Sunday, January 8, 2012

Dinner At Downton Abbey...Entertain Like A True Edwardian

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If you live anywhere on planet Earth, you know that tonight's THE night! Yes, friends, the second season of this wildly popular series begins at 9:00 p.m. and not a minute too soon.  The date could not be more appropriate as this weekend has been designated Rest Fest by the crowd at the lake.  Rest Fest? Before the holiday madness began, I decided that the weekend after the final guest departed (Madame Mere) would be a time of rest and pajama parties.  Nothing was to be done, except lay around all weekend watching movies and reading good books.  No decorating, no unpacking and no cooking.  Rest Fest!

So that's what we have been doing and tonight I am looking forward to laying on the couch, turning off the phone and enjoying two hours of someone else's problems. 

After looking at the blogs I follow on my sidebar, I see that a few have already beaten me to a post on the series but none of them talk about the food or the etiquette of the times.  I did a little research and found an interview with the creator and writer of the series, Julian Fellows, on the subject.  It looks like the producers did a lot of research to create authenticity to the smallest details, most of it coming from the book Mrs. Beeton's Book Of Household Management, the premier authority on cookery and etiquette of the times.  The book is out of print but, fortunately, the whole manuscript has been lovingly saved for posterity online.

Mrs. Beeton's Roast Wild Duck Recipe

1022. INGREDIENTS - Wild duck, flour, butter.

Mode.—Carefully pluck and draw them; Cut off the heads close to the necks, leaving sufficient skin to turn over, and do not cut off the feet; some twist each leg at the knuckle, and rest the claws on each side of the breast; others truss them as shown in our Illustration. Roast the birds before a quick fire, and, when they are first put down, let them remain for 5 minutes without basting (this will keep the gravy in); afterwards baste plentifully with butter, and a few minutes before serving dredge them lightly with flour; baste well, and send them to table nicely frothed, and full of gravy. If overdone, the birds will lose their flavour. Serve with a good gravy in the dish, or orange gravy, No. 488; and send to table with them a cut lemon. To take off the fishy taste which wild fowl sometimes have, baste them for a few minutes with hot water to which have been added an onion and a little salt; then take away the pan, and baste with butter.—See coloured plate, G1.
Time.—When liked underdressed, 20 to 25 minutes; well done, 25 to 35 minutes.
Average cost, 4s. to 5s. the couple.
Sufficient,—2 for a dish.
Seasonable from November to February.

THE WILD DUCK.—The male of the wild dock is called a mallard; and the young ones are called flappers. The time to try to find a brood of these is about the month of July, among the rushes of the deepest and most retired parts of some brook or stream, where, if the old bird is sprung, it may be taken as a certainty that its brood is not far off. When once found, flappers are easily killed, as they attain their full growth before their wings are fledged. Consequently, the sport is more like hunting water-rats than shooting birds. When the flappers take wing, they assume the name of wild ducks, and about the month of August repair to the corn-fields, where they remain until they are disturbed by the harvest-people. They then frequent the rivers pretty early in the evening, and give excellent sport to those who have patience to wait for them. In order to know a wild duck, it is necessary only to look at the claws, which should be black.


In this article reprinted from The Daily Mail, those responsible explain the painstaking work that goes into staging a Downton dinner party.

Although the new series of Downton Abbey is set against a backdrop of war, appearances must be maintained.

Lavish dinners hosted by the Crawley family continue, complete with the finest crockery, table linens, silverware and antique adornments money can buy.

To recreate such scenes, the Downton production team scour vintage markets, costume houses and etiquette books for inspiration. Little wonder that every episode of the drama costs an estimated £1million.


A footman’s wages depended on his height, as tall staff created a better impression. The preferable height was 6ft. A short footman could earn £30 a year, while a taller colleague would receive £40.


Each crystal glass is an antique from the era, as are the silver candlesticks, salt cellars and other condiment dishes. Some of the most stunning props actually belong at Highclere Castle, where Downton is filmed. Many others are sourced by the production team.

‘I travel the world to get the best prices for props,’ says art director Charmian Woods.

