The romance. The intrigue. The big, beautiful country house.
We can analyze the recipe for success of “Downton Abbey,” the British television import whose season 3 made its breathlessly anticipated debut on PBS Sunday, until our cups of tea go cold. But one element that can’t be overlooked, especially for those of a culinary bent, is the food.
Rather than letting it serve as mere eye candy, creator and writer Julian Fellowes has worked crepes, puddings, roast chicken and other edible props into some of the series’ most memorable plots.
Who can forget Mrs. Patmore’s disastrously salty raspberry meringue pudding? How many fans fell hook, line and sinker for the implication that Branson the chauffeur would off the famous British general with a poison-laden soup?
The lavish spreads enjoyed by the aristocratic Crawley family in early-20th-century England are enough to inspire envy in those who might be watching with a microwave dinner in their laps. The show has revived an interest in British food, particularly that of the 1910s and 1920s, that could easily fall prey to stereotypes: Aspic! Haggis! Puddings! Instead, viewers have embraced the comestibles they’ve seen on the small screen, with spinoffs including Pinterest boards, blogs and a recently released unofficial cookbook.
“Because they love the show, it makes them more interested in the history of the food that was on the show,” says Pamela Foster, a Toronto marketing professional who has put her history degree to good use on her Downton Abbey Cooks blog. “It’s sort of a teaching point to connect people to history.”
There’s no getting around the fact that there were lots of jellied molds, some of which were very attractive, and, we dare say, tasty. The cuisine received an extra surge of elegance thanks to the influence of King Edward VII, who had an affinity for French food.
“He loved a good time and a good laugh and a good meal,” says Foster, who just released a self-published e-cookbook, “Abbey Cooks Entertain,” with plenty of dishes inspired by France.
Some noble families employed French cooks on the weekend – “What is a weekend?” as the Dowager Countess of Grantham might say – when they did a lot of entertaining, according to the Countess of Carnarvon, who, with her husband, the Earl of Carnarvon, lives at the 50-plus-bedroom Highclere Castle, where “Downton Abbey” is filmed.
“There might be a Mrs. Patmore perhaps, but over the top of her there might be a more highly paid chef to impress the guests,” the Countess says. Even without today’s technology, “they produced absolutely beautiful food, beautifully set up.”
At Highclere Castle, the downstairs area once included marble tops in a pastry area and separate preparation spaces for different types of food to avoid cross-contamination, says the countess, who is also addressed as Lady Carnarvon.
Replicating that setting for the show requires a tremendous amount of research and logistics. Because the downstairs portion of Highclere couldn’t stand in for the servants’ quarters on “Downton Abbey,” the production team built a kitchen set at London’s Ealing Studios, about 60 miles from the castle.
Production designer Donal Woods says research conducted through visits to nearly 40 English country houses helped inform what the kitchen should look like. The cast-iron range, which in its heyday would have run on coal, is modeled after one in a home in Leeds.
“You can actually cook on top of the range,” Woods says. “It can sizzle and steam.” Removable tiles behind the range allow for a camera to run on a track and film what Mrs. Patmore and kitchen maid Daisy are doing.
While the range may be the centerpiece, a host of other equipment is needed to fully bring to life a working kitchen. Thanks in large part to the inventory available on eBay, Woods helped acquire original tools such as copper molds, bowls, mixing machines, mincing machines and stone-glazed sinks.
“Probably about 60 to 70 percent of the stuff in there is from that period,” he says.
Fellow production designer Charmian Adams says one of her favorite antique pieces is a wall-mounted board with flaps that fold back to indicate what supplies need to be restocked. She was initially perplexed by a tab for bricks, until she learned about Bridgwater bricks. They served as a sort of kitchen scouring pad, and Adams was able to get one from a building that had started to collapse.
It’s the kind of creative sourcing that the “Downton Abbey” crew does a lot of. Food economist Lisa Heathcote consults her library of historical cookbooks as well as her own knowledge of period food to decide which comestibles will appear. “Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management” is an important guide for her, as it is for Foster. Handwritten menus in French from grand country homes, similar to what Lady Carnarvon has collected at Highclere, are other good references.
Of course, the food has to be cooked and plated - twice, in some instances. A dish may be shown in the kitchen in one scene, then in the dining room in the next scene. Making the transition seamless requires that Heathcote defy the space-time continuum, because filming on each set occurs miles and weeks apart. She takes many photographs and tries not to make the dishes so overly complicated that they would be impossible to reproduce.
For scenes in the dining room, Heathcote prepares food off-site and then warms and plates it in a field kitchen. She tries to steer clear of too many foods that need to be served hot, though, because it’s difficult to keep them that way. Filming a dining scene can take 10 to 12 hours, and multiple takes mean plates are constantly being cleared and refreshed.
“It’s a bit like running a restaurant,” Heathcote says, no easy feat since she’s essentially a food department of one.
Long shoots can wreak havoc on prepared food, so certain ingredients, particularly fish, are off-limits.
“We don’t use fish ever, although Julian seems to have written a lot of fish courses,” Heathcote says.
“I won’t name any names, but a couple of the actors didn’t feel brilliant with the smell of fish and mentioned it,” Adams says.
Heathcote’s tricks include dying cream cheese pinkish-red to resemble salmon mousse and serving a chimera-like entree she calls “chicken fish,” or poultry prepared to look like fish with sauce on top.
All that results in a very elegant-looking dinner party on the set. In reality, though, it would have been even more over the top, says Lady Carnarvon.
“There were a lot more courses,” anywhere from five to seven, she says. (Home cooks may soon be able try some of those courses: The countess suggests she might publish a cookbook of Highclere recipes next year.) In her 2011 book, “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle,” she relates that for a dinner of 10 or more guests, the four footmen, more than we see around the table in “Downton,” would have powdered their hair and dressed up for the occasion. The powdering went on until 1918.
Also, “the table was set differently then and the decorations were more elaborate,” she says. The problem is that large centerpieces aren’t very photogenic. (Imagine would-be lovers Mary and Matthew trying to make eyes at each other with a massive, ornate piece of silver in the middle of the table.)
Lady Carnarvon understands the compromises that need to be made for the purposes of television.
“It’s a fun costume drama. It’s not a social documentary,” she says. “Because it’s so popular, I think some people take it as historical fact.”
Still, the film crew does go to extreme lengths to convey authenticity. Designers created a family crest for the Crawleys, which is printed on menus and baked onto the china, Adams says. The crest even had to pass muster with a heraldry authority to ensure it didn’t resemble the coat of arms of a real family.
And when there are slip-ups, the audience is bound to notice. In Season 1, an identifying mark on the bottom of a cup held by the Dowager Countess gave away the anachronism that the piece had been manufactured after 1912, when the action is supposed to be taking place.
“All it was was actress Maggie Smith lifting up the teacup to her mouth,” Adams says.
You can therefore understand why Adams says the crew will even scrub off the lion icon stamped onto most British eggs – that is, when she can’t get a few pristine specimens from a friend. It’s all about getting everything as perfect as possible, even when Mrs. Patmore’s poor eyesight caused that sugar-salt mixup in the pudding.
Lady Carnarvon says she and Highclere’s head chef and two sous-chefs don’t live under the same kind of pressure felt by the characters of “Downton Abbey” and their real-life counterparts, especially now that she’s been living at Highclere for 13 years.
“I think as you become more at home,” she says, “you actually become more relaxed, so if something did go wrong, I’d simply ask the staff to go get a load of pizzas.”