On a Sunday evening last February, sitting through a PBS SoCal promo break during Season 2 of “Downton Abbey,” a familiar face appeared on screen. Wait, isn’t that Ann, the Eastern European wine expert from Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa? Who’d just the other week put us onto a delicious Slovenian white in a cool 1-liter bottle? Here, on TV, talking about “Downton”?!
It was indeed Ann Stephens, who in addition to introducing customers to obscure, well-priced wines from emerging, or re-emerging, regions, is a major “Downton Abbey” fan. “I’m absolutely addicted,” she says. “It’s a fascinating depiction of the changes in Edwardian society—the decline of the aristocracy, and the social impact of the horrors of World War I.” Plot-wise, things can get a little soapy, Stephens admits, but “the quality of the acting, scenery, and costumes keeps me enthralled.”
Delilah Snell, master food preserver and owner of the Road Less Traveled in Santa Ana, is another O.C. “Downton” fan, especially of Dame Maggie Smith’s character, the irascible-with-a-heart-of-gold dowager countess Violet Crawley. “She’s badass,” Snell says. “I want to be her when I grow up. And I have a mad crush on Bates—biting my nails about him.” Accused-of-murder valet John Bates’ fate hangs in the balance at the close of Season 2… with resolution coming quite quickly in Season 3, I understand.
The show’s been a big hit for our own PBS SoCal, which took over as the region’s main PBS station the same month the show premiered in the U.S. The Season 2 finale in February last year garnered the most viewers ever for a single broadcast, though ratings have been consistently high. “It’s clearly in our Top 10,” says station manager Ed Miskevich.
“Downton” is my favorite sort of non-serious television, what I call high-quality cheese. A bonus, however, is the detailed emphasis running throughout on cooking and food service. Lots of scenes take place in the capacious kitchen, filled with bustling staff, giant pots, and clattering tableware, all overseen by my favorite character, Mrs. Patmore, who runs her downstairs empire with admirable single-mindedness.
The appeal of the “Downton” kitchen lead to “The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook” (Adams Media, 2012) by Emily Ansara Baines, an homage to what Mrs. Patmore might have been creating—it’s a collection of recipes suggestive of the Edwardian period, updated for modern cooks. I can imagine that there’ll be an official “Downton Abbey” cookbook soon, but for now, the “Unofficial” offers fine ideas to welcome back the show that inspired it. The hearty oat crackers below would be lovely with a little farmhouse cheddar and strong mustard, for instance, and maybe a foam-topped pint of bitter. Alternatively, you can always get a wine suggestion from fellow traveler Ann, over at Hi-Time.
Mrs. Patmore’s Rosemary Oat Crackers
(Makes about 50 crackers)
1 ½ teaspoons rosemary leaves
2 cups rolled oats
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
Dash garlic powder
¼ cup flour, plus more for rolling
¾ teaspoon baking powder
½ cup unsalted butter, cut in pieces
¼ cup whole milk, plus more as needed
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In food processor container, finely chop rosemary. Add oats, salt, pepper, garlic powder, ¼ cup flour, baking powder, and butter. Pulse until mixture is the size of coarse crumbs. Pour in milk and process until dough forms a rough ball. If dough is too dry, add up to 1 tablespoon additional milk, pulsing between additions.
On lightly-floured surface, roll half of dough 1/8-inch thick and cut into 1 ½ or 2-inch squares. Repeat with other half. Gather and re-roll trimmings. Place crackers on greased or parchment-lined baking sheets and bake 15 to 20 minutes, or until lightly browned on bottom. Transfer to cooling rack; cool completely before serving.