September 25 - October 1, 2011: Issue 25

Carlborg Antiques 

Carlborg Antiques was established in 1984 and has operated in both Sydney and France with the aim to offer customer satisfaction in every interaction.

 The Customs of Traditional Dining

by Hans and Jenny Carlborg

WHEN you look at a superbly crafted dining table from an earlier time, do you ever wonder whether it was used then in the same way it would be used now? An 18th-century Georgian dining table, for example, reflects a dramatic change of attitude to dining than existed in the 17th century when communal meals were eaten at long refectory tables in the Great Chambers of people's homes.
By the 1900s meals in a well-to-do English household had become intimate affairs, taken only by the immediate family and their guests. The servants ate in rooms allocated to them according to their status. Most houses had a comfortable parlour which was used daily by the family for eating and other occupations with a separate room for more formal meals. Dining tables were therefore smaller and typically oval in shape with two folding flaps or leaves. They accommodated between four and ten people and were seldom more than six feet in diameter (Figure 1). If there were more guests than could be accommodated at a single table, further tables were brought in and, when not in use, they were folded up and stored in a corridor outside the dining room and the dining chairs were lined up along the walls of the room. Food and wine were served from side tables under the supervision of the butler and plates and glasses carried to the table by footmen.
Dinner was the most important meal of the day eaten at the starting time (by today's standards) of three o'clock in the afternoon. The dinner hour was progressively advanced over the century to 4pm, then 5pm, until by the end of the century it was fixed at 6pm. Dinner lasted several hours. The meal usually consisted of two courses or 'covers'. These terms require some explanation as they represent something quite different from our understanding of them. A cover or course could consist of from five to 25 separate dishes, arranged symmetrically around the centre dish. The dishes displayed a huge variety of foods - soup, fish, meat, game, poultry, pies, vegetables, sauces and pickles. The table was always set with a tablecloth.
There was no formal seating arrangement: the host escorted the senior member into the dining room but then abandoned him or her to find a place for themselves at the table. The most important guests sat next to the host and hostess, everyone else sat wherever there was a gap. After serving the soup, the host would carve the joint and footmen carried the plates to the dishes selected by the person he was serving, a practice which required one footman per diner. Guests were not expected to take something from each dish. When everyone had eaten as much as they wished from this first course, all the dishes, plates and cutlery were removed and the next course of a further five to 25 dishes was brought in (Figure 2 shows the arrangement of dishes for a two course meal). After this, the table was cleared of everything including the tablecloth and the sweetmeats were laid out. When they were eaten, the servants were dismissed, the ladies withdrew and the men continued to drink and talk about things not considered 'suitable' for the ladies to hear.
A curious feature of an 18th-century dinner, and one which explains the length of the dinners apart from the quantity of food, was the custom of drinking toasts to everyone and everything. it is claimed that visiting Frenchmen were bored witless by the inordinate number of speeches proposed formal and responded to and which continued even after the ladies had withdrawn. Chamber pots were placed in the corners of the dining room and according to one French observer, the flow of words was not even interrupted when a speaker had occasion to avail himself of one. The French also complained that they had difficulty with the table forks as their pointed tridents pierced their mouths and tongues.
By the beginning of the 19th century the procedure for entertaining in the dining room changed. Compared with the Georgian free- for-all, this new arrangement was more. All the guests could now accommodated at one larger table at firs supported by many legs later on a pedestal arrangement Extra leaves could be added or removed depending on the number of and the dining room was left with table and chairs in place as we do now. Sideboard replaced the smaller side serving tables.
Another change occurred around the middle of the 19th century when the service a la Russe was introduced with settings o serried ranks of cutlery either side of the plate and different glasses for different wines, all from a matching suite. Decanter wagons circulated the wine around the tab for guests to fill their own glasses. Dinner was served at the later time of 7.30pm and this led to the introduction of the luncheon to sustain people between breakfast and dinner. By the 1840s society ladies: entertained each oilier between luncheon and dinner with biscuits and cakes and a glass of Madeira. Before long Madeira was replaced by tea and so was born the afternoon tea for which the English are famous.
Now, of course, people do things, whichever way pleases them. Meals can be formal or informal, eaten at times that suit best. Tables can be any size made in all sorts of shapes from all sorts of materials and are not necessarily set with a tablecloth, sterling silver and fine glassware. However, in Europe at least, the current trend seems to favour a return to the more formal standards of earlier times and it is not impossible the trend will be repeated here in Australia if only for special occasions. After all, doesn't - everyone love a grand event and an opportunity to dress up?

Copyright Hans and Jenny Carlborg, 2011.