Thursday, January 19, 2012

Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs and Crêpes Suzette

Picture from Downton Abbey

I am hooked on the PBS series, Downton Abbey and have been since it premiered last year.  What’s not to love?  It has great drama, wonderful actors and it’s shot in one of the great houses of England.  For an hour on Sunday, the present fades away and it’s 1914 (and if you've missed them, you can watch them all on

Downton Abbey flowed from the golden pen (keyboard?) of Julian Fellowes who also wrote the sparkling, Oscar-winning script for Gosford Park in 2001–– a deliciously detailed story about a house party murder mystery set in 1932, filmed mostly at real locations in Wrotham Park and Syon House, and directed by Robert Altman. After a long if quiet career as a character actor, Fellowes has hit his stride later in life as the consummate creator of dramas about the aristocracy and their servants in a changing cultural climate.

Fellowes said in a Daily Mail piece that he was approached in 2009 to do a series that would  “revisit Gosford Park territory” after the film was such a hit.  He wasn’t keen on the idea at the beginning, worrying “it would be like trying to make lightning strike twice in the same place’, but then embraced the challenge.  Interestingly, he had been reading about American heiresses coming to England at the time and began by imagining a single character and her story ––a rich American heiress marrying into a title –– the rest of the script fell into place.

Downton Abbey is shot at the magnificent Highclere Castle in Hampshire England, home (since 1679) of the Carnarvon family. It currently houses the 8th Earl, George Herbert.  Although there has been a structure there since the middle ages, the better part of the current house was completely remodeled in the 19th century in the Jacobean style.

The heiress that helped the Carnarvon family at the end of the 19th century was not American but rather a beautiful and diminutive Englishwoman, Almina Wombwell, referred to as a “pocket Venus”, who married the 5th Earl.  He was the famous Lord Carnarvon that financed Egyptologist Howard Carter’s  digging about in The Valley of Kings that led to the sensational discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun  in 1922.

Almina was the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothchild who brought a £500,000 dowry from her “godfather Alfred” to sweeten the pot for Carnarvon undertaking a socially dangerous union. She wasn’t officially illegitimate ––she was christened Wombwell after the scamp her French mother had married –– but she was spurned by most of society. Lord Carnarvon was not deterred, he had his own demons to contend with, not the least of which were crushing sporting debts that the marriage erased. She showed her gratitude by underwriting his Egyptian digs. Although not American, she was certainly an outsider and you could say she was one of the more highly colored inspirations for the Wisconsin heiress that was to become Lady Cora (according to Fellowes there were 350 American heiresses that saved British royalty from ruin in the 19th Century –– the NYT's has a great story about Edith Wharton and this trend).

Photos of house from Highclere Castle site

It seems that the series came just in time to save the current Lord Carnarvon from a distasteful sale of some of his land for a housing development to pay for £12 million in necessary repairs (I read that most of the upstairs rooms were in a terrible state of decay with mold and leaks undermining the structure of the house –– the photos were disturbing). Andrew Lloyd Webber also offered to buy the Highclere to house his massive art collection after hearing it was in tough straights ... an offer that mightily insulted Lord Carnavon.


Only the grand rooms downstairs have been well maintained.  Downton Abbey has proved to be a windfall for the Earl who’s not only reaped location fees, he’s also seen an explosion in tourism at the house.  Downton has saved Highclere. Bravo!



It’s not just the Highclere Castle location that makes the series so richly textured.  Fellowes has been a stickler on the use of correct props, dressing and service for the series –– he has a gimlet eye for the minutia of this stately, structured world. Production also had an historical expert on hand named Alistair Bruce to answer any questions about protocol that came up, from seating to eating –– like would asparagus be eaten with the fingers? Answer? Bruce was unavailable as cameras were about to roll so they chopped them to look like green beans so as not to make an incorrect choice.  Even the menus were written out in French, as would have been the fashion (although, if one dish wasn’t translatable then the whole menu would have been in English –– wonder who downstairs was writing the French?).

I think one of the reasons the show is so addictive is that not a hair is out of place in the recreation of WWI England so you feel as if you are truly there.

