The romance. The intrigue. The big, beautiful country house.
We can analyze the recipe for the success of Downton Abbey, the British TV import that launched its third season Sunday on PBS, until our cups of tea go cold. But one element that cant be overlooked 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. Patmores disastrously salty raspberry meringue pudding? How many fans fell for the implication that Branson the chauffeur would off a 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. Viewers have embraced the comestibles theyve 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 puts her history degree to use on her Downton Abbey Cooks blog ( downtonabbeycooks.com). Its sort of a teaching point to connect people to history.
Edwardian 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.
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 above her there might be a more highly paid chef to impress the guests, the Countess says.
At Highclere, 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 Lady Carnarvon.
Replicating that setting for the show requires research and logistics. Because the downstairs portion of Highclere couldnt stand in for the servants quarters on Downton Abbey, the production team built a kitchen set at Londons Ealing Studios, about 60 miles from the castle.
Production designer Donal Woods says research included visits to nearly 40 English country houses and their kitchens. The cast-iron range, which in its heyday would have run on coal, is modeled after one in Leeds.
You can actually cook on top of the range, Woods says. It can sizzle and steam.
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 eBay, Woods helped acquire original tools such as copper molds, bowls, mixing 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.
The Downton Abbey crew does a lot of that kind of creative sourcing. 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 Beetons Book of Household Management is an important guide.
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. Filming on each set occurs miles and weeks apart, so Heathcote takes many photographs and tries not to make the dishes overly complicated.
Long shoots can wreak havoc on food, so certain ingredients, particularly fish, are off-limits.
We dont use fish ever, Heathcote says.
I wont name any names, but a couple of the actors didnt feel brilliant with the smell of fish and mentioned it, Adams says.
Heathcotes tricks include dying cream cheese pinkish-red to resemble salmon mousse and serving 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 may publish a cookbook of Highclere recipes next year.
Also, the table was set differently then and the decorations were more elaborate, she says. The problem is that large centerpieces arent very photogenic. Imagine would-be lovers Mary and Matthew trying to make eyes at each other with a massive, ornate piece of silver.
Lady Carnarvon understands the compromises that need to be made for the purposes of television.
Its a fun costume drama. Its not a social documentary, she says. Because its 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 had to pass muster with a heraldry authority to ensure it didnt 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.
Adams says the crew will even scrub off the lion icon stamped onto most British eggs.
Lady Carnarvon says she and Highcleres head chef and two sous-chefs dont live under the same kind of pressure felt by the characters of Downton Abbey, now that shes 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, Id simply ask the staff to go get a load of pizzas.
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