When I arrived at Fortnum and Mason, it was after sundown and the right time for High Tea. High Tea is served later in the day and is a more substantial meal than the lighter fare that is commonly associated with afternoon tea. After entering through F&M’s oak doors on Piccadilly, I took the lift up to the 4th Floor St. James’s, a full service restaurant that serves meals and teas of all kinds. The restaurant is light, airy, has a quiet ambiance, tables set a good distance apart, live piano music, and for a lucky few, tables next to the windows overlooking Piccadilly below. Even though I requested one, they were all reserved for a function later that evening.
After opening on this spot in 1707 as a small grocery shop, Fortnum and Mason have been doing business at 181 Piccadilly for over 300 years. They have a long history of dealing in exotic imported foods and other fine goods, including full leaf teas of all kinds, and have earned numerous Royal Warrants. From the beginning, Fortnum and Mason have sold tea to anyone who asked, a novel idea in the 1700’s when tea drinking was limited mostly to the aristocracy.
On F&M’s tea menu, your choices will be 1) Fortnum’s Classic Afternoon Tea, 2) Fortnum’s Estate Afternoon Tea, or 3) Fortnum’s High Tea. The difference between the two afternoon teas and the high tea is that you receive finger sandwiches with the afternoon teas, but a choice of a heartier meal for the high tea. On the High Tea menu are (choose one) Welsh rarebit, English muffin with Free Range Poached Eggs, Smoked Haddock with Poached Egg, St. James Shepherd Pie, or a Blue Cheese & Fig Tart.
After being in the tea business for more than 300 years, Fortnum and Mason sells 130 different teas in its main store on Piccadilly. Of these, the tea menu at their St. James’s Restaurant contains a staggering 75 different choices of teas from around the world, some common varieties and some very rare single estates. There are 22 blends, 6 herbal infusions, and 47 single estate choices.
Conventional wisdom says that I should have selected a strong Assam-like tea to stand up to the heavier “High Tea” foods on the menu, but I don’t always like to follow the rules. In reading through the tea menu, I was stopped in my tracks by the description of a Darjeeling FTGFOP that grows in challenging conditions high up in the foothills of the Himalayas from bushes over a century old. How could you possibly pass that up? It was fantastic but in retrospect, maybe a little too light. For you tea connoisseurs out there, FTGFOP stands for Fancy (or fine) Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe, one of the grades of high-quality Darjeelings.
The High Tea starts out with a plate of canapés, which include a salmon mousse, a ham roll, an anchovy bread stick, and a cheese stick – a nice light start to get the taste buds working. Then for my heavier selection, I chose the Welsh rarebit with confit tomato.
I could see how a dish like this would really satisfy after a long day of laboring in the city or in the fields. It was warm and delicious.
Then the scones arrived with Somerset clotted cream and strawberry preserves. Most clotted cream comes from the southwest English counties of Devon, Cornwall or Somerset – they raise cows there (Jersey) that yield the high fat milk that is ideal for making clotted cream. Fortnum and Mason’s Somerset clotted cream was thicker, firmer, and more yellow (higher buttermilk fat) than Devonshire clotted cream and really delicious.
However, for me, the surprise of the High Tea was Fortnum and Mason’s strawberry preserve. I have been to quite a few afternoon and high teas, and have tasted berry preserves in many forms, shapes and sizes, but this one just stood out. It had chunks of fruit and just the right amount of sweetness. I was so enamored with the strawberry preserve that I can’t even tell you much about the scones themselves, except that there were plain and raisin varieties.
They were merely the transport mechanism for delivering the clotted cream and, especially, the strawberry preserves.
Right about this time, the piano player started up with a version of happy birthday to a young couple seated near the front. Then everyone nearby joined in, and the couple seemed quite pleased by the attention.
The sweets included a slice of date and walnut loaf and madeleines. Your waiter will bring you a tray of about 6-7 additional types of sweets for you to pick from. I chose a chocolate tart and an almond plum tart.
After the High Tea was over, I took the lift back down to the ground floor and purchased a jar of strawberry preserve to bring home to my wife. Unfortunately, the baggage screeners at Heathrow had a different idea and confiscated the gift since it, according to them, exceeded three ounces. I don’t know about that, because it was labeled in grams, but it had to be awfully close. Next time, I will “check” a bag to be sure to get some of this sweet nectar home, safe and sound.