The romance. The intrigue. The big, beautiful country house.
We can analyze the recipe for success of “Downton Abbey,” the British television import whose Season 3 makes its breathlessly anticipated debut on PBS on Sunday, until our cups of tea go cold. But one element that can’t be overlooked, especially for those of a culinary bent, is the food.
Rather than letting it serve as mere eye candy, creator and writer Julian Fellowes has worked crepes, puddings, roast chicken and other edible props into some of the series’ most memorable plots.
Who can forget Mrs. Patmore’s disastrously salty raspberry meringue pudding? How many fans fell hook, line and sinker for the implication that Branson the chauffeur would off the famous British general with a poison-laden soup?
The lavish spreads enjoyed by the aristocratic Crawley family in early-20th-century England are enough to inspire envy in those who might be watching with a microwave dinner in their laps. The show has revived an interest in British food, particularly that of the 1910s and 1920s, with spinoffs including Pinterest boards, blogs and a recently released unofficial cookbook.
Replicating that setting for the show requires a tremendous amount of research and logistics. Because the downstairs portion of Highclere Castle, where “Downton Abbey” is filmed, couldn’t stand in for the servants’ quarters, the production team built a kitchen set about 60 miles from the castle.
Thanks in large part to the inventory available on eBay, production designer Donal Woods acquired original tools such as copper molds, bowls, mixing machines, mincing machines and stone-glazed sinks.
“Probably about 60 to 70 percent of the stuff in there is from that period,” he says.
Food economist Lisa Heathcote consults her library of historical cookbooks as well as her own knowledge of period food.
Of course, the food has to be cooked and plated — twice, in some instances. Filming on each set occurs miles and weeks apart. For scenes in the dining room, Heathcote prepares food off-site and then warms and plates it in a field kitchen. She tries to steer clear of too many foods that need to be served hot, though, because it’s difficult to keep them that way. Filming a dining scene can take 10 to 12 hours, and multiple takes mean plates are constantly being cleared and refreshed.
Long shoots can wreak havoc on prepared food, so certain ingredients, particularly fish, are off-limits.
Heathcote’s tricks include dying cream cheese pinkish-red to resemble salmon mousse and serving a chimera-like entree she calls “chicken fish,” or poultry prepared to look like fish with sauce on top.
All that results in a very elegant-looking dinner party on the set. In reality, though, it would have been even more over the top, says the Countess of Carnarvon, who, with her husband, the Earl of Carnarvon, lives at Hiclere Castle.
“There were a lot more courses,” anywhere from five to seven, she says. (Home cooks may soon be able try some of those courses: The Countess suggests she may publish a cookbook of Highclere recipes next year.) In her 2011 book, “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle,” she relates that for a dinner of 10 or more guests, the four footmen, more than we see around the table in “Downton,” would have powdered their hair and dressed up for the occasion. The powdering went on until 1918.
Lady Carnarvon understands the compromises that need to be made for the purposes of television.
Lady Carnarvon says she and Highclere’s head chef and two sous-chefs don’t live under the same kind of pressure felt by the characters and their real-life counterparts, especially now that she’s been living at Highclere for 13 years.
“I think as you become more at home,” she says, “you actually become more relaxed, so if something did go wrong, I’d simply ask the staff to go get a load of pizzas.”
Looking to throw a “Downton Abbey” viewing party? In addition to the dessert recipes below and those found on page 10A, here are some other dishes to fill out your spread: