FOOD PALACE

Cheese tasting at Paxton & Whitfield

Cheese tasting at Paxton & Whitfield

 

In London’s St James’s, you’ll find luxury shopping complemented by iconic food stores. A tour by Food Lover London offers the ideal introduction for the discerning foodie, finds Fiona Sims

Love your food? Then you’ll enjoy Food Lover London. Or to be more exact, an insider’s guide to four of London’s most iconic food stores. And yes, you get to nibble as you go along.

Food Lover London is essentially a walking and tasting tour around super-smart St James’s in the heart of London. Gently herded (in a small group) by one of the capital’s highly respected Blue Badge guides, who pepper their engaging talks with anecdotes about landmarks and famous characters who once graced these now rarefied streets, you drop by the participating stores over an afternoon at a leisurely pace. Here, hospitable experts take over with more highly informative chat and mini-masterclasses, offering plenty of opportunities to taste and buy.

The four famous shops currently signed up are Fortnum & MasonPaxton & WhitfieldBerry Bros. & Rudd and La Maison Maille mustard boutique, boasting more than 1,100 years of fine victual supplies between them. Yes, the last one is French, but it shares a similar longevity and esteem, and it fits right in.


In a brief introduction into the foodie credentials of the area from our Blue Badge guide, Christine, we learn about St James’s aristocratic past (and present), with its royal warrants and gentlemen’s clubs. We then dive into the fascinating world of mustard, from plague preventer (yes, really) to its place on the French King’s table—and now ours.

 

Queues form for the fresh black truffle mustard with Chablis, the merits of which boutique manager Harry Lalousis demonstrates by smearing it over a crostini topped with creamy French Brillat-Savarin cheese, after showing off another with petits pois, chive flower mustard and a slice of tomato.

Taste buds activated, it’s time to move on to Berry Bros. & Rudd, Britain’s oldest wine and spirit merchant. Store manager Francis Huicq shows us its treasured archive in the warren of cellars, revealing vintages dating back to 1834. He shows us original ledgers containing the weights of its well-heeled customers—in its early days as a grocery shop, Berry Bros. added a seat to its coffee scales so customers could have the then rare opportunity of weighing themselves—including Lord Bryon and a French king. The scales are still in the shop and, Francis tells us, Hollywood star Matt Damon was the last person to sit on the contraption.


Today, BBR, as everyone calls it, has more than 4,000 wines and spirits, chosen by a clutch of Masters of Wine. Francis starts us on their own label gin and Tawny port, a few cuts above, and lets us loose on the King’s Ginger Liqueur, specially formulated for Edward VII in 1903. So it’s with a spring in our step that we move on to cheese legends around the corner, Paxton & Whitfield.

 

Sir Winston Churchill purportedly said, “A gentleman always buys his cheese from Paxton & Whitfield.” The shop, on Jermyn Street, is about as smart as cheese shops get, with up to 190 different cheeses, 65 per cent of which are British. 

Discover vintage wines, artisan cheeses, tantalising mustards and the very best afternoon tea

We learn that there are now more varieties of British than French cheese, with more than 680 at the last count. And it’s British cheese that manager Tom Jenner offers us to try, after giving the lowdown on the long-running business, established in 1797, replete with royal warrants held since Queen Victoria’s time. We try England’s answer to Camembert, a pleasingly pungent Tunworth, and nutty, fruity Cheddar from Montgomery, plus Stichelton, an unpasteurised homage to Stilton.

 

A cup of tea at Fortnum & Mason is a perfect way to round off the tour. Is there any other food store with more heritage? Probably not. On this very site since 1707, tea has always been the most important product for Fortnum’s. It now boasts five tearistas (like a barista, but for tea) and an afternoon tea to beat them all, with brews to match. It’s a Fortnum & Mason tearista that holds our attention next, showing us the way to taste tea professionally in its special tea tasting salon (lots of sucking and slurping), as we listen to an entertaining gallop through the history of tea and learn about the rare brews on offer, mentally stocking up as we go.

And talking of shopping, anything you fancy from the tour can be ordered via a Food Lover London representative and can be delivered to your hotel or collected at the end of the afternoon. Food shopping doesn’t get much better than this.

The Food Lover London tour, operated by ILN Ltd, visit www.foodloverlondon.com. £195 per person for a 3.5-hour tour, tastings and goodie bag.