The Journal | #FortnumsChristmas

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Tom Parker Bowles on the Book of the Season, 'Christmas & Other Winter Feasts'

The nights are drawing in, and before long it will be colder than a brass loo seat on the dark side of an iceberg. Come wintertime, feasting is not simply an extravagance but a survival technique – which is why our newest cookbook, Christmas & Other Winter Feasts, is an essential piece of kit with which to see the season through.

Incidentally, with Christmas around the corner, perhaps you are pondering which Fortnum’s gift to get that foodie friend of yours. A cookbook is often referred to as the gift that keeps on giving, and bestow this to the right person, you are likely to reap the rather tasty benefits, so in this sense, a purchase can be viewed as self-gifting.

Of course, enjoying delicious things with abandon is something that acclaimed author and long-time friend of Fortnum’s Tom Parker Bowles knows a thing or two about. Under the guidance of our in-house Archivist – and unrelenting font of knowledge – Dr Andrea Tanner, Tom fell deep into our archives, including the colourful, feline-filled world of illustrator Edward Bawden, to bring the book together. He also worked closely with our Executive Chef Sydney Alridge, who designed all the wonderful recipes inside.

How did you first become interested in food and cooking?

'Greed. Straight greed, that’s it. I was never in the kitchen cooking, I was just always eating. I just liked food, my family all really liked food, my mum’s a good cook, my dad was a good gardener and fisherman. I could eat, and I could string a sentence together, so after being sacked from every job I ever had after university I thought a job where I didn’t have to be in an office would be quite good, and so I became a writer and a journalist – and by some miracle, 17 or 18 years on, I’m still doing it. But yes, it’s greed, I wish I could say it was some highfalutin, beautifully ascetic thing about food, but the truth is I was just a really greedy boy from a really greedy family. And food is pleasure.'

'You’d have my mother and aunt kicking
a huge turkey into a Baby Belling'

'Of course, everyone gets to be greedy at Christmas.

'Exactly. In the book there are some fantastic recipes for turkey and Christmas pudding should you like those things which many people do, but there’s a whole theme in the book about how before the Victorians got in and mucked up Christmas and took all the fun out of it really. It was very much a riotous pagan festival with bulls’ heads and goose and capons and peacocks and all that sort of stuff. And then the Victorians, along with Dickens, did a lot to popularise our sentimental view of Christmas. This is not to say I’m the Grinch, I love presents, it’s a very happy time and as a child I had very happy Christmases. It is an excuse to feast, whether you’re vegetarian or vegan, or don’t like turkey. The main thing is about coming together and all the stuff around it.'

Were there any dishes or ingredients in the cookbook that were a revelation to you?

'There's an amazing tartiflette, and a Christmas spiced sausage roll where you add some cinnamon or spiced cranberries in there. It’s very easy to make things Christmassy. But the book really sums up how Fortnum's evolves, as food and our eating habits do. It's not just about British stodge, but has curries, food from around the world, offerings for vegetarians, and January dishes without the shame. And the gin, orange and coriander gravelettes are terribly good. I would eat everything in the book happily.'

Christmas Cookbook
Christmas Cookbook
Christmas Cookbook

What’s your favourite thing about Christmas?

'I like everybody coming together as a family, I love how children are delighted by it. I like the idea that the world moves pretty fast these days, and it’s connected, and nobody ever stops talking on Twitter or whatever, and for three days you don’t need your phone or emails. You unplug. It’s maybe not cathartic, but it’s certainly a break from the digital deluge. I like the hunkering down of it. Last year we had Christmas in London for the first time in ages, and it was brilliant going to the pub before lunch. It’s the family coming together – there’s always invariably a row, there always are with families coming together, but that’s part and parcel I think. You eat too much and you drink too much, but it’s part and parcel.'

Any Christmas cooking disasters you care to share?

'When I was growing up, we had an Aga that always used to go out. It was gas, but it would always just break on Christmas Day, and you’d have my mother and aunt kicking a huge turkey into a Baby Belling (a tiny table-top oven). So yes, without fail, an oven or two would break down on Christmas Day, always, always, always. But somehow we’d struggle through. Obviously with no heat, that is a bugger with Christmas lunch. But by hook or by crook, you usually manage together to get it done. When it’s a roast dinner, you’ve got to be prepared and plan in advance. People make a big fuss of it, they say it’s so difficult Christmas lunch, but it’s not, (whispers) it’s fine!'

What’s your first memory of Fortnum’s?

'As a kid coming here in my Sunday best – in my shiny shoes with my grandma. It always seemed to be snowing when I was younger. I mean it probably wasn’t, memory’s very clever the way you think you remember something. But for a kid coming here aged six or seven, it was heaven, a winter wonderland, it really was – full of Turkish delight, sweets, biscuits, and people in red coats. I just remember this was the most glamorous beautiful exotic exciting place you could ever go, especially as it was always really full, as it is from December onwards.'

'You came to Fortnum's to taste the world'

Was there anything from the archive that you found particularly memorable?

'I loved seeing Dickens’s account of what he was buying. In the old days you didn’t use cash, you sent in your servants to buy it for you and it would all be done ‘on tick’ [meaning on credit], which would be put against your account, which would then be sent to you. There’s Churchill, every prime minister, most of the great novelists and artists. Rolex once did a watch for Fortnum’s – they were the in-house maker for watches for Fortnum’s, in fact. And on the fourth floor in the '20s or '30s, there was a ski simulator where you could go out and test out your skis with an Olympic medal-winning skier. And you could order anything here. Rare and wonderful caviars and spices and gingers from Jamaica. As a food writer I could look at it forever. You came here to taste the world.'

And of course the commentaries are wonderful too.'

''A ham chasing the chutney'. Somehow prose like that is timeless. It was incredible innovation doing these commentaries, which were basically gussied up catalogues but were just written so well and illustrated so beautiful, that you didn’t realise their primary purpose was to sell whatever they had. They’re really baroque and over the top and ‘phwoar matron’ and quite sort of camp, but work so well with the illustrations. Bawden’s having his time in the sun again as a graphic artist – Fortnum's just had him on the staff, as they did Cecil Beaton and [Eric] Ravilious too. They were very very forward thinking, Hugh Stewart Menzies the copywriter, and Colonel Wylde as the man who got them all in. Having been immersed in it for the past four years, I’m beginning to know a little bit about it.'