Fortnum & Mason is one of those places that, for a long time, I barely glanced at. It seemed to be a beautiful piece of history, in a lovely part of London but, a bit like a palace or a castle, not somewhere for the likes of me. But this year I worked on their first cookbook and I discovered so much about the shop and what it has been for the last 300 years that I rather fell in love with it.
I fell in love with the fact that it was started by a footman to Queen Anne, called William Fortnum; he was allowed to keep spent candles (the royals, of course, had new ones every day) and he sold this wax on. What with a grocery business, and a landlord named Hugh Mason who was interested in being part of the business with him, one of the most famous shops in the world was born.
I fell in love with the fact that their beef tea was sent by Queen Victoria to her armies in the Crimean War, that their clients and fans included most of the great British writers of the last few centuries, and that they once employed a world-class ‘lady golf champion’ in the sports department.
And I fell in love with the fact that there are two chefs dedicated every weekend to making sandwiches for tea, that they still have a proper ice-cream parlour called, quite rightly, the Parlour which serves the sort of ice cream that children, and this adult, dream of, and that they have their own beehives on the roof painted, as you would only expect, in their classic eau-de-nil.
Stories and gems like this are peppered throughout and, what makes it completely unique are the illustrations from the archives. Eccentric, anthropomorphic and very beautiful, you will find walking strawberries, top-hatted lobsters and some of the best cats ever drawn.
Amongst all of this, and definitely not least, are the recipes. It is the most English of shops and of books, in some ways, but just as there is no such thing as a simple definition of Englishness, or Britishness, whatever the political war raging out there might suggest, the recipes in these pages descend from many different places. There are, of course, many that are British-inspired – Scotch eggs, Welsh Rarebit and Cheddar cheese scones – but the rest of the world makes an appearance too. Blanquette of veal (France), Goan fish curry (India) and Battenberg (no one’s quite sure…), to name just a few, make it very clear that Fortnum’s starting point may be firmly in London, but its inspirations are worldly.
But when trying to think of what to write about on this blog, I decided I would focus on something that is very English indeed: ginger biscuits. As a child they were the ones that were always in the house, relatively uninteresting compared to special-occasion foil-wrapped ones for Christmas, but somehow still rather comforting. And a homemade ginger biscuit completely sums up the recipes in this book: how to transform the everyday, the process of eating and drinking from breakfast to cocktails, into a real treat. These will take you about 30 minutes, from start to finish.
Most of us can’t afford tea at Fortnum’s (though the cheapest, which is quite a steal for afternoon tea in this overpriced city, is £19.50) or even the tea at Fortnum’s (£3.95 for 25 tea bags), not often. This book, however, and the recipes in it deserve to grace every table, from a footman’s to a queen’s, every day.
Ginger Biscuits (makes at least 24; adapted from The Cook Book)
Cupboard (or things you may already have)
unsalted butter, 135g
plain flour, 300g
baking powder, 4 tsp
bicarbonate of soda, 1½ tsp
ground ginger, 2 tbsp
demerara sugar, 105g
golden syrup, 135g
stem ginger in syrup, or candied ginger, 2-3 lumps, drained of syrup if necessary
1. Preheat the oven to 160°C/140°C fan-assisted/gas 3 and line a baking sheet or two with baking parchment.
2. Put the butter and syrup in a small saucepan and heat gently until the butter has melted.
3. Meanwhile, sift the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and ground ginger into a bowl and add the demerara sugar. Finely dice one of the lumps of ginger and stir into the mixture.
4. Add the melted butter and syrup to the flour mixture, and mix well. It will turn into a firm dough quite quickly.
5. Tear off small pieces of dough, about the size of an unshelled walnut, roll them into balls with your fingers, then place them on the baking sheet, separated from each other by a couple of centimetres. Flatten each one slightly. Cut the remaining lump or two of ginger into small pieces then press a little bit into the top of each biscuit.
6. Bake the biscuits for about eight minutes, or until golden then remove from the oven. Leave to cool on the sheet for few minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before eating. If you don’t want to bake all of the dough at once, you can wrap it in cling film, freeze then defrost and bake as above.
NB One thing I noticed, when on batch two, was that the dough dries out quite quickly if you leave it in its bowl. So wrap it up as soon as you can if you are not baking it all at once.