Dining at Downton

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been gripped by Downton Abbey over the last few weeks. Always a sucker for a frilly dress and an excess of etiquette, I can’t think of a single costume drama that I haven’t liked and Julian Fellowes seems to have hit it spot on again with this one.

Overcome with a fit of curiosity about the formalities of the era, I decided to do some research about dining in the time Downton is set. And frankly, I’m stunned they ever fit into those tiny tiny corsets…

Upper class dinner parties around the 1910’s were considered the ultimate social test, and a hostess’s reputation could be ruined in a night if the meal or the service wasn’t up to scratch. The menus, either elaborate or simple, depending on taste, were sizeable, to say the least and contained a minefield of potential cock-ups for the inexperienced diner. They started with a soup course, usually accompanied by sherry. This had to be spooned away from the diner, preferably with no scraping of bowls. Try it, it’s harder than you might think.

Next came the fish course, served with a good white wine. A fish knife and fork were always used here, the knife being more for pushing the fish onto the fork than for actually cutting it.

After this, there was an entrée  – maybe a vol au vent, mutton cutlets or sweetbreads, served with Champagne or claret.

The ‘remove’ followed, a joint of meat or poultry perhaps, or maybe a meat pie. This was accompanied by potatoes, and seasonal vegetables, and might be served with a Burgundy.

Believe it or not, a game course then arrived, served with traditional game chips (a cross between a crisp and a roast potato) and washed down by claret. Then came three mini courses called ‘entremêts’, a dressed vegetable dish, something sweet like a cherry tart and a savoury like cheese, or, more revoltingly, devilled sardines…

At this point, the table was cleared, new glasses and cutlery were set out (the ladies were probably almost asphyxiated by their undergarments) and dessert was served, maybe ices, jellies or blancmanges eaten with a fork, followed by fruit and nuts which would be eaten by hand, the stones or pips being delicately spat out into the hand and laid on the plate. If you were still upright there would be port and Madeira, although ladies were never expected to take more than one glass with this course. Can’t say I blame them.

Once the food had been cleared, the ladies, at a discreet nod from the hostess would exit for coffee and idle gossip, with the highest ranking lady leading the way, and the hostess bringing up the rear. The men would stay behind, to drink yet more port and claret, and smoke cigars.

How the women got through that many courses is completely beyond me. And my heart almost stops thinking of the poor cooks below stairs, trying to get everything out hot and in order, with no electric help whatsoever. Imagine meringues for 20 without an electric whisk. I’m not sure I can.

It makes me rather glad that dinner party etiquette is now so much more relaxed. Although I can’t deny that a small part of me (oh alright, every part of me) would love to experience one of these old-fashioned, excessively decorated, appallingly decadent evenings. And yes, I’d take the dashing Mr Pamuk over the fritefly decent Evelyn Napier any day. Such a pity about his rather unfortunate demise …



Filed under Musings, News, Recipes, Savoury, Sweet

11 responses to “Dining at Downton

  1. FranzJosef

    A friend and I give 21st-century versions 3 or 4 times a year (she has all the plate and silver), and we do it without any help, but we start two days ahead. Men wear coat and tie, ladies nice dresses. It takes careful planning, so that everything is hot when served. Things like soup can be made a day in advance and reheated–they gain in flavor that way, too. Other things can be cooked to a certain point before the guests arrive and finished just before serving. The guest-list is important so that conversation continues in between courses (as much as 10 minutes before the main course–for finishing and so guests don’t feel rushed and stuffed). We generally have a cocktail hour from 7-8, sit down at 8, and leave the table around 11.

    Here’s a typical menu:

    1. Cocktails with one elegant finger-food (maybe endive leaves stuffed with a mixture of cream cheese and bleu cheese and sprinkled with bacon and green onions.)
    2. Soup (in the fall, for instance, a cream soup of root vegetables begun with butter, onions, and chicken broth and finished with a dash of cayenne) (A nice crisp white will work this course and the next.)
    3. Seafood: Shrimp Remoulade or Crab Maison or, in the summer, maybe melon wrapped in prosciutto and sprinkled with a vinaigrette with slices of dry French sausage on the plate. (in both 2 and 3 the portions should be smallish and the flavor such that it leaves people wanting more)
    4. Main course. For example, pork tenderloin medallions with a sauce, garnished with stuffed mushroom, roasted new potatoes, blanched green beans finished with a brief saute in olive oil, garnished with caramelized shallots. (red for this course and the next)
    5. greens with a light, yet sharp vinaigrette, cheeses, and French bread slices for the cheese.
    6. Dessert can be as simple as really good Vanilla ice cream topped with Frangelica and a few berries with champagne
    7. Coffee, liqueurs, chocolates, and cigarettes or cigars if you’re so inclined.

    In the summer, we’ve given the same number or courses, but everything was cold or room temperature, and we drank a nice French Rose throughout.

    My friend and I have as much fun preparing it as we do giving it, and people really appreciate the effort even if perfection isn’t achieved. To add spice, maybe in addition to good friends, whose manners and sense of conversation you trust, invite someone you don’t know, like an announcer for the local classical radio station or someone who you know will be interesting and who will be pleased to be the guest of honor. And who, depending upon the sex, will sit immediately to the right of the host or hostess.

    Lots of FUN!

  2. Jose

    Corsets are not all that uncomfortable, if they are custom made and not excessively tight. I often wear one for back issues. When worn regularly, the body gradually accommodates the new figure, and given the low activity for the women, a light meal is all that is really needed.

  3. Stevela

    I didn’t know about eating those desserts with a fork. It definitely tells us something about the consistency of the desserts. I think spoons existed so what did they use them for? In one way I would like to try an Edwardian meal but, as I am a vegetatian, I might just get my wife to put on the frilly dress.

  4. Jane

    I love food and am probably considered by some of my (good) friends to be something of a dustbin but there is no way I could put away half as much as that.

  5. Lovely Risotto

    I love the idea of trying to recreate a meal like this! Makes you realise that these ladies had A LOT of spare time on their hands!
    I’m still mourning the loss of Mr Pamuk!

    • Zoe

      If they were putting on a dinner this fancy, most likely servants did all the work. That’s why they had so much free time. The lower- and middle-class women’s days were consumed with housework, as were the servants of the upper class.

  6. I too have been glued to Dowton Abbey and have always been a fan of the opulence of the period. How I would have loved to have been groomed and coiffured prior my sumptous dinner. However now I know exactly what gastronomic excesses lay ahead I’m not so sure!

  7. Lizzie

    Those ladies couldn’t possibly eat the same size portions that are served these days. It must have been like the equivalent of eating a tasting menu, and then I suppose they could eat everything, knowing the corset was going to keep them all in shape, and not look bloated.

    It was indeed a great shame about the very unfortunate demise of Mr Pamuk.

  8. Katharine

    If only I had the staff to cook up a banquette like that! There’s no way I could don a corset and bloomers while tending to the beef bourguinon and potato dauphinoise (signature dinner party fodder)… I still haven’t seen Downton Abbey but am storing it up on Sky+ for a mammouth period drama love-in – mmmm

  9. Emma MT

    I totally love Downton Abbey but there’s not a hope that even I can eat that much food let alone alcohol at one sitting. I can eat a pretty big meal but that’s insane with a corset on. Torture. I love the drama of the series. It’s just like ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ from when I was a kid, but I was too young to understand it then (honest) but now I love every little detail. Can’t wait for the next instalment.

  10. Roger's Mum

    A pity indeed. Sounds like he might have eaten a little too much at dinner……………..

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