What Was It Really Like to Cook at "Downton Abbey"?

A new cookbook goes above and below stairs to share the food of this popular television series and new movie.

Women preparing a meal
Photo: Downton Abbey/Nick Briggs

Food was a central character in the widely-popular PBS series Downton Abbey, and it'll be a central focus in the new Downton Abbey movie, which hits theaters today, September 20, 2019. The Earl of Grantham and his family regularly gathered for sumptuous formal dinners around a long candlelit table or chatted over afternoon tea. Below stairs, the kitchen was the focus of most of the action while Mrs. Patmore, the cook, and her faithful kitchen maid, Daisy, made vol-au-vents, soufflés, roasts, and endless cakes.

That's why The Official Downton Abbey Cookbook is a must-have for fans of the show as well as Anglophiles, history buffs, and foodies everywhere. We talked to the book's author, food historian Annie Gray, to learn more about the recipes that would have been served at country houses like Downton Abbey and to see what still tastes good today.

The book showcases the "cookery," as Brits call it, of the era that both the show and movie are set in, 1912-1927. It shows how different the diet of the servants "below stairs" was to the noble family "above stairs." It's not surprising that lobster and caviar weren't part of meals downstairs, but what about chicken? As it turns out, this staple protein wasn't part of servants meals, either, as it was "phenomenally expensive at the time," says Gray.

Woman at table of sweets and tea
Downton Abbey/Nick Briggs

Upstairs and downstairs didn't eat at the same times—because "downstairs staff were preparing and serving meals for the family so they ate before or after the meals upstairs." And the meals servants ate even had different names and order, Gray explained. Everyone had breakfast: There were scrambled eggs, bacon, and kedgeree for the family, and this meal was eaten in the breakfast room rather than the dining room. Married ladies took breakfast on a tray in bed. The servants sometimes ate porridge (oatmeal) but toast, jam, and cups of strong tea was the norm.

In the middle of the day (though not at exactly the same time), the family had luncheon, a light meal sometimes served buffet style. Servants had their main meal, dinner, in the middle of the day. It was often a hearty meat stew with blancmange or treacle tart for "pudding." Both groups had tea in the afternoon; a dainty repast with cakes and scones for upstairs while the servants had bread and jam and perhaps fruitcake or plain biscuits, otherwise known as cookies.

The main meal of the day upstairs was dinner, served at eight in the evening. The family and their guests always "dressed for dinner," changing into formal evening clothes for the seven-course meal that was served by footmen. Downstairs, the last meal of the day was supper, which consisted of more bread and cheese, biscuits, and cups of tea. It was served around 9 p.m. while the family upstairs was enjoying dessert.

With all the food made for the family and their frequent dinner guests, you might assume that there must have been leftovers. That assumption, however, is wrong. "There were no leftovers," Gray says. The cook saw food that came back uneaten from meals above stairs as ingredients for other meals, leftover roast chicken might be added to a pie, leftover vegetables incorporated into soup. Nothing was wasted. "Some classic British dishes like Toad in the Hole were first made using leftover roast meat—and often served for dinner in the servants' hall."

Fans of Downton Abbey may have noticed that Mrs. Patmore and Daisy seem to work harder than other staff. Gray explains that a house the size of Downton would have had a larger kitchen staff than seen in the TV show but, yes, the kitchen staff did work very hard for long hours. Their workday generally went from 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., with one half day off each week. By the mid-1920s, households had fewer staff and cooks like Mrs. Patmore would have been using baking powder in cakes rather than relying on beating as much air as possible into eggs, a labor-intensive process. Other modern shortcuts included powdered gelatin in place of the traditional calves foot jelly and food colorings.

People seated at dining table
Downton Abbey/Nick Briggs

The style of food served upstairs at Downtown also changed. In 1912, there would have been a lot of game dishes and pies. By the 1920s, food was lighter and there was more European influence. Salads were more popular and more interesting, due to both European and American influence. Other American influences were anything from glamorous Hollywood, like the first diet and the cocktail. Prior to the new fashion for the cocktail hour, guests gathered before dinner making small talk with no food or drink to ease the wait. "This half hourwas known as 'the mistresses greatest ordeal,'" Gray explains. The lady of the house might worry the dinner would not be good and didn't even have a glass of something to distract her.

No doubt there would have drinks before dinner when King George and Queen Mary visit Downton in the movie, which is set in 1927. But Gray says the royal couple weren't up with the food trends of the time. They were known for preferring plain, boring food. The recipes in The Official Downton Abbey Cookbook are much more tempting.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles