Hampers at Fortnum & Mason

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 December, 2003, 12:00am

It's hamper season. A time you realise your true worth at work; a season when horns of jealousy rise from your temples like quick-grow bamboo because you don't get a hamper but your boss receives three. Try not to wrestle the receptionist for the jar of port-wine jelly. Think of Fortnum & Mason, one of Britain's leading purveyor of hampers.

Christmas ain't Christmas without something from the nearly 300-year-old London emporium. It offers more than 20 varieties of pre-packed hampers, ranging skyward from the #37 (HK$495) standard to the #1,000 wicker Windsor (think magnum of Louis Roederer Brut Reserve Champagne and a 2.5kg stilton). Customers can now choose from a new bespoke list, possibly the poshest pick'n'mix on Earth.

F&M wasn't always so haughty. Legend has it that William Fortnum, a footman to Queen Anne in the early 1700s, was a bit of a lad; an 18th-century Del-Boy, selling on half-used royal household candles, much like taking half-read foreign newspapers from jets at Chek Lap Kok, ironing them and selling them at the Star Ferry pier.

Fortnum also had a grocery stall and convinced his landlord, Hugh Mason, to join him in selling offerings sourced from around the world and shipped back to Britain by clipper and steamboat. The long journey demanded that most goods be packaged in jars and tins, often preserved in heavy syrup or by pickling. Chutneys became popular in England because it was the only way to preserve the spices and fruits, which is why F&M is as famous for its chutney as its top-hatted footmen who open the doors to customers.

The hamper trade truly shot to fame in the Napoleonic wars, when British officers were furnished with superior provisions in wicker baskets while out in the field. By the late Victorian era, a day at Ascot races or Henley Regatta was incomplete without an F&M hamper, and an estimated #200 million is rung up in hamper sales in Britain every year.

If nothing else, the F&M hamper cements ye olde English Christmas traditions, and pride of place goes to the Christmas pudding, also known as figgy or plum pudding, a treat based on a 14th-century dessert called frumenty. Made by boiling beef and mutton with cloves, ginger, breadcrumbs, currants and raisins, and originally the consistency of gruel, it was served first. But by the 17th century it was thicker (plum meaning to swell) and sweeter; with the meat replaced by suet (rendered beef fat), it moved from appetiser to dessert.

A true Christmas pudding should be made by the 25th Sunday after Trinity, prepared with 13 ingredients (to represent Jesus and his disciples) and with everyone taking turns to stir the pudding, from east to west, to honour the three kings. Fortnum's pre-prepared puds may not uphold such customs but they are popular with Queen Elizabeth.

Fortnum & Mason's mince pies (400g tin) also defy tradition. These delicacies were originally crib-shaped to represent Jesus' manger and included minced lamb's tongue or mutton. It wasn't until the 20th century that the meat was taken out, and F&M's offerings are suitably sweet.

F&M does a roaring trade at Christmas. Thousands of hampers are airmailed to the far-flung corners of the globe, albeit without fresh produce and alcohol owing to licensing issues. Ironically, for a firm that has exploited tradition for 300 years, it cannot truly exploit Customs. Fortnum and Mason, 181 Piccadilly, London; tel 44207 734 8040; www.fortnumandmason.co.uk