The hampers all began with Tricki Woo…

It all began with Tricki Woo and the pandemic this year. Do you know who Tricki Woo is? Have you watched All Creatures Great and Small? James Herriott was a vet in a rural area of North Yorkshire from the late 1930s through the 1950s. Those books formed the basis of the television series that lasted seven seasons. One of Herriott’s clients, the very wealthy widow Mrs Pumphrey, had a long haired Pekinese named Tricki Woo who loved ‘Uncle Harriet’. In gratitude, Tricki often sent Uncle Harriet hampers filled with exotic treats from Fortnum & Masons, Piccadilly, London. Tricki was not the first to be unable to resist those hampers. Fortnum & Mason had been preparing baskets full of exotic treats since the 18th century. They began as traveller’s or hunter’s baskets. These woven containers full of delicacies made their way across the world by ship, to the top of Mount Everest, and with the archaeologists first exploring Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt. Pretty impressive! They advertise them as “The Original and the Best”.

During the pandemic, we watched every episode of the seven seasons of All Creatures Great and Small. Then exhausted by the news of hospitals filling up and people dying of the Covid-Sars 19 since the beginning of the year, the big question on what could possibly make the holidays special became a central focus. In order to not fall into the ‘oh, pity me’ stage of doom and gloom during lockdown, I decided to do something different. The Herriott’s had just received a hamper from Fortnum & Masons on the episode I was watching and the thought breezed through my head that if they could supply hampers during times of rationing then surely in an age of on line buying and international shipping, Fortnum & Mason could get a hamper to Canada. Of course, they had been able to do this for years but it never occurred to me til I saw the delight on the faces of James and Helen just how happy one of those hampers might make someone.

When we lived in England, the holidays meant getting on the early train from Grantham to London to see the windows of Fortnum & Mason. There are eight main windows on Piccadilly and by the end of October or the beginning of November the paper is removed to reveal the magical scenes. They were different every year and for three years we got to enjoy this incredible tradition that the British have delighted in for eons.

Fortnum’s has been decorating their windows for 313 years, since 1707. For these Canadians, the only windows decorated in our City were those of the Hudson Bay Company and really, they were not decorated at all if a comparison were made. We had not seen anything like the wonders that filled all of those spaces from mechanical drummers and angels to glitter and magic and all the treats that the store had on their shelves. Everything was larger than life. The beauty of the painting, the sculptures, the lights and even the feathers of birds was magical. It was almost as if you you could step inside and become part of the festivities.

Fortnum and Mason’s holiday windows from 2016. Courtesy of Fortnum & Masons, Wikimedia Commons (above and below).

To try and create some of the magic that we had experienced so long ago, I checked on the possibility of a hamper coming to Canada in time for the holidays. It was only after I began exploring the options that I discovered that there are several well known shops in London supplying hampers. Another was Harrod’s, the iconic department store in Knightsbridge. In the end, I decided to order a similar priced hamper from both major shops and compare them.

Both companies used international shippers (for a charge on top of the price of the hamper) and both estimated the time of arrival at my door as being four business days. Both hampers were ordered on the same day in mid-November. The Fornum & Mason hamper arrived promptly on the sixth day after ordering by DHL. The hamper from Harrod’s, also handled by DHL, required that I either hired my own broker or allowed DHL to act on my behalf. The parcel was caught up in Canadian customs for three weeks. After 10 days, I contacted Harrod’s Customer Service. Both the customer service agent and myself assumed that the proper commercial invoice had simply not been attached and they provided me with another one immediately. They also gave me a 25% refund. That still did not help me with the parcel. I contacted DHL Customer Service, gave them a copy of the commercial invoice noting that it specifically stated that all customs duties and taxes were included in the price that I had paid. It all seemed very ridiculous. In the end, the hamper was released and duly delivered by DHL on December 12. Ironically, the commercial invoice was right on the box in a plastic envelope that had never been opened. Who could be faulted for the delay? and why did the parcel from Fortnum & Mason not have a problem? It is difficult to say. If you are going to order a hamper for international shipment, I urge you to do so early. They will not ship perishable items outside of the country so you could order yours and have it without the stress of worry even in October. And note that taxes and duties are already included in the price. You should not have to pay anything extra.

Each hamper was opened on the morning of the 25th with some excitement. While similar in price, there were a few differences. nImmediately the shape of the hampers and their construction was quite different. The one from Fortnum & Mason was a traditional picnic hamper with the double flap and handle at the top tied by a turquoise ribbon with the F & M name and logo in gold lettering. The hinges were real leather and I could imagine myself using it in the summer for a small picnic. In their enclosed brochure, F & M states that the baskets are “handmade Wicker wonders” woven with wicker that’s “grown in sustainable wetlands”. The hamper from Harrod’s is a flat rectangular basket rather like a suitcase. As you can see from the photo above, there are buckles on the side. These are not leather, something that would make my Vegan granddaughter very happy. Sadly, the hardware on one of the buckles was broken on arrival. With the thousands of hampers ordered, I felt that Harrod’s can do a better job sourcing the hardware so that the hamper could definitely be reused. F & Mason’s basket contained a printed brochure in their traditional turquoise with gold letter that stated the contents and the history. It was a lovely treat to find inside, well designed and full colour.

