Here in the United States, the “Downton Abbey” series came to a finish last Sunday. Unlike 9.6 million viewers, I missed bidding farewell to the family and friends that made “Downton Abbey” a great success. I make no excuses, I simply forgot. Actually, I missed nearly all of this season. Maybe I will catch up on a rainy, summer afternoon. Like many of my friends, I have enjoyed living vicariously through the cast as they dramatized the era of 1912 – 1925 at Highclere Castle. One of the many things that captured my attention over the seasons was knowing my ancestry once owned a castle down the road from Highclere. I was fascinated to learn it has since become a brewery and no longer owned by any ancestry to which I am knowingly connected. I enjoyed the random dropping of the “Spratt” name, which was my paternal grandmother’s maiden name.
In the fall of 2014, I had the opportunity to see the Downton Abbey costumes on display at Winterthur Museum in Delaware’s Brandywine Valley. At the end of the tour, I found myself in the gift shop surrounded by tantalizing opportunities to purchase a keepsake, by which to remember the experience. And yes, an opportunity to brag with said memento when I returned home. I bought the “Unofficial Edwardian Downton Abbey Cookbook”, a flask, and a book on Butler’s rules. I was greatly tempted to buy a book on serving Afternoon Tea for the photos of elegant foods and teacups. I may still succumbed.
If you’ve watched the series, you may have realized many of the conversations were around food, either while prepping, serving, or eating. It intrigued me that much was made of serving elegant food through to the series end, as it covered the time of the beginning of WWI, which heralded the simplification of once intricate, English food creations. I was also intrigued that only men served food and mostly only women (not as much of a surprise) prepared the food.
Footmen serving food was exemplification of a strictly gender segregated position, one which paid more than what was paid maids. In this manner, to have both maids and footmen was extending your status for high viewing. People of modest means only had maids. The lower your social scale, the more likely food would be served by maids. Indeed, the Crawley family arrived at Highclere Castle with no footmen. Aristocracy of the time was expected to employ as many servants as they could afford, as it was seen as serving the community by providing employment. No notice was given, as to fairness of employment and indeed, servants were otherwise expected to be invisible.
Cooks of this era had their own social strata. As food was a way of impressing people, the more highly skilled cooks would be employed by aristocracy. Mrs. Patmore was the culinary artist on Downton Abbey, although, we didn’t see her cook, as much as we saw her yelling and sampling. Detailed, elegant meals were prepared breakfast to dinner and Afternoon Teas in between. Aristocracy expected such dishes as kedgeree, which was Mrs. Patmore’s first prepared breakfast dish. Today’s version would be similar to Finnan haddie, which is made from smoked haddock. At a time when refrigeration wasn’t available, smoking kept food preserved and it was common to serve dinner leftovers (a term not yet coined) as a reinvented morning meal. All of this changed in Europe with the advent of WWI, when such things as butter and sugar became rationed. Food in general became scarce, as farmers left growing fields in exchange for battle fields.
Another example of food defined by social strata would be the Afternoon Tea. Quiet conversation and proper etiquette defined the Afternoon Tea (yes, it’s important enough to be capitalized) and would often consist of bite size delicacies of mint and cucumber or egg salad sandwiches; scones served with clotted cream; and dainty cookies or other treats. All would be served on the finest china and silver. The tea was served in fine bone china tea cups from often ornate tea sets consisting of tea pot, sugar bowls and creamers. Please, don’t forget the polished silver with which to stir your tea.
I am most envious of the “fancy ices” of this era. My favorites would no doubt be infused with jasmine or elder flowers. The best culinary artists would mold them from copper forms resembling swans, doves or fruits. Today this delicacy would be akin to Italian gelato.
Downton Abbey Cast