Tuesday, 12 March 2013

How To Dine Like "Downton"

Have you ever wondered how to eat your food correctly at a British dinner table, how Lord & Lady Grantham might have dressed for their guests at a formal dinner at Downton Abbey, or even why Lady Mary would have worn a tiara to dine, but poor old Lady Edith wouldn't yet have done so?
Well, our table of 22 guests at our "Dine Like Downton" event this weekend had all of these quandaries answered, plus many more besides. 

Co-hosting this event with me was the gorgeous etiquette expert, Mr William Hanson who acted out the role of our very own Lord Grantham to my Lady Grantham for the evening. We treated our guests to an evening of great food, fine wine and entertainment in the form of a traditional (and at moments, an ever so slightly tongue in cheek) lesson in traditional British etiquette around the formal dining table. 
We even had our very own "Mr Carson" serving us throughout the evening, 
a Butler to do us proud. 
After our last event together last September, we got talking about our passions and William told me about his blog rants on The Huffington Post on the etiquette faux pas in the hit TV series "Downton Abbey"... of course, my mind went overtime and conjured up an idea...

This event gave me a chance to air my best pearls (earrings and necklace darlings!) and my gorgeous "Johnny Loves Rosie" headband, worn around my fringe curls, for a little Downton glamour, whilst William got to wear his Midnight Blue Dinner Suit and bow tie for the first time. I'm not entirely sure who was most excited or even who took the longest to get ready for the occasion... Hehe. 

We hosted this event as part of Cambridge's very first food festival titled "Eat Cambridge" as one of their "Fringe" Events at the Hotel Du Vin on Trumpington Road. The staff for the evening were superb, from helping to setup the table and the main rooms we had booked through to making suggestions and talking through our ideas to help us make this the night it deserved to be, it was a real team effort in this sense, so can't thank them enough for their support and helping to make my idea a reality from the start. 

William sat with me and showed me how to fold the napkins (which had been starched prior to our arrival) into different shapes, settling on a simple square fold to place at each setting. With water and wine glasses to the right of each setting, this would allow the staff to serve and clear from the right of our guests, as they would have done so at Downton. 
A simple flower arrangement adorned the table, candelabras sat at each end of the table to help set the scene and tea lights twinkled in the adjoining library ready to welcome everybody. 
What I loved most about setting up for this event was that William and I got to natter and put the rudeness of our world to rights, we had some serious conversations about modern manners, mixed with some celebrity gossip and he even feels comfortable enough in my company to have me adjust his braces for him in the middle of the dining room, much to my amusement - Which made for some amusing behind the scenes photos too!

I just adore working with him on our events and I'm glad there will be more to come...!

We had arranged for 3 members of staff to be in the library with us for a 7.30pm start, one to take coats, one to hold the sherry tray and one to pour the non alcoholic options for our guests should they prefer. It's rather amusing that our guests were keen to get to us, not following our advice to be there fashionably late by ten minutes (which is the done thing to do for a formal engagement) ... They actually were all in the library sipping on their sherry, enjoying our background music (with tracks fitting to the 1920's era we were celebrating) and mingling by 7.30pm which amused and calmed us equally. 

The table plan had been a tricky element to put together, as we had so many couples coming along, however William had advised me prior to the day that long term or married couples would have been separated at the table, to give them a rest from one another. Well, I loved this little detail and emailed my guests to check that they would be ok with this... Needless to say, there wasn't a single no! 

So guests were split and sat mostly with an unfamiliar face to either side of them, which helped conversation from the start, everybody made a huge effort to get to know one another and so much excitement had built that by the time they sat down, they were nattering away without a care in the world - perfect!
Part of the etiquette lesson at "Dine Like Downton" had been how to converse with the guests to both the left and to the right of you, it was great fun, as we do this for our Afternoon Tea Etiquette lessons. It also helps to make sure that guests who came alone weren't left to feel out of place, it works perfectly for this reason too.

As the food and wine flowed, William regaled stories of international, as well as British and even Royal etiquette and Downton geekiness, which of course often took over (he can quote scenes from particular episodes of a particular series...impressive!) throughout the evening. 

We were taught everything to become the politest dinner guest, covering challenges such as how to hold and place your cutlery when still eating, through to how to place it once finished eating, how to hold your drinking glass, what you would and wouldn't have spoken about with your fellow guests as you enjoyed your evening and how to place your napkin when leaving the table. 

William does seem to be in his element when teaching all things Downton and with the amusing questions and comments from our guests throughout the evening, we ended up discussing topics such as why the common dinner knife is now flat and rounded, not sharp and pointed (we can thank our French diners for this fact, we learnt) and we even raised a toast, not just The Queen, but also to John Lewis. 
Yes, the great British institution that is John Lewis, of which we had two employees of this high street department store at our table. They were fabulous guests and after a rant about their very modern and almost "American" queries about what his plans were for the rest of his day whilst paying for an item, William had smiled as he ranted about this new service in shops. 
As his apology for such comments, he asked us all to raise a cheeky toast to this fabulously British store, as we all chuckled and did so. 

