As many of my fellow geeks would know, Downton Abbey is back for its final season here in the States. I’ve yet to get caught up due to our recent Star Trek Voyager binge-watching, but I only look forward to another walk through the world in turn of the century English society. So I consider myself lucky, in my usual perusal of Atlanta cooking classes, to find The Cook’s Warehouse’s East-Cobb location hosting a class taught by local chef and food historian Christy Seelye-King: Upstairs/Downstairs – Dining at the Manor. Looking forward to learning the history behind the show, as well as meeting another foodie in fandom, I signed up immediately.
Chef Christy, adorned in an appropriate Edwardian cook’s costume à la Mrs. Patmore, started us off with some snacks: sliced baguettes, brandied pork liver paté, sharp farmhouse cheddar, and grainy mustard. She then went into the history of fine cuisine – how in the late 1800s Auguste Escoffier modernized French cooking, and in turn, elevated cooking to a respectable profession by creating the classical kitchen hierarchy. As you might recall, this was only one of the many hierarchies established, celebrated and sustained in Downton Abbey’s glimpses into early 20th century European society.
Since no good cooking class leaves out the opportunity to learn how to cook something, Chef Christy then taught us how to make two of Escoffier’s famous desserts: Peach Melba and Charlotte Russe. Charlotte Russe is a cake made from chilled whipped cream, edged with lady finger biscuits, and topped with fruit leather shapes. While Escoffier’s description of the dish says it can be flavored to the cook’s preference, we used vanilla and lemon extract in ours.
An interesting bit of history behind Peach Melba, this delightful dish of poached peaches, raspberry puree, and ice cream was invented to honor Australian soprano, Nellie Melba. Downton Abbey featured her as a character in Season 4 when she gave a private concert for the Crawleys. To present it, he served it in a hollowed ice sculpture of a swan, topped with a birdcage of spun sugar.
After cooking, Chef Christy taught us basic etiquette of the Edwardian formal dinner, assigning us titles and roles. Following protocol was of highest importance in the era as these meetings were where all business and marriage arrangements, and exercises of high society were discussed and agreed upon. If anything, these parties were a modern version of, or just very reminiscent of guest rites dating back from ancient Anglo-Saxon society.
While the host of the dinner was usually the one to conduct business, it was the hostess’s responsibility to make sure the guests felt welcome. Preparing a proper seating chart was the crucial foundation of the dinner. It was important to honor the rank/s of one’s guests in the correct place in order to show deference, as well as to accommodate the guests’ comfort in conversation. To keep track of the hierarchy and determine status, most hostesses would have a copy of Burke’s Peerage. My classmate/hostess had a trying time enough figuring out our proper order as that we had not only an unequal number of men to women, as well as a married couple – apparently married couples were rarely sat next to each other. Poor food, dull or rude guests, or incorrect seating arrangements could threaten a family’s standing in society. Reputation was everything for one’s life and livelihood.
The showrunners for Downton Abbey also took these rules into account, according to Chef Christy, where even if the actors in the scene enter in the wrong order to societal deference, they will need to film the scene over. Chef Christy was no more merciful. She then had us practice entering and being seated. Following this, she tested us on choosing the proper utensils and glasses for each “course” served. While the practice of different utensils seems silly today, it was perfectly practical to prevent cross-contamination in an age where germ theory had not been fully accepted yet. Whether it was the completely colorless Consommé Brunoise paired with Claret, or the equally invisible Poulets de Grains à la Russe with Reisling, a gentleman or lady in good standing undesterstood that table manners were often considered a reflection of one’s character and temperament. I’m sure the courses would have been all delicious enough to have me throw decorum out the window and chow down like Lady Cora’s mother had they actually been served. I’m not complaining. Two desserts were more than enough to satisfy for a mid-afternoon repast.
When you learn and actually take history into account, not only do the stories featured in each episode of Downton Abby make sense, but become ever more brilliant and scandalous in the understanding. For example, women were not allowed in restaurants unescorted – a rule lessoned with the opening of tea rooms during wartime to keep the culinary profession a viable one. I had a blast learning about life upstairs and downstairs, and if you are going to Anachrocon this year, you can as well! Chef Christy will be teaching food history in a few panels and I highly recommend going. She told me that she may offer an Outlander food class as well, so I look forward to that at Anachrocon or Cook’s Warehouse. She also teaches private classes, and classes at the John C. Campbell Folk School. You can also follow her on her blog, Ask Chef Christy
And now for today’s bonus! One of the recipes we made in class. This a recipe for Charlotte Russe, adapted from the recipe printed in the Original Boston Cooking School in 1896.
Ingredients and Equipment
- ¼ box gelatin or 1 ¼ Tb granulated gelatin
- ¼ cup cold water
- 1/3 cup scalded cream
- 1/3 cup powdered sugar
- 3 ½ cups cream
- 1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
- Lady Fingers/Sponge Cake
- 1 tsp lemon extract
- Fruit Paste
- Spring form pan
- Parchment Paper
- Stand Mixer
- Metal shape cutters
- Soak gelatin in cold water, dissolve in scalded cream, strain into bowl, add sugar and vanilla.
- Whip the unscalded cream in a stand mixer until it reaches soft peaks.
- Set bowl of scalded cream mixture in a pan of ice water until it begins to thicken, then fold in whipped cream, adding one third at a time.
- Trim parchment paper to fit the bottom of the pan. Place it inside and place cut fruit paste to your preferrance. Trim the ends off lady fingers to fit flush to the edge of the pan, and line, crust side out, to completely cover the interior side walls.
- Turn in the cream mixture, spread evenly and chill.
- When ready to serve, turn cake over on a glass dish. Remove the pan and parchment paper before serving.