It’s often been said that Highclere Castle, the house in which the smash hit show Downton Abbey is filmed, is as central of a character in Downton Abbey as any of the people. As season three comes to a close, what’s also become clear is that the food is equally as important, and even highlights the upstairs/downstairs dialectic on the show. In this season alone, key culinary moments include Ethel’s recently successful salmon mousse to make up for her burnt kidney souffle incident, the separation of the hollandaise sauce which highlighted the rivalry between Daisy and Ivy, and the arrival of the electric toaster which revealed the different world view of Mrs. Hughes and Butler Carson. Then there was the failed dinner, turned picnic inside Downton when the oven breaks. And even the spoon quiz with new footman Alfred. Back in the day they used at least 6 spoons: tea spoon, egg spoon, melon spoon, grapefruit spoon, jam spoon and boullion spoon.
Riding on this rehabilitation of British culinary tradition is the latest Visit Britain campaign, where Top Chef Jamie Oliver says that “Great British food is some of the very best in the world–but you’ve got to find it!” Parallel to the “eat local” trend here in New York, Oliver is part of a new British food scene seeking locally sourced, fine products for his innovative dishes. Some of his favorites include crab sandwiches on a the Devon quayside, sweet Scottish raspberries, and Gower Salt Marsh Lamb. While pubs and Afternoon Tea remain staples, there’s a lot more to take in (and eat) in England.
In the Edwardian world of Downton Abbey, much of the food would have been sourced locally right on the property of Downton. They had a penchant for sweets and wild game. Grand dinners ranged between 6 and 22 courses–no wonder it’s always a flurry in the kitchen! There is also a contrast with the food upstairs and downstairs of course, with the servants often shown eating hearty soups and comfort food like Shepherd’s pie. When the family is too traumatized to eat after Edith is jilted at the altar, the servants eat some of the lobster rissoles that were prepared for the reception.
In real life, filming in the house with food is a little less glamorous or authentic than we’re led to believe on TV. According to Hugh Bonneville, who plays Lord Grantham:
We have a special cook. She learned a lesson early in season one when she served fish. We didn’t have electricity in the house, so it was all hot candles and camera lights. By two in the afternoon, it was just Oof. Since then, she’s been very canny about what she serves. Let’s say we’re having a salmon mousse: It won’t actually be salmon.
I was also surprised to discover that the downstairs scenes and the upstairs scenes are filmed in different locations. The servants hall and kitchen were built in Ealing Studios, 60 miles away from Highclere Castle. According to Jessica Fellowes, author of the book The World of Downton Abbey, ”Thomas might be filmed leaving the kitchen with a plate of food for upstairs and would then appear two weeks later in the dining room!” creating some culinary challenges on the show.
With the flurry of Downton Abbey inspired cookbooks, blogs and real-life dinners like this week’s Downton Abbey dinner by Underground Eats right here in New York City, British food is getting an unexpected revival. And here at Untapped New York, we won’t soon forget last year’s recreation of the Titanic’s last meal either. But for the real experience, check out the many things Britain has going on, including a tour of the great houses of British period drama history and more.
Get in touch with the author @untappedmich.