To read the full list of topics we covered, you will find them visiting my last blog post here, I won't repeat them. 
We managed to get through them all and then a few more besides which I think educated our guests as much as they entertained. Even I was a little concerned that I wasn't taking my vegetables from the platter served to me correctly, so Williams assurance made it a little easier for everyone. We even had a guest there who had been serving and waiting her entire working life and she was here to allow the tables to turn on her for a change, what an honour to help provide this experience and pamper her for a treat. 
Two other guests had been booked onto the experience by their son as a joint birthday gift to them both and they had also been booked to stay the night in a suite at the hotel, what lovely company they were too. They even joined me the next morning for another event I was taking part in (for my very first published recipe in a book launch at Waterstones), they were a pleasure to meet, truly. 

We also had an etiquette expert from the Netherlands joining us, he had flown all the way to us for this evening which was equally as exciting and we enjoyed meeting his special guest, who was in fact a Baroness. I was very nervous about meeting them both to start with, but my nerves left as soon as they had arrived, they were lovely and great fun with their own stories and tips throughout he evening. 

The food was amazing, with the etiquette lesson being equally so. William is what I like to think of as a well spoken “Ross Noble” - He likes to go off on tangents, much to our amusement and he never did come back to us on how one would eat Asparagus (with your fingers, hollandaise sauce on the side of which you would dip, just so you know ; ) and we also learnt that you would NEVER shovel your peas with a fork (should your host be as terrible as to serve such a thing with your meal!) but to spike each one onto your fork, perhaps sticking to some sauce or gravy if you could get away with it. 

We should have finished the evening with a game of charades in the library with our coffee (the gents would have changed into their smoking jackets and taken to a different room at this point), however everybody was so busy talking and laughing that we didn’t want to interrupt them, so William touched on it with his final words instead and I think guests may have been a little relieved not to have to embarrass themselves in this very British game! 

 Carriages at 11pm meant that guests could leave, following our lesson in the art of outstaying your welcome at Downton, highly amusing, but very interesting to know how to do this for future dinner parties nonetheless.
 Needless to say, we will be planning to do more of these events in the not so distant future, so watch this space. 

Or why not contact us, should you require your very own private “Downton”esque etiquette experience, we would be thrilled to be able to help you put together a memorable event for your very own celebrations, acting as your Lord & Lady with your guests as our guests of honour for ANY ocassion or just because you fancy some educational fun with your friends, family or colleagues - It's an evening to remember. 

And don’t forget, we have our “Etiquette of Afternoon Tea” event on Saturday 6th April, which follows a similar tone, however, we provide you with an afternoon filled with gorgeous Afternoon Tea treats and a relaxed day time table for this event, with open conversation and recipe swaps and ideas, it’s a tremendous amount of fun, so why not book yourself or a loved one as an Easter treat?...

Miss Sue Flay

PS - See our full photo albums for this event through my Facebook page, of which you can follow my pursuits through on a day by day basis, just hit the *Like* button!

For the behind the scenes snaps - Click Here

And for the photos from the full event - Click Here

And one last thank you to Liz and Rob at Duke House B&B in Cambridge for their fantastic hospitality and a well earned rest the next day, it's worth the money, amazing accommodation and friendly service!


  1. Well we two John Lewis ladies were equally delighted - not only to the toast you gave to our great establishment, but the evening as a whole. The food and wine were delightful and the talk by William was so interesting. Cannot wait to the tea afternoon on the 6th! Dorothy

    1. I am so pleased Dorothy, thank you both for coming, you were fabulous guests : ) We would be delighted to have you and your fellow JL ladies & gents joining us for tea on the 6th April, do let us know if any of you book, how fantastic xx

  2. Thank you and to William for hosting such a wonderful event, it was educational, interesting and, most of all, fun! Both my husband and I really enjoyed the evening.

    I would now love to come to the afternoon tea lesson in April, unfortunately, I already have other commitments on that day! I'll look out for other dates, and maybe see if I can come to the one in London instead.

    1. Aw Julia, I am so glad, thank you so much for the lovely feedback. And you looked GORGEOUS. So thank you for getting into the spirit of it all.
      We will hopefully be planning more teas, so don't worry, we will hopefully get you along one day : ) Do keep in touch my lovely.

      xxx Miss Sue Flay

  3. A Downton tea party sounds like so much fun!!

    1. It was a huge amount of fun. We now have our Afternoon Tea Etiquette Event to look forward to in April : )

  4. Thank YOU everyone for coming and making it such a lovely evening for Jo and me. W

    1. And thank you William, for being such a fantastic host. I look forward to our new plans ; ) x

  5. Thanks to both host and hostess for such a beautiful evening. Educational, fun, fabulous food and a great excuse to dress up! A second thank you for the personal 'thank you' letter received in the post yesterday, a lovely last touch to an event that I would definitely recommend to others!

    1. Thanks so much Jess and glad you liked my hand written letter, a thank you note is something we should all do from now on... I can't remember the last time I hand wrote something until now.. tut tut ; ) xxx