In England, if you picnic in style at the Derby, at Ascot, at Henley or at Lord's Cricket Ground, you do it from a hamper marked F&M—for Fortnum & Mason. It was in 1707 that an Oxford farmer named William Fortnum and a Cockney trader, Hugh Mason, pooled their savings and opened a grocery store to cater to the royal palaces and other imposing West End residences. This was the forerunner of the emporium at 181 Piccadilly, which today epitomizes gracious living in England. Some 700 F&M employees, handpicked for their discretion, good looks and faultless command of grammar, serve customers with every type of lush merchandise, from umbrellas to antiques, champagne to perfume. An effort is made to give every customer the impression that he is the most important person in the store.
The male staff still looks as if its members were on loan from the diplomatic service; the three acres of floor space are thickly carpeted wall to wall; the silent elevators to five floors are furnished like miniature drawing rooms; the cash registers are discreetly muted, and prices are rarely mentioned.
Because titled personages and public figures are always in the store, use of cameras is prohibited. No whisper of the presence of VIP patrons reaches the press, and if Prince Philip should call to order a picnic for the polo field or Princess Anne to select fruitcake for her sharp sailing appetite, other customers are expected to courteously ignore their presence. Even the Queen could order groceries without being stared at.
The store provided sustaining delicacies for the great troop reviews of Elizabeth's great-grandmother's day and for the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851. During the colonial wars every ship leaving the port of London had its quota of Fortnum's metal-lined provision boxes to strengthen the resolve of fighting gentry. Florence Nightingale nourished the wounded of the Crimea with concentrated beef tea from the same treasure-house, and the young Winston Churchill took along a wagonload of edibles from Fortnum & Mason when reporting on the South African War in 1899.
Early in its career—during the 1820s—the firm offered its customers "concentrated luncheons or Savory Lozenges" in the form of pills to assuage their appetites during sporting expeditions, but the discerning public plainly preferred the elegance of a well-catered picnic to such capsuled convenience, and the pills were forgotten.
Stalwarts in training for varsity boat races swore by Fortnum's York ham, and hampers of potted shrimps, Surrey chicken, asparagus and peaches in brandy accompanied aristocrats traveling the country in stagecoaches. Fashionable bicycling parties, all the rage in the 1880s, carried pheasant fillet and chocolate Bath Olivers in their saddlebags. Later the intrepid early motoring enthusiasts took emergency rations from Fortnum's when setting out on hazardous journeys that might last for days.
An earl from The Midlands asked Fort-num & Mason to provide a buffet supper to follow the archery contest that had been held on his estate each year since 1785. He phoned Regent 8040, and within three minutes the whole affair had been planned with a menu ranging from beluga caviar to turkeys' breasts in aspic to soufflé Mont Blanc.
On the morning of the shoot a fleet of vans sped out from London. Chefs, butlers, waiters, porters and service hands followed in a minibus. They were soon busily arranging a board that included mushrooms vol-au-vent, quenelles d'écrevisses √† la Nantua, poussin r√¥ti, suckling pig and Stilton cheese. Then the head butler brought in the pi√®ce de résistance: a great silver salver heaped with tiny ricecakes, each topped with a picture in icing of the stately home on the estate on which the party was being held.
When the chief of a great Scottish clan wanted to impress a group of American guests, he naturally sought the help of F&M. They provided a meal that started with p√¢té de foie gras en cro√ªte, went on to truite renaissance, grouse r√¥ti √† l'anglaise, asperges de Lauris, cerises √† l'enfer and finished up with anges √† cheval, shortbread and coffee. The bill was approximately $14,000.
Today a London hostess planning a picnic party for the Henley Royal Regatta can effortlessly order luncheon boxes for 100 guests. The smoked salmon will be freshly sliced, the duck carved into mouth-sized portions, the salad superb and the fruit set in wine-flavored jelly. Wines will be extra, but disposable cutlery, plates and a dainty initialed napkin will be included in the charge of $5.
Something more ambitious for Ascot, rugger at Twickenham, the Eton and Harrow match at Lord's or the World Cup? Your hamper could include stuffed quail, artichokes, tender fillets of beef, cream g√¢teau, all rounded off with brandy petits fours, but the price would be trebled to $15.
Delivery vans bearing the Fortnum & Mason legend are part of every sporting scene. Some customers prefer orders brought direct to their homes, but the catering department, which is obsessed with keeping every dish at peak freshness, suggests that your order be collected—by your chauffeur, of course—at the very last moment.
Fortnum & Mason patrons are not confined to Britain. A famous Hollywood seafood gourmet has a weekly order of Dover sole flown out to California; the Shah of Iran is said to have a weakness for F&M's lobster patties. There is a tradition among archaeologists that no expedition to Egypt is complete without a supply of Cooper's Oxford marmalade from the Piccadilly store.
Many an aristocratic British family owes its continuance to love matches helped along by Fortnum & Mason. Given a few hours' notice, the delicatessen department will prepare a splendid hamper that is practically guaranteed to induce a girl to say yes to any moonlight proposal. As a follow-up the wedding reception and honeymoon arrangements can confidently be left to Fortnum's organizers, and when catering for christenings they lay down a complimentary bottle of port that is presented to the baptismal child when he attains 21.