Put the Kettle On: Fortnum & Mason
For my next installment of this series, I would like to turn our attentions to Fortnum & Mason. I was first introduced to the brand, store, and company in 2011. The memory of whether or not the tea or the store came first is a bit unclear. There's a recollection of buying my first box of their Afternoon Tea from a Marks and Spencer in Cambridge and then visiting their flagship store in person when I returned to England in 2013 and properly stocking up, yet I cannot say if this is true or not, as I am tempted to reason that Fortnum & Mason teas wouldn't be sold in a Marks and Spencer to begin with - though they can be found in select Williams Sonoma stores - and I wouldn't have left the country without bringing back all the tea in sight. But then again, I did bring back a wide selection of tea but it wasn't from Fortnum & Mason. So where did this box of Afternoon Tea come from? I distinctly remember using the kettle in the communal kitchen of x staircase to brew a pot of tea in my Stanley thermos. I picked out the largest possible thermos size as I wasn't at the stage of life where I owned a teapot and it was easily transported from room to room. There was no kettle in my room until I bought a £4 one from Sainsburys that I shared, so a tea break needed to last me an entire study session. At this time, I almost always drank Twinning's English Breakfast or this Afternoon Tea which came wrapped in the cheeriest blue packaging. Details of how our story began aside, one thing I know for sure is that the Fortnum & Mason tins have since been a constant in my cupboard and high on my list of favorites.
The tins of Fortnum & Mason tea have lined many shelves over the years. From bookcases to tea cabinets, to tables to offices. It has been picked up by myself and friends from their flagship store and airport locations, and flown across the ocean to reach its new home. It is often the blue colored tins that catch the eye first as they sit among a variety of companions or it's the game of finding out where tins have ended up after their original purpose has transpired. Like spotting an oatmeal biscuit tin on a nightstand where it's been repurposed as a pencil container, but only pencils that have been used previously as a fresh Blackwing is much too tall. The first tin I ever collected was of the loose leaf version of my favorite Afternoon Tea. It's very similar in shape to the Queen's Blend but much smaller in size and stature. It was also the start of my tea tin collection which has grown to contain other brands and styles but the variations of Fortnum & Mason lids is something I continuously find amusing. You've heard a lot of talk about tins so far but might be asking, what is Fortnum & Mason? Is it a store? Is it a tea company? They're a bit of both.
The foundation for Fortnum & Mason was laid in 1705 when William Fortnum took up residence in Hugh Mason's spare bedroom. Fortnum was a footman in Queen Anne’s household at the time and Mason was a shopkeeper who ran a store in St James Market. How the two first met is unclear - perhaps they crossed paths in the shop Mason ran and became conversations about their favorite tea varieties - but it was Fortnum who had the idea to sell Queen Anne’s half used candle wax that paved the way for them to join in business together. With a mind to lead the world in food, hampers, and charitable donations/causes, Fortnum & Mason’s began a grocery operation. To this day, Fortnum & Mason remains at its heart a grocery, offering a fine range of fresh ingredients, alongside a selection of confectionary, honey, jams and marmalades; chocolates, condiments, spirits, and of course, tea.
Did you know that they’re the ones responsible for inventing the Scotch egg in 1738? In 1840, they were one of the first buildings in the country to install plate glass windows lit by gas. In 1886, the mighty Heinz baked bean was brought to Britain from America for the first time by Fortnum, who was a leading provider in tinned goods. In 1911, hampers were sent to suffragettes imprisoned for breaking the storefront windows. Provisions have been sent to British troops fighting overseas from the Napoleonic Wars to WWII: sending over tea, dried fruits, spices, and tins of food. Fortnum & Mason’s is the only store to have an “expeditions” department, which has supplied provisions to such journeys as the first British Everest Expedition in 1922. In 2008, the bees moved in. Four colonies took up residence on the rooftop of the store’s famed Piccadilly location.
The Piccadilly flagship store is located in central London next door to one of my favorite bookshops, Hatchards, which was founded in 1791 and has occupied its Piccadilly location since Georgian times. The closest tube stops are either Piccadilly Circus or Green Park. My recommendation is to start your afternoon in Hatchards browsing its five floors of books. Find one of their comfy armchairs overlooking the high street and settle in for a few hours of reading and people watching. When you’ve built up an appetite, head next door to Fortnum & Mason for a spot of tea and cake in the café. Be warned, however, that you’ll immediately be hit by sensory overload long before you make it upstairs. In fact, I've never made it to the café as I always get distracted on the first floor. Though I did make their scones for the royal wedding and they were delightful with a good layer of butter and lemon curd. It is a similar experience as being in the Harrods food court, in which every direction you turn will offer new wonders and delights you didn’t realize you needed until you saw it laid out in a dessert case before you.
