What they ate upstairs at Downton Abbey

The End of Dinner, 1913, by Jules-Alexandre Grun shows an upper class Edwardian gathering

So much tension happens around the dining table at Downton Abbey. The internationally popular TV series is plum melodrama. We love it as much for the way it looks as for the story lines. Everyone wears perpetually worried expressions on their faces, clothes are exquisite against pale English skin, and passion is so tightly restrained their blood pressure must be off the scale. For me it’s a chance to daydream travel back in time. Part of Downton Abbey’s appeal is the pomp of the Granthams, and the intrigues of upstairs vs downstairs. In the kitchen, Mrs Patmore and sidekick Daisy are worked to the bone preparing lavish meals. Upstairs, ladies Edith, Cora and the anti-heroine Mary languidly dress for endless formal dinners. And in the dining room, Mr Carson almost has a stroke if the soup isn’t served correctly. But what exactly did they eat?

The very poor of the day ate poorly – bread and jam, potatoes, dripping, a bit of bacon or mutton – and the upper classes ate meat, fish, more meat,  a lot of cakes, puddings, wobbly jellied thingys and bread. Robust fare is a polite way to put it. Dinner was always several courses, thanks to the excesses of the day. The rigid social structure of the Edwardian Era spanned 1901-1910, officially ending with the death of King Edward VII. While Queen Victoria had famously shunned society, Edward was the leader of a fashionable elite that set a style influenced by art and fashions of Continental Europe, possibly due  to the King’s love of travel. The era is said to have continued until 1919. By then Chanel had cut her hair into a bob, hemlines were on the way up and the post-WWI world was a very different place.

I’ve stumbled upon a faded piece of evidence from the Downton-Edwardian era. When I was cleaning out cupboards two weeks ago for my mother, I found a cookbook yellowed with age and minus the cover, the pages held together with rusty staples.

Although it was published a few years post-Edwardian, recipes would have been handed down, making them very Downton-esque. It also contains handy household hints – for getting rid of carpet stains rub over the spot with half a tomato, then repeat with soap and water –  and dietary advice for children.

The book was published in New Zealand but also contained a few recipes from Australia and as far as California. The culinary influence of course was terribly English, as New Zealand and Australia were the dominions of the British Empire. Some of the food they ate was just offal! Brain fritters, fish custard, veal souffle, suet puddings and a cake called Parkin containing “threequarters of a pound of treacle”. Imagine that sticking to your insides.

Less horrific recipes were contributed by my relatives, including great-grandmother Ella M. Cameron, my grandmother Kathleen Clayton (who became Mrs Russell Moore) and her sister-in-law Gladys (Mrs K.C. Clayton), who had been brought up in well-to-do homes where servants did  the housework, but they still learned to cook.

Rabbit pie, a simple chocolate cake, lemon tart and sheep’s tongue moulds (eek!) were among the gems. Not sure was anchovette was – a fishy paste, perhaps? Many recipes were indeed phenomenally simple. Considering the lack of appliances, they needed to be. The preparation method for the plum cake recipe is, well, nothing!

Very young children seemed to eat a lot of porridge and bread and butter, consumed mutton broth, scalded milk (the days when pasteurisation wasn’t widely done, although it was endorsed), slices of apple, oat cakes, stewed fruit, strained cooked tomatoes and custard or junket.

Although I’d quite like to swish around in the gorgeous clothes that the ladies of Downton Abbey wear, and say pithy things like “Don’t be defeatist, it’s so middle class”, (Cousin Violet),  the food would leave me cold. Even though most produce was locally sourced, probably extremely fresh and devoid of chemicals. And nothing was wasted. We could learn something from that. But somehow the thought of piquant sauce for boiled fish, sheep’s tongues stewed with walnuts and boiled carrot pudding would make me loosen the corset, gather up my skirts and make a run for it, back to 2012.

About Downton Abbey:

The first series of British TV series Downton Abbey is set just after the Titanic went down in 1912, and the second spans WWI, when the stitched up Edwardian period began to unravel.  It’s moved to the 1920s now, and the fourth series is being screened in the UK and the US. Australia will have to wait.

The drama is set at Highclere Castle, the home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, and is now shown in over 100 countries around the world. Highclere Castle is one of England’s most beautiful Victorian castles set amid 1,000 acres of spectacular parkland. The Carnarvon family has lived at Highclere since 1679, and the current castle stands on the site of an earlier house, which in turn was built on the foundations of the medieval palace owned by the Bishops of Winchester for some 800 years. It is open to the public. For details: www.highclerecastle.co.uk/

An innovative cook,  historian and Downton Abbey devotee, Pamela Foster, has a blog called www.downtonabbeycooks.com where she specialises in the food of the era. Her categories cover the full gamut of Edwardian cooking: breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, garden parties, appetizers, side dishes etc. She calls it simple cooking on a grand scale.

2 thoughts on “What they ate upstairs at Downton Abbey

  1. Wonderful blog with beautiful pictures. I do admit that I do pass over preparing dishes which have fallen out of fashion. Actually I think it is even more interesting to learn about the history of food we enjoy today. Great food has a history. I look forward to seeing you all at http:// downtonabbeycooks.com, @downtoncooks.


  2. That is a remarkable painting… do you notice the men are old and whiskered and the women are young and beautiful. Dinner may be over but the old men have their eyes firmly on keeping the young women’s attention engaged as long as possible.


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