Porcelain plates, silver cutlery, sparkling glassware – a well-laid dining table is a work of art. The different forms and appearances of these familiar objects over the last 500 years reflect the history of changing attitudes to the food we eat, and how we eat it. Exploration of the globe brought new foods and drinks to the tables of Europe that required new equipment to facilitate their consumption. Shifting social patterns changed when we ate and with whom we ate.
A significant proportion of the National Gallery of Victoria’s decorative arts collection consists of objects related to dining and drinking. Art of the Table examines these histories through examples of dining wares drawn from the NGV’s rich collections and a number of key loans.
Dining in the Renaissance
The fourteenth century saw the beginnings of a revolution in European dining practices. In the aftermath of the Black Death a dramatically reduced population enjoyed a much greater abundance of food, whilst burgeoning trade networks led to increased access to exotic foodstuffs. Along with the increased availability of food, a general increase in wealth saw the limited range of objects used for dining in the medieval period multiplied and embellished amongst elites. Developments in the production of ceramics, glass and metal wares saw the creation of rich and luxurious dining equipment intended as much for display as for use.
The great courts of Renaissance Italy – the Papal court in Rome, the Doge’s court in Venice and, especially, the Medici court in Florence – staged sumptuous court banquets, governed by new codes of refined behaviour, as expressions of rank and power. Cutlery gradually began to appear at the table, although it was not until the seventeenth century that its use became widely established. New foodstuffs appeared, too, further stimulating the creation of new tablewares. The salad, for example (including cold meats, fish and shellfish) made its first appearance on European dining tables at this time, calling for the creation of new vessels to hold oil and vinegar. Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the Americas at the end of the fifteenth century introduced a gamut of new foods: the potato, beans, squash, novel breeds of fowl, chocolate, peanuts, vanilla, pineapples, chili peppers, corn and, of course, the tomato, which was at first treated as an ornamental plant but quickly became a defining ingredient of Mediterranean gastronomy.
The establishment of seaborne trade routes to the Americas and to Asia in the sixteenth century saw the focus of European commerce gradually move from Italy and the Mediterranean to ports situated on the Atlantic. As a result, a range of exotic new commodities began to enter Europe in significant quantities for the first time during the seventeenth century. Important amongst these was porcelain from China and Japan. The secret of the manufacture of this material, with its hard surface, lustrous glaze yet translucent body, would escape Europeans until the eighteenth century.
An enormous demand developed for blue and white porcelain to grace the dining tables of Europe’s wealthy and powerful. As demand exceeded the volume of imports, European ceramic manufacturers began to produce tin-glazed earthenware imitations of the imported Asian porcelain. The Netherlands, which dominated the Asian sea trade in the seventeenth century, became a major centre for the production of these earthenwares, as well as for the production of glassware in imitation of the sophisticated kind exported from Italy. While silver vessels retained an important role on the tables of Europe’s elites, both for use and for display, more humble tables substituted pewter for costly silver. The continuing growth of European maritime empires around the globe saw the flow into Europe of exotic foodstuffs such as sugar, spices, coffee and tea increase. Greater availability, as well as an improvement in general wealth in the major trading cities of Europe, saw these foods become available to an ever broader segment of the population.
Meissen and the porcelain dinner service
The secret of the production of a European hard-paste porcelain imitating that from China and Japan was discovered in 1709 by two German scientists, Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus and Johann Friedrich Böttger, working in the service of Augustus, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. In 1710 Europe’s first porcelain manufactory was founded in the Saxon town of Meissen, and it was here that the first dinner services in porcelain were created. The idea of a ceramic service – a set of plates and vessels for dining – had first appeared in Renaissance Italy, but it was at Meissen that the dinner service as we know it today, with a full range of matching dining and service pieces for the multiple courses of a formal meal, was first devised.
