Downton Abbey

In time of Downton Abbey, British food was sophisticated and sumptuous

Feb. 19, 2012 at 5:29 PM ET

Downton Abbey, the popular BBC show about upstairs gentry and their downstairs servants, is all about classic couture, caustic one-liners and constant eavesdropping.

Less discussed is cuisine -- perhaps because British food has long had a reputation for soggy, bland fare. But, according to “The Salt” at, British food in the early 20th century was “incredibly sophisticated.”

This shouldn't surprise the loyal viewer. After all, Carson the butler seems to spend hours every day decanting wine, and the cook and her assistant sweat over souffles, soups and mouth-watering roasts. Food is so important at Downton that the Earl of Grantham pays for his cook to undergo a state-of-the-art eye surgery in London to restore her sight. (Downton die-hards may argue that he does this out of kindness rather than self-interest.) 

"The upper-middle classes and the gentry and the aristocracy — they saw food as a way of impressing people," Ivan Day, one of Britain's preeminent food historians, told NPR. "Some of it was very technically dazzling and difficult to do."

Cooks and their assistants were often highly skilled at very advanced cuisines, he said.

"It was very much the duty of the hostess and her staff to put very good food on the table when her husband and guests were being served," Day said. "And they were able to do it because there was a skill base that was very large, because so many people were employed as servants — and particularly servants in kitchens."

Kitchens changed after the war, Day said: “Our food culture got incredibly simplified, incredibly slimmed down — everybody was on an austerity program.”

Planning a Downton finale tea party? offers recipes for Gooseberry Fool and Cucumber Mint Tea sandwiches.