Have you ever wished you’d been invited to dinner at Downton Abbey? Well, even if you’re not headed for England to dine with Lord and Lady Grantham … why not host your own dinner party – Downton Abbey style?
As part of my research for the Edwardian Brides Series I’ve read several books about the time period, including Charles MacPherson’s book, “The Butler Speaks: A Guide to Stylish Entertaining, Etiquette, and the Art of Good Housekeeping.” Here are some tips from his book to help you plan your party.
Setting the Right Mood
The Edwardian era was all about excess. It was the fanciest period England had seen for several centuries, even more ornate than the Victorian era. So think big. The more elaborate you can make the table, the better. The British nobility at the time was very concerned with status, which dictated where people sat. Consider assigning your guests titles, and perhaps make name tags with names and titles. Ask them to dress for dinner, but remember the rules of etiquette: no hats for women after 5 p.m. Ladies always removed their gloves and lay them in their laps.
A Little Dinner Music
Music at an Edwardian-era dinner party would have been provided by a soloist, usually a piano player. So a CD of piano music by a single pianist would be appropriate for a Downton-style dinner. But music would have been only for the predinner reception in the drawing room. Turn off the music when it’s time for the meal.
White linens are really what’s done among the aristocracy, MacPherson said. That goes for both the tablecloth and the napkins. Napkins would have been heavily starched and folded into an elaborate shape, so go online to find instructions for a fancy napkin fold, or borrow a book from the library.
Place the napkin on the bread and butter plate, not in the center of the place setting. Why? If an ill-mannered guest didn’t put his napkin in his lap, the butler would have nowhere to set the guest’s plate. And the butler would have been far too genteel to embarrass the guest by telling him to move the napkin.
Use Your Best China
Edwardians loved expensive hand-painted china and decorative transfer ware, which was new at the time. So patterned china would be most appropriate. Haul out Grandma’s dishes, borrow from a friend, or visit a thrift/secon-hand store.
MacPherson recommended using cut crystal, which was the style of the day. If you don’t own it, shop the secondhand stores, but don’t worry about finding a matching set. Mixing and matching is fine. After all, Queen Victoria brought it into style because she didn’t have enough matching pieces for everyone at big dinners.
Use candles in abundance. Remember that electricity was still new in the early 20th Century, and many people were afraid of it, MacPherson said. Elegant dinners would have been eaten by candlelight, since electricity was thought to give off harmful vapors.
Ivory candles are most authentic, since candles at the time would have been the color of the fat from which they were made. But white candles are a good choice, too.
The dining scenes on Downton Abbey usually show the guests helping themselves from serving dishes offered by the servants. But during the Edwardian era kitchen staff usually put the food onto the guests’ plate, and the butler placed the loaded plates in front of the guests. What, you don’t have servants? Hire your kids to serve, or maybe find some neighborhood teenagers willing to do the job.
Servants at the time would have worn morning suits, probably made by the same tailor who made the lord’s clothing. The fancier the uniform, the higher the master’s status.
“The most important thing is to have self-confidence,” McPherson said. Explain to your guests the history and reasoning behind your choices, from the fruit in the centerpiece to the folds in the napkins. “Don’t apologize and say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry this doesn’t match or that doesn’t match. Instead, project all the self-assurance that befits a host.” Would the Crawleys do it any other way?
What’s on the Menu?
- Beef Tenderloin on Black Pepper Brioche with Bearnaise & Horseradish Cream
- Lobster Rissoles with Mousseline Sauce
- Deviled Eggs
- Salmon Mousse Pinwheels
- Bread Boxes with Welsh Rarebit
- Grilled Quail and Truffle Salad on Toasted Brioche
- Wild Mushroom Consomme (suitable for vegetarians)
- Lemon and Herb Crusted Sole with Celeriac Veloute, Pickled Cucumber and Celery Leaves
- Root Vegetable Napoleon with Celeriac Veloute, Pickled Cucumber and Celery Leaves (vegetarian alternative)
- Grilled Provimi Veal Tenderloin Medallion, Fava Bean Agnollotti with English Pea Foam, Spring Vegetable Bundle & Asiago Tulle with Sterling Premium Caviar
- Roast Loin of Venison, Tart Greens (savoy cabbage and watercress), Black Currants and Spaetzle
Salad & Cheese Course
- Fennel & Orange Salad with Toasted Walnuts, Golden Raisins and Endive, Orange Vinaigrette
- A Selection of Artisinal Cheeses – Aged Comte, Humbolt Fog, Bayley Hazen Blue and Thistle Hill Farm Tarentaise
- Strawberry Charlotte Russe
- Frozen Meyer Lemon “Caviar” Parfait (made with tapioca) with Fresh Berry Compote
- Passion Fruit Shells Filled with a Selection of Mousses: Raspberry, Passion Fruit, White Chocolate & Ginger Mango
Step into Edwardian life in England when you read The Governess of Highland Hall and The Daughter of Highland Hall. Read the first chapters and order your copy here.
Thank you to The Detroit Free Press for sharing much of this wonderful information. You can read the full article here.
Thanks to The Catered Affair for their menu.