The very first porcelain dinner services were not created for Augustus who, as a great prince, would dine off nothing less than gold and silver plate, but for Count Brühl, the Saxon first minister and director of the Meissen factory. So successful were the beautiful, large-scale Baroque services produced for Count Brühl that soon all of the princes of Europe were clamouring to own one. By the mid 1730s even the Saxon King was dining off porcelain. Silver plate, of course, remained important for dining and continued to function as a statement of rank. European porcelain services were very costly; less expensive were porcelain services made to order and decorated in China. For those who could afford neither porcelain nor silver, fine earthenwares continued to be used for dining and, indeed, remained the most common form of dinner service, even amongst the lower aristocracy, until the end of the eighteenth century.
During the Renaissance, food was still generally consumed with the hands – specifically with the first two fingers and thumb of the right hand. Cutlery remained relatively rare and was brought to a meal by the diner, not provided by the host. As a result, much early cutlery was elaborately decorative and came in its own carrying cases. A knife might be used to cut meats and transport hot food to the mouth, and a spoon could be used for liquid dishes such as soup. The fork remained a novelty until the very end of the sixteenth century and was generally reserved for serving; its use was considered by many outside of Italy and Spain to be overrefined and effeminate.
It was only in the very late seventeenth century that the practice of acquiring sets of cutlery, including knife, fork and spoon, for the use of guests at a meal began to take hold. It was also around this time that the fork began to be made with three or four tines; until then, two tines had been the norm. During the eighteenth century specialised forms of cutlery began to develop for eating and serving particular types of food, and silver cutlery came into common use amongst the wealthy. Whilst knife blades were generally made of steel, knives with gilded or silvered blades began to be made for eating foods which contained natural acids, such as fruit, which would taste when in contact with steel.
Sugar and spice
Some make a confection of Quinces, called Marmalade, which is verie sovereigne against a flux of the bellie.1 Charles Estienne, La Maison Rustique (The Countrey Farme), trans Richard Surfleet, c.1600.
Due to the enormous overindulgence at feasts, it was customary for spices and fruit pastes to be consumed at the end of a meal to aid digestion. Candied roots and flowers and a range of sugar-coated seeds and spices were served, all of which were believed to have digestive and carminative properties. This practice was known as the voidée (‘void’, referring to the clearing of the table) and had its roots in European medieval feasting, before developing into the separate dessert course of a meal during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Spices, including pepper, cloves and nutmeg, were also presented in compartmentalised boxes and taken as digestives and palette cleansers, their consumption no doubt masking bad breath.
Across the centuries, sugar was one of the most important ingredients in cooking and was used to make foods more palatable. In medieval and Renaissance dining the distinction between sweet and savoury did not exist and sugar was present as a condiment on the table alongside salt, oil and vinegar, mustard and spices. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the consumption of sugar increased dramatically, which led to the rise of the sugar trade managed by the British and French who owned vast plantations, run by slave labour, in the West Indies. The exploitation of slave labour to service the desires of the aristocratic European palette presents a much darker side to the story of eighteenth-century dining.
The dessert and table theatre
The word ‘dessert’ derives from the French verb desservir (to clear the table). This final course of the evening meal originates from medieval dining practices when, following the meal, sugar-coated seeds and spices (comfits), along with wafers and hippocras (a sweet, spiced wine) were consumed in the belief that they aided digestion. The king would then wash his hands and leave the table, after which it was cleared.
In England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries this ritualised end to a court meal developed into an elaborate presentation of sweetmeats that came to be known as the banquet. Developing out of the ultimo servizio course of an Italian Renaissance feast, this final course incorporated a range of candied and preserved fruits, sweetmeats and sugarwork novelties. It was conceived as a visual and culinary feast, yet the medicinal aspects remained.
