britain, dining at downton, edwardians, escoffier, history lesson, mrs beeton's book of household management

History 101: Downton Abbey

While Downton Abbey is purely fiction (in all its soap operatic glory), it’s based largely on fact. Julian Fellowes, the creator of the show, is known for writing well-researched films set in earlier days of the British Empire (like Gosford Park, one of my sister’s favorite movies). Downton Abbey is no different. That intrigue and scandal is all layered on top of historical fact.

Time Period

The show begins with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and proceeds through the end of World War I, and season 3 will take us into the 1920s. These decades held loads of change for Britain. Until 1900, Britain was the undisputed leader of the Western world, with Queen Victoria at the helm and colonies scattered around the globe. “The sun never sets on the British empire” and all that. Yes, there was a huge gap between rich and poor in England itself, and the aristocracy was struggling to maintain its position at the top of the social ladder, but few Victorians thought things would change in the 20th century.

Edwardian England and World War I

Enter King Edward VII, who came to the throne upon the death of Queen Victoria in January 1901. Here are a few important facts about Edward:

  • he enjoyed spending weekends with the landed aristocracy at their country houses (like Downton)
  • he enjoyed lavish parties at these country houses
  • his nickname was Tum Tum (not really important, but I couldn’t resist sharing)

Sure, he was a perfectly fine ruler. But mostly people focused on his love of parties. The aristocracy thought of these years before WWI as a “golden summer” because they modeled their lives after Edward’s, spending weekends at shooting parties and eating elaborate 10-course meals. They didn’t think much about the working class, who were often so poor and so nutritionally-deprived that they couldn’t be drafted into the army. The fact that the working class was beginning to take power in Parliament, through the formation of the Labour Party, escaped the wealthy.

Edward VII at Balmoral

The one thing the gentry did notice was the fact that their power and wealth no longer rested on their land and estates, as it had for centuries. Now they had to pay high taxes on their land, and their tenants could purchase pieces of the estates. Some families became so broke that they had to sell to the nouveau riche or find wealthy American heiresses for their sons (like Cora). A major social shift was on the horizon.

Of course, WWI changed everything even more. Suddenly all of Britain’s able-bodied men were sent to the front in France or the Mediterranean, and few came back unscathed. The war years even influenced those left at home, like Lady Sibyl, who decides that she’d prefer working as a nurse and running away with the chauffeur to remaining at Downton. By the end of WWI, the social order was completely upended.

How it All Relates to Cooking

Since much of the show is set at a country house, most of the food we’ll discuss is pretty high-class. The aristocracy ate elaborately and well, and the servants ate their leftovers or simpler meals. However, the servants were much better fed than most of the working class in the Edwardian era–they could rely upon having at least something to eat at every meal.

the Crawleys at a garden party

The landed class particularly enjoyed modeling their dining habits after those culinary geniuses, the French. Edward made it fashionable to eat 10-course meals, so that’s what the landed class did, dining on French-inspired food cooked by trained French chefs. While I can’t see Mrs. Patmore, the cook at Downton, training in a French kitchen, she certainly would have cooked French food for the family. For more traditional English recipes, she would have turned to Mrs Beeton’s classic cookbook. Finally, ingredients before the war would have been the very best, and often the vegetables came from the estate’s farm. Talk about eating local!

However, even the gentry had to give up their rich foods when WWI broke out. Britain depended on imports for 60% of its food supply, so the war at sea made acquiring food incredibly difficult. Prices for sugar, butter, and cheese skyrocketed when war was declared, and the government had to ration food early on. This forced cooks to be much more creative, but it also made for some truly distasteful dishes. For now, I’m going to focus on food before the war.

In a future post I’ll talk about the cookbooks I’m using for this project, but for now, be prepared for lots of fancy French food with fancy French names, as well as some classic Victorian dishes.

Downton lovers, what’s your favorite thing about this time period? I’m fascinated by Edward VII’s nickname…

Works cited: Taste: The Story of Britain through its Cooking by Kate Colquhoun. Life in Edwardian England by Robert Cecil. Images: 1. Ye Olde History Tavern. 2. TV with Thinus.

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