to come and relax and indulge in the finest sandwiches and delicate pastries in what is the quintessential British Afternoon Tea, I can’t wait to come to Fortnum’s for Afternoon Tea and I will certainly be bringing my mum!
For me, the best time of year to visit the store is at Christmas, it’s simply beautiful, a magical wonderland of decorations, festive hampers, trees, Xmas crackers, cards, gifts, cakes, puddings, sweets and more. If you love Christmas as much as I do, it’s a place you MUST visit.
So there you have it, the story of one of the finest stores in London which is probably more known for it’s artisan and sophisticated luxury food and hampers but is so much more than that. You can quite happily spend a day at Fortnum and Mason, meanduring around the store at your own leisure and pace, enjoying either a simple coffee and pastry, casual lunch or an indulgent Afternoon Tea. The service and hospitality is second to none and Fortnum’s aim to please in every way possible. It’s why every year, the store just gets more and more popular and and tourists flock here in their droves and that’s rare in todays difficult economic climate.
Fortnum & Mason is known all over the world, whether you’re British or a tourist. Buying just one thing from this store with it’s exqusite packaging is such a special treat and when the last grains of coffee have disappeared and the tea from the last few remaining rare tea leaves has been sipped, the containers they come in are to be cherished just like a souvenier. The story of Fortnum & Masons is an extraordinary one which I find very endearing.
I have always found the subject of history fascinating and researching the history of the store has been so interesting and an absolute pleasure, I’ve learnt so much. Fortnum & Mason sometimes offer guided tours and other fun activites throughout the year, check on their website for more information; it’s something I will definitely do in the future.
With such a beautiful store on your doorstep, it’s hard to find a reason not to visit especially now that London is opening up and the end to the Covid-19 pandemic is in sight. So make Fortnum & Mason your next destination for shopping and much, much more.
181 Piccadilly, St. James’s, London W1A 1ER
Monday to Saturday 10am – 7pm, Sunday 11:30am – 6pm (11:30am to midday is browsing only)