Book Review: The Official Downton Abbey Cookbook by Annie Gray Part 2

For part two of this review, I decided to try some recipes to see if they worked. As mentioned earlier, the book is divided into two parts – recipes for upstairs and for downstairs. Both parts are further subdivided into breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. Browsing through the cookbook, there were recipes I immediately thought would be good to try while others were quickly dismissed for reasons I will outline in my conclusion.

As someone who works full time, my main qualifications for a recipe is it should require minimal preparation and it should be quick to cook. Sure I’ll do something more complicated but that’s usually restricted during the days when I’m off and when I have more time.

But I digress. From the recipes I thought would be a good idea to try, I decided on two that I would review for this blog and both of them are versions of dishes that we (me and my husband) cook and eat on a regular basis.

KEDGEREE (P. 34)

Kedgeree is a dish that is Indian in origin; the original is called khichri which is a mix of rice and dhal. This later evolved into a dish that contained smoked fish and became a staple in upper class Victorian and Edwardian breakfast buffets. At present kedgeree makes a good brunch or dinner dish, there’s something comforting about curry flavoured rice with flakes of smoked fish served piping hot.

I’ve been cooking this for years and my go-to recipe is that from Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course. What attracted me to try this version is to see if I can make it the same way the Victorians did. My first impression was this was more like fried rice since it called for cooked rice rather than raw. There was also white fish instead of smoked and I was dubious about the cream. Instead of curry powder, the recipe called for cayenne pepper.

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Gray mentioned in her blog that the original source of the recipe was from a long forgotten cookbook entitled The Cookery Book of Lady Clark of Tillypronie (1909). Having examined a copy in the British Library, Lady Clark had three versions of kedgeree and I can safely assume that what’s in the Downton Abbey cookbook is a combination of all three.

When I made this dish, I reduced all the quantities by half and much like Delia’s version, it was easy to prepare and cook. The cream I later learned stopped the rice from going dry and helped keep the grains separate while mixing everything together. In addition this is a good recipe with which to use leftover cooked rice. However my husband thought this version was bland and while the method certainly worked, I will definitely use smoked fish and curry powder next time.

 

PRAWN CURRY (P. 135)

The first curries were introduced into the UK during the 18th century but it was via post-World War 2 immigration from the Indian subcontinent that familiarised Britons to a wide variety of curry dishes such as Jalfrezi, Rogan Josh and Korma. Curries have become such an integral part of the contemporary British culinary landscape that “having a curry” from a local takeaway has become a regular treat for many households.

Like the Kedgeree above, this Prawn Curry recipe is easy to prepare and it makes use of ingredients that could be found in my cupboard or easy to obtain from the local supermarket – curry powder, coconut milk, spinach, onion, prawns, etc. This recipe is also versatile, as Gray writes in the introduction; other seafood such as fish could be used and I would recommend this good way to get children to eat vegetables as well as introduce them (or anyone who isn’t familiar with the dish) to food that has more complex flavours.

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This brings me to my problem with this recipe as like with the kedgeree, it was bland. Perhaps this is not the recipe’s fault as we’ve been accustomed to eating more authentic curry and this one seemed to be more of a poor copy of the real McCoy. However, my husband suggested adding salmon to the recipe and adjusting the quantities of the spices to see if it makes a difference.

 

CONCLUSION

Both these recipes are from the upstairs section of the cookbook and I have to say that this tome is not really one that can be used for everyday meals, perhaps more for special occasions or during the weekend when one has more time to shop and prepare for meals in advance. As the Kedgeree and Prawn Curry have shown, many of the dishes have not aged well as either they have fallen out of fashion or in the case of the curries; they have been supplanted by more authentic ones that can be recreated at home due to access to the ingredients that can easily be found in supermarkets.

Other recipes are simply too complicated and labour intensive especially with today’s more time poor lifestyle (and no servants) and the reality that many of us live in flats where the kitchen would barely cover half in a country house. In addition many of the ingredients such as quail are simply expensive or inaccessible if one doesn’t live near a local butcher (or even if they stock it).

On the positive side however, the recipes gives the reader a glimpse into what people ate during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and while French cuisine and influence reigned supreme, there was also the influence of the British Empire. The recipes crucially also work, as Gray writes in a clear and concise style which reminds me of Delia Smith hence making them easy to follow.