When the urge to buy everything in site hits, only take with you what you can carry. There’s always time to come back for more. And will you really drink those five tins of tea at once? Why not savor one and then come back for another flavor and experience at a later date? The answer is yes, I think I can drink five tins of tea simultaneously, one for each day of the week surly, and while I'm not one to always follow this advice because who knows when the next visit will arrive, and they do make tote bags for a reason; it is a good idea to think about buying only what I know I can reasonably consume at one time rather than trying to buy the entire store at once. A pre-packaged tin will last you a good year or four months, depending on how often you drink it. I've had a few bags of tea that were hidden away and recently discovered, and though tea experts will say not to drink old tea, I think it holds up quite nicely. But due keep in mind, as the prices can sometimes be stifling, especially if ordering abroad, they’re been around for 300 years and aren’t going anywhere.
The ground floor is dedicated to tea and tea related snacks, sweets, honey and jam, among other treasures. To the left of the main entrance, along the back wall you’ll find large blue, purple, and green tins filled to the brim with all the teas available. Walk up to one of the employees, and they will be glad to assist you in finding the tea that sounds the most appealing. If you're in the market for some good smells, they can help you there as well. They’ll then weigh out tea until your hearts content. A pound of tea is quite a lot as I found out once when I asked for a pound of Irish breakfast at Zabar's and a quarter was almost one coffee sized bag filled to the top. Now it’s time to explore the rest of the floor and look at the tins of pre-packaged tea and the biscuits. I recommend the milk chocolate coated salted caramel biscuits and the butter oaties for a classic fix. The butter oaties are divine. Crumply, the right amount of dry, and not overwhelmingly sweet. If you’re more of a daredevil, take a swing at the Lucifer’s biscuits. Flavored with fresh ginger and chili, these biscuits pack a punch and are designed for more than an afternoon cuppa. I think they’d be perfect with a drink or a nice piece of cheese.
If you look closely at any item bought from Fortnum & Mason, you will notice the presence of two royal “by appointment to” seals. One is to HM The Queen as Grocers & Provision Merchants, granted in 1955; and the other to HRH The Prince of Wales as Tea Merchants and Grocers, granted in 1996. Its history with royalty goes back to Queen Anne and Queen Victoria. As you browse the tea shelves, you’ll stumble upon such blends as “Jubilee Blend,” a blend made for the birth of Prince George known as the “Christening Blend”, a “Royal Blend,” “Queen Anne," “Wedding Breakfast” first blended in 2011 to mark Prince William’s proposal to Kate Middleton, the “Queen’s Blend,” created to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s reign as the longest British monarch, and most recently, the "Wedding Bouquet Blend" to commemorate the marriage of Prince Harry to Megan Markle. This blend was a combination of English and American grown mint with jasmine tea and rose petals. I like that the tea was a reflection of them, the types of teas they enjoy, and their respective home countries.
Now if, at this point, you're rolling your eyes thinking, “Now that’s all nice but I don’t really care much for royalty. Why should I keep reading?” Let me direct you to the first floor where you’ll find the hampers. An F&M hamper can be built to your liking: stuffed with gin, the finest selection of meats and smelly cheeses, digestives, jams, marmalades, mustards, and so much more. Or you can choose from a selection of prepared hampers in all shapes and sizes for every budget and need. If this still isn’t your cup of tea, and you’re wondering what Fortnum & Mason has that appeals to you as you’re not really the picnic sort, then I want to direct you now to the home-ware section. Here you will find anything from every possible tea accessory, hand painted dish-wear, linens, candles, to bath products, perfumes, and jewelry. Last time I was here, I walked away with a set of Kent toothbrushes, which I have to say, turned out to be one of my favorite toothbrushes. (Kent also has a long history dating back to 1777 and is one of the world’s oldest hairbrush manufactures. Do they make the Queen’s toothbrush? Possibly. QEII knows quality so I wouldn’t put it past her to use an excellent toothbrush and especially one that comes with its own travel case.) If you’re still not sold, the last thing I would offer to persuade you is their design. The packaging of Fortnum & Mason products is impeccable: everything from the typography to the graphic design of their biscuit containers, tin artwork to their china. Their products all bearing the signature eau de nil color. Much like in the way that Tiffany holds claim to its signature shade of blue.
