To help introduce the new article series, we asked Foster about her passions for cooking and history, her affinity for Downton Abbey and what we can expect from the Weekly Downton Dish.
PF: I consider being a Culinary Historian as more of a passion than a profession, the result of my degree in history, my interest in cooking and an intellectual curiosity of where recipes came from and how they evolved. Culinary historian associations gather members who are chefs, cooking teachers, historians, anthropologists, food writers, food editors, food stylists, researchers, librarians, caterers, collectors, and nutritionists. Great food has a history, and culinary historians celebrate these traditions by researching and sharing the foods, cooking methods and recipes of a specific region and period in history.
VTV: Do you share any characteristics with Downton Abbey’s kitchen commander, Mrs. Patmore, and what do you think of her techniques?
PF: The most prized possession of an Edwardian kitchen was a French trained male chef, but Mrs. Patmore, an English female cook was the next best thing. The first rule for the head cook is to have command of the kitchen to ensure all elements of the meal are come together at the same time. That may mean barking an order to two to her staff. I am often working in the kitchen alone, which usually means I am talking to myself quite a bit.
It is disappointing that Lesley Nicol – who plays Mrs. Patmore – doesn’t cook herself, but she does put on a good show on camera. I am amazed at the skill of the men and women of that era who orchestrated 14 course dinners with a small army of skilled kitchen maids (and Daisy, too) with coal-fired ovens and stoves, limited hot water and no electricity. It’s not very practical to cook on a coal cooker, but I do get a great upper body workout bypassing electrical gadgets. You can cook wonders with a whisk, a potato masher and elbow grease.
VTV: What first drew you in to become a Downton Abbey fan and what keeps you a fan of the series?
PF: My husband, whom I affectionately call Lord D, was the first Downton fan in our family. With 16 Empire Loyalists in his family tree, he wears his English heritage with humble pride, and longs for the return of honor and decorum so prominently displayed on Downton. For me it was the food. The Edwardian era was a time when food was used by the aristocracy to display wealth and power. English aristocracy embraced the elegance of Service à la russe, or Russian style, with its emphasis placed on presentation of both meals and place settings. Tables were beautifully displayed and gloved footmen dressed in splendid livery served well dressed diners. Many deals and political alliances were forged across the dining table.
It is the brilliant writing and stunning cinematography which keeps me coming back. Julian Fellowes who writes Downton Abbey, winning an Oscar for Gosford Park, is a brilliant story teller. He intertwines the story lines of the characters upstairs and downstairs with great skill. He provides us with insights into daily living. In the very first episode you see a footman ironing the morning papers for the Lord of the Manor to help dry the ink.
Highclere Castle, outside of London, plays the role of the grand home. Each episode is rumoured to cost £1m to produce, so you can watch each episode once or ten times and get something new out of each time you see it.
There must be something special about this show since it inspired me to blog about it and even devote my time to write a cookbook about the food from that era.
VTV: Throughout the series, we often see the Crawleys and their distinguished guests donning their finest and sitting down to a lavish dinner. This doesn’t often happen in modern households. Are we missing out?
PF: I am not sure that the daily custom for dressing for dinner is something we will miss, but dressing up on special occasions does seem to make the food taste better. While formal dining on a daily basis is excessive and Edwardians were all about excess, I do believe that gathering of family members for dinner is a tradition which we should still embrace. There are champions calling for the return of the family dinner and I echo the benefits of scheduling a family meal on a more regular basis. The simple social ritual of sharing a family meal reconnects the family bond, providing sense of security and well being. Studies have also shown that nutrition improves when families dine together.
VTV: What would be your first choice of event to create Downton Abbey inspired cuisine for – a garden party, Afternoon Tea or a full course dinner?
PF: A great place to start is Afternoon Tea, a uniquely British tradition, invented in the 1840s by the Duchess of Bedford, one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting. It is a casual meal, yet steeped in tradition with its own set of rules of etiquette. All you really need are pots of tea, scones, those lovely little crustless sandwiches, and a variety of bite-sized portions of sweets. Traditionally served at 4 pm, afternoon tea lasts no longer than two hours. It is a perfect environment for sharing confidences, and as you watch Downton Abbey, you will see that afternoon tea is the Dowager Countess’ meal of choice for championing her cause du jour.
The most important thing to remember is the distinction between afternoon tea and high tea. High tea is often incorrectly used to refer to a formal afternoon tea, when in reality, “high tea” or “meat tea” is a light dinner eaten by the working classes. It becomes confusing since many tea houses in London mix the terms so as not to disappoint tourists.
It is becoming more fashionable to take afternoon tea, even businessmen in the UK are choosing to network over tea and scones, as an alternative to lunch or cocktails. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we started that tradition in Canada?
VTV: As Downton Abbey makes its triumphant return to VisionTV this winter and spring, what can we expect to enjoy in The Weekly Downton Dish?
PF: Downton Dish will follow each episode of Downton Abbey, providing a brief overview of the major plotlines from the previous episode, and where appropriate, put the story in historical context. Great food has a history, so each week we will also prepare a dish which has made a cameo appearance on the show or which would have been served upstairs in the formal dining room, or downstairs in the servants’ hall. Many come with their own little story which makes them even more appetizing. As a fellow Zoomer, I am concerned about health and nutrition so we will be choosing dishes which are healthier to begin with. When it comes to desserts we will make them lighter without losing taste.
VTV: What are your hopes for Downton Abbey as it continues on into Series 3 and 4?
PF: History was not kind to the English aristocracy. The height of their wealth and political influence was in the Edwardian era. World War I, high taxation and the rise of the Americans as world class leaders all took a toll on families like the Crawleys. From the very beginning of the series, the Crawleys fight to keep their beloved home, and as the series enters into the 1920s in Season 3, we will see how the family continues to hold on to traditions while slowly adapting to change around them. I don’t think the show would be worth watching if they lived sheltered lives. Of course my favorite characters on the show are Mrs. Patmore and Daisy. For Daisy, I would love to see her blossom with self-assurance as she becomes an adult. And it is about time that Mrs. Patmore found a beau.
Watch Downton Abbey Wednesdays at 9pm ET/6pm PT from Jan. 2, 2013.
Pamela Foster is a culinary historian who resides in the Greater Toronto Area with her husband, affectionately referred to as Lord D. Her popular blog Downton Abbey Cooks explores food, history and health of the Downton era (1912- 1920s). Her ecookbook Abbey Cooks Entertain can be downloaded from her website or through Kobo or Amazon.ca. (Get a sneak peek here.)
by Henry Lees
all Downton Abbey photos (c) NBC Universal
photos of Pamela Foster/Abbey Cooks Entertain courtesy Pamela Foster