Pictures that follow are from Downton Abbey

Most of the silver and glassware used are antiques from the period around the WWI or earlier… some things were borrowed from Highclere.  The dishes are Spode and the fictional crest of Earl of Grantham was created by the art director Charmian Woods and applied to each and every plate by the art department.

The table settings and floral arrangements were created from historical images.  The use of greens placed directly on the table rather that big tall arrangements must have made the film crew terribly happy… nothing to get in the way for shooting!

Still, there was much to be done by the crew with all the table service and matching and endless replacements of the food that was served and eaten over and over again during the course of filming. 

Actors are always reminded not to eat too much in their first take.  After 12 hours of shooting the same scene, they will have to eat the same food through all the takes ––singles, doubles, wides and reverses.


I remember as a kid being endlessly fascinated at the way servants held the silver trays and covered dishes and the guests helped themselves with such grace with double spoons or large forks and such… one waiter with the fish, another following with the sauce… remarkable man power involved in serving a meal!

Things were different for the downstairs scenes.  The kitchen area is an impeccably outfitted set on a London stage and not at Highclere since the old kitchen didn’t exist any longer (the remarkable call board was custom made by the last remaining craftsman specializing in this old fashioned contraption… and it actually worked).  It was mentioned in a Daily Mail article that shooting would often involve an actor leaving the kitchen set holding a tray of food and delivering it to the dining room at Highclere 2 weeks later.  It made for nerve-wracking continuity matching.

I loved this photo of crew fussing over the actors and the set and the food plates covered with foil to keep 
them from congealing (and keep wardrobe sleeves out of the sauce).

Fellowes said that recipes for all the food all came from Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management .  Although published in the 1860’s, the book was widely reprinted and altered to account for changes in style and equipment (gas stoves, for instance) and was still very popular in the early 20th century.  It is entirely possible that Downton’s cook, Mrs. Patmore, had this book as a reference on that shelf above the desk.

I was looking for things to make when I watched the first show of the second season. When a new maid told the downstairs staff she longed to try the Crêpes Suzette they were serving at a Grantham dinner that evening (very much an upstair’s treat), it seemed an invitation to make the dish.  What happened with the cheeky maid’s request to have the Lord and Ladies’ leftover crêpes made me smile –– the maid didn’t get her wish because she had ticked off the cook, Mrs. Patmore.

Rather than give the leftover pancake (crêpe) to the maid…

Mrs. Patmore gives it to the master’s dog, Isis (who was called Pharoah earlier)

Crêpes Suzette, at least according to one version of its history, was a favorite of soon to be King Edward VII of England (because Victoria lived so long, he was only king from 1902 to his death in 1910).

Henri Charpentier preparing Crêpes Suzette

Henri Charpentier (1880-1961), in his very charming autobiography, Life a la Henri: Being the Memories of Henri Charpentier  (a great favorite of Alice Waters) tells of the near disaster that created the dessert that earlier had just been crepes in orange sauce when he worked at the Café de Paris in Monte Carlo in 1895.  While preparing the simpler dish for Edward, he mistakenly lit up the liquors while warming them.  It made for a dramatic presentation and improved the flavor instead of ruining it. Charpentier recalled,  “It was, I thought, the most delicious medley of sweet flavors I had ever tasted. I still think so. That accident of the flame was precisely what was needed to bring all those various instruments into one harmony of taste . . . He [Edward] ate the pancakes with a fork; but he used a spoon to capture the remaining syrup.” His version of the legend has the dessert named in honor of Edward’s niece, Princess Suzanne who accompanied him at this momentous luncheon. “Thus was born and baptized this confection, one taste of which, I really believe, would reform a cannibal into a civilized gentleman. The next day I received a present from the Prince, a jeweled ring, a panama hat and a cane.”  Priceless.

Although there is another candidate for the creator of the dish (an actress named Suzette had to serve pre-prepared crêpes on stage and lit them up for extra drama and to warm the cold crêpes for her fellow cast members who had to eat them), I like this story best.

It would only be right, given its connection to a recent English King, that it would be a favorite at Downton. The recipe is not in Mrs. Beeton’s original book that I have (it was written 30 years before the dessert arrived on the scene) so I used Henri’s original recipe.

