Taking Tea at Fortnum & Mason

About ten years ago, a friend invited me to Fortnum & Mason for tea. Last week, I finally got there, and here’s the story.

Fortnum & Mason has been a London institution for more than 300 years, since Mr Fortnum, a shopkeeper, and Mr Mason, a royal retainer with a sideline in selling off the unused lengths of candles from the palace, joined forces in the earliest 18th century. Whenever Queen Anne needed light, only a new candle would do, so Mr Mason had access to a lot of excess royal wax.

Fortnum & Mason is famous for its groceries, though the shop has other departments. But these are not run-of-the-mill groceries. The store used to have a whole department just for outfitting expeditions—by which I mean serious attempts to climb Everest, and the search for King Tut’s tomb. Queen Victoria bought supplies for Florence Nightingale from Fortnum & Mason, and had them dispatched to Nightingale’s hospital in the Crimea.

Today it’s the kind of grocery in which you find oranges and lemons steeping in ornately curved bottles of Muscadet vinegar, and stacks of gift hampers packed with Stilton or port. The store’s own line of marmalades includes seventeen flavours, some of which can be had in your choice of ordinary jars, ceramic crocks, or “glass amphorae”. For a mere £85 you can get 3 pounds of chocolate Easter eggs that nest, seven-deep, matryoshka-doll style. To call the marzipan fruits miniature works of art leaves me without a superlative left to describe the even-more-beautiful glacé fruits —slices of kiwi and pineapple saturated with sugar syrup, which leaves them looking as if they are about to burst with juice at the same time as they seem to be set into crystal.

And then there are the teas—too many varieties to count. Okay, a Safeway or Sainsbury’s will stock a lot of teas, but I don’t think they carry Jin Shang Tian Hua, sold with the leaves sewn into the shape of chrysanthemum buds that unfurl in hot water so as to make it seem that the flowers bloom. The buyer is advised that the effect is seen to best advantage in a tall glass cup. At £175 per 125 grams (so a little over $1000 per pound, then), you won’t want to miss any of the unfurling.

The store offers three restaurants, an ice cream parlour, and a wine bar, and two of the restaurants serve afternoon tea. As I’d spent the day mooching around the stacks at the London Library, I wasn’t dressed for the more formal restaurant (the St James), nor did I necessarily need the full tea with finger sandwiches, cakes, scones, and biscuits, nor did I want to spend £32. So I decided on the Fountain Restaurant and settled at a table by the window. I’d had lunch there a few times, but never tea, so opened the menu to see the choices, but the waiter was with me in a flash.

I couldn’t place his accent, but thought he might be Italian. I was served by four other waiters in the course of my visit—well, one was a waitress—and not one of the five was English, but that’s not unusual in London. Like all the staff, the fellow who took my order wore a white shirt, gray waistcoat, and pink tie, with an old-fashioned long white apron to protect his trousers.

He pointed across the room to the cakes—chocolate, Victoria sponge, and something that I couldn’t understand given his accent, but among the words I identified “like caramel”. Scones, I thought, would suit the occasion better, so I ordered tea and scones.

“What kind of tea?” he asked.

“Assam, please.” That’s my usual.

He looked concerned, and asked me a question I couldn’t understand.

“Excuse me?”

He pointed to the menu. “This one?”

I glanced down; I hadn’t noticed the list of teas. It said Assam, though, and seemed to have a bunch of adjectives around it, the way some restaurant menus do. I told him that would be fine.

The tea duly arrived in a silver pot, with a silver strainer and a small silver vessel to set the strainer in when I was finished straining. And the scones came, two of them. They were… Well, to put the best face on it, I’ll say they were petite. I had expected small scones; Fortnum & Mason is traditional, so I didn’t think they’d serve the gigantic scones and behemoth muffins you find in the US, but these scones were practically microscopic. The blobs of butter and strawberry jam also on the plate were about the same size as the scones. And where was the milk for the tea?

I asked this new waiter for some milk.

“You want milk?” he asked, as if he’d never heard of such a thing.

Of course I wanted milk. This is England! Almost everybody has milk in their tea. And I also asked to see the menu again, to read about the different teas, because the first waiter appeared so fast I didn’t get a good look. Another server came with milk in a small silver jug, and yet another one provided a menu. And there I found my mistake.

The menu offered the microscopic scones for £7, but that was with ordinary tea. The only Assam tea on the menu was a single estate tea: Assam Mohokutie Second Flush, from “one of the oldest tea estates located in the Doom Dooma district, south of the Great Brahmaputra River.” I read that Mohokutie means “the buffalo camp”, and that “the leaf is wiry and tippy, producing a malty golden liquor.”

