'Downton Abbey," a soap opera disguised in period costume, takes place in England in the 1910s and oozes with romance and intrigue. Equal screen time is given to the opulent life of the Crawleys, a fictional aristocratic British family, and their servants. That formula has created a monster hit for PBS TV and Masterpiece.
Food indirectly weaves a common thread throughout most episodes. Many scenes take place in dining rooms and among the kitchen and service staff below. There's plenty for food lovers to admire (and speculate about online), though scratch the surface and there's more illusion than reality behind the scenes.
When the actors are taping, there's actually not much cooking happening. The stove was built by the set crew, and although it has burners, there are only a few that work. Actors know just the parts of the cooking that they absolutely need to know. "They teach us how to do little bits of things that make us look really skilled," says Sophie McShera, the actress who plays the role of Daisy, the kitchen maid. "They'll give us the final bit to do on something, like a bit of decoration."
The cast is told what time of day the scene is set in, so that they know how busy to act. For instance, the kitchen at lunch would be less chaotic than when the staff is in the midst of preparing a 10-course dinner.
The actual preparation is done by London-based food stylist Lisa Heathcote, whose credits include "The Duchess" and "Cold Mountain." "Often the food will be on the table and we're not actually going to eat it," says Heathcote, who is a trained chef. Some things go unseasoned, such as molded aspics and jellies, which were extremely popular at the time. However, all of it must be real. "If you have fake food, it's going to look like fake food," says the stylist.
As for the kind of food that might have been eaten at Downton Abbey, banish the stereotype of bad English cooking. Wealthy families enjoyed food that was Anglo-French in style, and even commoners ate well, according to British food historian Ivan Day. "The culinary literature of England in the late 19th- and early-20th century is actually quite a lot more sophisticated than people realize," says Day. It was the rationing during World War I that led to a preference for the bland foods associated with the cuisine.
Fish was a major part of the aristocrat's diet. Unfortunately, seafood isn't good for filming. "We had lobster not long ago," says Lesley Nicol, the actress who plays the cook, Mrs. Patmore. "By the end of the day the place was smelling very bad. The props guys froze it overnight and reintroduced it the next day, so you could imagine the double whammy by the smell."
To avoid that, Heathcote came up with a solution. "I dreamt up this thing where I made chicken to look like fish," says Heathcote. "I had to do many variations of 'chicken fish' cut in different ways with different sauces."
Other tricks include oysters made by filling empty shells with pieces of cooked oyster mushrooms that look like real oysters, and using cream cheese tinted with food coloring to have the appearance of fish mousse.
Fortunately for the cast, many food items are the real deal, seasonings and all. "I got caught eating something like cake because I'm always eating on set," says McShera. "If it's something that's just come out we tend to have a sneaky bit." (Off camera, the cast eats regular film-unit catering; their cafeteria is a converted double-decker bus.)
Since food is more of a prop in the show, a lot goes unmentioned about what's on the table. That hasn't stopped viewers from speculating. "I went through every episode a million times," says Emily Ansara Baines, author of "The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook," which ran in F+W Media this fall. Baines took note of every time a piece of food appeared. "I can't fill up a cookbook with the few amounts of food they show. So I did a lot of research."
Despite the lack of specifics, food-inclined fans have filled in the blanks. At www.downton
abbeycooks.com, show enthusiast Pamela Foster features recipes of the time period. Bon Appetit's online "Dining at Downton" blog and several other Downton-themed cookbooks have been published.
Baines explains that a formal upstairs dinner would have consisted of hors d'oeuvres, two kinds of soup, two kinds of fish, an entree, a joint (large cut of meat), a roast (typically game birds like pheasant or grouse,) vegetables, a hot dessert, ice cream and wafers, fresh and dried fruits and nuts, and coffee and liquers.
In the kitchen, the head cook prepared staff meals. "They might get a roast with a couple of vegetables and some sort of suet pudding or apple tart," says Day. Servants ate better than most of their peers because the food came off the estate, which usually had its own farm. "The servants benefitted from that," says Day.
Nevertheless, life in service was hard work, and often involved 14-hour days and weekends with almost no time off. "A lot of these people were working in kitchens that the only electricity they had might be the lighting," explains Day. "They were still cooking using coal and there weren't that many gadgets to help them. What they could do was pretty amazing."
As for the actors portraying the cooks, not only are they not cooking on the show, they're not cooking in real life. "We're a bit of a letdown to our friends and family for being absolutely rubbish at cooking if you do these massive feasts on the telly," says McShera.
Even though most of what's made is a prop, not all goes to waste. "One of the great things is that in this time period, cress was very popular," says actress Nicol.
"And finicky actresses will eat cress all day."
Matt Barber can be reached at email@example.com.