Food & Drink Magazine

Chef Comes To Pemberley

By Historicfood

And Throws His Teddy Bear Out Of The Pram!
Chef Comes To Pemberley

A still from a kitchen scene in Death Comes to Pemberley, a BBC drama production based on the novel by P.D. James

Earlier this year I was invited to dress a couple of food scenes in the three-part period drama series Death Comes to Pemberley, which is currently screening on BBC television. One of them, a very ambitious ball supper table that features in an Elizabeth Darcy day dream, hardly made it into the final edit. A pity, because it was truly spectacular. But two brief kitchen scenes I set up did get used. In order to make the kitchen sequence exciting from a cinematic point of view, I suggested to the director that I should train the actors to carry out real culinary tasks from the Regency period - larding meat, icing Savoy cakes, garnishing hatelet skewers and unmoulding jellies. I thought these would be more visually exciting alternatives to the stereotypical choppy-choppy, kneady-kneady activities that had been suggested. He thought this was a great idea and put it to me that I actually play the chef. I had some reservations, but accepted the role as I thought it would actually make my job easier supervising the kitchen activities, so my measurements were passed on to the wardrobe department.

Chef Comes To Pemberley

The ball supper that never happened. A somewhat out of focus pan of a few dishes made it into the final edit

I enjoy doing this sort of thing for film and television, but I come from a different world and I sometimes get annoyed by the rather elastic license that is frequently taken by media creatives with the word 'authentic'. It is usually given as the reason for involving me in productions of this kind. When I was first invited to work on this one I was told, 'We want the kitchen table to be really, really authentic and you are the man to do it'. Now that is fine, because I have built a career on attempting to recreate period food in all of its glory in historic settings. So why was I more than a little surprised when I saw the way in which the wonderful kitchen at Harewood House had been set up by the art department prior to my arrival? 

Chef Comes To Pemberley

Blood drips from the game birds on to the fine pastry and elaborate ball supper dishes below, but it does n't half frame the shot!

The flagged kitchen floor had been covered with numerous large sacks of vegetables, making it look more like a market place than a palace kitchen. Hanging from an improvised gantry over the ancient Harewood work table were dozens of pheasants and rabbits. Now what is wrong with that you might well ask? Surely it sets the scene and creates a great atmosphere of a busy kitchen, the hanging game framing the shot perfectly. 
Let us take the vegetables first. The only vegetables that found their way into a kitchen of this status where ones that has been cleaned, peeled and prepared for the chef and his maids by the scullery staff. Raw vegetables were stored well away from the hot kitchen in specially designed bins to keep them cool and from under the feet of the staff. As for the game, there was a specialised game larder for that. Any game bird that came into the kitchen at Pemberley would have been plucked, cleaned and singed in the scullery before it arrived in the kitchen. Some great houses, like Chatsworth, the main location for the production, actually had a specialised 'plucking room'. The last thing you would hang over a table that was designed for the preparation of very fine food were game birds and rabbits dripping blood. I pointed this out and added the observation that the pheasants were in fact hanging by their legs when they should have been hanging by their necks. I was reassured that 'nobody will notice'. A few minutes later Lady Harewood, whose family owns the house, popped in to see how her wonderful kitchen had been dressed and expressed exactly the same concerns about the inappropriate game birds that I had. When told, 'but don't they look good', she replied, 'they look ridiculous'. An hour or so later, I noticed the pheasants had been hung the right way round, but remained suspended over a table dressed with delicate pastries and dessert dishes. This was the moment I decided that I did not want to be seen dead in front of it as a member of the cast and told the director that I was turning my tiny part as the chef down. I threw my teddy bear out of the pram!  

Chef Comes To Pemberley

Mrs D'Arcy (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Mrs Reynolds the housekeeper (Joanna Scanlan) inspect the preparations for the ball supper in the Harewood kitchen.

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