Celebrating good food and bad behaviour in Piccadilly
As I write this, there are upwards of 5,000 international journalists camped out in Windsor, providing breathless round-the-clock commentary on the marriage of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. I asked my friend, a royal correspondent, about life in the Wedding Bunker, aka the Travelodge in Slough. “It’s not so bad — I’ve got a kettle, and there are sachets.” Assuming she makes it to Saturday on a diet of shortbread and individually packaged coffee creamer, by the time you read this Ms Markle will have become the Duchess of something, and my friend will have plumbed a marathon’s worth of clichés on how the Brits do pomp and circumstance like no one else. Apparently the hacks are running a book on who can get the “sceptr’d isle” from John of Gaunt’s soliloquy in first. Folk memory is a funny thing. Just as no one from Great Britain can hear Churchill’s “finest hour” speech and remain entirely unmoved, even when it’s delivered by Gary Oldman in a fat-suit, so the sight of the guards and the uniforms, the carriages, the swords and Princess Beatrice’s headgear will lend itself at some moment on Saturday, even to the most sceptical, to a little atavistic shiver of pride and belonging.
It works on the senses, too. Cities have memories which write themselves on our subconscious. There’s a street corner near Mecklenburgh Square where when it rains you can even now smell the sweat and dung of ghostly horses; the churchyard in St Giles still draws wild-eyed drinkers, though the slums from which they once emerged have long been replaced by Renzo Piano architecture and Jamie Oliver franchises. In Shepherd Market at twilight the will o’ the wisp glow of the tarts’ lamps remain phantasm tabernacles to generations of popped public-schoolboy cherries, and if the wind’s right, I swear you can catch a poignant whiff of Guerlain’s Après l’Ondée above the traffic fumes of Berkeley Square.
The palimpsests of memory pertain, even when the geography of the city has been irrecoverably altered. In the 1920s, the novelist Nancy Mitford was still forbidden to walk unchaperoned along Piccadilly. Having run the gamut of ogling from the gents’ clubs in St James’s, there was nothing left by then to alarm a bright young debutante, but such was Piccadilly’s louche aura that apparently no respectable women could afford to be seen alone there. The etymology of Piccadilly, and its sinful connotations, was the subject of hot antiquarian debate from the mid-17th century, when Thomas Blount suggested that the street took its name from “pickadil”, the name for the round hem of a skirt, transposed to a style of banded collar. A pub called the “pickadilly”, at the edge or “skirt” of St James’s, where the lost fields then began, was the source of the denomination. However, in 1791, the topographer Thomas Pennant boldly discounted Blount’s theory on the basis of a pastry shop which sold “piccadillas” or savoury turnovers.
The dish is still found on Cuban menus, derived from the Spanish empanada, a pastry whose edges are pricked or frilled (as with the long lance which gives its name to the picadors in the bullfight) — perhaps reminiscent of the collar — and in 1841 a certain Charles Knight linked the two by suggesting that “pickadilly” was the source of “peccadillo” — a minor sin — practised by the blades who resorted to the area, dressed in their fashionable pie-crust collars, in search of the girls who wandered over from Covent Garden looking for business. So a Piccadilly became something hot, delicious and wicked to be purchased at the meeting point of the city’s arteries.
Whether Messrs Fortnum and Mason had swotted up on their antiquarian history when they opened their grocery shop in 1707, they could hardly have picked a more appropriate place from the culinary point of view, yet until comparatively recently the store has neglected its more adult antecedents in favour of (entirely delightful) teas and ice-cream sundaes. Its restaurant 45 Jermyn St. is therefore a brilliant offering in what, aside from the Ritz and the Wolseley, remains something of a gastronomic dead zone, at least for those of us who can’t go to Whites.
Opening onto Jermyn Street, the restaurant, importantly, doesn’t feel as though it’s entirely part of the shop but a proper destination in its own right. Gorgeous tomato-coloured banquettes set off soothing apple walls, and in the evening the lighting delivers a kindly dose of shadowy glamour. They offer breakfast and pre-theatre menus, as well as (this being Fortnum’s) a comprehensive caviar list, but since I was dining with the editor of this august publication I eschewed that on the grounds of economy and chose a starter from the four asparagus-themed options — perfect Wye Valley stalks with bubbly golden Hollandaise. Mr Johnson said his smoked haddock, asparagus and parmesan tart was scrumptious, but he didn’t join me in the carbohydrate extravaganza of the beef Wellington. Puff pastry and pommes dauphinoise is always going to be a happy proposition, but I particularly appreciated the juicy, fleshy mushroom duxelle and the fact that 45’s Wellington comes with thick sauce au poivre as well as gravy, the two tumbling in a watershed of jus and cream on the pale underside of the crust like the thigh of one of Harris’s Covent Garden ladies thrown over the discarded collar of a Blues and Royals coat. Mr Johnson had monkfish, hence we decided on the grounds of his virtue if not mine to drink some Lynch-Bages from the superlative wine list. Access to Fortnum’s full cellar is one of the many brilliant points of 45, and the bottle was musky and rich and sweat-tinged enough to have put Nancy Mitford’s duenna on the qui vive. The pudding menu, referenced in nursery style as “afters”, is as soothing and Blytonish as one would hope from Fortnum’s, though I was thwarted in my desire for a Banana Foster flambéed at the table by having behaved so badly with the Wellington. Mr Johnson took a dish of mint tea.
Central London is distinctly lacking in loucheness these days, now that Soho has been anaesthetised, Covent Garden has taken to early nights and the only French you’ll get in Curzon Street is the Eurotrash kind, but there is something properly seductive about 45. And Piccadilly? During World War Two, Quentin Crisp remembered, this most august of London thoroughfares returned to its roots, becoming “ one vast double bed”. Take a date for dinner at 45, wander along the street of peccadilloes up to the “quadrangle of sentimentality” of Berkeley Square and you might get as lucky as Ms Markle.