The contents from the F & M basket were: three 25 gram tins of flavoured tea including their famous Christmas spice blend (plus Christmas Green tea and Plum, Apple, and Cinnamon Infusion), a St James Christmas Pudding, a tin of Christmas Fruit and Spice Biscuits, a small jar of Strawberry preserves, and a box of chocolate Reindeer Noses. The hamper from Harrod’s had a pound of ground coffee, a large tin of English Breakfast teabags (50), a tin of Belgium fudge (both blond and chocolate), a chocolate bar, a large jar of Raspberry preserves, and a large tin of ginger biscuits. By quantity and weight, the Harrod’s Christmas hamper would immediately win out. But what about the quality?

I will begin with the tea. If you are fond of flavoured teas, then the F & M basket is for you. The tea leaves are a very high quality and stand out from the very run of the mill English breakfast tea bags from Harrod’s. But both are actually problematic. The Christmas Green Tea is so infused with licorice that if you do not like it, you will find yourself gifting it to someone who does. One of my British friends dislikes flavoured teas so much that they would run for the rather generic tea bags of Harrod’s. I would personally recommend that F & M offer an option or include a larger tin of the finest hand rolled black tea along with a small container of their Special Christmas blend. Harrod’s should definitely make theirs a fine quality hand rolled tea leaf as well. Ditch the teabags concealing the tail end of the tea that is processed!

Harrod’s contained a reusable pound tin of good ground coffee. F & M did not.

Each had a preserves. Both are excellent. F & M included Strawberry and Harrod’s Rasperry. Harrod’s was twice the size.

Each had a tin of biscuits. F & M were a subtle fruit and spice blend and Harrod’s was an amazing buttery ginger. Both are great for dunking but the taste of Harrod’s captured me. They were also slightly larger.

Both had decent chocolate – F & M’s in the form of Reindeer Nosettes and Harrod’s in a standard chocolate bar.

Harrod’s had a tin of Belgian fudge with about a dozen pieces of both standard chocolate and the blond brown sugary fudge. Divine.

I have not tried the St James Pudding at the time of this writing.

Clearly, the Harrod’s basket gives you more bang for your buck, so to speak but the quality of the tea was simply average, not outstanding. I have not tried the coffee yet. If you prefer PG Tips then you will like the English Breakfast Blend they include. And if you do not like flavoured teas, then the F & M basket would simply not suit you. I have to admit that the fudge contained in the Harrod’s basket was something you can dream about. You could taste the real butter and the squares simply melted in your mouth. I will think about it often long after the tin is empty. It was just stunningly delicious. Both tins of biscuits were equally good but I did like the heat of the ginger ones particularly from Harrod’s.

In the end, both of the baskets have been a delight and it would be difficult to choose between them. I wish that Harrod’s would use real leather and make strong buckles so that the basket could ultimately be used over and over again for picnics. I might well try to fix all of that myself so it can be used. Will I order a hamper again? Absolutely. Maybe a larger one from each shop next year just for fun! And anyone with a sense of creativity could make their own which isn’t such a bad idea. Surely the arrival of such a treasure would put a smile on receiver’s face, just like it did the Harriets when Tricki Woo sent them their Fortnum & Mason’s hamper!

Quebec City…I love you!

2019 seemed to pass with the blink of an eye.  In late October I was with a very good friend speaking at the UAAC Conference in Quebec City.  Six weeks later I returned to that gorgeous historic city.  Could I live there when I retire?  Yes, at least part of the year!  And I will be retiring on 31 August 2020.
JA Moisan is the oldest grocery store in North America.  It was founded in 1871.  They have a bakery, a deli, a place for packaged meals to take home, a wall of speciality salts, olive oils, vinegar, Kusmi teas, coffees, candies – you name it!  There is cheese, fresh fruit, and the best croissants in the city.  There is seating for about ten persons.  Stop and rest your feet – have a latte and a croissant or the daily special.  Take home some chocolate.  The interior is the same as it was in the 1920s and 30s.  Soak it in.
Want to be pampered?  After the beginning of November, the Chateau Frontenac has specials.  The hotel is located in the Old City right at the top by the funicular.  Beginning at the end of November to the third week in December, the German market with all of its little wooden stalls stretches from the Frontenac down through this historic part of the City.  The best fish and chips are at either of the pubs on the main drag as you enter the Old City on St. Jean.  One serves Murphy’s while the other serves Guinness – Murphy’s for the Irish, Guinness for the British with a hallway between them linking the two together.  As you wander down the street there is a lovely bookshop with stationary and a good English section as well as a fine cashmere store.  One of the problems for me was that there were just too many ‘tourist shops’ with any and all things made in China as a souvenir for Quebec City.  You see them everywhere!  Sometimes it is difficult to find nice local shops in the middle of all that.
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Every year the Frontenac has a Christmas tree competition.  They were magical!

And there is always a gingerbread house made like the hotel:

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COVID-19 will have, by the time I update this posting, halted the plans of many.  I look forward to a return to Quebec City.  It has a vibe that is missing where I live.  A truly remarkable “European City” in Quebec, Canada.