Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Food, Glorious Food

Food is such a huge part of Christmas. The flavours of the season are so important, and one of the things that warms our hearts is traditional foods and remembering people and times long gone through the food they shared with us. Perhaps that is why hampers have always been such a big part of Christmas here in England. In Victorian times, hampers were given as gifts to friends and family, and food parcels were often given to the poor as well. More recently, when food was scarce here during wartime, those who had moved to the New World sent hampers of non-perishables back by sea. Nowadays the tradition of hampers continues here in England, and it is not just at Christmas that you might receive one. However, Christmas hampers are the ones that people think of most, and one of ‘the‘ places to purchase your hampers is the iconic London department store Fortnum and Mason. Located at 181 Piccadilly, Fortnum and Mason has been in the same location since it was founded over three hundred years ago in 1707. Just walking through its imposing doors gives you a huge sense of history. Holder of perhaps more Royal Warrants over the years than any other store, Fortnum and Mason is an amazing place at any time of the year, but in the run up to Christmas it becomes nigh on magical. The decorations are stunning and I think the store is more beautiful than at any other time of year.

Now you might think it is a bit early to be thinking about Christmas, but here in England it seems to start earlier every year. Last week, Fortnum and Mason were hosting a ‘by invitation only’ Christmas Preview Evening in the beautiful St James’ Restaurant on the fourth floor of the store. (Being invited to things like this is one of the really great things about being The 21st Century Housewife©.)

Once my name had been checked off the guest list and a glass of champagne pressed into my hand, I was free to wander through the wonderful displays of ideas for Christmas 2009. There were decorations, cards and gifts galore, but most of all, there was table after table full of hampers. Fortnum and Mason have always specialized in “provisions” – food and drink that is just that little bit extra special. Their Christmas hampers are just incredible. Sadly, many of the hampers including fresh food are not suitable for export, but some of the smaller hampers are, so you can enjoy them even if you do not live here in England.

Hampers come at all price points, and there really is something for everyone. As I perused them, I was offered samples of many of the different items that were contained inside by waiting staff who wandered amongst the guests. There were piquant olives and spiced oat cakes, shortbread flavored with rose water, tiny scones spread with exquisite jams and fudge that absolutely melted in the mouth. Tiny cakes, biscuits and sweets kept appearing by my side on silver trays, and I found myself quite powerless to resist them.

The most reasonable hamper on display was the ‘Flavour of Afternoon Tea’ hamper at £35 (about US$55). A beautiful peaked wicker basket holds a quarter bottle of champagne, the cutest baby fruitcake I have ever seen, Cornish Clotted Cream biscuits, loose-leaf tea, a jar of lime curd (a delicious sort of spread for bread and scones which is also used as a filling for desserts), and one of raspberry jam. Other fairly reasonably priced options included ‘A Taste of Fortnum’s’, a wicker basket holding items chosen by ballot as the favourite items from Fortnum’s famous food halls. I’m not quite sure who participated in the ballot, but they definitely had good taste! The hamper is comprised of three kinds of tea including Fortnum’s Royal Blend, Bounteous Butter English Thins (what a great name!), Demerera Shortbread, various preserves and jam, Cognac butter to dress the Christmas pudding which is also tucked inside, mints and a bottle of Côtes de Rhone. What isn’t to love?

One of the hampers suitable for export that was reasonably priced was specially made for children and included two kid-sized china teacups and saucers along with other child friendly treats. This gorgeous hamper is definitely on my list for children of friends and family back in North America.

Humorously named hampers included The Entente Cordiale (a political agreement between England and France signed in 1904 and still in force today), with wines from France and cheeses from England. At £100 it is extravagant in a recession, but it doesn’t break the bank. The aptly named ‘Glorious Three Hundred’ however, costs three hundred pounds. Now, for nigh on five hundred dollars you would expect quite a lot of hamper, and Fortnum’s definitely delivers. Three kinds of tea, coffee, three boxes of chocolates, jams, marmalades, several boxes of cookies and biscuits, a fruit cake that weighs over a pound, cognac and rum butters, Christmas pudding, a bottle of champagne, three bottles of fine wine and a myriad of other treats are all a part of this extravaganza.

