Saturday, November 17, 2012

Holiday Dinners in a Great English Manor House ~ Petworth

This year we were fortunate to visit several English manor homes and castles.  Each was a different and spectacular experience and today I wanted to share some highlights of our travels and most particularly, take you into the kitchens of one of these great residences as they prepared and served large glorious meals.

Julian at Petworth
A manor house is a country house, which historically formed the administrative center of a "manor", the lowest unit of territorial organization in the feudal system in Europe.  As such you can find manor homes and castles throughout much of Europe.  If you find yourself in Germany, France, England, etc. do rent a car and spend some time in the countryside visiting these properties.

The primary feature of the manor-house was its great hall, to which apartments were added as warfare across Europe permitted more peaceful domestic life.  These halls originally served as court rooms and were used for other public functions, as well as banquet halls when the Lord entertained.  Thankfully many of these properties have been preserved, some with their Lords of the Manor still in place.  Others have been preserved through government historic trusts while others survive as hotels, private properties and movie sets.  If you are a fan of the PBS show Downton Abbey, historic Highclere Castle is one such property.  However, like Highclere, many of the residences historic kitchens and servants areas have been replaced with modern facilities.  (The 'below stairs' portion of Downton Abbey is filmed on a set, for this reason.)

Julian in the Petworth Entry Hall
Thankfully a few of these kitchens survived and here you can get a better understanding of what it took to serve the people of these magnificent homes.  Servants always accessed the front (or family portion) of the manor from the back stairs or other servants passages that kept them out of site as much as possible from family and their guests.  Maids were expected to work invisibly and clean when the family was asleep, or work in a room when the family was not scheduled to use it.  Only butlers and footman were common in areas were family and guests were present.  In fact, many of the lower servants (kitchen cooks, assistants, etc.) never encountered the family during their years of service.  In this regard, these homes were much like today's major hotels.

Part of the batterie de cuisine at Petworth
Petworth is one of the rare English Manor houses with kitchens and servants areas still intact, kept much as they were when the servants block was given over to the government to house the Chelsea Day Nursery which had been evacuated from London in 1939 with the advent of World War II. The servants block is located well behind the main house in a 1100-foot-long stone building, which also included servants quarters and the complex of offices necessary for the administration of the 100,000 acre estate belonging to the Earl of Egremont.  Unlike many Manor homes, Petworth's main serving quarters were not in the basement of the main house, hence the name 'servants block'.  This was thought to be a particularly good idea to avoid odors in the main house as well as for fire protection of the manor house itself.  The servants block was built in the mid-18th century and is shown as it would have looked between 1920 and 1940, little having changed from Victorian times.

Famed for its food, Petworth supported a large staff whose numbers contributed to the reputed 30,000 yearly meals cooked here during the early 19th century.  Records show that in 1834, a grand picnic for 6,000 was prepared in the kitchen at Petworth.  At the time the house employed 35 live-in indoor servants, plus daily indoor help as required, along with 24 grooms and coachmen, 25 full-time gardeners, plus daily outdoor labor as required.  The house also had its own fire brigade, engine and pump, along with a room for an upholsterer and for a professional cricketer to coach the estate's team.    With all of this staff, the house was able to be virtually self-sufficient, providing its own venison, game, eels, fish, eggs, dairy, meats, poultry, fruits and vegetables.  The gardens were famous for growing 400 varieties of vegetables and 100 kinds of pear.  Talk about putting on a Thanksgiving feast!

Fish ponds at Petworth
The main kitchen boasted a high ceiling and huge windows.  Food preparation took place at the central table. Sauces and hot liquids were held in pots set into a large black cast-iron hot water bath for transport to one of three dining rooms in the main house.

Julian says 'let's get cookin' in the Petworth kitchens
The status of the houses main resident meant the kitchens usually had the latest in technology, such as the latest innovation in 1872, cooking with steam.  A large boiler was added to the Scullery and powered warming ovens, a hotplate, steamers and bain-marie.  Large square copper boxes with a steam inlet pipe at the back and a tap in the front were also used for cooking steamed and Christmas puddings.

Vegetable and Meat Steamers

Julian with the Aga, a somewhat later addition.
In earlier times, the spits of the roasting range where the big pieces of meat were cooked had been turned by a kitchen boy.  During this time however, a large fan was added in the chimney, which was driven by the heat and smoke of the fire.  A roasting chef would control the proximity of the food to the fire and also adjust the size. A huge dripping pan underneath caught the fat, which could be used for basting with the long-handled ladles (shown at the bottom of the image below).

Now that's how your roast a lot of meat!

Holiday Dinners and Formal Dinner Parties

Upper class dinner parties around the 1910’s were considered the ultimate social test, and a hostess’s reputation could be ruined if the meal or the service wasn't stellar. The menus were sizable and provided ample opportunity for failures on the part of the cooks, serving staff and guests.

They started with a soup course, usually accompanied by sherry. Next came the fish course, served with a good white wine. A fish knife and fork were always used here, the knife being more for pushing the fish onto the fork than for actually cutting it.  Next, the entree  – perhaps a vol au vent (filled puff pastry) served with Champagne or claret.

Vol au Vent
After the clearing of used dishware and glasses and resetting the table, a luscious joint of meat or poultry from the estate was served.  This was typically accompanied by potatoes and seasonal vegetables, and served with a Burgundy wine.  The meal still was far from over!

A game course was then served with crispy potatoes and washed down by a good claret. And to give new meaning to the word feast, then came three mini courses called ‘entremĂȘts’, a dressed vegetable dish, something sweet (perhaps a cherry tart) and a savory dish, like cheese, or even deviled sardines  (the latter of which I can't imagine trying to get down at this point in the dinner.)

Elaborate confections such as jellies and ice creams
were prepared in the cold section of the kitchen.
Their own ice houses supported these activities.
The table was then reset once again and dessert was served which frequently included ices, jellies or elaborate pastries. This was followed by fruit and nuts which would be eaten by hand and accompanied with port or Madeira wines.

Once the food had been cleared, the ladies, at a discreet nod from the hostess would exit for coffee and conversation while the men would stay behind,to drink yet more port and claret, and smoke cigars.  You might wonder why they weren't all enormous after dining like this.  In fact, these were holiday meals or meals where special guests were in the house.  During other times they took much more simple meals in less elaborate dining rooms.  One, no matter how rich, surely couldn't eat this way daily and live long to tell about it.

On our next trip, I'd like to drive north.  Some homes on my list are Holkham Hall and Estate and Harewood House as they too have their old kitchens in tact and open for viewing. Also Hardwick Hall, Blenheim Palace and perhaps ending at Highclere Castle (of Downton Abby; Jeeves and Wooster fame) on the way back to Heathrow airport.  Other great estate homes that you may want to consider if you are touring England are those known as the Treasure Houses of England. Check out the link and begin planning your next visit!

Until then, Happy Thanksgiving!

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