The way Charpentier’s version differs from modern versions is that he uses 3 liqueurs, Maraschino, Kirsch and Curaçao instead of today’s standard Grand Marnier and no additional orange juice... it also uses buckets of butter!  It does not use the citrus sugar method that I remember from the first time I had it, with the maître d’ rubbing cubes of sugar on the lemons and oranges and using the cubes… it was almost as fun to watch as a kid as the flaming part.  It is meant to impress.

It is quite easy to make most of it ahead and finish it a minute before serving.  I thought a few orange suprêmes would be a welcome addition to this great classic and you can whip up a batch and share it with your friends watching the show together with a glass of bubbly!

These crêpes are very eggy... don't get me wrong, they are delicious in the sauce but not what many are used to.   I enclose a less eggy recipe just in case.  There is also a lot of sauce, so be generous with it! The dish is insanely luxurious with all the butter and liquor... you can see why someone would long to try it after catching the scent of it wafting from the dining room... it is intoxicating... the scent of aristocracy.

Crêpes Suzette for 2, original recipe

Crêpes, original recipe (makes 4 good size crêpes)

3 eggs
2 T flour
1 T water
1 T milk
pinch of salt
1-2 T butter

Stir to the consistency of thick olive oil and let rest for 30 minutes to an hour (modern change, I put all the ingredients in a blender and mix then strain the batter and use it after it rests 15 minutes). 

For the first crepe, generously coat the pan with butter… but do not puddle it… too much butter makes bad crepes.  After that, add a smear of butter for each crepe (I often use a stick of butter and paint the pan with it). Make crepes using all the batter and fold each one twice, forming a wedge shape and reserve.

Crepes with less egg

¾ c milk
2 eggs
½ c flour
¼ t salt

Put everything in the blender and blend.  Strain into a bowl and cover for 15 -30 minutes then continue with the instructions above.


Piece of lemon peel the size of the ball of your thumb, cut in thin strips
Piece of orange peel the size of the ball of your thumb, cut in thin strips

OR use a micro plane and grate the zest into the sugar (which is what I did)

2 T vanilla sugar (you can make this by scraping a pinch of vanilla off the pod into the sugar or stir a drop of vanilla into sugar)

Combine and let sit 2 days (I am not sure this is really necessary, I think you can use it soon after making it)

¼ lb butter
5 oz. (he calls for 5 ponies) of an equal blend of maraschino, curaçao and kirshwasser (if you don’t have them all, you can use just Curaçao or Grand Marnier or Cointreau or Triple Sec which are all orange-flavored like curaçao)

suprêmes of 1 blood orange (skinless, membraneless segments cut away from the orange -I threw the juice that collect from doing it into the butter)
orange zest for decoration (optional)

Melt butter.  When it bubbles, add 3 ponies of liqueur blend, light on fire –– there will be a LOT of fire (it will go up about 6”) so pay attention, have a lid handy just in case.  I didn’t need it but good to have to be on the safe side… don’t have anything flammable hanging around it!!!

As the fire goes out, add the vanilla sugar and stir till it is melted.  Add the crepes and turn them ‘deftly’ in the hot sauce.  Then add 2 more ponies of mixed liqueurs, flame again and serve.  I had trouble with the second light.  Might be good to light the alcohol in a small skillet and pour or at least warm the alcohol to get the vapors going. Place the crepes on the plate, toss the suprêmes and zest on top and pour the sauce over all.

**I want to mention I got most of my information from a series of articles in the Daily Mail and ITV… bravo for their great research.  Also, if you want to learn more, Fellowes’ niece Jessica has written a companion book to the series that has most of this information and much more in The World of Downton Abbey.

Deborah over at A Doctor's Kitchen has created Trufflehead, an iPhone/iPad healthy cooking app for cooks of all levels. It’s packed with over 260 full-flavored recipes, as well as 170 step-specific technique demos, ingredient and equipment IDs, selection and storage info, and “Priority Organics” labeling of ingredients best purchase in organic form. Check out the Trufflehead video on YouTube.  I gave it to a young friend who is just learning how to cook and she was crazy about it.. especially all the tutorials on how to prep things, chop things... well it's great.  I like the shopping list you can make up and send out to whoever is running a shopping errand for you... check it out! 



