Fortnum & Mason has come a long way since opening in 1707 at Hugh Mason’s small St James’s Market shop. A move to an iconic site at 181 Piccadilly and three centuries of history later, it is perhaps the world’s most famous grocery store. This time last year, the company reported record sales figures of £88 million – and the recent launch of its first standalone restaurant, 45 Jermyn St., has pushed the brand further into new territory.
Now, the company has taken another step forward, with the publication of its first official cookbook. Featuring recipes for longtime classics, dishes pulled from the archives and contemporary dishes, the book provides a history of the store’s life; a snapshot into Fortnum’s past through the prism of its most well-loved dishes and ingredients.
The man tasked with consolidating 309 years of history into just 304 pages is Tom Parker Bowles. A respected food writer, critic and sometime television presenter, he also happens to have royal connections, being the son of Camilla Parker Bowles.
While the presumption might be that these connections might have led to Tom’s appointment by the Royal Warrant holding Fortnum & Mason for the purposes of writing this historic book, the reality is far more prosaic – as he explains over coffee at 45 Jermyn St.
“I was filming in Australia about a year and a half ago. Ewan Venters (CEO of Fortnum’s) and I sat over a long lunch at a place in Bondi, and I said to him: ‘You have over 300 years of history, but you haven’t done a cookbook.'” Tom offered his services, and soon the process of researching and compiling recipes began, alongside Fortnum’s’ executive chef, Sydney Aldridge.
The team’s aim was to produce a usable, working cookbook. “You want it stained, battered and bruised from constant use,” says Tom, whose enthusiasm for food is reflected in his hyper-speed speaking and a penchant for jumping to his next thought before articulating his last. He says that picking the recipes for a book “three hundred years in the making” – taken from Fortnum’s archives, dishes available in the store and at 45 Jermyn St – was challenging, but “fascinating”.
Fortnum & Mason: The Cookbook has something to please all home cooks, at all skill levels, according to the writer. From quick dishes to “elaborate” recipes, Tom says there is much to enjoy. Personally, he enjoys the “more comforting dishes; it’s probably because of the season.” He rattles off a number of unctuous, flavoursome dishes perfectly suited to the colder months – Welsh rarebit (“Fortnum’s perfected it”) is just one British classic that makes an appearance.
Tom says Fortnum’s has had a presence in his life since he was a child. “I grew up in the country most of the time, but my grandma used to take my cousin and I here. When you’re a kid and not in the city much, London is a magical place. With its glittering windows, Fortnum’s had that sense of magic – especially at Christmas. I was always slightly in awe of it.”
Though Tom grew up in nature and enjoyed the seasonal produce readily available there, it wasn’t until going to boarding school aged eight that his “healthy interest in food turned into greed.” After university and a string of jobs unsuited to him (“I was sacked from every job I ever did”), Tom was made Tatler’s food writer – and remained there for eight years, before making the move to GQ, and then to Esquire. He would soon also become the food critic at the Mail on Sunday. Tom says he is grateful to have found a career he gets so much enjoyment out of. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than write. “Sometimes I think, ‘My god, I’m eating and writing about it’ – that for me is a dream.”
Tom has now notched up hundreds of restaurant reviews up and down the UK and across the globe. With such experience, what does he think of the restaurant scene in Mayfair and St James’s – two of London’s more challenging districts for restaurateurs? “I always knew St James’s pretty well – my father was always in the area; and my uncle used to have a restaurant round here. The Crown Estate are doing up the whole area, so he had to move out – we’re looking for a new site as we speak.” That restaurant is Green’s – recently acquired by restaurateur Marlon Abela.
As for Mayfair, Tom says there are a number of iconic restaurants here that never fail to deliver the goods. “I can absolutely rely on Scott’s every time – it’s a fantastic place.” Same goes, he says, for The Wolseley. “It amazes me that it’s only been there for 11 years. Jeremy King and Chris Corbin are incredible restaurateurs.” According to Tom, food is just one facet that makes Corbin and King’s restaurants modern day classics. “You go for the whole experience – that cacophonous, echoing room – and that never ceases to get me excited.”
He tells me that he hopes to see more of what he calls Mayfair’s ‘new breed’ of restaurants. “Kitty Fischer’s on Shepherd Market is fantastic. It’s small, decently priced, but it’s cool. That’s the new Mayfair for me – you don’t have to wear a tie and you can eat lunch there for £25.”
Tom believes in the democratisation of food. He is a champion of the street food scene and is involved in East London food market Dinerama. “It’s always packed. I think that’s great, because 20 years ago you wouldn’t have found that. You can have amazing food for a tenner, a few drinks… That’s how the food scene has changed, and I hope that’s the future.”
Fitting someone whose “life is food”, Tom has an emotional view of eating that he says connects each and every one of us. “You can communicate through food, no matter where you are,” he says. “You can be celibate, you can pay taxes or you can dodge taxes – whether you like food or not, we still have this shared experience. To sit down and break bread together – I think that’s a very important thing.”
Fortnum & Mason: The Cookbook is published by Fourth Estate and priced at £30.
As featured in Mayfair Times’ December 16 edition.