And I also read, rather too late, that it cost an extra £10. Oops. That’s just for the tea, on top of the charge for the scones. I was out £17 (30 bucks) already, and definitely out of my league.

But since I was going to have to pay for it, I decided to sit back and enjoy every bit of it. The waiter had advised me to let the tea steep a minute before pouring, so I read about the other single-estate teas. It could have been worse. I could have accidentally ordered the Tregothan Black from Cornwall—yes! Truly English tea, actually grown here, but at £34 per pot (not far shy of $60), I won’t be trying it any time soon. Doubtless each tea bush is watered by a platinum irrigation system, and is warmed on cold evenings by the breath of local horticulturists, chosen for the task personally by Prince Charles, as Cornwall is his Duchy.

In the same price range as my Mohokutie, however, I might have chosen Yunnan Golden Needles or Pi Lo Chun. The former, according to the menu notes, is of such a calibre that you can tell it was picked with “fine plucking standards”, and it is called needles because the leaves have been rolled into thin, pointy shapes—presumably by the delicate hands of select maidens whose families have been rolling tea into needles for millennia, carefully guarding their secret technique. The latter is said to have an especially fruity flavour which it “absorbs” from the “aroma” of peach blossoms on trees grown nearby. I’m not at all sure that it’s scientifically possible for leaves to soak up the aromas of their neighborhoods—but what do I know? Until I read that menu, I hadn’t know there was tea grown in Cornwall, or tea with hand-rolled leaves, or tea that cost 60 bucks per pot. Maybe that’s why there are few teas grown in urban areas; nobody would want tea tasting of car exhaust, litter, and graffiti.

My Mohokutie Second Flush did have a gorgeous golden colour, somewhere between clover honey and the butterscotch candies we used to have when I was a kid. (I’m sure that real tea connoisseurs have a more sophisticated vocabulary for shades of tea.) I’m not sure I identified any malty flavours, and I didn’t think the taste so special that milk should be forbidden, so I tried a cup that way. Big mistake. With milk, the colour was more pavement-puddle brown than golden. The taste wasn’t anything to write home about, either. I decided to have the next cup milkless, but by the time I was ready for it, the tea in the pot had stewed, as they say here: over-steeped, yielding a colour you might call mahogany brown.

The tiny scones, by the way, were fabulous. So flaky you couldn’t spread anything on them, but the butter and jam were redundant, anyway. The scones were so rich and so sweet that adding anything would only detract.

So I enjoyed my solitary tea at Fortnum & Mason, and lifted a cup to the friend who had invited me so long before. Through the years, we never had found a convenient time for that much-discussed tea. It came to be a joke, that someday we’d have tea at Fortnum & Mason, but we never made it a priority because Fortnum & Mason would always be there, and we had all the time in the world.

Alas, we didn’t. The last time she mentioned it, it was in a wistful way because by then we knew it would never happen, and she’s no longer with us.

So I’ve resolved to go ahead and do some of the things I’ve always wanted to do. I highly recommend it. If you’re British and you want to see the USA, get your tickets. If you’re American and you’ve always wanted to visit the United Kingdom, come on over. Maybe we’ll have tea at Fortnum & Mason. But perhaps not from the single estate tea portion of the menu.



Filed under Culture, Food

16 responses to “Taking Tea at Fortnum & Mason

  1. Lynn Fogle

    Here, Here! Well said.

  2. Indeed, well said. To your American readers: come to Britain, it’s great. OK so most of us are quite rude and unwelcoming but I think you’ll like it. To your British readers: go to the States if you haven’t already, they are great.

    I’m sorry you had to learn to not put milk in your nice tea the hard way. Milk is only ever added to builders’ tea.

    • Wow — really? If milk in tea is out of fashion, no one has told the good folk of my village and others on the Surrey-Hants border. I just thought that F&M weren’t serving the milk because it was fancy-schmancy tea — or maybe it’s that “builders’ tea” doesn’t mean what I think it does! Maybe any supermarket plain-old-tea falls into the builders’ category? (The house tea at our house is Tesco’s Finest.)

      • “Builders’ tea” is a mock-snobbish term. In reality almost all tea which comes in a bag is builders’ tea and everyone is allowed to drink it without a red face. BUT! when one goes “for tea” (i.e. the meal not for a cuppa) one should be served a single tea not a blend and it should not be drunk with milk – as you discovered.