From the Kitchen said...

I'm so happy to have your post this morning. I'll be back with a cup of tea to enjoy it slowly. We are enjoying Downton Abbey very much and to know more of the actual house and the family who owns it is a real treat. I'll be passing your blog site along to a few friends who are also enjoying the series.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Deana:
Downton Abbey represents what the BBC at its very best does so very well. As you say, the attention to historical detail and the superb cast really do serve to make one believe that one has been transported back in time and it is all as it was.

Of course, for us, the absolute star of the production is Dame Maggie Smith. We feel that she is the linchpin of the series and with barely a word, just a look, she can convey so much.

Diane said...

I have never heard of Downton Abbey!! I do not watch a lot of TV and when I do it is mostly sport, This series though sounds very interesting. I am also happy that it has saved the building. It is so sad when these beautiful places fall apart because there is no money for restoration.
The recipe sounds very yummy and I love crepes. Diane

Claudia said...

I never watch TV but this did intrigue me and I haven't been home to see it and wonder about catching up. You are correct - the use of these grand old estates is an extra incentive - a feeling "of being there." I will be desperately looking for reruns of this! Have always been intrigued by the heiresses that picked up the British monarchy. And love this dessert - but I am not allowed to set food on fire anymore...

Diane said...

I have just discovered why I have not seen Downton Abbey!!! It is on ITV and Nigel does not watch ITV!! I told him he would be watching the Tour de France this year on ITV or he would miss it all.... It is also probably on quite late for us as we are an hour behind the UK and we try to go to bed at a sensible time. I will check it out if I can manage to get onto ITV!!!! Diane

Anonymous said...

I love Downton Abbey, especially Maggie Smith's character. She is just fantastic. I always do a little gasp when they show the exterior of the house, but I had no idea it was someone's house. I love crepe's suzette, and will have to make it soon.

Speaking of Egyptology (slightly off topic), have you read the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters? If you haven't I really think you will like them. It takes place around the turn of the century and from what I've gathered, historically they are pretty accurate.

Sarah said...

If there is anyone I would ever have wanted to be, other than myself, it would be someone extremely wealthy who would live in a mansion like this. I visited the Biltmore in Asheville,NC and soaked up all the opulence. However, I would probably have been one of the minions who worked in the kitchen. I love Crepes Suzette and always make the recipe from Silver Palate. It is so good. Yours look divine, m'dear!

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Fantastic post! I LOVE Downton Abbey and have been impatiently awaiting its return. What a great idea to create special dinners around the show!

Julian said...

Love the post, as I noted on your Facebook page. But I was hoping for a photo of you flaming the crepes, and perhaps being startled and accidently dropping in yet a new ingredient so we'd end up with Crepes Deana! :)

indieperfumes said...

How lovely! Love the show too, and seeing those rooms so often is making them seem almost familiar. Of course you would make the crepes suzette!

For me, it's the things and the rooms and the people who made them and take care of the, and the fashions and hair stylists, love it all, and your post is such a treat that goes with it all so perfectly.

La Table De Nana said...

I love the light in that elegant sitting/living room..the golden hues..the ceiling, pretty.
I have a friend who..believe it or not was asked what would be her wish for her last meal? Crêpes Suzette!!

I thought of her the whole post!She's very English also:)

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

I must start watching that series because I know I would love it. Wonderful background on the author and also on filming eating scenes!

I haven't had crepes in far too long and yours look delicious. I love those wonderful, delicate pancakes!

Barbara said...

Absolutely loved Gosford Park and have the DVD. (Watched it last night, actually.) My son told me about Downton Abbey, but I missed quite at lot at the beginning and hate starting in the middle. He thinks I should get Netflix back just so I can watch the back episodes. I KNOW I'd love the show and after reading this, I am debating Netflix once again.

I just read a book called The American Heiress that was quite good, although I have already read many a book about how wealthy "foreign" (mostly American) women saved many an Englishman from poverty in those years. Looks like this is still going on...albeit the money is coming from location fees now. :)
Maggie Smith was perfect in Gosford Park and no doubt is perfect in this role as well.