Sweetmeats continued to be served into the eighteenth century, when the extravagance of the dessert course reached its peak. By the mid eighteenth century the dessert had become a lavish display of seasonal fresh fruit, wet and dry sweetmeats, biscuits, sugared confectioneries and, most of all, ices: the most fashionable sweet dish of the period. Ices came in a large range of flavours and were made either as liqueurs glacées, a type of granita, or as neiges, a sweeter version of our modern-day icecream. All of the sweets were elegantly presented in either shallow dishes, tazzas for elevation, pyramidal stands for candied and fresh fruits and extravagant silver épergnes (centrepieces), all of which were arranged symmetrically down the length of the table.
Table decoration became an opportunity for grand theatrical displays. By the 1750s it had become fashionable to present the table in imitation of a garden. It would be set with a central raised platform, mirrored on top and running the length of the table. This would then be decorated with porcelain and sugar sculpture. Flowerbeds made from powdered, coloured sugar were laid out; gravel walks were created from sugared seeds; and hedges and borders were made from mousseline, a coloured sugar paste forced through a sieve to give it a mossy texture. Grand architectural schemes made from sugar paste were also created, complete with garden sculpture and figures. Porcelain tablewares followed in this theme and trompe l’oeil dessert wares became highly fashionable during the mid eighteenth century. Tureens and ewers were created in the form of fruits, vegetables and animals, and plates and baskets either imitated in form or were decorated with leaves and flowers.
Porcelain figures were an important feature of the dessert table and were often presented in unglazed biscuit porcelain, in imitation of sugar sculpture. Sets of figures often following mythological, allegorical or historical themes were created specifically for the dessert table. The hygroscopic nature of sugar undoubtedly made the storage of these fragile and expensive sculptures a great challenge, and it therefore made sense to replace them with porcelain figures.
The serious business of drinking
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England alcohol was consumed in vast quantities and drunkenness, both public and private, was pervasive throughout all levels of society. In fashionable circles it was common for multiple bottles of wine and spirits to be consumed during one evening, and much breakage of wine bottles and glasses occurred.
Wine had been drunk for centuries in England but emerged in the late seventeenth century as the drink of choice with the evening meal. The diner would signal a footman and a glass would be brought on a silver salver, the wine consumed and the glass removed to the sideboard where it was rinsed and cooled in a monteith filled with chilled water. Wines were not matched with specific dishes and all wine was served chilled in the eighteenth century, the same glass being used for both red and white wine.
Drinking toasts was an important part of the meal. It was regarded as proper to ‘raise your glass and look fixedly at the one with whom you were drinking, bow your head and take your wine with gravity’.2 Christopher Christie, The British Country House in the Eighteenth Century, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2000, p. 296. Sweet wines were consumed with the dessert course and much display and ostentation went along with this course, which often took place in a separate room.
Beer and ale were considered nourishing drinks and up until the late eighteenth century, before tea became widely available, ale was the standard drink for breakfast in England; water being polluted and considered unsafe to drink unless boiled.
Tea, coffee and chocolate
The arrival of tea, coffee and chocolate into Europe during the second half of the seventeenth century prompted the development of new wares to serve and imbibe these hot, exotic beverages. All three followed the same trajectory from medicinal preparations and curiosities to drinks of daily consumption.
Tea was imported from China and made its first appearance in England at the court of Charles II during the early 1660s. Being a leaf infusion with mild stimulant properties, it was often promoted as having exceptional health-giving properties and being capable of curing innumerable ills. By the early eighteenth century, however, with an emerging taste amongst the nobility for all things Chinese, the taking of tea had developed into a highly fashionable pastime.
Chocolate was introduced into Britain at approximately the same time as tea, and was marketed as a medicinal beverage with great aphrodisiac powers. During the eighteenth century it became more accepted as a social drink and was consumed amongst the wealthy and fashionable. Chocolate pots often took the same form as coffee pots during the eighteenth century. Chocolate pots, however, are distinguished by their removable or swivelling finial which allowed a stirrer to be inserted to froth up the chocolate in the hot milk or water.