  3. Wonderful article my dear! Last time I had tea at Fortnums a dear pal order shampers so we didn’t bother with blends or whether or not the tea was swept from the rolled hem of a maharajah’s mosquito net. Builder’s tea eh? That’s a new one on me. How wonderfully snobby! Love it! I myself happily drink floor sweepings, usually Brooke Bond with a spoonful of Earl Grey. When in Fortnums, and taking tea, and not drinking shampers, the wife and I usually have a blend (how shocking) called Fortmason and very good it is too. I invariably take home many green tins off the stuff. Never liked the Chinese stuff, far too foreign for my taste. And I always, always put milk in my tea. Demm the tea police! Apparently according to a posh friend of mine, one should put the milk in after the tea, I betray my lowly origins by putting the milk in first! Aaaah you can take the lad out of Dagenham…

  4. A tea estate in Cornwall, hey? Who knew. He’s a crafty old devil is our Charles. He may not be able to stop global warming, but he sure is making the most of it!

    • BOB hypenated M

      Mary Ellen, loved your piece. Next time you take tea in a grand place, try Reids Hotel in Madeira. But dress informally and you’ll not be let in.
      It”ll cost you about the same as F and M, with about as much sustenance, scones and things, sniffy waiters, a formidable maitre D watching your every move…but the view, the view that the regular visitor, Churchill took in of the sea, the harbour, the botanical gardens, soemthing to die for.
      Builders tea for me, or sometimes Earl Grey tea bags, made from the cheapest fannings and sprayed with the oil of bergamot.

      Now have a go at Harrods

      • Ernest W. Adams

        There’s Earl Grey and Earl Grey, I’ve discovered. Waitrose’s in tea bags is better than Twining’s in tea bags, but so far as I can tell, Waitrose’s loose tea isn’t any better than their tea bags.

        As with wine, so with tea: if you like the fancy stuff and look down on the cheap stuff, you’re a snob; and if you like the cheap stuff and see no virtue in the fancy stuff, you’re a yob. Since you can’t win, you might as well drink what you enjoy and tell anyone who passes judgment on you to get stuffed.

        I’d like to try what Captain Jean-Luc Picard used to drink, though. It probably came from Aldebaran or something.

  5. It’s kind of touching. He tried to warn you about the pricey tea, but there was a communication breakdown. It was nice of him to try.

    • It was! And I don’t want to leave anybody with the impression I thought the mixup his fault. He pointed me to the right part of the menu and it was up to me to notice the price.

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  7. Ron Potma

    Been reading your experiences at Fortnum and Mason London.Some years ago we were there too.
    We had the full High tea and paid a lot of money.

    Two days ago we had breakfast at Ikea”the well known Department store.in Haarlem The Netherlands.
    We had a bread roll, a croissant, an egg, a slice of cheese, a small cup of butter and a small cup of jam,
    and as much tea ( or coffee) as you wanted for the price of 1 (one) €. Hard to believe but really true.

    • From the sublime and overpriced to the perfectly good and excellently cheap! I think I’d rather eat with you at IKEA and save the rest of the money to buy books.

      I’ve never been to Haalem, but was recently in Amsterdam and Leeuwarden and had a wonderful trip. My survival Dutch (well, the words I still remember from some Flemish I learned when living in Belgium a very long time ago) wasn’t needed at all; except in an antiquarian bookstore, where some very nice older gentlemen were hard-pressed to help me because we didn’t have a common language, everybody offered to speak English. Those of us who grow up with English are truly spoiled.

      Thanks for reading! I hope you’ll stop by again, and I love getting comments so keep writing —

  8. Mary Ellen, that was quite an experience! I learned long ago that when going out for afternoon tea one must always call ahead (nowadays, email ahead) for menu and prices. I go to very pricey places, and I want to enjoy the experience fully. My everyday brew is Twinings loose tea in the tin, either Darjeeling, Earl Grey or English Breakfast. Sometimes I add milk, sometimes I don’t. Still dreaming of a hamper from Fortnum’s!

  9. My mum claims to like whiskey but when I gave her a glass of a 23 year old single malt (£100/bottle) she turned her nose up at it and asked if I had any dry ginger to dilute it. Argh. It seems your waiter felt the same about your tea and milk (as do I!)

    But at least my mum leaves my whiskey alone. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, used to help herself and use it to add to her evening cocoa when she had a cold. I once asked her “do you realise that cup of cocoa cost £7?” to which she replied “that’ll be why it tastes so good”. Argh again.

    I solved both problems together. I bought a bottle of Tescos cheaper-that-porridge blended whiskey and kept it at the front of the cupboard for my mother-in-law to steal and my mother to enjoy with dry ginger when she visited. I particularly enjoyed the mother-in-law result as she felt smug about stealing my whiskey… and so did I.

    • I’ll be happy to help the cause by drinking your relatives’ share of the fine whisky/whiskey. Which one was it, I wonder?

      And as long as you bring up the subject of ginger — I saw your post elsewhere about buying ginger wine as a present for one of those relatives. What do you do with ginger wine? I’ve got a bottle and I have no idea. Somebody told me you were supposed to mix it with something else, but I can’t remember what.

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