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Christmas at Downton Abbey from the British TV series. Recreate some of the dishes the gentry ate a century ago with The Official Downton Abbey Christmas Cookbook.

Have a Downton Abbey Christmas with Regula Ysewijn’s lovingly researched cookbook based on the popular TV series

  • In The Official Downton Abbey Christmas Cookbook, culinary historian Regula Ysewijn gives many Downton-era recipes, while updating them where necessary
  • Dishes include the traditional roast turkey and Christmas pudding, as well as unexpected ones such as boar’s head pie and anchovy eclairs

Christmas at Downton Abbey sounds like it was a magical time – at least if you were “upstairs” (for the servants it sounds like hard work and long hours). Yes, it’s fiction, but the television series was based on reality, and for wealthy aristocrats at the beginning of the 20th century, Christmas was a time of extravagant feasting, gaiety and giving and receiving gifts. Much like today, really – complete with the class divides.

In the introduction to The Official Downton Abbey Christmas Cookbook (2020), Belgian food writer and culinary historian Regula Ysewijn – author of the wonderful Oats in the North, Wheat from the South (2020) – writes: “ At Downton Abbey, Christmas 1919 begins in the early-morning hours with a commotion deep in the woods ending the night silence.

“A large, dew-shrouded fir is cut from its roots, bound onto the back of a lorry, and then transported quickly along a tyre-rutted, tree-lined path. Before any family members are awake, Thomas [the under-butler] coordinates the tree’s swift unloading for set-up in the great hall.

“Meanwhile, the fires are lit across the house, maids on their knees, their hands covered in soot from the coals. Light floods into the rooms as heavy, dark drapes are drawn one after the other. Downstairs, Mrs Patmore [the cook] and Daisy [her assistant] have already finished the food for the family’s breakfast, and Daisy has gone upstairs for her other duties.

Pages from The Downton Abbey Christmas Cookbook. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

“On her way down, Daisy passes the great hall, her arms laden with cleaner and a bucket of coals. She is stopped in her steps by the sheer brilliance of the grand tree and takes in the spectacle, amazed. Whereas before the tree was bare, it is now shimmering with silver tinsel and sparkling garlands […]

“Mrs Hughes [the head housekeeper], who has just criticised Daisy for dawdling and sent her off downstairs, is now taking in the majestic tree herself, right in time for the illumination of the new electric lights strung among its branches. Not surprisingly, such bright lights are not welcomed by everyone. The candles of the past, which cast the tree in a more delicate light, are still favoured by the Dowager Countess. It is tradition, she would say, and tradition is what Christmas is all about.”

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In The Official Downton Abbey Christmas Cookbook – which features a foreword by Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey the TV series – Ysewijn gives many Downton-era recipes while updating them where necessary. She writes, “The recipes in the following pages will give you the opportunity to host a Downton-inspired Christmas with dishes that are still relevant today.

“Some of them have hardly changed over the last hundred years; others have evolved to suit the contemporary need for a lighter option. For example, vegetables are cooked for a shorter time, and béchamel is not used nearly as much as it was even twenty years ago. As a child of the 1980s, I recall that many of our family dinners came with a layer of white sauce, just as suppers did in the Downton era.”

Of course, without cooks, footmen and maids, it would be difficult to prepare the eight-course holiday meals that were standard at Downton Abbey; Ysewijn writes that three or four courses are more manageable.

Coq au vin from The Official Downton Abbey Christmas Cookbook.
Boar’s head pie from The Downton Abbey Christmas Cookbook. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

She gives us plenty to choose from, including roast beef, roast turkey and Christmas pudding (of course), and more unexpected dishes such as boar’s head pie (not for the novice cook), Yorkshire Christmas pie (ditto), stuffed mushrooms, anchovy eclairs, oysters au gratin, macaroni and cheese tartlets, skate au vin blanc, Malay prawn curry, and endives à la creme.

​Like what you read? Look for more food and drink in SCMP Post Magazine.