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'Downton Abbey' accuracy so real you can taste it

Posted 9:27am on Tuesday, Jan. 08, 2013

The romance. The intrigue. The big, beautiful country house.

We can analyze the recipe for success of Downton Abbey, the British television import whose Season 3 makes its breathlessly anticipated debut 8 p.m. Sunday on KERA/Channel 13, until our cups of tea go cold. But one element that can't be overlooked is the food.

Rather than letting it serve as mere eye candy, writer Julian Fellowes has worked crepes, puddings and other edible props into some of the series' most memorable plots.

Who can forget Mrs. Patmore's disastrously salty raspberry meringue pudding? How many fans fell hook, line and sinker for the implication that Branson the chauffeur would off the famous general with poisoned soup?

The lavish spreads enjoyed by the aristocratic Crawley family in early-20th-century England are enough to inspire envy in those who might be watching with a microwave dinner in their laps. The show has revived an interest in British food, particularly that of the 1910s and 1920s, that could easily fall prey to stereotypes: Aspic! Haggis! Puddings! Instead, viewers have embraced the comestibles they've seen, with spinoffs including Pinterest boards, blogs and an unofficial cookbook.

"Because they love the show, it makes them more interested in the history of the food that was on the show," says Pamela Foster, a Toronto marketing professional who has put her history degree to good use on her Downton Abbey Cooks blog. "It's sort of a teaching point to connect people to history."

There's no getting around the fact that there were lots of jellied molds, some of which were very attractive and, we dare say, tasty. The cuisine received an extra surge of elegance thanks to the influence of King Edward VII, who had an affinity for French food.

"He loved a good time and a good laugh and a good meal," says Foster, who just released a self-published e-cookbook, Abbey Cooks Entertain, with plenty of dishes inspired by France.

Some noble families employed French cooks on the weekend -- "What is a weekend?" as the Dowager Countess of Grantham might say -- when they did a lot of entertaining, according to the Countess of Carnarvon, who, with her husband, the Earl of Carnarvon, lives at the 50-plus-bedroom Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed.

"There might be a Mrs. Patmore perhaps, but over the top of her there might be a more highly paid chef to impress the guests," the countess says.

At Highclere Castle, the downstairs area once included marble tops in a pastry area and separate preparation spaces for different types of food to avoid cross-contamination, says the countess, who is also addressed as Lady Carnarvon.

Replicating that setting for the show requires a tremendous amount of research and logistics. The downstairs portion of Highclere couldn't stand in for the servants' quarters on Downton Abbey, so the production team built a kitchen set at London's Ealing Studios, about 60 miles from the castle.

Production designer Donal Woods says research conducted through visits to nearly 40 English country houses helped inform what the kitchen should look like. Fellow production designer Charmian Adams says one of her favorite antique pieces is a wall-mounted board with flaps that fold back to indicate what supplies need to be restocked. She was initially perplexed by a tab for bricks, until she learned about Bridgwater bricks. They served as a sort of kitchen scouring pad, and Adams was able to get one from a building that had started to collapse.

It's the kind of creative sourcing that the Downton Abbey crew does a lot of. Food economist Lisa Heathcote consults her library of historical cookbooks as well as her own knowledge of period food to decide which comestibles will appear.

Of course, the food has to be cooked and plated. Heathcote's tricks include dying cream cheese pinkish-red to resemble salmon mousse and serving an entree she calls "chicken fish," or poultry prepared to look like fish with sauce on top.

Lady Carnarvon says she and Highclere's chefs don't live under the same kind of pressure felt by the characters of Downton Abbey.

"If something did go wrong, I'd simply ask the staff to go get a load of pizzas."

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