Fortnum and Mason: How they got their reputation.
As a lover of food, imagine -just imagine- how chuffed I was when I was invited to go and help Fortnum and Mason whittle down their Olive Oil selection to a final selection of twenty, for their stock next year.
“As a voice of London, we’d love to have you on our judging panel!” -I was told.
A voice of London. I loved that. I was wooed.
The morning arrived and my flatmate made a joke about doing shots of Olive Oil followed by salt and lime with the staff of Fortnum’s. I ignored such an ignorant suggestion and pictured myself with hundreds of others, chatting away whilst dipping bread into little ramekins of oil and marking them out of ten.
Walking into Fortnum’s, I was escorted ‘backstage’ down to the crypt -an underground layer with stone walls and a mirroring interior of a Bond baddies’ hide out. The walls were lined with bottles and jars, the carpet was richly red and the space was lit with heavy gold, swirling candle arbors -it was magical. I loved the idea of London’s finest food shop being entirely dictated from this ancient space.
A heavy wooden table was laid out with place settings, pens, forms to fill out, glasses of water and chopping boards with slices of green apple. I suddenly stood up straight and adopted my serious business face, as it dawned on me that this wasn’t a soiree at all.
Every year, Fortnum and Mason are sent Olive Oils from around the world, with letters from Olive Grove farmers asking them to stock their oil. The new year begins with a laborious and dedicated process of tasting every single one and short-listing just twenty which make the cut. It’s taken very seriously, it’s dealt with very fairly and each oil is very carefully considered and analysed. How else do you think Fortnum and Mason gained their reputation for being one of the most highly reputed food shops in the world? I cursed myself for being ignorant too, as I spied the bread and made my way to my seat.
An introduction talk was given -by which point I was ready to judge and my focus could not be broken. That was until four shot glasses of Olive Oil were brought over and placed down in front of me. Shot glasses. Of Olive Oil. I stared my enemies out, as I mulled over the idea of doing shots …of Olive Oil.
I can do this -I decided. It’ll just be like some of those ominous shots I did on that girlie holiday of 2010 to Ayia Napa, only probably nicer -I thought.
So I did it. Shot by shot. I analysed the tastes of grassy oils, peppery tastes, some meaty. Others nutty. Even notes of barbecues …and leaves …and pork. Supping water to help, I battled through like a naive sixteen year old boy at his rugby initiation. With a page full of arty, reflective notes and a stomach and throat full of oil, I declared them beaten. I had won.
“Excellent, onto set B…” I heard a voice say -as four more shots arrived. Then there was set C.
London. If I can ask anything of you this year, it’s this; boycott Tesco, abandon Waitrose and bypass Sainsbury’s. Please, I ask you, please buy your Olive Oil from Fortnum’s this year, because the amount of effort that went into selecting those wiley twenty -the ones which impressed the tastebuds of many and shouted out, loud and proud, in amongst the other oils supped, is unfathomable. Whilst you’re perusing the oils, bear in mind that each one has been ‘shotted’ by a brave and patient team. When you make your choice and place it in your gorgeous golden basket, just remember -that oil was personally selected for you by the strong-stomached staff and guests. Finally, when you pay for your choice, remember the price paid by us -the unsuspecting judging panel who waded through an oily sea with just their tastebuds to keep them afloat.
We came, we supped, we conquered.
I walked away with a new-found respect for Fortnum and Mason -and I was already a super-fan before attending. They apply this kind of attention to detail with every range of stock they sell -nothing is sold if considered inferior. ‘Poor Quality’ is a phrase never uttered in reference to Fortnum’s.
More so, however, I walked away with a enormous amount of respect -and sympathy- for Georgina -Assistant Buyer and head of the project to choose the range.
This is her third year running the operation and this year is the highest amount of oils received to be tasted.
This means when you’re buying your Fortnum and Mason’s Olive Oil, you should certainly thank Georgina, because by that time, she would have tried and tasted a grand total of one hundred and seventy shots of Olive Oil.
Now that’s dedication to a cause.