Food and the dinner table take starring roles in the PBS period piece "Downton Abbey."
The romance. The intrigue. The big, beautiful country house.
We can analyze the recipe for success of "Downton Abbey" until our cups of tea go cold. The British television import's third season debuted Sunday on PBS. 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 crêpes, 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, that could easily fall prey to stereotypes: Aspic! Haggis! Puddings! Instead, viewers have embraced the comestibles they've seen on the small screen, with spinoffs including Pinterest boards, blogs and a recently released unofficial cookbook.
"Because they love the show, it makes them more interested in the history of the food that was on the show," says Pamela Foster, a Toronto marketing professional who has put her history degree to good use on her Downton Abbey Cooks blog and in her e-cookbook, "Abbey Cooks Entertain." "It's sort of a teaching point to connect people to history."
The real thing
At Highclere Castle -- where "Downton Abbey" is filmed -- the downstairs area once included marble tops in a pastry area and separate preparation spaces for different types of food to avoid cross-contamination, says the Countess of Carnarvon, who, with her husband, the Earl of Carnarvon, lives at the 50-plus-bedroom castle.
Replicating that setting for the show requires a tremendous amount of research and logistics. The production team had to build a kitchen set at London's Ealing Studios, about 60 miles from the castle.
Production designer Donal Woods says research conducted through visits to nearly 40 English country houses helped inform what the kitchen should look like. The cast-iron range, which in its heyday would have run on coal, is modeled after one at a home in Leeds.
"You can actually cook on top of the range," Woods says. "It can sizzle and steam." Removable tiles behind the range allow for a camera to run on a track and film what Mrs. Patmore and kitchen maid Daisy are doing.
While the range might be the centerpiece, a host of other equipment is needed to fully bring to life a working kitchen. Thanks in large part to the inventory available on eBay, Woods helped acquire 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.
It's the kind of creative sourcing that the "Downton Abbey" crew does a lot of. Food economist Lisa Heathcote consults historical cookbooks as well as her own knowledge of period food to decide which dishes will appear. "Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management" is an important guide for her, as it is for Foster. Handwritten menus in French from grand country homes, similar to what Lady Carnarvon has collected at Highclere, are other good references.
Over and over again
Of course, the food has to be cooked and plated -- twice, in some instances. A dish might be shown in the kitchen in one scene, then in the dining room in the next scene. Making the transition seamless requires that Heathcote defy the space-time continuum, because filming on each set occurs miles and weeks apart. She takes many photographs and tries not to make the dishes so overly complicated that they would be impossible to reproduce.
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.
"It's a bit like running a restaurant," Heathcote says, no easy feat since she's essentially a food department of one.
Long shoots can wreak havoc on prepared food, so certain ingredients, particularly fish, are off-limits.
"We don't use fish ever, although Julian seems to have written a lot of fish courses," Heathcote says.
Heathcote's tricks include dyeing 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.
The film crew does go to extreme lengths to convey authenticity. Designers created a family crest for the Crawleys, which is printed on menus and baked onto the china. The crest even had to pass muster with a heraldry authority to ensure it didn't resemble the coat of arms of a real family.
And when there are slip-ups, the audience is bound to notice. In Season 1, an identifying mark on the bottom of a cup held by the Dowager Countess gave away the anachronism that the piece had been manufactured after 1912, when the action is supposed to be taking place.
"All it was was [actress] Maggie Smith lifting up the teacup to her mouth," Adams says.
You can therefore understand why Adams says the crew will even scrub off the lion icon stamped onto most British eggs -- that is, when she can't get a few pristine specimens from a friend. It's all about getting everything as perfect as possible, even when Mrs. Patmore's poor eyesight caused that sugar-salt mixup in the pudding.
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 of "Downton Abbey" and their real-life counterparts, especially now that she has 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."