1. Is it unjustified arrogance?
In any other iteration, calling a collection of recipes The Cook Book would be a gesture of empty arrogance akin to the insistence of San Franciscans to label their town ‘The City.’ The perpetrator of this title, Tom Parker Bowles, does not lack for confidence, misplaced as his confidence in the past has been. His scholarship has been dubious; he has, for example, dismissed the culinary craft of Rupert Croft-Cooke, a considerable offence.
In a Guardian column from 2009, Parker Bowles disqualified Croft-Cooke’s English Cooking from consideration for his list of “five classics” that, he thinks, would form the “backbone” for an ideal collection of British culinary texts; “elegant as it is, it’s more rant than recipes.” While it is more than fair to consider the work elegant, other than a single short satirical chapter savaging the pretentious housewife obsessed with gadgetry and gimmicks, a rant it is not.
Often overlooked, wrongly.
Nor does the absence of conventional recipes from English Cooking --notwithstanding the inference from Parker Bowles the text includes no recipes at all--undermine its utility to the cook. “Dorothy Hartley’s exhaustive Food in England ,” one of Parker Bowles’ five, is by his own description “better suited to reference than actual cooking” so even if Croft-Cooke had not provided practical guidance, the omission should not have disqualified his entry into the pantheon.
As his mischaracterization of English Cooking may imply , Parker Bowles can cast an infelicitous phrase. He refers in The Guardian column, for instance, to “a tattered Robert Carrier’s Great Dishes of the World ,” when presumably the book rather than author should have been described as decrepit. ( Guardian )
2. No, not entirely.
Then again, if Parker Bowles misreads English Cooking at least he has read it, or anyway some of it: Everyone else other than Nigella Lawson, who considers it “a rather wonderful book,” “deliciously camp” in a rather stereotypical way (Croft-Cooke was gay) and “charmingly authoritative,” now overlooks English Cooking. (Lawson 90)
Parker Bowles also is on to something in confiding that he would rather go to Oxfam for “an old Ambrose Heath than spend the best part of 20 quid on some vacuous, ghost-written drivel on why ‘eating raw’ is the next big thing.” In addition, he has the acumen to understand that the British are “spectacularly well served when it comes to the recording of our national food,” no little irony given the historically popular misperception that British food always has been bad. ( Guardian )
The Cook Book , it transpires, has a subtitle both simple and direct. It is “Fortnum & Mason est 1707.” We might not expect much from Fortnums. They chose Parker Bowles, we might assume by pedigree, to make their case, and the reader who selects the section on sandwiches first will find him in customary form. He does not describe enough of them. Introducing the subject, he doubts the validity of its provenance while recycling a rotting chestnut, then rehashes without attribution the speculation Bee Wilson indulged herself seven years ago in Sandwich: A Global History . Parker Bowles proceeds to get the history of the sandwich wrong in his dismal iteration of a forced vernacular dialect that lies uneasy on the page, and this from an aristocrat (he actually is Thomas Henry Charles Parker Bowles) whose mother, the Duchess of Cornwall, married the Prince of Wales:
“I’ve never entirely bought the official history of the sandwich. You know, the one about the Earl of Sandwich being so deep in his game of cards that he demanded meat be brought to him between two slabs of bread. Just so the lazy sod didn’t have to shift his pampered backside from the table. Surely, in a country that venerates both beef and bread, someone might have chanced upon this combination before.” ( Cook Book 134)
The Book itself, in gorgeous F&M eau de nil and gold.
3. A return to the sandwich wars.
There is of course no ‘official history’ of the sandwich and, as N. A. M. Rodger has demonstrated, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich himself was no ‘lazy sod’ but rather a dedicated administrator and principal architect of the Royal Navy that would dominate the oceans throughout the long eighteenth century. He created the first sandwich so he could work uninterrupted at his desk long into the candlelit night. And any use of ‘surely’ in a historical context should sound an alarm, a triumph of bluff over bother. As we pointed out in the June 2016 number of bfia, no image or written record of anything describing a sandwich by its or any other name has been found before Sandwich, and contemporary luminaries including Edward Gibbon attributed its origin to him.
