Fortnum & Mason is a major attraction at the UK heritage theme park, the equivalent of the gorilla at London Zoo; this is corroborated by its two branches in Japan and by the fact that it is always full of Germans holding hands in the truffle department and smiling. It is, or rather was, the Costcutter to the Empire and the F&M historian can have much fun in its archives: it was the first shop in Britain to sell Heinz baked beans; it holds the royal warrant for jelly beans; it claims to have invented the scotch egg, although this claim is apparently disputed in Glasgow.
It sells bags and perfumes now — plus a model speedboat — but it is still the best food hall in London, far better than Harvey Nichols (too many anorexics), Selfridges (too many fashion witches and/or anorexics) or Harrods (too many anorexics and/or fashion witches and/or people who own Ferraris and double park them because parking regulations do not apply to people with stupid cars). No real Londoner would shop at Harrods, anyway — it is far too Barbie Dream Princess Goes Shopping With Elton John And Throws Up Afterwards Due to Bulimia. My posh friend says it is a myth that posh people shop at F&M and that really posh people shop at Tesco with the dog, because who can afford a hamper when the pig pen needs repointing? But I do not believe him; I smell tuck boxes bound for Eton and tearful last-night-of-the-school-holiday teas (before we lock you up again, ha!). The Occupy movement agrees with me that it is posh, and occupied F&M last year, because some people think you can remake the world by sitting down on the floor next to a confectionary display. (Some people are complete idiots and need to go back to Anarchist School.)
Anyway, F&M has supplied the royal family with scoff since Queen Charlotte’s day — and what a lot of chocolate that poor queen needed when George III went mad — and so it is excited about the Diamond Jubilee, which is why I am here. Many hotels restaurants are doing Jubilee menus (The Ritz, One Aldwych, the appallingly named Café in the Crypt) but F&M has done the full I-lay-my-cloak-across-this-puddle-all-the-better-to-escort-you-to-the-fudge-department-ma’am schtick. They have renamed the fourth-floor restaurant, previously the St James, the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon. (After 250 years of sucking up to royals, you get good at it.) The Queen was pleased — she blinked — and opened it in March; she brought the duchesses of Cornwall and Cambridge with her, and they grinned in unison like a girl band who married money, although which cake they devoured, I know not.
Oh, it is tasteful up here; it is plush and calm and painted, I think, in oyster. (It should be pink; I’m glad it isn’t.) The pianist plays Beethoven in tribute to those dead Hanoverians and it is full of tourists wearing the combination of Prada and burqa which would be weird anywhere outside St James’s. The food is marvellous. The sandwiches seethe with taste, but do not bang on your tongue; the cakes are immensely light and soft; even the cheese pie sings. Nor is tea snobbery forgotten; a charming woman appears with a tasting tray and speaks of Assam, Darjeeling and China and I remember my theory that the British love tea because it makes them feel dangerous, because they are drinking a drink from far away, and they hug themselves with the thrill of it. There are few definitive meals to be had in London for £40 a head; this is the place to salute a queen while sitting down; it is, as Mel Brooks wrote, a toast to toast.
Fortnum & Mason, 181 Piccadilly, London W1A 1ER, tel: 0845 602 5694 .