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.
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.