4. What about Fortnums?
Fortnums might be one of those institutions that bestows status if not stature on a High Tory clientele while tolerating the clueless tourist trade with a sniff of supercilious diffidence. Maybe such an attitude would be unwarranted by either the quality of its goods or the surcharge they command. It is as if the prices are calculated in guineas rather than pounds, an indication perhaps that prestige more than value drives the sales at Fortnums.
It is a pleasure to report that Fortnums is none of those things, and that The Cook Book represents a creditable if breezy chronicle of its storied history through the selection of annotated recipes and its handful of short essays. The timeline at the shop website furnishes more of the facts. One of them, from 1911, encapsulates the generous and welcoming spirit that still animates the staff today. As Fortnums notes with terse pride: “Sent hampers to suffragettes imprisoned for breaking our windows.” They treated their own veterans of the Great War better than the government and other employers did the army writ large: “All staff serving in France and Flanders were guaranteed to have kept their jobs on their return, which a surprising number managed.”
In 1922, Fortnums “provisioned the first British Everest Expedition;” in 1984 they “made the national news when staff requested they sell the ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’” single in Piccadilly. “As no-one is in any doubt when it’s Christmas at Fortnum’s we took up the idea with gusto helping spread the charitable message far beyond its traditional audience.” It was the only recording they ever have sold. No doubt at all; at Christmas, Fortnums entwines its massive inner stair with garlands of evergreen embellished with little lights and gold spheres.
All the year round its windows set the shop apart from any other anywhere. Far from staid, the thematic assemblies always display a surreal side, sometimes even including Dali himself. Fortnums always has prided itself on the stories it tells, and its windows reflect the aspiration.
”Curiouser and Curiouser” from one of the Spring shows resembles a fashion shoot gone mad like the Hatter, and a Summer display called “Mythical Creatures” takes the Royal Cipher to heights of fancy. Quite literally; muscular iterations of lion and the unicorn scale ladders in search of Fortnums treats while a dragon acts as consort to a tall British blond.
Alice in Wonderland in the windows at Fortnums.
An Autumnal “Feast for the Eyes” features… eyes rather than something separate for them to devour and a Winter’s piece de resistance chronicles a Pre-Raphaelite Arabian Nights with Asian accents.
5. An adherence to tradition, a passion for change.
Fortnums has not thrived for over three centuries on stale formula. Innovations have included the edible, electrical and electronic. Rigorous culinary historians have traced the first Scotch egg to London. In his posthumous autobiography from 1960, Walter James MacQueen-Pope, a historian of the London theater rather than strictly of food, appears to have narrowed the field further. He claims in Goodbye Piccadilly that Fortnums records indicate that by 1788, “Fortnum and Mason’s were supplying delicacies never before thought of,” including “hardboiled eggs in forcemeat (called Scottish eggs).” (Macqueen-Pope 48)
Unfortunately, Parker Bowles bungles the tale in The Cook Book by mischaracterizing Macqueen-Pope as “W. McQueen Pope” and has him stating in Goodbye Piccadilly “that he had seen documents, in the store’s archive, proving… beyond doubt” that Fortnums “invented the “Scotch egg” “in either 1738 or 1788.” (Parker Bowles 259) Goodbye Piccadilly , however, makes no such unequivocal assertion about the origin of the “Scottish egg” it describes and includes no reference to 1738 in connection with it.
As its unfortunately entitled but engaging “Customer Experience Director” likes to explain, Fortnums was “the world’s first multi-channel retailer.” So Fortnums was among the first stores on the planet to take orders by telephone and one of the first, during the 1990s, to launch a transactional website. (Johnson)
In a graceful gesture to the sustainably green, Fortnums built hives for the roof of its Piccadilly flagship in 2008. Its bees still thrive there; honey is harvested once a year for sale under the Fortnum’s imprint. These are not just any hives; “each with a distinctive triumphal arch entrance designed with a different architectural style--Roman, Mughal, Chinese and Gothic.” All the hives also have coppered roofing and gilded “bee skip” finials, and all of them are painted in the Fortnum’s signature pale greenish eau de nil (not ‘no water’ but rather ‘water of the Nile’).
