I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a sucker for good British drama, costume or otherwise. Being the Anglophile that I am, I am not merely satisfied with watching PBS or BBC America to get my fix. Oh, no. I subscribe to Tunnel Bear so I can bypass those pesky internet region-restrictions and watch all my favorite UK programs as soon as they air. It all started when I was a kid and discovered Masterpiece Theatre on PBS (yeah, I’m actually old enough to remember its original host, the wise and erudite Alistair Cooke). Sure, I was weened on American soap operas–my grandfather loved General Hospital, while my dad favored All My Children (don’t ask me why)–but I found the “other worldliness” of British period dramas like Upstairs, Downstairs and The Duchess of Duke Street utterly fascinating. It was the original BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, in fact, that turn me onto Jane Austen and consequently English literature. So when Downton Abbey came along, I was smitten.
It had all the requisite makings of a fan-worthy British drama–compelling story line, gorgeous period costumes, lush scenery and grand estates, and a talented cast delivering some of the most quotable dialogue (courtesy of the brilliant Julian Fellowes).
And, of course, Downton Abbey had the incomparable Dame Maggie Smith, whose Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham was undoubtedly the most quotable of all. I think most fans of the series would agree, despite the ups and downs in the quality of the story lines over the course of six seasons, Smith’s spot-on portrayal of Lady Violet was what really kept us engaged. Just when the narrative stalled or became dull, you could always count on her to inject a bit of lively humor to jump start the scene.
Given the multitude of characters that have populated the series over the years, the countless plots and subplots, it would probably take more than a few posts to hit all the highlights from both upstairs and downstairs– Mr. Pamuk expiring on top of Mary in her bedroom, Sybil’s marriage to Branson the chauffeur and subsequent death after childbirth, Matthew’s demise from a car crash, Edith secretly giving birth to Marigold, the many schemes of Thomas, Daisy’s awkward deathbed marriage to William, the respective incarcerations of Bates and Anna, the slow-burn romance between Carson and Hughes.
Instead, I’ve decided to simply do tea, high tea that is, to commemorate the place where all of this delicious drama took place–Downton Abbey, otherwise known as Highclere Castle.
Arguably one of the most divisive of characters, at once snobbishly cold and compassionate and fiercely loyal (you can love and hate her, often switching back and forth in the same episode), Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) is a force to be reckoned with. And as such, I felt she deserved to have a tea sandwich created in her honor–white bread (well because you can’t get any whiter than her) layered with a smoked trout filling (cold fish) and slices of cool cucumber. It’s prim and proper with the crusts trimmed off, but quite delectable and richly satisfying. My chef friend, Brian, gobbled down at least four in one sitting!
The Lady Mary
- 4 slices White Sandwich Bread (e.g. Pullman loaf)
- 1 can Smoked Trout Fillets (aprx. 4 oz.), drained
- 2 Tbsp. Cream Cheese
- 1 Tbsp. Mayonnaise
- 1 Tbsp. Butter, softened
- 1/2 tsp. Chopped Fresh Parsley
- 1/2 tsp. Chopped Fresh Thyme
- Salt/Pepper to taste
- 1/4 English Cucumber, sliced
To make the Smoked Trout filling, break up the trout with a fork, then mix in the cream cheese, mayonnaise, herbs, salt and pepper until smooth and spreadable.
Serving as the counterpoint to The Lady Mary is The Matthew (her greatest love), a sandwich consisting of sliced whole wheat bread (Matthew was always more down to earth), layered with slices of roast beef, a spicy horseradish cream cheese spread, and fresh baby arugula (mainly because I don’t care for watercress).
- 4 slices Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread
- 1 Tbsp. Butter, softened
- 2 Tbsp. Cream Cheese
- 1 Tbsp. Horseradish Cream
- 1 Tbsp. Mayonnaise
- 4 oz. Sliced Roast Beef
- 1 oz. Fresh Baby Arugula or Rocket
To make the Horseradish Cream Cheese Spread, blend the horseradish cream, cream cheese, and mayonnaise until smooth.