The 25ft-long damask tablecloths are used only once or twice because food and drinks are spilt on them by the actors. As for the kitchenware, such as the authentic pans used for cooking below stairs, Charmian says: ‘We couldn’t afford antiques, and the cost of copper soared, so it was lucky we had most of the kitchenware from the first series.’


The pink, yellow and white roses adorning the table were among the era’s most popular flowers. Pretty but simple, and modest by today’s standards, they would have come directly from the stately home’s gardens.


Every piece of china used in Downton features the family crest, which was designed by Charmian, who had transfers made and stuck by hand on to ordinary Spode crockery.


‘Huge care is taken with seating plans,’ says Downton’s historical adviser Alastair Bruce. Lord Grantham sits at the centre of the table – in what was known as the ‘hot seat’ – closest to the fireplace. Principal guests are seated alongside him and would also be kept warm. In a tradition dating from the Middle Ages, the salt cellar – lavishly decorated as salt was a valuable commodity – would be kept in the middle of the table. Those guests seated ‘below the salt’ were not allowed any.


The food is the most expensive part of a Downton dinner. Dishes are gleaned from recipe books from the period. Popular starters were watercress soup or turbot, followed by rabbit or veal, and a main course of stewed beef

or boiled ham. Dessert could be meringues or jelly, and the meal would be finished with cheese. Here, guests are served salmon but, Alastair says, ‘the actors rather resent fish because it tends to change the atmosphere in a hot room rather negatively’.


The cards in silver holders are menu cards, which would have been handwritten in French.

‘French was once the language of the British Monarch’s court, and aristocratic houses reflected what happened there,’ says Alastair.

‘Menus written in French were a tradition that continued among the upper classes, unless there was a single item that could not be translated, in which case English was used throughout.’


Despite the painstaking effort that goes into sourcing every prop, some inevitably ended up as rather expensive casualties of filming. ‘Glasses costing £75 per pair got chipped, a student on work experience spilt water on a sacrosanct table, and within half an hour of arriving on the first day, I’d knocked an antique box on the floor that cost hundreds of pounds to repair,’ confesses art guru Charmian.


A hot topic of debate on set was which foods would have been eaten with fingers during the Edwardian period. On one occasion when Alastair was absent, the crew were unsure as to whether asparagus should be eaten by hand or with a fork so eventually they chopped it up and pretended it was green beans.

‘Those around the table would use their fingers to eat certain foods such as fruit, and there would be a water bowl in front of them to wet the fingers and dry them on their napkin if needed,’ he explains.


Rather than buying complete evening dresses from the period, which sell for £1,500, designer Susannah Buxton worked with costume houses in London and Madrid to find the female characters’ exquisite gowns.

‘I went to vintage markets every week to source original fabric panels, beading and embroidery, and visited specialist museums and dealers for reference,’ she says. Susannah reveals she wanted the characters to wear original leather shoes, but the actresses found the tough old leather painful. ‘They’d usually try on at least ten pairs,’ she says.

It helps to have a staff like this...

...or a relative who looks like this!


The Daily Meal has a wonderful slideshow on how to recreate your own Downton Abbey Dinner Party.

So there you are, everything you always wanted to know about entertaining like a true Edwardian!

Articles fron The Daily Mail, The Daily Meal
Photos Google, PBS


  1. Fascinating! I appreciate all the attention to details, but realize I am probably missing many of them!

  2. Am counting the minutes! Came home early from late lunch to get everything done before 9PM!!!!

  3. The thing that I recall impressing me about the series was the fact that staff at "Downton" served and cleared food properly - served to the left and cleared from the right - an element of etiquette that eludes most restaurants.

  4. Completely, utterly, fascinating. Always curious as to what the social etiquette was for time past - and well, mixed with food, it gets even more interesting!

  5. This is a nice post, I hadn't seen The Daily Mail's article.

    Of note to me:

    Menu cards in French did not cross the pond to the US, for at the turn of the 19th Century, it was not the custom to place menu cards on table in private homes.
    (Florence Howe Hall, The Correct Thing, 1888)

    I'm also surprised that they were confused about how to eat asparagus--pick it up with your fingers if you like!


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