Sadly the hampers do get more expensive from here but their contents do become even more exotic. You could give someone everything they need for Christmas barring the turkey in some of these hampers (and Fortnum’s would be happy to arrange that separately). For example, The Christmas Feast which comes in at an eye watering £500 (US$800) really does have practically everything one needs for Christmas in England – from wines and champagnes to pickles, biscuits, cookies, chuntey, foie gras, cheeses, hams and even a bottle of 9 year old single malt whiskey. The crème de la crème of hampers is ‘The Windsor’ ringing in at £1000 (over US$1500). However it does contain a huge amount. The display hamper sat on the floor and covered an area of about four feet square. As well as contents like those in ‘The Christmas Feast’ there are also more champagnes and wines, 40 year Madeira, Port and such delights as brie and foie gras with truffles and even that most curious of English Christmas delicacies, pickled walnuts. Admittedly, these last two hampers are most likely out of reach for us ordinary mortal but they are beautiful to behold.

If you prefer to give a slightly less expensive, but slightly more intoxicating gift, Fortnum’s offer several wonderful hampers and boxed sets of Christmas tipples, including a not un-reasonably priced Champagne Tasting Box at £110 (US$175). It contains four bottles of different Fortnum’s champagnes. Based on my experience on the Preview Evening, these are extremely good. There is also a Provence Box with two bottles of red wine and two of white at £40 (a little over US$60). I was very taken with The Connoisseur Case which does sound expensive at £400 (circa US$600), but is actually well priced, as it contains a dozen bottles of excellent wines (including Gevrey-Chambertin and Pommerol), champagne and an excellent nine year old single malt whiskey.

I came away from this wonderful evening armed with a catalogue of many of the wonderful things Fortnum’s provides for Christmas, a gift bag and a head full of ideas. For as well as the wildly extravagant, Fortnum and Mason also offer exquisite items for those on a budget. Downstairs in their food hall, everything is available separately, so you could put together a rather lovely selection of treats to fit any budget. (Jams and chutneys start at around £5 each.) In fact, their iconic turquoise bags are so pretty you could present your gift in the bag, with the addition of perhaps a bit of tissue. I'd have no objection to receiving a bottle of one of their lovely jams or honeys tied with a ribbon frankly! Furthermore, there were some lovely gift ideas for those “hard to buy for” folk on your gift list including musical tins of yummy Christmas biscuits with an actual wind up music box on the bottom priced at under £10. Boxes of Rose and Violet Creams hark back to days of yore, and Turkish delight is sold in several different flavors. You can even buy your own ready-made gingerbread house covered in candies without breaking the bank.

I think my favourite thing of the evening, which really appealed to the child in me, was the beautiful Advent Calendar Fortnum’s have on offer. Made of wood, and painted to look just like the Fortnum and Mason store, its little doors have real wooden handles. No one at the Preview Evening could resist peeking inside. On opening, each little door revealed a small chamber containing a treat. There were little containers of jelly beans, chocolate and even miniatures of the traditional blue Fortnum and Mason boxes filled with sweets inside. You can choose to buy refills every year so that this beautiful calendar can be used again and again. It is even available for purchase empty if you want to fill it with treats of your choice. It’s gloriously extravagant, but charmingly so.

If you find yourself in London this Christmastide, do pay a visit to the historic and delightful Fortnum and Mason store. Just a few blocks down from The Ritz, its beautiful blue awnings stand out proudly only a few minutes walk down Piccadilly from Green Park Tube Station (heading towards Piccadilly Circus). Don’t forget to look at their wonderful window displays – they stretch all round the front of the store. But don’t be intimidated or confine your visit to window shopping, even if your purse is feeling the bite of the recession. I’ve always found the staff welcoming and helpful in Fortnum’s, even back in the day when actually purchasing something there was seriously out of the question for me. They are happy for you to browse, and should you want any help, they are friendly and approachable. It may be one of the oldest stores in London, and the staff may dress in formal attire, but it is anything but stuffy! It certainly is a great place for Christmas inspiration. And if a visit to London is not on the cards, you can always check them out on the web. Just click here, and let me be the first to wish you a Merry Christmas!