A culinary coup is underway in the food halls of Harrods, where the first stage of the Taste Revolution – a four year overhaul of the gastronomic landmark – is unveiled this month
Dear residents of Knightsbridge: I hate to point the finger, but there is a trickster amongst you. Armed with a Le Creuset dish and a Harrods’ fish pie, this cunning culinary calamity has hoodwinked their neighbours into believing they are the second coming of Nigella Lawson – and, frankly, I’m just disappointed I didn’t think of it first.
The story goes that a local resident with a penchant for poached fish and potato popped in one weekend and asked the store’s chefs to fashion a bigger, more dinner party-friendly version of her favoured dish, in order that she might pass it off as her own. The cooks, naturally, were only too happy to oblige.
This exposé comes courtesy of Harrods’ head of food, April Preston, who admits she wasn’t surprised in the slightest – nor, I imagine, will you be. After all, this is the store that famously acquired a lion cub for one adventurous shopper, and a baby elephant for another.
“It was one of the things I was blown away by when I joined Harrods, and it’s the first thing they teach you: nothing is too much,” Preston says. “That really is the way we live and breathe.”
Founded in 1834 by Charles Harrod, the now-department store began life as a humble East End grocer and tea merchant before moving to Brompton Road to capitalise on the trade brought in by the Great Exhibition of 1851. Fast forward 166 years and you can’t walk down the Knightsbridge street without casting an eye on the gargantuan store, now a destination shop for, well, everything – including a bespoke fish pie, should you require one.
It’s a big leap for what began as a bog-standard fruit and veg stall, now more known for its clutch bags than its cucumbers – but this is all set to change as, for the first time in 30 years, the fabled food halls are being given a makeover, with a strong focus on the local customers who pop in daily for a pint of milk.
The first phase of the Taste Revolution, a four-year project, will launch this November with a new-and-improved The Roastery and Bake Hall. Currently, should you venture beneath the bustling foodie mecca, you’ll find a 150-strong team of chefs kneading, basting and frying to their hearts content – but, come November, much of the activity will be found on the shop floor.
“The food halls have always been about amazing displays with wonderful food, but they just sit there,” Preston admits. “We’ve been hiding our light under a bushel a bit, but with the Taste Revolution it’s going to be much more live; you’ll see everything happening.”
The Bake Hall will be home to an impressive scratch bakery, where a team of 14 bakers will put its dough expertise to the test and produce 80 per cent of the store’s bread, with two fresh loaves coming out of the oven every half an hour. More than 30 new types of bread have been created especially for the occasion, including a signature loaf that was the well-honed project of Harrods’ master baker Lance Gardner.
“It’s been a real work of love,” says Gardner, who spent four months perfecting the recipe. “I wanted to keep it really special, because it’s an iconic loaf. It has been based on my own experience working at different bakeries, seeing what’s trending in food and the Harrods customer as well – sourdough is huge, so I wanted to try and bring that to the forefront.”
It sounds like a lot of effort for a simple loaf, but the crux of the Taste Revolution is creating core staples that people will pick up on their way home from work. As such, the bread has been made in both a small, every day, size, and as a 2kg wheel that can be rolled out at get-togethers (only Harrods could make bread a fancy affair).
Other new treats include a delicious truffle, Parmesan and mushroom focaccia made from ingredients sold in the food halls, and flaky croissants produced using butter from Montaigu in France.
Next door to the bakery, The Roastery will churn out more than 35 coffee blends (including a new signature, aptly named the Knightsbridge blend) in a 25 kilo roaster that will be producing all of the coffee that Harrods sells, both in the food halls and in its restaurants.
“We have been taking food trends into account and coffee is massive; when I was young, you could have black or white – now you can have everything in between,” Preston says. “But it’s more than just a trend-led thing; it’s about wanting to do the simple things really well. We wanted to roast our own beans because we know that is the best way to get the best quality.”
Bean buffs will be on hand to offer advice on the best brew for you, as well as the chance to taste the blends available before you buy, as a hot caffeine fix during the day or as an espresso martini at night. Along with beans, you’ll be able to buy your favoured coffee in ground or pod format, so even those with a Nespresso machine can join in the fun (we’re looking at you, George Clooney).
In addition, a Roast and Bake cafe will be launching, where you can tuck into the best treats found at the new counters. If tea is your poison, a visit to the Tea Tailor should do the trick; spin the roulette wheel of flavours to pick your favoured tastes, and the store’s resident tea sommelier will whip you up the perfect cuppa.
Finally, in the centre of the space, the patisserie counter will take pride of place, with desserts hand-crafted by head pastry chef Alistair Birt and his team. Colourful treats that look more like works of art than works of chocolate will be the stars of the show; one is Champagne and peach flavoured, another coffee and star anise.
“The range is a lot more pared back in terms of finish, and much more slick,” Birt, who recently reached the finals of the prestigious Master of Culinary Arts award, explains. “We really worked with tonal colours, so the strawberry and yuzu dessert is all different colours of red, and we’ve got a matcha one that’s three different shades of green.”
It has been a labour of love for the team, which has been working flat out to get the first stage finished in time for the big reveal come November. For Preston, who likens her career to that of a footballer (“I get paid to do what I love”), it has been the cherry on an already pretty good cake.
“I just love working with chefs; I love the way their brains work, I love the creativity, and the fact that they can produce this amazing food. I’ve been in the industry for forever but I learn something new every day” she chimes. “To still be learning so much at this stage of my career is a fantastic thing, and is really what gets me out of bed in the morning.” That and, I imagine, a strong cup of Harrods’ signature brew...