Scones are a must at any high tea. As a nod to the Irishman Branson, who symbolically bridged the two classes at Downton Abbey, I did twist on the classic Irish scone by incorporating some golden raisins (or sultanas as the Brits would say) infused with Earl Grey tea.
Yields: 1 dozen scones
- 1-1/2 cups + 1 Tbsp. All-Purpose Flour
- 1-1/4 tsp. Baking Powder
- 3/4 tsp. Sea or Kosher Salt
- 2 Tbsp. Sugar
- 2 oz. Butter, chilled and cut into 1/2″ pieces
- 1/2 cup Whole Milk
- 1/2 tsp. Vanilla Extract
- 1 egg, beaten
- 2/3 cup. Golden Raisins
- 1 cup Earl Grey Tea (double-strength)
- Turbinado Sugar for sprinkling
Soak the raisins in the hot tea for about 15 mins., then drain and squeeze out the excess liquid. Sprinkle 1 Tbsp. flour over the raisins and gently toss to coat. Combine the remaining dry ingredients in a bowl and cut in the cold butter with two forks until the butter has been broken down to the size of pop corn kernels. Toss in the flour-coated raisins. Whisk together the milk, vanilla and about half of the beaten egg, then mix the liquid into the dry mixture to form a dough. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, pat it into disk, then roll the dough out to 1/2″ thickness. With a 2″ round biscuit cutter, punch out disks of dough. Arrange the disks onto a parchment-lined sheet pan and brush the tops with the remaining egg and sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Bake the scones in a preheated 425°F oven for about 13-15 mins. or until golden brown.
Now something Mrs. Patmore would’ve made for high tea is a traditional Victoria Sponge Cake, a light and airy vanilla sponge cake layered with strawberry jam and sweetened whipped cream. For my version, I made a very easy vanilla chiffon cake, split the cake horizontally in half then spread a layer of homemade strawberry jam on one half, then top it with a layer of vanilla whipped cream and the other half of the cake. I chilled the entire cake in the freezer until firm, then using a 1-1/2″ round cutter I punched out petite four size cake bites and dusted the tops with powdered sugar.
The round out the menu, I came up with a bright and zippy Meyer Lemon Tartlet, in honor of everyone’s favorite Granny, the delightfully acerbic Lady Violet. It’s a classic high tea staple that never disappoints–a beautifully buttery and flaky tart base made with pate brisee, filled with a sweet and tangy Meyer lemon curd, lightly dusted with powdered sugar and garnished with a tiny sprigs of mint.
Yield: 1 cup
- 1/2 cup Fresh Meyer Lemon Juice
- zest of 2 Meyer Lemons
- 2 Tbsp. Butter
- 1/2 cup Sugar
- pinch of salt
- 2 Whole Eggs
- 1 Egg Yolk
Combine the lemon juice, zest, butter, sugar and salt in a non-reactive saucepan and bring to a boil. In separate bowl whisk together the eggs and yolk, then carefully whisk in the hot liquid to temper the egg mixture. Return everything to the saucepan and gently cook the mixture on medium heat until thick, whisking the entire time. The curd should coat the back of a spoon. Strain the curd into heat proof bowl, press a layer of plastic film onto to surface, and cool to room temperature for refrigerating. Spoon about 2 tsp. chilled curd into each baked tart shell.
Given that high tea can often run right into the dinner hour, I’ve chosen to end this high tea with a cocktail…sort of a salute to the end of Downton Abbey (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for those of you who haven’t watched all of Season 6 yet)–a decidedly British cocktail, made with Gin, Pimm’s, and Owl’s Brew (an English tea mixer).
The Crawley Pimm’s Cup
- 1 oz. Gin (preferably Hendricks)
- 1 oz. Pimm’s No. 1
- 2 oz. Owl’s Brew, The Classic
- 3-4 dashes Angostura Bitters
- 4 oz. Sparkling Lemonade, chilled
- 2 strips Fresh Cucumber
- Mint Sprig
- 3 Fresh or Frozen Raspberries
Combine the gin, Pimm’s, Owl’s Brew, and bitters with 3-4 ice cubes in a cocktail shaker. Shake to blend, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass and top with sparkling lemonade. Garnish with cucumber strips, mint and raspberries.