Here’s how to host the Downton Abbey dinner party of your dreams, with help from “The Official Downton Abbey Cookbook.”
As Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham once remarked, “A house party can be so flat if there’s no special moment…” In keeping with that edict, here’s a classic parlor game to kick things off. Two Truths and a Lie. I’ll go first:
My complete infatuation with “Downton Abbey” can be attributed to the following: 1.) I sympathize with the plight of the eldest daughter having marital difficulty. 2.) I work in a contemporary upscale restaurant and watching people dine with impeccable manners—which generally doesn’t happen in my regular life—is my particular brand of food porn. 3.) I believe I was an English aristocrat in a previous life.
Nevermind the lie. Those are all truths.
“The Official Downton Abbey Cookbook,” which will be released on September 17 just ahead of the film, is nothing short of a bible for the serious fan, with every recipe mentioned in the show, plus dozens of others common for the period, sumptuously presented in spectacular fashion even the blessed Lady Mary would approve of, with gorgeous photos and context from author/food historian/show consultant Annie Gray. (No relation to Lord Merton that I know of.)
The Official Downton Abbey Cookbook, $24.50 on Amazon
All the resplendence of a Downton dinner, in book form.
With sections devoted to various occasions for both Upstairs and Downstairs denizens, “The Official Downton Abbey Cookbook” makes all manner of “Downton Abbey” style parties possible: Breakfast, served buffet style (if you’re not serving kedgeree don’t even invite me); Luncheon, with its lighter fare and modest number of courses, or even Afternoon Tea, which is basically a casual party centered around cake and gossip—that I was born into a time and place without regular expectation of this is one of the cruelest machinations of the universe. You could take it outdoors and call it a Shooting Lunch, or if you’re feeling cheeky, make it a Servants’ Dinner including hearty peasant fare and careful supervision of conversation topics. (Let’s not upset the maids.)
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Try blends favored by both upstairs and downstairs characters with these limited edition teas.
But, as Carson might say, “Where’s the style?” And let’s be honest, if you’re going for Downton, you’re going for largesse, and as we all know, informed by the Grand Dame of the snappy retort herself, Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, “Nothing succeeds like excess.” Short of hiring a full complement of house staff and, while you’re at it, relocating to a country manor, there are elements of a formal “Downton Abbey” style dinner that can be accomplished even in your modest apartment.
A great deal of the English lower classes were employed simply to manage the numerous wardrobe changes of the aristocracy. Or, reversely, the aristocracy required numerous wardrobe changes in order to offer gainful employment to the lower classes. However you see it, everyone got dressed in their finery for dinner, so feel free to insist on a dress code for yours. Perhaps send this dressing gong effect earlier in the evening to remind everyone it’s time to get into white tie.
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“How many times am I to be ordered to marry the man sitting next to me at dinner?”
First things first, if you want to keep things up to standard, hire a butler. Okay, assuming that’s not a real possibility, perhaps you can find a friend (or helpful Chowhound author) in the fine dining field who might agree to some mild butling during your soiree. But really, as Gray allows in a section of the cookbook entitled “How to Host a Downton Dinner,” “it’s wise to slim down the rules and make a nod to Downton without copying it in its entirety.”
At the very least, the table should be lavishly decorated, including flowers, candles, menus, and name cards, and should have all of the silverware and glassware precisely laid out for all of the evening’s courses. The Emily Post Institute offers a simple diagram for laying out formal dinner service. (Shortcut tip: work from the outside in.)
“It’s entirely up to you whether to serve predinner cocktails,” says Gray. But seriously. While they might have been “too exciting” for Carson, Lady Mary and Lady Edith (dibs: band name) would have become accustomed to them from regular trips to London, plus it’s an opportunity to gather everyone in a space away from the dinner table so you can properly “go in” and take your places in grand style.
The Official Downton Abbey Cocktail Book, $22.50 on Amazon
Appropriate libations for all occasions, complete with Carson’s disapproval.
The dinner itself, outlined further below, is a lavish affair consisting of up to nine courses, and served “à la russe”—a style of service that became popular in the second half of the 19th century that involves courses served sequentially, rather than buffet style, by footmen bearing platters. (If footmen are not in your budget, perhaps just plate individually or have everyone take a turn serving each course.)
Whether you pull this off with or without a butler or footmen, might I strongly suggest an etiquette coach? Such advisors are becoming more popular as consultants as much business is conducted over dinner, and just as one might have received consternation from the Dowager Countess over poor table manners in an Edwardian dining room, so too might you in a business or social situation with prospective clients or even in-laws. Why risk it? Etiquette coaches or professionals can be found in any place where business exists, such as Beaumont Etiquette in New York City, and a light-hearted session in formal table manners could be the “special moment” to provide for your guests. (Especially if two truths and a lie fizzles out in the first round because the player failed to lie.)
But here’s a quick and dirty table etiquette summary just in case: napkin on lap, elbows off table, sit up straight so that there is room to serve you comfortably, and for the love of all that is good and holy leave the bread plate to the left of the silverware where it was placed. (Looking at you, fine diners of New York.)
The direction of conversation will be set by the host or hostess, with everyone pairing off accordingly, and will then switch to the person on the other side of you once the host or hostess switches. Plan your seating chart accordingly. And come prepared with juicy topics of conversation such as modern farming techniques, considering taking on work in an unexpected field, or puzzling lines of inheritance succession.
In the heydey of Downton, the meal would have been a many-hours affair, beginning with hors d’oeuvres, and continuing through soup, fish, entrée, sorbet, roast with vegetables or salad, dessert with ices, and fruits. “The Official Downton Abbey Cookbook” provides numerous recipes for all of these stages and, “if you want to go all out and provide eight courses, do it,” encourages Gray. Otherwise, “a more (manageable) dinner might be soup or fish, entrée or roast, vegetable, and sweet entremets or dessert or savory.”
A hint for us—as Julia Child once put it—”servantless American cooks,” is to choose recipes on the less technical side that can be made ahead of time and held well, and do not require à la minute cooking to be marvelous. Meats can be served warm or room temperature, and finished with a hot sauce for the illusion of a piping hot dish.
A sample menu (to include several dishes mentioned in the show, as well as a majority of dishes that can be served cold for making eight courses remotely possible) might consist of:
- Cucumber Soup (pg 128)
- Stuffed Tomatoes (pg 124)
- Salmon Mousse, which perhaps has the dubious honor of being the dish most mentioned in the show (pg 143)
- Duck with Apples and Calvados, being jilted at the altar sold separately (pg 153)
- Asparagus Cups (pg 174)
- Raspberry Meringue, hold the salt, unless you suspect the guest of honor might eventually jilt you at the altar (pg 191)
- Fresh fruit and cheese
Then the only thing left to do is leave the cleanup to the tireless servants while your maid brushes your hair and dresses you for bed. Or at least leave cleanup until tomorrow so you can pretend to be aristocracy for just a few more hours.
Header image courtesy of Darren McCollester / Stringer / Getty Images Entertainment