In many scenes in Downton Abbey, Carson and Thomas leave our Dining Room to walk behind the green baize door and tread loftily down our staff stairs carrying large platters of chicken in mayonnaise, itself pretending to be fish, some of which might have just been dropped over the Dowager Lady Grantham. Two weeks later, in Ealing Television Studios, they would continue their stately progress, down the final two steps and into the fictional Downton Abbey kitchen with the same old chicken. The wonders of TV continuity…
In fact, cameras and visitors hoping to peer into our kitchens to see Mrs. Patmore, the cook, find instead Paul, Highclere’s own chef, which he and they both occasionally find a little disconcerting. Of course, Mrs. Patmore is the actor Lesley Nicol, who has stayed with me for a weekend or two as my guest whilst Paul the chef has prepared wonderful lunches and dinners for us all. Instead of Mr Carson, Lesley found Luis, Highclere’s butler, creating the evening’s gin cocktails.
Lesley Nicol recently shared Paul’s kitchen for various parts of upcoming documentaries. During recent filming in the kitchens, when Paul was showing Lesley how to roll out scone dough, there was a genuine camaraderie. Real and fictional worlds collide in many ways and I love that Lesley happily admits, with much laughter, that in reality she cannot boil an egg but that, of course, is the art of acting: that ability to transform into the much loved bustling cook at Downton Abbey, loved on set and around the world.
If much of the series and film were filmed at Highclere, most of Mrs Patmore’s kitchens scenes were at Ealing Studios. We had concluded that using our own kitchens for filming would not work. They are part of a very busy working environment and the old Caron ranges have been replaced by state of the art ovens, stoves, bratt pans and walk-in freezers. Instead, the downstairs at the studios was recreated by chippies and set designers who are incredibly clever and quick.
Paul’s kitchen – the actual place it occupies – is very old in that I think kitchens have been on the same site for 1,000 years. Originally they probably would have been separate from where everyone slept as kitchens were prone to catch fire. Above the old Caron ranges were smoking cupboards, at the back a marble patisserie and on the other side game larders and pot washes. Accommodation was on the floor above but that space is no longer used except as routes for extractor fans or fresh air inlets.
I have long learnt that Paul the chef is not a cheapskate – he wants the best. An incredibly organised man, a talented chef and great team player he runs our kitchens with three other chefs, not only producing food for 1,200 people day during public opening, but also creating afternoon teas, picnic boxes and then, later in the year, presenting dishes which exemplify the best of British or Highclere cooking for a smaller dinner or lunch parties.
The kitchens are thus such a key part of Highclere that I begin most days walking in to say hello, knowing the team have been there for some hours already. The old wooden door leads into a large room with a very high vaulted ceiling which has to be entirely scaffolded whenever it is repainted, the old clock in the wall now has a computer screen to one side, doors at either end lead into fridge areas and there are stairs leading up to Paul’s office. The dry stores are in one room, whilst deliveries come in to a grocery area. It is full of laughter and frank words. Writing ‘At Home at Highclere’, gathering recipes and stories and tales of etiquette and royalty, working with Paul and his team helped me evermore better understand the heart of this beautiful home
“One cannot think well, love well and sleep well if one has not dined well.” Virginia Woolf