Haven't made Crepes Suzette in was all the rage back in the 50's! All good things come around again, thank God. said...

Hi Deana:

Great information on Downton Abbey and its background!

Also love the Crepes Suuzette recipe - seems delicious! Its been years since I've had them.


Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

A friend told me to watch Downtown Abbey and your post has just cemented my desire to watch it! Sounds like a place full of stories and delicious meals :)

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

This was delicious, sentence by sentence, paragraph at a time. Oh my goodness, I am too cowardly to try this recipe for many reasons! I don't know if I could get the crêpes thin enough, and then the DRAMATIC FIRE SHOW! I am afraid I would cause a fire! But this is an inspiration dearest to plug in my computer to our flat screen TV and go onto and find this masterpiece! Everyone has been talking about this series and I have no access to it for I do not get TV reception, but it is high time I watch this. I CRAVE British drama and comedy and tonight seems like a good night to watch something from my collection! AND Fellows, I recognize him as being an actor as well, in Shadowlands!!!!

THANK YOU for coming through the wardrobe with me yesterday. Yes, our own personal Narnia is only a DAY dream away.....

Have an enchanting week! Anita

Lora said...

Fabulous post reminding me I need to get with the Downtown Abby program asap. Those crepes look wonderful.

Saucy Siciliana said...

It's 3PM here in Rome, am I early for tea and cucumber sandwiches? I first heard of cucumber sandwiches when I saw the play The Importance of Being Earnest. I have no idea how to make them though. Your blog is out of this world. My daughter and I both love old-fashioned, retro, vintage...anything from the past. I am following you from Rome, but I am actually Sicilian...and my husband is Japanese.

Erika Beth, the Messy Chef said...

LOVED reading this one since I just discovered Downton Abbey 2 weekends ago and devoured all the episodes within 3 days. Just posted a link on FB for all my fellow Downton Abbey friends to read. :)

Fresh Local and Best said...

I'm intrigued by the fascination that Downton Abbey has swept through the blogospere. I have yet to watch a single episode, so I feel quite left out. I will have to catch up on this when I get a moment. Your crepe suzette looks marvelous.

Tasty Trix said...

Downton Abbey is next on my list of things to marathon!! I know I will adore it. Just finished Breaking Bad, all 4 seasons. A bit of a direction change, eh? lol. Hmmm, "buckets of butter." That sounds about right, my dear! Haven't had crepes Suzettes in AGES, but your post brings back great sensory memories.

Jen ( said...

Wow. A lot of information, but very interesting. I love the library! And now I'm going to have to go to

anon said...

I finally got to sit down with a cup of tea and a cupcake to read your lovely post.

I've never gotten round to seeing Gosford Park but I thoroughly enjoyed watching Downton Abbey. My husband watched only the first ten minutes of one episode and decided it was 'boring' and that 'nothing ever happens'. He didn't have the patience to stay with it and hear Maggie Smith say that 'you'll find there's never a dull moment in this house'! I saw her words quoted on a Past Times cushion today!

I've never eaten crêpes Suzette before, but since it involves pyrotechnics, my husband would likely want to have a go.

I'll take your advice to clear away the flammables and I'll stay right out of his way!

Tracy @ Daily Deal Blog said...

I have never heard of Downtown Abbey. I must start watching that series on weekends. 

Jonny said...

There's something glorious about that pre-WW1 period that this show captures that similar series like Jeeves and Wooster and movies like Chariots of Fire also hint at, but since they were set in the inter-war era, the feeling isn't quite the same. The central notions of King and country, of the limitless Empire as somehow the rightful inheritance of every Englishman, and the unshakeable belief that the British way was the only path to civility had yet to be challenged by the Great War. Similarly, this was the last generation reliant on the horse, prior to major mechanization of personal transportation made distances much shorter and paved under the country road all that was natural and quiet and fragrant. In many ways this period of great exploration and derring-do, global trade and unbelievable prosperity, is the time that Britain still harkens back to as the best we ever achieved. It always makes me feel rather like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris. It was glorious and unsustainable and as perfect an example of what made us British great as it was an obvious statement about why it all had to burn like dry leaves in the ensuing thirty years. Lovely post.