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Great food has a history: Culinary historian blogs on 'Downton Abbey' food

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TORONTO - A fascination with history and the epicurean delights shown on "Downton Abbey" has inspired a Canadian fan to create a blog about the food on the wildly successful British television drama.

With an average of 3,000 visits a day to her "Downton Abbey Cooks" blog, more than 7,600 followers on Twitter and about 1,700 likes on Facebook, Pamela Foster was further encouraged to put together "Abbey Cooks Entertain," a cookbook based on the cuisine served in grand country houses in Britain in the early 20th century.

"As more and more people asked me about what should you serve with this, how can I entertain my friends doing that, I started saying, 'Well, I could do that. Anyone can put a cookbook together.'

"It was a lot more work than I thought it would be," admitted Foster, who has a history degree and works in corporate marketing.

Calling her project a "labour of love," the avid home cook finally stopped when she had compiled and tested 220 recipes, delving into period cookbooks and newspaper archives as well as using treasured family recipes.

"I found it inspiring to have so many people so enthused about the show that it drove me on," Foster said from her home in Burlington, Ont.

Her husband, Donald, whom she affectionately calls "Lord D" in her blog and cookbook, introduced her to the period drama about the Crawley family and their servants.

"My husband loves the fact that there's decorum and there's manners and there's a time and place for everything and everyone has a certain way of behaving that we often don't see," said Foster, who is also the curator of the official Downton Abbey UK “Eat, Drink & Be Merry” Pinterest page, which has more than 8,800 followers.

But she was particularly fascinated with the importance of food during the Edwardian period in which the show begins. Although Edward VII reigned in England from 1901 to 1910 after the death of his mother, Queen Victoria, the era is sometimes extended to include the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and even the First World War, which ended in 1918.

"After a thousand years of accumulated wealth, Edward VII came along and he was a gluttonous, cavorting playboy and he sort of dictated this whole idea of excess and food became so important because it was a way to show off your wealth," explained Foster.

"The better food and the better parties that you had, the better time and the more power you had and the more influence over your peers. That for me was the peak and as things happened — land taxes and death taxes and the drop of agriculture and George (V) coming in and taxing the rich — it became a period of adjustment."

At the era's height, grand meals with many courses emerged from the kitchens of country homes, including French dishes, which the king admired.

"Even though the Crawley sisters are lovely and beautiful and very thin, that wasn't really the typical shape of women in that period. ... Mrs. Patmore is likely more the norm," Foster said, referring to the cook played by Lesley Nicol who reigns over the kitchens in "Downton Abbey," the real-life Highclere Castle, home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.

"I wanted to update (the food) and bring it forward and make it more relevant."

She has given the recipes of the period a healthy makeover.

So along with the delectable crumpets, custard tarts, watercress sandwiches and poached salmon with mousseline sauce consumed upstairs and the hearty soups, cornish pasties and hotpot eaten by the servants downstairs, the book also includes guilt-free carrot and Victoria sponge cakes and low-fat pumpkin and banana bread.

Foster started researching healthier food when her father had his first heart attack 15 years ago and had to change his eating habits.

"I started making healthier choices," the 50-year-old said. "I took up more of a disciplined running and exercise regime and started finding ways to cut the fat and sugars and the bad chemicals out of what I was eating and that's what I'd like to pass on to readers."

She has peppered the book with bits of food history and lore from the show, such as the fact that roast squab "holds a place of honour as the seventh course in first class on the last meal served on Titanic." One of the more memorable dishes served on "Downton Abbey" is Raspberry Meringue Pudding. In Season 1 Mrs. Patmore had to concede that her failing eyesight is an issue after she mistakenly sprinkles salt instead of sugar on her prized dessert.

There are sections on afternoon tea and its etiquette (the milk goes in after the tea and the spoon goes behind the cup) and holiday entertaining throughout the year.

Foster laments that so many culinary skills used by the workers in those grand homes have been lost and hopes to inspire people to get back into the kitchen and have some fun through her lively book and blog.

"Pretend you're having a 'Downton Abbey' party or an afternoon tea or cocktails and really embrace cooking. If that's one way to get people into the kitchen, then by all means let's go for it."

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For information about how to get Foster's book "Abbey Cooks Entertain" or to read her blog, visit http://downtonabbeycooks.com/

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