My love affair with Fortnum & Mason began early. As a young fashion writer the wonderful pagoda telephone booths on the 4th floor quickly became my unofficial London office when I discovered I could ask my editor to phone me back at the newspaper’s expense. I adored too, the arcane glamour of the ladies powder room. Tucked away behind the lingerie department, it was a haven of gilded mirrors, ladylike charm and clouds of Creed’s Fleur de The Rose Bulgare which left me feeling like Ava Gardner in The Night of the Iguana.
It never occurred to me to think of shopping for groceries in the famous food halls, except perhaps for the odd piece of wild Irish smoked salmon, complete with pink beauty spots. The food halls were always overrun with bewildered looking Japanese tourists and florid, red-faced Dukes up from the country. And besides, it was ridiculously expensive, or so I thought.
Then, a couple of months ago, my beloved announced that he had almost run out of dried green peppercorns and that the only place he knew where to find them was Fortnum and Mason. Soothingly, I suggested a long list of sensible alternatives, closer to home and without two Royal Warrants! Naturally, he ignored me and off we went to Piccadilly.
Now, the peppercorns weren’t cheap. But we did make a very interesting discovery. Yes, we might be poorer during the recession, but we can afford to shop modestly in Prince Charles’s local grocer. Even better we could save money on some of our favourite weekly staples and enjoy some of the finest wild and organic food Britain has to offer.
Amazingly, we knew we were onto something when we spotted that a dozen Clarence Court quails eggs were cheaper in Fortnum’s than Waitrose, as was the finest prosciutto de San Daniele.
Fortnum’s is a revelation for the careful shopper. Descend the elegant white marble circular staircase into the lower ground floor and you will find a grocer like no other in all of London.
But that isn’t the real story – what Fortnum’s does extraordinarily well is offer flexibility and choice and out of this world quality in the very heart of London. We bought two superbly aged Highgrove organic sirloin steaks for under £10.00. They had a wonderful, intense wine red colour, and very little fat and tasted sublime, with a lingering, buttery aftertaste.
I could have included the supermarket option, but why bother? You can’t begin to compare a cosseted, lovingly reared organic steak from the Highgrove herd with a pre-packaged, supermarket counterpart; especially as Fortnum’s age their beef for 28 days, so that it is at the peak of perfection when you need to buy it.
What did surprise me is that there was very little difference in price. How exciting that I can afford the Aston Martin of beef and leave the old banger in the garage.
Not only is it a joy to wander around this spacious, intoxicating palace brimming with some of the finest produce on the planet, you will also find staff who are engaging (as opposed to indifferent) and will delight in talking to you about the provenance of the produce from the celebrated Jamon Iberico de Bellota (Pata Negro)- to Alderton ham with a glaze of Sir Nigel’s vintage orange marmalade, and frequently with tips on how they cook it themselves at home.
Highlights include: silky, whole sides of wild salmon from The Seven and Wye Smokery, highly prized lobster from the West coast of Scotland or succulent pork from the Royal Windsor Farm; The best thing is that you can shop for superb, fresh ingredients and only buy what you need – so nothing goes to waste. And when you venture to the magnificent counter of hams and cured meats you will invariably be invited to sample some delicious titbit before making your purchase. My love jokingly calls this Fortnum’s ‘buy one, get one free’.
Of course, some things do require a handsome royal salary. Don’t be seduced by the raw peas in the pod at £8.99 per kilo. In Waitrose they are a mere £2.99. But do try the sweet artistry of the in-house patisserie on the ground floor.So next time you find yourself in the centre of London and you are wondering what to cook for dinner – walk through the pale green and gold facade and discover one of London’s rare jewels – a grocer fit for princes and discerning, careful, gourmets everywhere.
Fortnum & Mason
181 Piccadilly, London
Monday to Saturday from 10am to 8pm
Sunday from 12noon to 6pm