This is all a very long-winded way to say that the offerings of Fortnum & Mason are vast. There is something for every budget and every desire. My experience with the company has primarily been focused on their tea, so while that is the only thing I can truly vouch for, I have been a long time fan of their history, store, and design. I have spent many afternoons drooling over their website looking at all the latest offerings. Recently it's been an examination of their range of honey and mustards. One of these days, I will buy myself a small hamper for picnics, but until that day, I will put the kettle on and enjoy a cup of tea. Let me break down and introduce my tea collection. You may just find that there’s something that peaks your interest. If you’re serious about your tea, I do recommend a look at their website as not only do they break down each tea in terms of what type and where its sourced, but they also provide tasting notes.
I've talked a far amount about this afternoon blend, partly due to sentimentality and partly due to it being a lovely tea. I first bought a box of 25 tea bags and even kept one unopened until this past year, as I wanted to save it for sentimental reasons. I believe it has since been drunk, and if not, it's done a brilliant job of hiding. On a trip back a couple years later, I walked away with a tin. The tin has since changed and is now made in the same rectangular shape as the Queen Anne's tea, but I am partial to my original tin with its indents. If I’m looking for a light black tea to drive away the post-lunch slumber, this is one that I would want in my rotation. It’s a crisp and refreshing Ceylon tea with real body. It is an excellent companion to your favorite biscuit. May I suggest the McVitie's caramel digestive.
Before we even talk about the tea itself, let’s take a moment to appreciate the tin. This is what I mean about their brilliant attention to detail. If you look closely you’ll notice that the unicorn is pouring a cup of tea for the lion. This tea was created to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s achievement as the longest reigning British monarch. The blend is made of Kenyan tea, where she was staying when she ascended the throne in 1952, and golden Rwandan tea, renowned for its refreshing qualities. It’s a tea that combines the old with the new, and as it’s true to its name, it is a very classic black tea. It is refreshing, not overpowering, though it will grow bitter if you allow it to steep past its five minutes. It’s an excellent cup to start your day, as its just strong enough to wipe away those bleary eyes.
The Jubilee tea was made to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. It’s a black tea made from Assam and Ceylon. Unlike the afternoon blend, it has a smoky finish. Still light on the tongue, it reminds me a bit more of a worker’s tea. I tended to make it strong which heightened the smoky quality. It was my go to tea at work for when I wanted something with no frills but great taste. This was also the fastest tea I consumed out of the list, as it disappeared after five months of being my daily desk tea. It also felt a bit fancy drinking it day after day knowing that it was made for QEII. I wonder if she drinks the tea Fortnum & Mason prepares for her or if she's more of a Yorkshire Gold woman.
QUEEN ANNE BLEND
Created in 1907 in celebration of their 200-year anniversary, and named after Queen Anne, the reigning monarch in 1707. It’s a blend of Assam and Ceylon. I rediscovered the Queen Anne Blend after having it for more than a couple years. I know - drinking tea that's a couple years old though properly sealed is probably one of the cardinal rules of tea drinking that you're not supposed to break but I found it tasted relatively unchanged. Now I imagine I would've been able to tell the difference if I had a fresh batch and an old batch side by side but as I did not, I could not tell you how much it had aged except that it aged well. It's another no nonsense black tea.
EARL GREY CLASSIC
My journey to liking Earl Grey began back in those aforementioned Cambridge days. I originally thought it tasted and smelled like flowers and why would I want to drink flowers? Oh how that opinion has changed. After a couple dear friends were persistent in their love for Earl Grey, I began to give it a try, and over time I came to realize that I really enjoyed the taste, and have even experimented with adding Earl Grey to my baking. The key is to find a blend that suites your needs: some are more floral, others with smoke, some closely resembling a standard breakfast tea. If you’re looking for a straight down the middle, know what you’re expecting and dependent type of brew, then this is the one for you. There’s a hint of smokiness that balances out the bergamot, giving the tea a light floral finish while the smoke sits on the back of your tongue, a bit like a good scotch. It’s the perfect accompaniment with sweet or savory. For example, as I type this, I’m eating Indian leftovers and toast with a cup by my side, and it balances out the spices quite nicely. When brewed, the color is dark amber that closely resembles the appearance of their English Breakfast tea. F&M describe the tea as delicate, aromatic, and zesty.
