Saturday, 28 December 2013

Chef Comes To Pemberley

And Throws His Teddy Bear Out Of The Pram!

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.

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 licence 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? 

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 were 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 down my 'bijou' role as the chef. I threw my teddy bear out of the pram! A stand-in was found - a real actor, who suited the part much better than me and the show went on. However, you will notice my hands unmoulding an intricate macedoine jelly at one point. 

Despite my misgivings about the way in which the kitchen had been decorated, I really enjoyed working on the production. The crew and cast were delightful. And it is always a pleasure to work at Harewood, a house with which I have a long professional association.
Mrs Darcy (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Mrs Reynolds the housekeeper (Joanna Scanlan) inspect the preparations for the ball supper in the Harewood kitchen.

10 comments:

  1. And I'm betting that the film makers will advertise this film for its authenticity. Thing is, if it had been done correctly, you can also bet that reviewers would have sneered at the 21st century sensibilities of this clean, neat kitchen. You can't win! ;-)

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  2. Oh, now I am really impressed Ivan. You continue to amaze me. Isn't it funny how they would insist on leaving the birds hanging over the food. Such an easy thing to change. It would have made it more interesting to see it being prepared then brought into the kitchen.

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  3. Do my eyes deceive me or is that a pink-and-white sugar paste goblet sitting atop a pink-and-white "box" that Mrs Reynolds is pointing to? And, are those not comfits in the box? Almond, perhaps, since they appear a bit too large for something like caraway or anise?

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    1. Elise,

      It is not a goblet, but a gum-paste tazza (or bonboniere) on an ornamented pedestal. And it is filled with sugar almonds. Well spotted!

      Ivan

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    2. Your food is exquisite! I saw the first part (all three are on Youtube) and at least they did walk down the kitchen table to view your goodies. The feathers were literally in the way and would have liked a longer view of the ovens and range, but it was wonderful seeing all the desserts and the lovely interior and exterior shots of the houses. As always you did an incredible job. Pat

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    3. Hello Pat. The ranges at Harewood are by Benham and Sons and were installed in the early 20th century, so were actually not right for a Regency period movie! Thanks for the kind words.

      best regards

      Ivan

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  4. I watched the series after reading about it here on your blog. I must say I kept putting the episode on hold to have a longer look at the kitchen and the food. As always your food looked absolutely gorgeous!

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  5. Absolutely marvelous work. Congratulations!
    Could you please post the source for the "orange sauce" for goose? Is it a period receipe?

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    1. Gospodyni,

      I might be wrong, but I suspect the 'orange sauce' for goose may have filtered into the screen play from the original P.D. James text. This was not a sauce that was ever served with goose. I suspect that P.D. James knew about duck a la orange and perhaps thought that a goose being a related bird deserved a similar sauce. I am afraid her culinary research for this book was terribly sloppy!

      Ivan

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