One London department store is launching a hamper with a price tag of £5,000 - 10 weeks' salary for a worker with an average income.

Fortnum & Mason, the Piccadilly purveyor of fine food and wines - which claims to have invented the hamper - will launch the Imperial in a fortnight's time.

Among 30 epicurean delights are foie gras with truffles, beluga caviar, vintage port, a jeroboam of Veuve Clicquot ... and an enormous 9kg pork pie.

The Imperial is the store's attempt to profit from the increasingly lucrative- and extravagant - corporate hamper market.

About one million hampers will be sold in Britain this year in a market worth an estimated £40m. Most cost between £30 and £50, and are bought as gifts for friends or family. But the world of corporate hampers is heading for the realms of the extraordinary.

Harrods will compete with a £5,000 hamper of its own, the Chairman's Choice, which it describes as "the king of hampers". The target market is business executives and members of foreign royal families.

It may have been the Harrods offering that spurred its arch retail rival to act; previously Fortnum & Mason's most expensive hamper cost a mere £1,000.

Marion Cros, Fortnum and Mason's spokeswoman, said: "We have had a lot of requests for something with even more quality and even more products, especially for the corporate side.

"They wanted it for their best clients, their biggest clients. For them, £1,000 wasn't enough." The clients cannot be named but they include banks and other big names on the FTSE 100 index.

It is all a far cry from the origins of the hamper in the 18th century, when it was invented for theatre-goers who would eat the contents and then sit on the baskets because of a lack of seats in theatreland.

In recent times, summer events have turned into a overt display of stature and wealth, a veritable battle of picnicking one-upmanship

The hamper is judged according to size and the lavishness of its contents, laid ostentatiously on to a rug at concerts at Glyndebourne or Kenwood House.

Peter Austin, the chairman of Clearwater, which runs hampers.com, has experienced 26 years of "continuous expansion" since he entered the business. His most expensive line is usually £300.

Hampers are popular, he believes, because they can be given year after year; the contents will have been long swallowed. "You are giving to the whole family. When you have got sweet and savoury then everyone appreciates it. It's quite a subtle way of getting the family on your side, or on the side of a donor."

But even Mr Austin has doubts over a £5,000 hamper. "Once you get to £300 you have got a hamper that weighs 25-30 kilos, which is a seriously big basket. The only way is to increase the value of items by adding things like Belugar caviar.

"You can make a hamper £5000. We have done a £2,000 hamper that included Wedgwood china for the EU foreign ministers a couple of years ago but it was a massive thing which weighed about 50 kilos and the foreign ministers wouldn't take it with them. We had to pick them up in a van and send them on."

Just five years ago, the corporate market was "very conservative" and often contained bottles of liebfraumilch.

Now, though, there are multiple innovations. One hamper put together for call centre staff was non-alcoholic so as not to offend Muslim workers.

A team of 10 spent the first six months of this year compiling the Fortnum & Mason's hamper. Tucked inside are a Christmas pudding, Cropwell Bishop Shropshire cheese, first flush Darjeeling tea (with wooden caddy), Hine cognac, chocolate florentines, and smoked Scottish wild salmon.

Harrods' gourmet box has game pie stuffed with cranberries, cognac, fresh quails' eggs, and French woodcutter cake dipped in chocolate. There are also "extras" such as a silver ice bucket, champagne flutes, a silver vase and luxury Christmas crackers.

Fortnums is in no doubt that its offering holds the upper hand. Ms Cros said: "It's really the best. It's not about the quantity, it's about the quality. "Theirs (Harrods) is very corporate and more about quantity. There's lots of little bits and bobs to make it look like: 'Wow, it's £5,000'."

Andre Dang, spokesman for Harrods, said it was "uncharitable" to comment on a competitor's product range. "We all try to put together a comprehensive offering that reflects our range at Christmas and our brand. I would hope that people would judge our selection on its merits."

... and something more affordable

You don't have to spend £5,000 to enjoy a splendid hamper. The Independent compiled this compendium of fine food and wine for less than £200. All it requires is a few minutes online and an afternoon on the high street. Bon appetit!

* Chateauneuf du Pape Chateau La Nerthe, £25.99, Oddbins - Rhone red wine with berry flavours in a "spicy parcel"

* Les Ruettes Sancerre, £9.49, Marks & Spencer; elegant dry white with rich lemon tones

* Remy Martin VSOP, £29.80, Berry Bros and Rudd (www.bbr.com); fine champagne cognac

* Dow's crusted port 1999, £13.99, Oddbins; simple, traditional gentleman's port

* Hawes Wensleydale, 500g, £8.95, Forman and Field (www.formanandfield.com); crumbly moist cheese from the Yorkshire Dales

* Mature French brie, 170g, Waitrose, £1.56; the picnickers' favourite with French bread

* Gammon joint, 2kg, £23.98, Somerset Organics (www.somersetorganics.co.uk); meat that tastes as it should

* Smoked salmon organic, 125g, £4.99, Sainsbury's

* Welsh chunk comb honey, 2lbs, £17.50, Fortnum & Mason; From the wildflowers of mid-Wales

* Thorntons continental collection, 180g, £5, Thorntons; fourteen splendid chocolates in a box

* Hawaiian Kona Coffee Beans, 227g, £27.95, Harrods; Wonderfully aromatic, rich medium beans

* Large hamper wicker basket, £28.75, Hampers of Cambridge (www.hampersofcambridge.co.uk); a traditional and roomy Victorian-style hamper

* Total cost: £197.95 (post and packaging will add a few pounds)

Martin Hickman

Comments