This is capitalism as its most gaudy: Fortnum & Mason reviewed

15 December 2018

9:00 AM

15 December 2018

9:00 AM

I admit I had a falling out with Fortnum & Mason a few years ago over its new brasserie on Jermyn Street. It replaced a restaurant that looked like a toilet-roll cover or wedding dress, and although I had never eaten there, I felt protective of it. Why was she blown away and on what wind? Why can’t London resemble, always, something unseen in a Graham Greene novel, because I want it to? It was replaced by a smooth and very expensive restaurant for rich people, which looked like every other brasserie that has opened in London since 2000. I remember it had orange banquettes. It was too Mayfair — that means too Zurich, today — and not enough St James’s. I took against it because I couldn’t imagine a Victorian child standing outside it holding a lantern on Christmas Eve, its breath warm in the air; and if I could it certainly couldn’t afford to eat there. It did an excellent seabass though.

Fortnum & Mason, you see, doesn’t really sell fashion or foodstuffs, even if they do the best scones and the best jam and the best lemon cake, and on and on. (Only its fudge, for me, has been bettered, by a man who had a stall on the South Bank long ago, and he was either a madman or a prophet.) It sells fantasy. It’s 21st-century London’s Metro Goldwyn Mayer, and the only shop I go to for pleasure. It’s a theatre where you can eat the scenery; and theatre should be for everyone. And that, I think, is why I objected to the brasserie. Fortnum & Mason isn’t, and shouldn’t be, for rich people — that is one of the reasons that UK Uncut, who ‘occupied’ it in 2012, looked less like daring revolutionaries than, as ever, middle-class idiots who don’t understand the country they think they want to save. It was for rich people once, and it sent its marvellous hampers to places they shouldn’t have gone, but no more. (You can have a bit of nostalgia. You don’t have to take it all. Liking Fortnum & Mason doesn’t mean I approve of the colonisation of India.) Fortnum & Mason sells a romanticised past; it’s an undangerous and potentially edible roller-coaster to Brexit. You won’t meet the Duke of Westminster in the food hall — he will probably be in Tesco, browsing special offers. You’ll meet Bill Nighy staring at cheese.

So I am ecstatic in the Christmas department, imagining myself a Christmas I have never had. Or that nobody has ever had. That I am Jewish is beside the point. Drugs are drugs, and I like this one very much. I go and sit on the red velvet thrones under an enormous wreath, on the first floor by the teapots, and ponder multiple dream Christmases and multiple overpriced baubles. I don’t care that the Fortnum & Mason Christmas is an invention of the Victorians. Nor do I care that this isn’t even England in the snow globes. It’s quite obviously Germany, which is very funny under the circumstances. But dreams are unreliable, and that is their right.

Then I go to the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon on the fourth floor. The Queen opened it in 2012 — it was one of her presents — which of course proves my point, though I must also paraphrase Disraeli to prove it further: when I want to know what the middle classes think, I ask the Queen. And the Queen and I both love Fortnum & Mason. I assume Disraeli would have loved it too, but I could find nothing on the record. But since he ended up in Buckinghamshire with peacocks on the lawn, it is inevitable.

I don’t remember it being the whole of the fourth floor in 2012, but if it wasn’t then, it is now: a vast dining room to the back, and a smaller one to the front. It is softly carpeted and lit for dowagers still, and dotted with roses. There is a pianist on a Steinway Grand and a Christmas tree decorated in green and cream, the colours of the Fortnum & Mason teapot and teacup and Christmas decoration and carrier bag. You can decorate your tree like Fortnum & Mason itself. You can buy a tree decoration that is a miniaturised Fortnum & Mason tea set, and a miniaturised Fortnum & Mason hamper, but I wouldn’t. I would like to, but my sister would laugh at me.

We order Afternoon Tea. There is also High Tea, which includes a hot dish — Eggs Royale, Lobster Omelette Victoria, Glenarm Beef Wellington? — and Savoury Afternoon Tea, and Vegetarian Afternoon Tea, which I do not understand, although I wouldn’t ban it. (I am still that hateful thing, a liberal, but I pass for far-right these days on Twitter). It’s well-priced for central London, at £52.50 a head — I am aware this sounds insane — and it is almost a live-action demonstration of the Fortnum & Mason china department, for soon there are three tea towers on the table, and teacups and teapots and tea strainers and milk jugs and sugar pots.

How is the food, you ask? As I said, it is barely food, or rather so much more than food, and it is perfect: slender sandwiches filled with Coronation chicken, and ham and mustard, and egg and cress, and cucumber and cream cheese, and smoked salmon. There are thrilling pastries, which look like sugar sea creatures, and scones, which I eat in the Devonish way — the cream is the butter — and the legendary cake carriage, which today has lemon cake and chocolate cake and Battenberg, of course. We must remember where we really are, which is inside a false memory of Queen Victoria’s family Christmas, just a mile from her ugly palace. It is all refillable, as at Mr Wu’s.

So here is the magic: the tea, which is superb, and the belief that you are safe and loved in your stable or your central London department store, and all is well. Everyone is a child here, and everyone is happy, because this is capitalism at its most gaudy, skilled and bewitching. Perhaps UK Uncut did have a point when they ‘occupied’ it, rather than, say, Debenhams, which has an identity of course, but not one as seductive as this. Of course, it won’t end well, as I say every Christmas, but never mind that now. For a moment I feel it will be, at least until I step outside. Sugar kills more people than heroin, but of course you knew that. Merry Christmas.

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