How to Eat for Free in London’s Fanciest Department Stores

Everyone loves a free meal. And despite its artifice of glitz and sophistication, you can show up to Harrods unshaven and in a sweaty T-shirt with no intentions of spending money, and still holler at some duck rillettes.

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Aug 19 2014, 6:30pm

All photos by Luke Pyenson.

I was wandering around central London without purpose the other day when I stumbled upon Whole Foods. I'd heard it existed yet never gone out of my way to visit, but with it right there, I figured I had to go in and look around. This was probably the nicest Whole Foods I've ever been in—similar, of course, to the American stores, but with a whole new array of products and a very, very impressive cheese section. I was having a great time just gawking at the nice, unattainably expensive foods when I realized something was missing: There were no free samples.

I know I'm not alone when I say I love free samples—at farmers' markets, outside restaurants, in bakeries, at Costco, and for God's sake, usually at Whole Foods. They are, in many ways, a great equalizer. People of all stripes can benefit from free samples, and businesses all across the price, quality, and classiness spectrum offer them, from Monster Energy Drink® down at the very bottom to Phillippe Conticini's Pâtisserie Des Rêves up near the top.

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The biltong at Fortnam & Mason.

Upset by my Whole Foods experience, I kept vacantly walking among the crowds around Piccadilly Circus, half-heartedly looking for a snack, resigning myself to the reality that I'd probably have to cough up a few sterling for something. Within minutes, though, my luck changed. I soon found myself in a veritable sea of lavish free samples.

My journey began at Fortnum & Mason, located on Piccadilly in a very grandiose old building. Fortnum & Mason was established in 1707, and in addition to things like men's grooming products and jewelry, it has extensive food halls with all sorts of goodies from former British colonies and "the continent." It's fancy as hell in there, and in August it's rammed with tourists. The vast upstairs is carpeted in velvety red, with elegant displays of food and drink, fulfilling a visual stereotype of British culture after which some of these tourists were surely lusting. And the tourists themselves, many of them American, were doing their patriotic duty to solemnly confirm British stereotypes of American tourist customs and costumes.

Within Fortnum & Mason's hallowed halls are some of the finest free samples I've ever encountered. It started pretty innocently with a cup of tea—Fortnum & Mason's house brew "Fortmason," a light blend with notes of orange blossom. I then checked out the patisserie section and had some chocolate scented with rose.

But I needed something savory, so I headed downstairs to the charcuterie counter where I was faced with two excellent sample options: Giant, fresh platters of biltong (South African-style jerky) and duck rillettes heaped on pieces of bread. I took a few pieces of delicious, peppery biltong, and two gloriously fatty duck rillettes toasts.

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Deliciously fatty duck rillettes.

Which brings me to a point on quantity. In most free sampling situations, I think it's not only acceptable, but commendable to engage in a robust way— especially with a newly-presented platter, but also when there are just a few morsels left. Those people providing the samples are people just like you and me; in their free time, they, too, probably eat free samples. It's not in their interest to either stop you or judge you, so why be timid? And with duck rillettes on the line, there's no reason to play games.

Next to the charcuterie area I found a lush selection of cheeses, with as many as three available for open sampling. They were lying there, prone, with knives beside them. Fortnum & Mason clearly trusted me (and why shouldn't they?) to decide what sample size I felt was appropriate, so I cut some hunks of British bloomy-rinded Tunworth cheese and some creamy French Valençay.

From there, I decided to walk the 20-ish minutes to Harrods—another of London's iconic department stores—to compare the free samples and see if I could continue my streak. Harrods has an immediately much less welcoming atmosphere, and in many ways feels like one giant, ostentatious airport duty-free shop. I navigated my way to the food halls, and first came across the meat counters offering yet more biltong—presumably to fill the simpler, more primal urges of Harrods' well-heeled customers. They would be better off at Fortnum & Mason—Harrods' display was far less impressive, the biltong cut into lifeless little matchsticks.

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The last bit of Valençay cheese, all for me.

I then progressed towards cheese, where I had the last samples of a Stichelton (one of my favorite British blues) when an intriguing beverage display caught my eye. In the further recesses of the hall, a woman was presiding over a table of something called "Sparkling Euphoria Honey Vinegar Drink." I approached tentatively and accepted a sample as she rattled off some made-up health benefits and said words like "metabolism." It tasted like kombucha, but a little sweeter. Not for me.

In the distant fish area I saw a man circulating offering samples from a tray, so a I made a beeline for him, recalling my days of Bar Mitzvah party hors d'oeuvre stakeouts. He had shrimp cocktail and some sort of remoulade, and was ringed by a half-moon of sample vultures. My tiny cocktail fork embarrassingly lost grip of my shrimp mid-drag through the sauce, which caused the man to tell me I could take another. First, I rescued the shrimp from the remoulade and then, taking his suggestion, ate one more.

England's food culture is flourishing right now. But at stores like Fortnum & Mason and Harrods, which build on a centuries-long tradition of offering mostly foreign products for large sums of money, you won't come face to face with it, and that's not the point. To expect otherwise would be to throw a wrench in the time-honored dance of this particular brand of haute capitalism. You wouldn't want these customers to slip on an errant jellied eel.

But part of the pleasure in going to these stores is that, despite their artifice of glitz and sophistication, you can show up unshaven in a sweaty T-shirt with no intentions of spending money and still holler at some duck rillettes.

After a false start at Whole Foods, things had really gone my way—I had essentially had lunch, and a very luxurious one at that. And you know what? As far as I'm concerned, free samples are the original "small plates." And they're better. Because they're free, they're available to all, and they're not a passing trend—free samples will be around forever, replenishing eternally.