A feast fit for 'Downton Abbey'

Daisy (Sophie McShera) grinds meat in the PBS series “Downton Abbey,” where a frequent setting is the kitchen.

“Downton Abbey,” the drama-filled British series that tells the story of the wealthy Crawley family and its servants, is back for a third season starting Sunday night.

And though many fans can't wait to see if Matthew and Mary actually tie the knot, what happens to Bates and what schemes the Dowager Countess has up her lace-tipped sleeve, other fans might be more excited to see the cuisine the servants bring to the family and its guests.

Because, as any “Downton” fan knows, most of the drama happens during lavish, multiple-course meals at the table or over afternoon tea complete with homemade scones and petite sandwiches. Food, as it were, is a central character in “Downton.”

The cuisine on the show has led to the publication of two cookbooks — “The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook,” by Emily Ansara Baines, and “Abbey Cooks Entertain,” an e-book by Pamela Foster, who blogs about the show and its food at downtonabbeycooks.com. It also has spurred a renewed interest in the tradition of proper afternoon tea.

For the uninitiated, the show is set at a fictional Yorkshire country estate called Downton Abbey and tells the story of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in post-Edwardian England. The third season takes place in the early 1920s.

In a phone interview, Foster said the food scenes kept her coming back to the show during the first and second seasons, especially the annual holiday episode.

“It's fun to connect the food we eat now to the food they would have eaten back then,” she said.

When Foster began work on her “Downton”-inspired cookbook, she started with afternoon tea. She said she thinks the custom of tea is an aspect of British culture that fascinates Americans.

Mona Christensen, an Omahan who led the Midlands Tea Society for 10 years, said it makes sense that the tea ritual is central to the drama at Downton.

“The women of that period spent a lot of time dressing and sitting and talking,” she said. “They didn't have anything else to do. So tea became such an important part of their lives.”

Christensen said when the afternoon tea ritual began in the 17th century, green tea was in vogue. Later, black tea with milk and sugar became fashionable, and when Queen Victoria reigned, from 1819 to 1901, tea with lemon became the thing to drink.

Tea usually was served between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. to take up some time between lunch and dinner, which didn't take place until around 8 p.m.

A proper English black tea, Christensen said, is made with loose-leaf tea, not tea bags, and is quite strong. It can almost substitute for food.

Even so, the drink was served with fancy cakes; small crustless sandwiches filled with cucumber, smoked salmon or egg; and scones, a Scottish quick bread cut in the shape of a triangle that can be savory or sweet.

Christensen, who is a big “Downton” fan, said she expects tea to remain an important part of the show in the third season.

“Tea dances and garden parties became very popular in England in the '20s,” she said.

Foster said the most popular recipes in her book are the ones that viewers associate with the show: The dessert that the cook flavored with salt instead of sugar, the chicken she dropped on the kitchen floor and another dessert with a recipe she couldn't read because of her poor eyesight.

Many at-home cooks also have more interest in the simple food the servants ate than the fanciful dishes they served in the dining room.

“The way we cook now is so different,” Foster said. “We have all these modern conveniences. I keep trying to remind people that we should have some awe for those who took up service without electricity or a thermostat or refrigeration and a coal stove.”

She said Edwardian-era kitchens embraced some trends that are popular again today: growing food, finding ways to use scraps to cut down on waste and eating seasonally.

Foster, who lives in Canada, has already seen the third season of “Downton Abbey.” Without giving anything away, she said food remains a central theme in the show.

“There is a lot of throwback to the era of grand entertaining,” she said, “even though that period saw a lot of changes for the aristocracy. They still maintained appearances.”

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