6. Chronicles quirky and proud.
The internet reflects the shortened attention span of our time. Back before the net, Fortnums had published pamphlets celebrating its anniversaries called The Delectable History of Fortnum & Mason. The Histories provide considerably more detail than the website, and do it with a proud but self-deprecating sense of humor:
“An institution such as Fortnum & Mason must tempt even the least curious among its clientele to wonder how it all began.
The least curious will now kindly strain themselves, and pay a little attention, because they are going to be exposed to the possibility of finding out. It would be as well, too, if we all stick closely together, because the Fortnum family has so many branches there is a danger of the slower witted among us becoming lost in the family trees.”
No less a luminary than Edward Bawden illustrated the two hundred fiftieth edition of The Delectable History , and illustrated the firm’s Christmas catalogs during the 1950s. The two hundred seventeenth anniversary edition begins before the beginning with the early history of the family that would become the Fortnums. We learn that during the sixteenth century a Fortnum ancestor, then called ‘Fortynham,’ bequeathed to an heir unnamed “the best brasse pott, which pott shall remayne unto the name of Fortynham for ever.” Then the whipcrack: “It hasn’t been seen since.”
During the next century another Fortnum, by then a ‘Fortnam,’ became a contractor in Stepney and helped rebuild London after the Great Fire. It was his cousin who met Mr. Mason to consummate (in an entrepreneurial rather than conjugal way) “a union surpassed in its importance to the human race only by the meeting of Adam with Eve.”
This first ‘Fortnum’ of Fortnums would become a footman to Queen Anne in 1707, the date of genesis. As a perquisite he was entitled to the butts of candles burnt in the service of the sovereign, and because the royal household replaced them every night his haul was not insubstantial. Size, and a crown connection, mattered in the eighteenth century used candle trade, and Fortnum amassed considerable capital from his sideline selling the slightly burnt waxen detritus. (275th History )
We also learn something about Fortnums eighteenth century clientele and its foodways. Customers included a princess, numerous dukes, earls including Sandwich, a countess and general officers. They purchased from Fortnums
“delicacies of a surprisingly contemporary kind. By 1788 they were selling boned portions of poultry and game in aspic jelly, decorated with lobsters and prawns; potted meats; hard-boiled eggs in forcemeats (Scotch eggs); eggs in brandy-soaked cake with whipped cream; mince pies; savoury patties and fruits fresh and dried--‘all decorated and prepared so as to require no cutting.’”
Logically enough the firm kept a close connection to the East India Company. “There were,” the two hundred seventy fifth anniversary pamphlet continues,
“Fortnums in the Company itself--referred to by their English cousins as ‘the Indians.’ After what we’ve been through already, it will come as a surprise to no one that they spelt their name Fortnom.”
These Fortnoms sent Fortnums teas and stranger stuffs including, according to contemporary accounts, “Gable Worm Seed, Dirty White Candy, Harts Horn, Saffron, Black Ginger, Broken Nuttmeggs and Glew.”
The delightful tone of this and other celebratory passages related to the imperial project would be lost on the humorless today, a time when no attitude to empire is acceptable other than self-loathing if not revulsion for a storied past.
During the nineteenth century Fortnums became ever more celebrated. Dickens was a dedicated customer who shared his enthusiasm in print. An essay on Derby Day pivots into a paean to the firm:
“If I were on the turf, and had a horse to enter for the Derby, I would call that horse Fortnum & Mason, convinced that with that name he would beat the field. Public opinion would bring him in somehow. Look where I will--in some connexion with the carriages--made fast upon the top, or occupying the box, or peeping out of a window--I see Fortnum & Mason. And now, Heavens! All the hampers fly wide open and the green Downs burst into a blossom of lobster-salad!” (275th History )
7. Doing well by doing good.
Fortnums has not confined its wares to lobster salad, exotic spice and the luxurious like. During the sanitary scandal of the bungled Crimean War, Victoria donated 250 pounds of Fortnums ‘Concentrated Beef Teas’ to Florence Nightingale for her hastily improvised “Extra Diet” kitchens. “It is particularly acceptable,” her mother wrote to Fortnums, “as the state of exhaustion in which the sick are now arriving” at field hospitals “renders it very difficult to find adequate support for them.” Officers experienced an inconsequential inconvenience by comparison. Pilferage of Fortnums goods onboard ships bound for Crimea became so pronounced a problem that their recipients requested the unorthodox omission of the shop stencil from the crates.
Another, more surprising Fortnums staple first lined its shelves in 1886, when Henry J. Heinz arrived in Piccadilly from Pittsburgh with five cases of canned goods. To his evident surprise Fortnums became his first British customer: They bought the lot and never looked back. Heinz built its first British factory in 1905, and homely Heinz baked beans in particular have remained a constant at Fortnums and became a fixture throughout the United Kingdom.
8. Why advertise when you can entertain?
The Delectable Histories were not the only Fortnums publications. Parker Bowles notes that its advertising agency produced for Fortnums “the Commentaries, the beautifully written and illustrated direct marketing booklets of the 1930s.” Each mailing actually was called a “Fortnum & Mason’s Store Cupboard Commentary” and the first one of a continuous line actually appeared in 1924, but Parker Bowles is correct to appreciate their charm.
Customers lucky enough to receive the “Commentaries” cherished them. As Gilbert Russell wrote in his 1935 text on the British advertising industry,
“consider the Fortnum and Mason commentaries. What literary skill, what resources of humour, and what results! The reputation of this shop has been more successfully promoted than at any time in its history. And these commentaries are collected and bound by customers!” (Russell 49)
Why such devotion? The “Commentaries” are whimsical--Russell is right about the prose--and do not really amount to much as advertising. Instead they tell tall tales of exotic places, English eccentrics, unlikely encounters, pocket panegyrics to produce and ‘over the top’ rhapsodies involving comestibles more generally. In the “Commentaries,” as Parker Bowles points out “cherries meditate in kind old brandy” while fruit more generally basks “in bottles, and divorced from the distractions of the world.”
There also is “fanny’s first pie,” a story of sly seduction and creative camouflage. It bears quoting in full:
“‘What are those things?’ said a famous vegetarian. ‘They will scarcely interest you, sir,’ we replied. ‘They are raised veal and ham pies containing layers of tender white veal with rosy ham blushing amidst the rich gravy jelly. Their flavour is of surpassing excellence, the recipe having been given to the nineteenth Mr. Fortnum of our line by the Prince Regent’s own chef in 1815.’ ‘Could you send one home disguised as an artichoke?’ interjected the distinguished man in an undertone. ‘Sir,’ we relied softly, ‘such trifles present no difficulties to us. Have we not grappled with the whimsies of the great for over 200 years?”
And then the disclaimer: “The characters referred to on this page are purely imaginary,” including, presumably, the very real Prince Regent and his actual chef. ( Let’s Forget Business )
The illustrators included W. M. Hendy, the celebrated Punch cartoonist who depicts the lapsarian vegetarian, and it is not for nothing that the popular 1930 compilation of twenty five “Commentaries” that appeared between 1924 and then bears the title Let’s Not Talk About Business.
“Running down anchovies on their native heath.”
9. The firm abides.
Fortnums is a lot more than an erstwhile publisher, food shop and collection of restaurants, also a carriage trade department store that does not deal only in comestibles and the implements for preparing them, but of course we focus there. It is unfortunate that, as with Harrods, the space devoted to the iconic food hall has shrunk, but what does remain remains exceptional. Jars of potted foods and terrines in particular are extremely good.
