How to Eat Like the Real Countess of the Real Downton Abbey
Did you know that Mary Berry filmed a cooking show at Highclere Castle?
On the last open weekend at Highclere Castle this fall, just days before the Downton Abbey movie crew was scheduled to descend upon the grounds of the legendary 5,000-acre estate that's hosted six seasons of the hit television series as well as centuries of royalty, statesmen, and, not least of all, Katie Price's 2005 wedding to Peter Andre, thousands of veterans, servicemen-and-women, and guests honored the centennial anniversary of the end of World War I at the Heroes at Highclere event, which raised money for veterans and members of the armed forces. Leading the charge—hands-on, walkie-talkie out in full force, directing the intricately choreographed two-day event which included a Q&A with Hugh Bonneville, the fictional Earl of Grantham—was Fiona, the Countess of Carnarvon, who was previously a fashion designer (she ran her own label, Azur) and later a senior auditor at PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Today, Lady Carnarvon runs Highclere Castle—as both a home and a business.
"If you're in business, it's such fun having fun—I'm not very corporate, I suppose. I follow my heart, and that's how I work with businesses too," Lady Carnarvon told Food & Wine. "I tend to have receptions and tours and things like that, where you can curate with more individual interests."
I attended Heroes at Highclere as a guest of the event's title sponsor, Viking—which has also sponsored Downton Abbey for all the years the show aired on PBS. It turns out, Viking also has a close relationship with Highclere Castle and the Carnarvon family in real life and, as a result, cruise guests electing a pre- or post-cruise "Oxford and Highclere Castle" extension on select river and ocean journeys are allowed privileged access to Highclere.
"Many of our guests were introduced to both Viking and Highclere Castle while watching Downton Abbey, so we are inextricably linked in a lot of minds," Senior Vice President of Viking Karine Hagen said in a statement. "But first and foremost, the relationship between Viking and Highclere is one of friendship and family. In our professional worlds, both Lady Carnarvon and I are much aligned in our determination to deliver enriching and meaningful experiences to our guests. Our respective platforms, Highclere Castle and Viking, allow us to connect different cultures in ways that can ultimately help make the world a more understanding place."
For the general public not on a cruise, a peek inside the stately home can be more elusive—and dependent on the Downton Abbey filming schedule, at least for the upcoming year. "We have a public opening season in the spring, over Easter and the school holidays, because that's when I think people might like to travel, and then over the summer," Lady Carnarvon says. "I have my May week, and I'm thinking about doing a little clothing exhibition next March. I've got some special guided tours through the autumn. In between, because Downton are here for a week and then they're not here for a couple of days, I might as well have a tour, because I think that might be fun. I slip in Viking as well, they have privileged access tours, and that's often in October and November."
Highclere Castle has also appeared in innumerable other television shows—including a Mary Berry series aired in the U.K. late last year.
"We did a program with Mary Berry, which was shown and it went really well," Lady Carnarvon says. Later, at the castle, "I created a few weekends where people could come and we could talk about what we did and they could eat what she and I cooked—because there were other dishes that she and I cooked together which weren't shown—and I gave all the recipe cards and the chef came out."
For anyone looking to bring a taste of the real Downton Abbey into their home kitchens, Lady Carnarvon's At Home at Highclere: Entertaining at the Real Downton Abbey features exclusive photos of the castle's interior as well as dozens of regional recipes—including her signature curry. And there are more cookbooks to come.
"My next book is going to be another cookbook," Lady Carnarvon says. "I thought I'd do one more, but a smaller-format one, which is going to be Christmas at the Real Downton Abbey. I'm using this wonderful statue of Charlemagne down there—so I'm using the objects [in the castle] to go back in time [and show] what Christmas was like here in 800 A.D., because I've got the records, and some of the earlier recipes... It's a very Victorian house and Christmas is a very Victorian time."
In addition to serving as a film set, Highclere is also a working farm—and the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon are fully invested in sustainable practices. "I'm very interested in field-to-table and field-to-stable," Lady Carnarvon says. "I'm very interested in sustainability and how we should help preserve this beautiful land we live in and, in a greater way, the land that we all live in. None of us really own anything here, we're just stewarding it for our lifetime… I can walk in time from 4500 B.C. to totday by looking at the land and the Iron Age forts. In a sense I like using that to bring people back to think about how we can continue to live for the next 4,500 years and not unbalance ourselves.
"You can't live in the past," she says. "You have to have a modern attitude to withstand change."