The fifth season of Downton Abbey will premiere in the UK later this week. The show is now set in 1924 and, judging by the impeccably researched scripts of past seasons, food is likely to once again play a starring role.
The show’s writer and producers have cleverly woven food preparation and dining into the storylines of both upstairs and downstairs at the Abbey for the past four seasons. They have done this so well, in fact, that the show has spawned a revival in dining etiquette, themed dinner parties, demand for butlers, and even Downton-themed cookbooks.
“Food has been quite good for storylines,” says Lisa Heathcote, the force behind all the edible props for the show. “A lot of important conversations happen around a meal, so it’s a conduit throughout the scenes.”
In fact, it was over a breakfast of kedgeree – a Victorian dish that came to England by way of colonial India – that we met the Crawley family in the very first episode of season one. Kedgeree, Heathcote explains, is a curried rice dish with smoked fish traditionally eaten for breakfast, “but you could also have it as a supper dish after a ball.”
Although Heathcote stresses that she herself is not a food historian, she does have an extensive knowledge of the time period and does her fair share of research before each show goes into production.
“Often the research is part of the fun,” she says. “I find private collections of menus and go off to hotels and things.”
Her research highlights the fact that estates like Downton were largely self-sufficient, equipped with walled kitchen gardens, orchards, fish ponds, deer parks, vineyards, bee hives, chicken coops and livestock. There would even have been hot houses to grow pineapples, grapes, apricots and a host of other exotic things, Heathcote says.
Downstairs in the kitchen, the Crawley family’s loyal cook, Mrs. Patmore, would have had a lavish array of ingredients at her disposal. “All the vegetables would arrive fresh from the garden every day,” explains Heathcote.
While high-end London stores like Fortnum & Mason or Harrods would deliver spices, tea, coffee and sugar to estates like Downton, a cook like Mrs. Patmore would have prided herself on making almost all other staples – like bread, cheese and butter – at home, by hand.
All that hard work called for a large staff. Working ‘in service’ was, therefore, a common employment for working class people in both urban and rural Britain. At the turn of the 20th century, the country reportedly had 1.5 million domestics, the largest group of workers after agricultural labourers.
“There would be a strict order of coming in to eat, and strict rules about where different ranks of servants sit,” according to Dr. Lucy Delap, director of studies in history at St. Catharine’s College of the University of Cambridge. Delap recently told the BBC that each house had its own set of rules, enforced by the servants at the top of the pecking order.
“The senior servants had a great deal of power, so the butler for example, in some households, would put down his knife and fork, and everyone else had to fit in whether you had finished or not. So servants had to learn to be fast eaters,” she says. “You might also have rules such as no speaking unless you were addressed by one of the senior servants.”
Many aristocrats felt that a large team of servants was an outward sign of wealth, but for dramatic purposes, Downton’s scriptwriters have pared back the staff to just a skeleton crew. “In big houses, you could have 40 or 50 people sitting around the table,” for a servant’s meal, Heathcote says, “[but] dramatically, you can’t have that many people in the script – it would never work.”
She says Mrs. Patmore, her assistant Daisy, and the rest of the staff would have been joined by far more helpers for a house that size, not to mention all those who worked the land.
And what about the menus?
Upstairs, the family and their guests would have feasted on game meats, fish, jellies and other dishes requiring intricate preparations. Downton’s food stylist says the daily meals below stairs would have been much more basic.
“Meat pies, ham, bread and cheese, and in the morning maybe some oatmeal porridge,” says Heathcote, who makes all the food that appears on screen. “You know, good country fare,” including favourites such as shepherd’s pie, chicken, broth and stews.
Downton Abbey returns to ITV on Sunday 21st September at 9pm. Season five begins on PBS on Sunday 4th January, 2015.
Being well fed was one of the perks of the job, Heathcote says. Many staff came from fairly humble backgrounds where regular, wholesome meals were not always easily available.
The actors on the cast of Downton attest that they are also well fed on the show. They report that more than once they have ruined their appetites by tucking into the edible props prepared for a scene.
Phyllis Logan, who plays the housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, confides, “Sometimes we say, ‘we better not eat anything, it’s nearly lunchtime. But this is a really nice pie…’ So we feast into all the food.”