Sunday, January 22, 2012


DEBORAH CROMBIE: I promised you an Edwardian dinner menu. How I wish I could present it in person--or at least if I had a kitchen and household staff to rival Downton Abbey!

According to a PBS page about the fictional Cazalet family, weekend life at an English country house was regimented by four meals, whose menus were determined by the lady of the house and the cook. Breakfast, served at 9:30 a.m., was considered a major meal. Lunch, served in the dining-room at one o'clock or after the servants had eaten, was usually an egg dish to start, followed by a main course, cold meats on the sideboard if anybody wanted them, pudding, cheeses, and dessert. Lunch was an informal meal, with guests and family often helping themselves. In the summer, picnics on the estate's grounds were popular not only with the guests but also with the staff left behind. Afternoon tea was served in the dining room or, less often, in the drawing room. The practice of women changing for tea died out in most houses before World War I.

And then, the dinner! This description, somewhat abbreviated, is from the Brighton Pavilion and Museums website:

A typical Edwardian dinner party would start with soup accompanied by sherry. This would be followed by fish served with a good white wine. After the fish came the entrée, which might consist of vol-au-vent, mutton cutlets or sweetbreads served with champagne or claret. The next course was known as the remove or relevé. This was the most substantial part of the dinner and might include a joint of meat, poultry or a substantial meat pie served in burgundy. Potatoes and vegetables in season always accompanied the ‘remove’. The potatoes were cut to the size of matches (as testified by Dorothy Fuller, a scullerymaid at Preston Manor from 1923-26. Interview March 1999.)

Next came the roast course of game such as field fares (a small bird), snipe, wild duck or pheasant served with game chips. These were disc shaped potato chips; at Preston Manor they were so thinly sliced that they could be seen through. Claret would normally be drunk with this course. Then followed a series of dishes known as the entremêts. This course was divided into three and usually consisted of a dressed vegetable, dishes such as cherry tart or savarin of peaches and a savoury of, for instance, devilled sardines or cheese.

The table would then be cleared, a new set of wine glasses put out, and the guests were provided with dessert plates with ice-plates on top of which were set finger bowls and silver-gilt dessert cutlery. The finger bowls were then set to the left, ices brought in and served on the ice-plates; these were often removed, leaving the dessert plates for the fruit and nuts. Port or madeira would then circulate.

At this stage the ladies would retire in exactly the same order as they entered – the lady of the highest rank first. The gentleman could now smoke. Coffee would be served separately; in the drawing room for the ladies and in the dining room for the gentleman.

So, readers and REDS, now that you know what was in all those dishes that Carson and the footmen schlepped to the table, I ask you, how on earth did the ladies eat all that every day AND fit into those scrumptious clothes??? And drink all that! My goodness, I like a cocktail or a glass or two of wine, but you'd think they'd have been pickled! Apparently they played lots of tennis, and went on long, damp walks in the estate grounds, but still...

(Oh, and the housemaids woke the guests at 9 a.m with a cup of tea. Being a night person, that sounds extremely civilized to me.)

I would love to stay in an English country house and have these meals, if only for one fantasy day. But I suppose I'll just have to watch Downton Abbey instead.

How about you, REDS and readers? Would you like to try the Edwardian upstairs lifestyle for a day? Shall we dress for dinner?


  1. As to how they stayed so slim, two things: No eating between meals, and very small portions. Even though they ate many courses, the meals were long, drawn-out affairs, with measured eating while having pleasant conversation. That is much better for the digestion than bolting food in front of the TV.

    Also, most people of that class rode. They would have had horses, and grooms, and footmen to manage the horses, and to assist with the tack, etc. Riding is great exercise, especially if you can do it daily.

    One other thing--just getting from the dining room to one's room to change several times a day meant a lot of walking and stairs. Way more than today. Every extra step helps.

  2. No wonder people had gout! I do appreciate Karen's comments, though, about all the exercise and eating in moderation.

  3. So HOW long was dinner?? Just imagine what doing the dishes would have been like?

    So I read your description, Debs, and I confess when I got to the end and saw "fruit and nuts" I was disappointed. I wonder if tea would have been the time for cakes or puddings??

  4. I have been to a couple of 12 course dinners and the secret is to just take a small amount of everything. And not all the ladies stayed slim but the corsets gave the illusion of an hourglass figure.

