A new cookbook by Tom Parker Bowles documents iconic and historically significant recipes from the quintessential London department store.
The Cookbook: Fortnum & Mason—newly available in the US—tells the culinary story of a department store that dates back more than three centuries.
In it, food critic Tom Parker Bowles dove deep into the history of the London institution that is its namesake. Fortnum and Mason had its humble beginnings in 1707 when a footman to Queen Anne named William Fortnum started a side business reselling old candles leftover from lighting the palace. But Bowles explains that, over the last 300 hundred years, the store has become “synonymous with the best of British produce—and the best from all over the world.”
Over the years, says Bowles, “it became a store that, basically, fed empire. Kings, queens, maharajas. Fortnum’s has been up Everest, they’ve been down the Nile, down the Amazon. If you look through British history—the Churchills, the Wellingtons and the Nelsons—they all would have been fed on Fortnum and Mason.”
Recipes from the Fortnum’s kitchens, from grand roasts to scones and afternoon tea, occupy a special place in the British mind—“growing up, most British people would have heard of Fortnum’s,” says Bowles. “You know, you go to tea at Fortnum’s. All of our great writers, our great actors, our great statesmen and politicians, generals—they were all fed by and all loved Fortnum’s.”
Despite the extraordinary clientele—Charles Dickens was a fan of the lobster—Fortnum & Mason’s food is “not just posh, rich stuff,” he says. “This is baking, it’s roasting, it’s very much British food.” For Bowles, one of those quintessential British foods is the dearly beloved dish called Welsh Rarebit. “That, for me, is an absolute classic.”
Devotees of Fortnum & Mason’s Guinness-spiked version of the melted-cheese-on-bread phenomenon can border on obsessed. “One customer is so enamoured by the dish,” says Bowles, “that whenever he flies in from Santa Barbara, California, he dumps his bags at the Stafford Hotel and rushes over the road for rarebit. Without even checking in.”
If you want to get a little of that obsessiveness for yourself you can make it with the recipe below.
The Cookbook: Fortnum & Mason by Tom Parker Bowles, $23 on amazon.com