Christmas is always a special time at Fortnum & Mason. The London department store always goes all out with its festive window displays, and people from around the world order its luxurious, extravagant hampers, which are filled with everything from boxes of chocolate-and-orange biscuits to champagne to Fortnum’s famous jams and preserves.
But this Christmas is particularly special, as the 308-year-old store has just released its first cookbook, The Cook Book: Fortnum & Mason. This tome is packed with traditionally British recipes from throughout Fortnum’s long history, which were compiled by food writer Tom Parker Bowles and an in-store team.
At the book’s Hong Kong launch at Lane Crawford, which is stocking a range of Fortnum’s products for Christmas, we spoke to Parker Bowles and Ewan Venters, CEO of Fortnum & Mason.
How did this book come about?
Tom Parker-Bowles: It came about over a long lunch, as many of these things tend to happen – it was in Sydney, actually, in North Bondi Fish. And I suddenly said to Ewan, “Fortnum & Mason hasn’t got a cookbook.” This is the only store on earth that has an in-house archivist, an academic, Dr Andrea Tanner, and Fortnum’s has over 300 years of history. It’s incredible when you look through the people who’ve gone to Fortum & Mason – all the royal families, Dickens, Thackeray, Betjeman, Wellington, Nelson. So for a food writer it was just like, “wow!” You could jump in and look through these archives. And as we’re very clear about, the recipes are very much Fortnum’s recipes, from Sydney Aldridge, who’s Fortnum & Mason’s executive chef. The fact that my name’s on the front is irrelevant. It was a collaborative process.
What’s your first memory of Fortnum’s?
Tom Parker-Bowles: My parents used to tell me stories of what Fortnum’s was like in the dim, grey days of rationing in the ‘50s – London then was a very different place then than it is now. And for my parents, the restaurant – which was then called The Fountain – was a taste of America. Knickerbocker glories, sugar and all these sort of things. It was a very glamorous and exciting place for a child to be in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But when we grew older, we’d go with our grandmother and it was this otherworldly, slightly Narnia-esque world. People in tailcoats and the smells and the colours and it was this astonishing store and it has this romance that – I think – no other store really has like that.
Ewan Venters: For me, my grandmother was a bit of a foodie and she lived in a fishing village called Pittenweem in Scotland and I remember her having Fortnum’s tea sent to her. Her range of teas was probably my earliest introduction to Fortnum’s. And my parents were great lovers of the theatre and they used to bring my brother and I down to London twice a year and we would go and have Welsh rarebit at Fortnum’s before going to the theatre.
What’s your favourite recipe in the book?
Tom Parker-Bowles: In terms of recipes, I have to say the welsh rarebit is an absolute cracker. But there’s all sorts of stuff.
Ewan Venters: I’ve got my own recipe in there, which I’m rather pleased with. It’s called Ewan’s Original Scottish Tablet – tablet is like fudge. So of course that’s one of my favourite recipes.
Christmas is coming up. What will you be cooking?
Tom Parker-Bowles: Not turkey. Turkey is repellent, it’s shit, it really is a crap bird. Why do we only eat it once a year? Because it’s boring. It’s a Victorian arriviste, it was made popular by Queen Victoria, like mawkish Christmas cards. Before that, we ate proper stuff like beef and goose. We British are strange people – Christmas is the least festive feast of the year! At Christmas in countries with great food cultures, there are proper feasts that people enjoy. In England, we have Christmas pudding, mince pies, turkey – maybe I stand alone in this, but it’s the least enjoyable meal of the whole year. My father always insists on Christmas pudding, but my children won’t eat it, my wife won’t eat it, I won’t eat it.