    Also one could eat more calories because houses were so cold that one burned off more calories trying to stay warm, and also people walked a lot as well as riding, playing tennis in the summer etc.

  5. I'm not dressing for that dinner. Prefer to watch it on TV.
    Happy to live in an informal time and informal way and as the years go, I eat less, especially at night.
    I like to read or watch about those times but would not change places.

  6. Oh, yes, Rhys, cold! Only fireplaces in the rooms in those huge houses. How on earth did the women not freeze to death in those flimsy dinner dresses? Or did they just burn more calories?

  7. Hallie, I was thinking the same thing about the dishes! No wonder they had to have a houseful of staff. I've had two dinner parties of 22 each, and for the second one we hired someone to serve and clean up, largely because of the dishes. (And because it was my 60th birthday, for heaven's sake.) And the glassware! 150 pieces to handwash. No, thank you.

  8. I wonder if there are places in England that actually recreate this sort of upper class Edwardian meal. I'm curious as to how the food would taste to modern palettes.

    The number of courses, and the tiny portions as Rhys described, remind me of a meal I had at Gordon Ramsay Claridge's a few years ago with my daughter.

  9. Please don't laugh, but this reminds me of the potlatches the indigenous people would have with all kinds of meats, vegetables, etc. Lots of conspicuous consumption. I wonder how many household were really that wealthy to afford all that food, and all those servants. Not to mention the life style. I love Downton Abbey, but it does feel like a fantasy world compared to say, the world of the farm. It is somewhat like the Regency world that I love, but was really very small in the number of people it encompassed, I believe.

  10. Hi Debs, my first thought is I'd never make it to 9:30 to have breakfast. And my hub and I have stayed in a couple of places that serve an English afternoon tea (my favorite is the Captain's House in Chatham). Oh it's just heaven! But very hard to imagine wanting a big dinner after that...

  11. Rhys, yes. There was a lot of that at Christ Church, Oxford while I was there. You just don't take much. And most people, I observed, did not take something of everything. I had to avoid breakfasts there - running in to grab a piece of fruit and avoid looking at all the meats and such. I enjoyed pheasant and pressed duck, but really can do without all the froofra. Okay, some of it was fun. :)

  12. Deborah, sorry - meant to include you in that comment! Thanks for bringing back some fond memories!

  13. I have dinner for 30 to 40 three times a year, and every time, I earnestly wish for 1) footmen and 2) scullery maids. It takes three days of handwashing and using the dishwasher to clean up.

    I agree though, that the average person, even of the upper classes, simply burned more calories per diem than we do. Along with the leisure time activities already mentioned, everyone walked a great deal more than we do. Sure, you might call Branson to bring round the car if you were going a distance, but unless you were elderly or infirm, you walked anywhere less than three or four miles.

    Read the memoirs and romans-a-clef of the Mitford sisters, who were born between 1904 and 1920, and you are struck by the sheer physicality of their lives. Among other things...

  14. The way I live now, I'd rather see someone else suffering through all of that in a TV drama while I sit there with a one pint carton of moo goo gai pan and chopsticks.

  15. Just home from Dallas...and I see we're having a dinner party! Yes, footmen. Must have.

    And I'm very much liking Lady Mary's red dress tonight.

    Debs, so lovely to see you in Dlalas..and a fine dinner party ou organinzed, I must say! Not twelve courses, thankfully, but perfectly delicious and perfect company! Love love and your new book.

    Can't wait to shaare our interview here week after next!

  16. Fascinating program on PBS (at least in Dallas) tonight called Secrets of the Manor House. Very helpful in putting what we're seeing in Downton Abbey in perspective ( a VERY small staff, for such a grand house! But reduced for sake of fictional manageability, I'm sure). I think DA is doing a wonderful job of giving the feel of the period, while not giving over story to history--it is, after all, fiction. Here's what Jacqueline Winspear has to say in the Huff Post:

  17. Oh, and as for the slender figures of all the women on DA, if you look at the actual photos and early film footage from that period, none of the women--including the legendary beauty Jenny Churchill--were nearly as sylph-like as Lady Cora and her daughters!

  18. I'm printing this out for the party my husband keeps saying we are going to have with everyone in costume.

  19. I'm in Debs - lets make it a weekend event!!!

    I want to know how they kept track of what piece of silverware to pick up when there were so many at their place setting.

    I'd just have to be the "portly" me,I can't imagine wearing those corsets and "boned" dresses.