Fortnum & Mason Opens Food & Drink Studio – WWD

LONDON — Months ahead of Hollywood, Fortnum & Mason has created a Willy Wonka world that offers sugary confections — and savory creations. 

Just as in the upcoming “Wonka” film, a prequel to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” there are tall, shiny contraptions that pump out colored concoctions, a vast, high-tech kitchen for experimentation, and an unblinking focus on craft.

Unlike Wonka’s chocolate factory, there’s also a lot of homemade gin — and rum — as well as Champagne, and a smorgasbord of knowledge, rather than secrets.

The new Food & Drink Studio on the store’s third floor is about indulging — and educating — food fans at a time when people are savvier — and hungrier than ever for knowledge about everything from fragrance to wine-making.

Also, it’s no high-end cooking store. Instead, it’s a gourmand’s playground.

The bookshop at Fortnum & Mason’s new Food & Drink Studio.

“It’s very forward thinking,” says Hatty Cary, the studio’s producer, who worked for companies including Jamie Oliver Group and London’s Borough Market before joining Fortnum & Mason last year. 

“We look a lot at sustainability, new innovations and craft, and the space allows us to champion people who are doing wonderful things in the industry. We can sell their products, tell their stories and showcase producers,” she says.

Craftsmanship plays a big role. To wit, the floor’s centerpiece is the distillery, a lineup of pots, pipes and drums as shiny and exotic looking as the Tin Man from the “The Wizard of Oz.”

The copper vacuum still is called Amalthea, and the store is working in partnership with The Craft Distilling Business, which has been creating micro distilleries since 2017. 

Customers can buy small batches of “Made in Piccadilly” London Dry or Pink Gin, and personalize the labels. Fortnum’s even offers a refill service.

The London Dry contains dashes of the store’s earl grey tea and its Monarch marmalade, in addition to juniper, coriander, rose and licorice. The Pink Gin also contains the house tea, in addition to rhubarb, rose and dried hibiscus.

The Lara Lee demonstration at Fortnum & Mason’s new Food & Drink Studio.

While the distillery may be new, the store has long had a homesteader approach. 

While Fortnum’s may deal with scores of suppliers, most of them in the U.K., it also grows its own herbs and vegetables in allotments on the roof of the store at 181 Piccadilly, and keeps beehives up there, too. 

The store smokes its own salmon and turns its late-season, unripe tomatoes into green tomato chutney.

It’s been a foodie haven for hundreds of years.

Unlike some of its competitors, where the food hall is a colorful (and lucrative) add-on to the fashion, beauty and accessories, Fortnum’s is more like a big, glorious food hall with other categories such as fragrances, beauty, jewelry, clothing and leather accessories, complementing the main offer. 

Founded in 1707, the store gave the world the Scotch egg, a heart stoppingly rich, delicious — and portable — picnic food for travelers. At the behest of King Edward VII, it created Royal Blend tea from a blend of assam and flowery pekoe.

It supplied Florence Nightingale’s hospitals with culinary reinforcements during the Crimean War and served the soldiers in the trenches during World War I. 

Crowds still gather on the store’s lower ground floor every day of the week to pick up gourmet fresh food or order from the butcher, fishmonger or wine merchant. Sturdy, white ceramic jars of Stilton are already on display for Christmas, as are the handmade chocolates, cakes and oversize marzipan fruits.

The demonstration kitchen at Fortnum & Mason.

On the ground floor, the halls are decked with food and drink all year round: chocolate, coffee, tea, marmalade, biscuits and Champagne, all packaged in the store’s signature seafoam green.

While the registers ring on the downstairs floors, the Food & Drink Studio has set itself up as a more cerebral space. “Commerciality is important, but the studio has more of a community feeling. It’s more about storytelling” than anything else, Cary says.

In addition to the copper still, there’s a library filled with the latest cookbooks and places to sit and read. There are museum-like displays featuring pasta-making, baking or fruit preserving paraphernalia, and showcases filled with hand-forged cooking utensils made by Alex Pole Ironwork in Dorset, England. 

A step-by-step display shows how Alex Pole makes his pots and kitchen tools.

“So many of these skills are dying out. And I think we have to look back in order to look forward, which is why we want to champion someone like Alex Pole who’s doing incredible work with metal,” says Cary, adding the store’s approach to the third floor space is simple.

“If you’re going to spend money, why not spend it on things that are really special?” she says.

There is an accent on live events pegged to food trends, cookbook releases or holidays. Cary says there have so far been hundreds of cooking, charity-related, private and public events, such as supper clubs, since the space launched in March.

Dinner with the Australian-Indonesian food writer Lara Lee at Fortnum & Mason.

Earlier this year, the store hosted a talk with the Korean American chef Judy Joo, which tied in with the “Hallyu! The Korean Wave” exhibition that took place at the Victoria & Albert Museum earlier this year. For the festival of Diwali, there was an evening with Maunika Gowardhan, the Indian chef and author.

Fortnum’s has also explored the rise of West African cuisine in the U.K.; brought Giles Duley, a war photographer-turned-cooking expert known as The One Armed Chef, to prepare meals ahead of International Men’s Day, and invited the Australian Indonesian food writer Lara Lee to highlight the beauty of pulses and grains.

Earlier in the autumn, the studio became a stage for Harvest Week. It featured sweet moments such as apple pressing and juice tasting, and more serious ones that looked at waste and other challenges facing the food industry.

In the runup to the holidays, the store will be hosting masterclasses in Christmas cake and mince pie-making, and gluten-free baking.

“One of the core words for us, before we even opened, was authenticity. We wanted to make sure we were always doing things with the right intentions,” Cary says. “Our goal is to learn and to evolve, and then pass that passion on, and educate others.”

For guests, it’s pure entertainment, and unlike Roald Dahl’s novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” — or the sinister 1971 film starring Gene Wilder — there are no trap doors, perilous rivers or secrets. Except, perhaps, how to score a ticket to one of the studio’s regularly sold-out events.

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