On a chilling stormy winter night, what better pastime than to watch season five of the British television series, Downton Abbey. This show gives the viewer a taste of the life of the fictional Crawleys, a family of privilege and wealth who lived in Edwardian times and into the roaring 20’s. Filmed at Highclere Castle in England, the setting is elegant and formal. What better place to peek in on the culinary traditions of the past.
Each time the “downstairs” kitchen appears on television, my vision sharpens for any hint of what meals Mrs. Patmore, the cook, has planned for the family. A shelf of highly polished copper pots gleam behind the kitchen staff in many scenes, showing the high standards in the kitchens of the privileged. It is interesting to watch how the kitchen staff work, and the different levels of servants.
They perform many tasks to put together the elaborate meals of numerous courses, served in the very formal dining room for the Crawleys and their guests.
Mrs. Patmore is the queen of the kitchen and young servant Daisy is given more cooking responsibilities as she learns the culinary skills needed to cook for an upper class family. The stiffly dressed male servants who bring the food to the dining room, serve each dish French style, onto the plates of the diners. To watch a meal served upstairs in the grand dining room is to visit a time and place when manners, decorum and tradition were prized values. Now, they are rare values to most people, as meals are eaten “on the run,” or in front of the television, watching Downton Abbey.
I travelled behind the culinary scenes of the production by reading an interview with Lisa Heathcote, who cooks the food used on the production sets. Although most of the food is real, at times she has to place her emphasis on keeping the look of the food fresh during hours of filming under hot lights. She is very knowledgable about cooking during the historic periods covered in this show.
Many culinary historians are placing the traditions of this period under a spot light because of the popularity of the show.
Downton Abbey Cooks, http://www.downabbeycooks.com is a highly successful blog developed by Pamela Foster who celebrates the food traditions of this time.
Many of the food traditions of the British continue to be celebrated to this day. The Christmas pudding continues to light many British Christmas tables with a blue brandy flame. Cheese souffle, watercress sandwiches and many of the other traditions from the show will hopefully be served into the future.
In one episode, Mrs. Patmore tells Daisy to get “back to the Spotted Dick.” “Dick” was a common expression at that time that meant, pudding. The first reference to this popular English pudding came from French chef Alexis Soyer’s book entitled “The Modern Housewife,” published in 1848.
Here is the recipe as it appears on the website http://www.celtnet.org.uk ; This website reproduces parts of some of the aged culinary books that tell Britain’s food history.
Original Recipe for Spotted Dick from The Modern Housewife by Alexis Soyer
Put three quarters of a pound of flour int a basin, half a pound of beef suet, half ditto of currants, two ounces of sugar, a little cinnamon, mix with 2 eggs and 2 gills of milk; boil in either mould or cloth for one hour and a half. Serve with melted butter and a little sugar over.
- 340 g. plain flour
- 225 g. shredded beef suet
- 222 g. currents
- 60 g. sugar
- 1/2 tsp.ground cinnamon
- 2 eggs
- 300 ml. milk
- melted butter to accompany.
More interesting info:
An interview with Lisa Heathcote, Food stylist for Downton Abbey: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/programs/features/spotlight/downton-abbey-s4-food-secrets/
Downton Abbey Cooks – A successful website: http://www.downtonabbeycooks.com explores the food of that era.