 

Book Review: The Official Downton Abbey Cookbook by Annie Gray (Part 1)

When I heard that there was going to be an “official” cookbook based on the ITV drama and subsequent film Downton Abbey, my first reaction was that this was going to be a merchandising gimmick, until it was announced that it would be written by Annie Gray, a food historian who has appeared on several documentaries and TV programmes such as the Great British Bake Off and Victorian Bakers, as well as being a consultant for English Heritage’s popular Victorian Way series on You Tube. She is also a researcher and author whose book The Greedy Queen: Eating with Victoria has been published to good reviews.

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The cookbook is described by the publishers as “showcase[ing] the cookery of the Crawley household – from upstairs dinner party centrepieces to downstairs puddings and pies – and bring an authentic slice of Downton Abbey to modern kitchens and Downton fans……[w]hether adapted from original recipes of the period, replicated as seen or alluded to on screen, or typical of the time, all the recipes reflect the influences found on the Downton Abbey tables. Food historian Annie Gray gives a warm and fascinating insight into the background of the dishes that were popular between 1912 and 1926, when Downton Abbey is set – a period of tremendous change and conflict, as well as culinary development.”

Encompassing dishes served upstairs and downstairs and interposed with historical background about food and how and what people ate during the time frame Downton Abbey is set, Gray writes in an accessible way. Her enthusiasm and love for food shines through and the cookbook is peppered with tips and interesting historical information about each recipe.

It’s a shame for me that the introduction is fairly brief and this brings me to my main issue with this book. Much like the TV series and film, the cookbook skims over historical context such as the reality of food shortages during the First World War that led to rationing and stringent penalties on waste, hoarding and profiteering. Other major changes especially after 1918 came when greenhouses and kitchen gardens became very expensive to maintain, not to mention that the problem of hiring, let alone retaining servants became even more acute. This is the reason why after WW1 growing one’s own food and making one’s own condiments were slowly becoming a thing of the past. It was cheaper to buy produce and groceries from shops and supermarkets and many of the shops used by Britons today, such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco, the Co-Op and Asda, slowly became nationwide chains during the interwar period.

While there is an acknowledgement that the reduction of courses served in the 1920s had something to do with the view that having 10-12 courses was seen as “silly and wasteful” as well as the emerging trend of dieting and wanting to be slim, the reality is that the vast majority of households high and low could no longer afford the army of cooks and kitchen maids needed to create the elaborate feasts that were a hallmark of Victorian and Edwardian cooking.

The other problem I have is the enumeration of change when apart from cosmetic changes and mention of new gadgets, when we see nothing of the sort in the TV series or the film. The mention of the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany was baffling but it wasn’t until 1929 when they really came to national prominence. During the time Downton Abbey was set they were nothing more than a minor political party on the fringes of German political life. Gray also indicates how the Crawleys have tried to embrace the change around them but a cursory look of the TV series and the film shows the family still living in denial and only making adjustments to their lifestyle half-heartedly even if it’s obvious that they needed to take drastic measures if they were serious about putting their financial house in order.

Now – I understand that this is meant to be a cookbook and not a tome on the history of British food during the early 20th century, but I believe that a giving a much more rounded picture of the era is possible than this book has managed. In the end however, while it is a laudable attempt to correct the misconceptions perpetuated by the likes of “unofficial” cookbooks and blogs, this effort is nothing more than pandering to the aspirations of Downton fans who like to fantasise themselves as Lady Mary or Cora wafting around in expensive gowns, living in a big house (that is an expensive white elephant in reality) and attended to by a platoon of servants who would cater to their every whim. There are other books out there that give you a better insight into food and recipes from 1912 to 1927 such as Clarissa Dickson Wright’s A History of English Food or Lizzie Collingham’s The Hungry Empire and if you want to read something more substantial from Gray herself, I would highly recommend The Greedy Queen, not only is it a biography of Queen Victoria told through the prism of food but also shows in a more in-depth way how the food culture of Britain changed during her long reign.

 

For Part 2, I will be putting two main dishes to the test and for part 3, my husband will be attempting to bake a cake from the cookbook.