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|
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|
|Part of the batterie de cuisine at Petworth|
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|
|Julian says 'let's get cookin' in the Petworth kitchens|
|Vegetable and Meat Steamers|
|Julian with the Aga, a somewhat later addition.|
|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|
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 ‘entremêts’, 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.
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!