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 …