Coffee was introduced to Britain from the Middle East in the mid seventeenth century and by 1657 the first coffee house had opened in Oxford. The earliest silver coffee pots were based upon Turkish coffee pots, with a tapering, cylindrical form. Later in the eighteenth century the handle of coffee and chocolate pots was often moved to the side, at right angles to the pot.
Prior to nineteenth-century developments in medical thinking many foodstuffs were considered to be possessed of explicitly medicinal properties, a belief which had its origins in the physiognomic theory of the Classical world which proposed that external, sense-perceptible qualities reflected inner moral and spiritual qualities. Sweet-smelling or sweet-tasting foods, for example, were assumed to have health-giving properties, hence the great value attached to sugar in pre-modern dining.
Tea, coffee and chocolate too were all first employed as exotic medical preparations in Europe before they became beverages of daily consumption. It is also no surprise that these beverages were regularly sweetened with sugar. Posset, a sweetened, spiced beverage made from milk curdled with wine or ale was believed to be a remedy for a cold or other minor ailment, and broth continued to be consumed for its presumed health-giving properties, as it had been since the Renaissance. Historically broth made from birds, such as chickens, was considered to have special health benefits because the ability of birds to fly placed them closest to heaven, and thus made them the most noble of foods (chicken soup is still recommended to those suffering colds today). Chicken broth was given, in a purpose-made bowl, to a new mother in Renaissance Italy, as it was believed to balance her humours, which were thrown out of equilibrium by childbirth. Gruel, a thin porridge made of a cereal boiled in milk or water, was a staple food of European peasantry from the time of the ancient Greeks onwards. It developed particular associations with sustenance for invalids and newly weaned children, and special vessels were developed for its consumption.
The pleasure dairy
The concept of the dairy as a pleasure pavilion for female nobility had a long history in France, beginning in the sixteenth century with Catherine de’ Medici’s dairy at Fontainebleau and culminating in the late eighteenth century with Marie Antoinette’s dairies at Rambouillet and Versailles.
Pleasure dairies were often part of larger rural complexes, including hamlets, hermitages and model farms, built on the fringes of estates to allow detachment from the formal gardens and an opportunity for visitors to engage with the surrounding countryside, both physically and metaphorically. These rural follies represented an important element of a royal estate where social, political, architectural and decorative trends intersected. The dairy, in particular, was also symbolic of both feminine ideals – encompassing concepts of the nurturing mother figure and of women embodying authority and self-governance – and Rousseauian ideals of returning to the purity of nature, cleansed of wanton city values.
Although a French concept, pleasure dairies existed all over Europe, especially in the estates of British country houses, and by the 1780s an ornamental dairy had become an essential element of a picturesque garden. Specifically for royal and elite women, the dairy was the final destination of an afternoon garden tour where ladies would relax in the coolness of the interiors and indulge in a range of fruit and milk–based dishes. Inspired by their functional nature, the interiors of pleasure dairies were often fitted out in marble and stone, with dessert services and serving dishes acquired from leading ceramic manufacturers of the day.
Then and now
The period between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries saw significant changes in the way people across Europe dined. By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, the majority of tablewares had developed into forms that recognise and employ today. Table manners, too, had arrived at a state not dissimilar from that with which we are accustomed. There have, of course, been changes since the eighteenth century: new materials and technologies have made good quality tablewares available to a much wider section of society, and there has also been a general simplification of dinner services outside of the most formal of dining situations. The wide range of highly specialised dining and serving vessels that characterised the late nineteenth century in particular have largely disappeared in the wake of radical social changes in the West following the First World War. As domestic servants became a thing of the past, the cooking, cleaning and serving associated with a more formal approach to dining became an onerous burden on the average household. Simpler table services for the consumption of meals prepared and cooked by a member of the family became the norm.
Charles Estienne, La Maison Rustique (The Countrey Farme), trans Richard Surfleet, c.1600.
Christopher Christie, The British Country House in the Eighteenth Century, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2000, p. 296.