It's not about life in Downton Abbey, but Minding The Manor: The Memoir of a 1930s English Kitchen Maid by 97-year old Mollie Moran draws you into the realities of the kitchen life in a grand house in London's Knightsbridge and a Tudor mansion in Norfolk, too. It's a feast for both foodies and history geeks.
This book is packed with history. So much so that I have doubts the author penned the book by herself; I imagine there was significant editing and/or ghost writing involved.
Regardless, we're transported into an aristocratic household, albeit downstairs, through the eyes of a rambunctious 14-year old girl who would rather climb trees or kiss boys than scrub stairs. This spitfire, can-do attitude is what carries Mollie Moran through 10 years "in service" from a scullery maid to kitchen maid and finally, to cook at a prestigious home.
The homes are real, and you can visit them - or at least view pictures online:
Cadogan Square, London, England - the actual house you can't see, but the square? Still there, and still one of the most expensive places to live in England. Should your larder or closet need replenishing, it's just a few blocks from Harrod's.
Wood Hall, Hilgay, Norfolk, England - I found precious little information about this grand home online. Here's an architectural history, a photo, and (if you scroll to the very bottom of the page) a postcard of the home.
The go-to reference for the kitchen staff is Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management.
Let's say you want to cook turkey for for a special occasion. Here's how the stuffing was prepared:
"[The cook would] take take a pound of veal and minced it up so fine it was almost like a smooth pate. Next she'd pounded it with beef suet and smoked bacon. Then [the kitchen maid took over] and passed the whole lot through a wire sieve before mixing with onion, two eggs, mace, parsley, nutmeg, and fine breadcrumbs. The whole lot was stuffed in the cavity of the bird, coated in more bacon, and roasted in the range until it was golden brown. By, it looked tasty!" (p. 163)
The book emphasizes that all kitchen preparation was done from scratch - no modern conveniences like blenders or food processors were available. Heck, there wasn't a fridge or electric or gas stove, either. Things were kept cool in an ice box, and cooking was done on a coal-powered AGA beast. Days often ran from 6:30am-9:30pm.
The book also offers a handful of recipes from Mrs. Beeton, as well as folksy tips for housekeeping. There are plenty of stories about the various hijinks the author gets up to including slithering down from a third story window to get to a local dance and 'disgracing' the staff by appearing in a bathing suit in a disrespectful newspaper.
Overall, this was a fun and informative read. I knew very little about the life of a kitchen maid, and even less about England in the 1930s. Recommended for lovers of history and food.