As American viewers await the start of Downton Abbey’s fourth season, the entire season has already aired in Britain, and the waiting really seems unbearable. Luckily, we have the holidays to distract us, and this led me to ponder an aspect of the series that, if the blogs devoted to it are any indication, is a Downton obsession on a par with Lady Mary’s eyebrows.
Like most addicts of the series, when I sit down to an episode, I’m watching for plot—for the family tensions and class frictions. But there’s another element that keeps me glued to the screen each week, and that’s the food. Mealtime at Downton is the orb around which the Grantham’s aristocratic world turns, as riveting as the clothes and carriages, the doomed romances, and downturns in fortune.
Downton cuisine is Continental in style, reflecting a time when Escoffier was all the rage, when butterfat was considered essential to healthy eating, and a girl needn’t have Lady Mary’s figure to prefer her raspberries with a side of clotted cream. Such decadence was in its day consumed in blissful ignorance of the dire health effects, and fact, the food was considered healthy.
Take breakfast. As the principal characters gather in the lofty, east-facing salon, the first meal of the day often brings news, usually bad—as in Episode One, when the sinking of the Titanic sets off a chain of dire effects on the patrimonial order. But no matter how bad the news, my attention is equally riveted on the sideboard. Each breakfast brings golden scones on trays and wedges of Hertfordshire cheese and coffee service with cream and sugar—and those silver chafing dishes surely contain shirred eggs with cream. I’m in thrall of the morning fare, but the ennui with which Lord Grantham removes a silver lid suggests that for him, it’s simply another meal.
Lunch, perhaps because it occurs midday, doesn’t quite afford the same dramatic context—though one can’t forget the Episode Three luncheon hosted by cousin Isobel Crawley. In the weeks following the tragic death of Lady Sybil from eclampsia, Isobel invites the Grantham ladies to lunch. Isobel’s cook, Ethel, happens to be a fallen woman (who was once employed at Downton), and as a result, Lord Grantham forbids any and all visits to Isobel’s. But the Grantham women go anyway, and the meal is not only a test of class and family allegiances, but of Ethel’s burgeoning cooking skills. Her abilities have up to then inspired little confidence, but happily, she succeeds, setting down a deletable salmon mousse and duck roulade. Though just as Ethel brings out dessert, a Strawberry Charlotte Russe, Lord Grantham arrives and orders his female relations to leave, which they refuse to do. As Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess, quips, “It would be a pity to miss such a good pudding.”
Rightfully, the high drama is reserved for dinner. It is there, amid the formality of full dress and service a la russe that the constraints of social context are used to best effect—and thirteen courses more than allows sufficient time any issue to come to the fore. Such as when Lady Sybil returns home from Dublin after eloping with the chauffeur, Tom Branson. Branson, chafing at his now-fraught position between upstairs and down, refuses a loan of evening clothes and arrives at table in his Donegal tweeds—an act nearly as rebellious as the marriage itself. As the butler passes the third course, a tray of poached salmon resplendent in a dilled cream sauce, Mr. Carson stands at the ready with a chilled Moselle, carefully decanted in advance and sheathed in a telling layer of frost.
Meanwhile in the kitchen, the staff is sitting down to a light supper. Since Downton’s beginning, I have coveted Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen, with its double-wide wood stove, long trestle table and efficient, homey atmosphere. As the work day ends, there is a treacle tart on the sideboard, and on the table, plates of cold meat, perhaps a kidney pie, glasses of ale and the ever-present oversize loaf of bread waiting to be sliced. And despite the staff’s long hours, the conversation never fails to produce delicious aspersions and dressing-downs. Even Mrs. Patmore has her own brand of repartee, as in this response to Alfred’s remark of “Is this all we’re getting? Just these picketty bits?”
These are canapés, Alfred. For your first course, some truffled egg on toast, perhaps? Some oysters a la Russe? There’s lobster rissoles in Mousseline sauce or Calvados-glazed duckling, or do you fancy a little asparagus salad with Champagne-saffron vinaigrette?
Meals are for me part of the perfect order of Downton, but ironically, the reality of consuming this upper-crust, high style cuisine resulted in that most Edwardian of diseases: gout. All the same, that doesn’t deter me from putting the era’s food on a pedestal. Like those once-immense English estates with their armies of household staff, the fare of that time and place has for the most part fallen the way of history. Oh well. We’re likely better off, fondly remembering those gorgeous, gilded-age, decadent dishes, rather than consuming them.