CEYLON ORANGE PEKOE
This tea is light on the tongue, yet has real body, without any bitterness. A flavor that is not overwhelming with fragrance, smooth, straight forward, and reminds me of what I imagine when I think of a cup of tea. Fortnum & Mason says it makes one of the best iced teas, staying perfectly clear. It's a brew to accompany you as you move from room to room getting ready in the morning, or to sit on the counter as breakfast is prepared around it, or as a mid-afternoon pick-me-up. I found that my last cup would be wherever I needed it to be and was always at the perfect drinking temperature. It moved with me while I ate breakfast, got ready for work, wrote emails, and went back to the kitchen another time to grab lunch from the fridge. While that might not always be the case, it is good to know that there are teas in the world that will always be the perfect drinking temperature when you go looking for your misplaced cup.
This tea was one that I picked out from the wall of giant tins lining the ground level. It was the orange blossom aroma that won me over. It's a delicate and aromatic tea that is a blend of Darjeeling and China teas. Fortnum & Mason says it pairs beautifully with scones and a tart jam and is best served in the afternoon. I preferred to brew it on the shorter end of the timeline, often around the three minute mark when it was a beautiful dusk red color. It was another desk tea that made its way into afternoon breaks and sometimes a second cup in the morning. It has been over a year since I drank my last cup of Fortmason tea so while I cannot remember the exact notes of the tea, I do recall its fragrance and mildness of flavor. It is a nice step up from the Rose Pouchong.
ROSE POUCHONG TEA
The Rose Pouchong Tea is made when rose petals are interlaced with the tea as it dries. A few petals are left in for decoration. This tea was gifted to me by Nadine when she traveled through London and it surprised me with it's elegance. The most floral I tend to go with my tea is an earl grey but I really love this tea. Despite it having roses as one of the main ingredients, it's light and delicate. It’s like walking through the most fragrant rose garden, where you continuously press your nose against the roses trying to absorb all their deliciousness and walk away with the light smell of roses lingering around you.
CHELSEA GARDEN BLEND
It tastes like a walk through a garden at the start of spring. The flavors are light and fragrant. A mix of jasmine tea and petals which are grown in London's Chelsea Garden. You can imagine that you're walking through the garden and stopping to admire all the flowers you encounter along the way, or in this case, all the flowers that have ended up in your tea. It is perfect served cold when the weather becomes too much to bear and the idea of holding a hot mug seems to much to handle, and it's a very light tea when served hot, as I usually make it. As the weather reached 109°F / 42°C a couple Fridays ago, I started the day off with a pot upon waking as the temperature was still climbing and then drank the rest cold once it had gotten down to room temperature. It worked well in both instances. This tea was brought back for me from the F&M store at Heathrow. I see it becoming a summer staple during these hot months.
GUNPOWDER GREEN TEA
Fortnum’s has stocked this green tea continuously since the 18th century. The tightly rolled leaves resemble gunpowder pellets which is where the tea gets its name. Watching the leaves unfurl is part of the joy of this tea. It is a very smoky tea. If over steeped, the smoke flavor will become overwhelming and bitter. It tastes like you’re walking through a fogged field, rain jacket pulled tight around your chest, boots wading through the slightly muddy ground. The air is thick with recent rain and you can smell the earth all around you: the dirt, the trees, the hint of flowers on the horizon, the smokiness from last night’s fire. It warms you from the inside, while leaving a chill on your cheeks. This is a tea that does well with multiple steeps, as the flavor grows less intense and more nuanced the longer you drink it. When ready to be drunk, the tea is a light caramel color.
GREEN TEA WITH ELDERFLOWER
This was a tea I bought as a gift, so while I do not have a case of my own, I was able to have a cup full every now and then. The elderflower is subtle and provides a lightness to the green tea. It also brings out a depth that I think is missing from most green teas. While the combination is subtle, it overwhelmingly tastes of the first sunny day in spring when the jasmine flowers are just beginning to bloom but the air is still a little heavy with the weight of winter. If you are a fan of elderflower, I would recommend a taste.
The majority of the facts about Fortnum & Mason were provided by their website. To learn more about their numbers offerings and about their multi-faceted history, I'd recommend a perusal of their website.
“Fortnum's History.” Fortnum & Mason, www.fortnumandmason.com/information/our-history.