So does the quality of everything else that Fortnums sells; some of it refers to the royal family in its iconography, the jubilees, marriages and such, but much of it is modern in an English way, which is to say seldom abstract, and much of it as whimsical as the “Commentaries.” Go there, but you will need to go to England. Other than online, Fortnums has for the most part resisted the urge to expand. Other than the Piccadilly flagship, only small outlets at St. Pancras and Heathrow bear its storied name.
10. Back to the book.
It would be unfair to argue that Parker Bowles has succeeded only because, as he admits, his precursors lifted the heavy stones to bequeath him “the easy part of collating many centuries of expertise.” ( Cook Book 289) His short introductions to the recipes he has selected with care are for the most part entertaining and good, while the recipes themselves are written with equal care and with clarity. Parker Bowles has managed an admirable double by imbuing them with rigor as well as common sense.
Nor does The Cook Book , in common with the “Commentaries,” resemble an advertising campaign. The few references to Fortnums products--Parker Bowles lists but eleven favorite ingredients at the outset--are more than fair. Fortnums get their Stilton “from the last family-owned Stilton producer in the UK,” an observation worth sharing, and Parker Bowles justifiably touts the house cured salmon and Single Cask madeira. “This,” he advises, “goes beautifully with most puddings. Once opened it will keep indefinitely. An ever-reliable store-cupboard ingredient.” And so it is. ( Cook Book 7)
On the rare occasions when a brand is specified as an ingredient for a recipe, Fortnums is not the source. Parker Bowles does not even recommend the shop’s peerless piccalilli in the recipes that require the condiment. The self-effacement of Fortnums is touching but in this case does go far too far.
Perfect and overly modest piccalilli.
What the reader and cook gets from The Cook Book in lovely historical terms is food that reeks, or perhaps it would be better to say reminds us, of the best of Britain, whether British food, authentic Indian food, the British permutations of Indian food, British food labelled as French, or foreign food enjoyed by the British. Lunch items in particular will please both cook and diner, even if their categorization as lunch rather than dinner appears undeniably arbitrary.
Rabbit for potting with duck fat first goes into a cure consisting of coriander, garlic, fennel and thyme, all of them traditional English aromatics notwithstanding the pre- or rather mis-perceptions of many readers. Parker Bowles dresses his crab with the unaccountably reviled but essential Marie Rose sauce, although his formula may be improved by substituting Heinz chili sauce for the ketchup, in the manner of shellfish pan roasts at the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal. ( Cook Book 81, 84)
The recipe for traditional potted shrimp would meet with the approval of Jonathan Meades. There is nothing new or novel about the preparation, just shrimp embalmed in clarified butter with seasonings of cayenne, mace, nutmeg and white pepper, a dollop of Worcestershire and dusting of lemon zest. The fish pie also trades on tradition, if only up to a point. His addition of green beans does nothing for the pie that Parker Bowles prepares, and it is fussier while not quite as good as the one lapped in cider from Ruby Tandoh. ( Cook Book 72)
He bakes a good game pie and steams a steak and kidney pudding seasoned solely with Worcestershire and nutmeg (but Parker Bowles might have chosen mace for the sake of tradition), a rendition plain in the way that would meet Amish approval. ( Cook Book 88, 97) It is by no means a damning critique, rather a gift to our readers, to note that the pudding might be improved by taking a now forgotten trick from Croft-Cooke to add a spoonful of treacle to the dough. It crisps and colors the finished pastry and chases away any threat of a sodden result.
Cook Book savories are outstanding along with pretty much everything else including the generous illustrations. A book to buy, to read and to use.
Tom Parker Bowles, The Cook Book: Fortnum & Mason est 1707 (London 2016)
Old cookbooks that won’t gather dust,” The Guardian (17 August 2009)
Christopher Blackwell, Windows For All Seasons (London 2001)
Kieron Johnson, “How to stay in business for 300 years and stay relevant,” Business Insider (24 May 2017)
Nigella Lawson, How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food (London 2010)
h. Stuart Menzies, Let’s Forget Business: The Commentaries of Fortnum & Mason (London 1930)
Gilbert Russell, Planning Advertisements Vol. 9 (London 1935)