There were tablecloths before there were dining tables. There were dining tables before there were dining rooms - but they were just called cloths, tables or trestles.
Above, a French damask, ecru cloth, and going by the monogram design, I'd say it was c.1930. When I found it, it had never been used.
At the end of the evening, the cloth has taken a beating. But it's only superficial. It will survive. It will be cleared the following day (we clear the next day in our household) and rejuvenated.
If you spill something, don't apologise. That puts me in an awkward position of having to reassure you that it doesn't matter. Trust me, it doesn't matter. I will be washing it later and ironing it before it's used again. (And please use your napkin, vigorously if you will, and discard it casually at the end. If it's still neatly folded, trust me, I won't be putting back in the drawer.)
A cri de cœur... Please don't sprinkle salt. It's a myth that it neutralises a stain. It just makes a nasty gritty surface for the rest of the meal. One time, a guest brought to dinner a new girlfriend who rose from her chair and poured salt on the wine spill of another guest!!! (They are no longer seeing each other.)
A cloth gives a nice warmth and softness under hand, especially if there's a spongy undercloth. It also deadens noise.
Over the years I've collected table cloths or rather, I've rescued them.
It's not a virtue, it's just what I do.
Sometimes, there have been small circular holes in them - cigarette burns, probably, and this adds to their mystery. I mend them and ponder the bad old days when people smoked (even at table, and that's another story).
"The past is another country: they do things differently there." ( L.P. Hartley- The Go-Between. )
Washing and Ironing
There are linens out there that are rustic and creased. Fine, it's a look, go for it.
Left: Banquet, Willem Claesz Heda, Dutch, 1635 (Nat. Gallery of Art, Washington DC)
Right: 21st century. Crumpled can be good.
History Of The Cloth
Left: Wedding Feast, Pieter Bruegel, 1556 - cloth, just covering trestles.
Centre: Friends' very elegant table, placemats, keeping us in place.
Right: Freedom From Want, Norman Rockwell, 1943
Not every dining table has a cloth, especially if you're showing off some wood or marble. But the tablecloth is a signifier, it signifies the intention to eat.
The Romans started putting cloths under food around 2030 years ago. When there was food to be eaten, down went a cloth be it on the ground, or across a board or trestle. (Think board-room, chairman of the board, sideboard etc.)
Cloths weren't ironed but folded into presses. This lead to artfully creased cloths, the folds much prized. (See "The Last Supper", previous post.)
Place settings weren't delineated. Food was placed on the cloth for picking at. In Europe during the middle ages, seating began to be marked by a trencher, a piece of bread, but still spoons and drinking vessels were shared. 17th C, Dutch paintings show rich, well dressed burghers or traders (i.e. business men) talking at tables sharing from a few glasses, expensive items embellished in the Venetian style.
When knives started to be used to eat with, bread trenchers were replaced by metal or ceramic. Privacy became "a thing" and people chose to eat in smaller groups and the 18th C saw a drawing away into small eating or dining rooms - then to especially made tables. Cloths were ironed smooth. Gradually decorum ruled that each person be segregated, one from the other with a place setting, our little section, our own little armoury of cutlery and a bevy of glassware.
(Incidentally, the Victorians did not cover their dining-table legs with a cloth because they looked too sexy. It was simply the fashion.)
You'll never look at a tablecloth in the same way again.
The Last Supper - Plautelli Nelli, 1568 - Florence, Santa Maria Novella
Oil on canvas - 7 metres long x 2 metres high
"Extract" before and after restoration.
This beautiful painting appeals to me immediately through two of my obsessions - the tablecloth and the gathering together to share.
Plautelli Nelli entered the convent of Santa Caterina where she established a painting workshop. It was a recognised art centre of Florence, financially supporting the convent through commissions from both private individuals and religious institutions. As a woman, she was in a sense freer than if she'd lived outside the convent, not free to be an apprentice, but self-taught and free to choose to paint. Such a large canvas, its figures life-sized, painted for the convent's refectory, was possible due to the efficiency of their enterprise allowing for teams of painters and extensive scaffolding and infrastructure.
See the link for the story of how it was recently found, hanging above the Laminex table in the monks' dining room, at the back of the Museum of Santa Maria Novella.
The iconic biblical scene follows a standard pattern. The apostles (guests) sit along one side of the table with bad boy Judas singled out on the other side, clutching his money. Jesus has just announced that one of his apostles will betray him that evening. They gesticulate in horror, surprise and denial. As usual, John (later "Saint") is mooning, doe-eyed at Jesus. When questioned, Jesus reveals his betrayer will be the one putting his hand to the food at the same time as himself. Here Jesus and Judas are grappling for the same biscotti.
In many "Last Suppers", Judas is seen to have spilt the salt, a bad omen, a definite no-no.
This is a contemporary depiction of the table but the food of Christ's era would have been similar to that of the Italian peninsula. The fruit and vegetables of the New World, the Americas, would not have yet penetrated 16th century Florence. The meal is to be picked at (roasted lamb, salad, fave beans, herbs, bread, salt and wine). There are no plates, no individual place settings, no napkins. The glasses are random and shared. (Perfectly pleated tablecloth.)
And, as a Jewish friend reminded me, as it was a Passover supper, 2000 years ago, there would have been no bread rolls, only un-leavened bread.
Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" of 1495 offered a template for years to come.
The Last Supper - Leonardo da Vinci, 1495 -Santa Maria delle Grazia, Milan
Guests sit on one side, looking out. Once again, John is passively dejected. Judas is apart but not so ostracised (he has tipped over the salt) and he is diving for a platter as Jesus goes for it with his right hand. The food is quite spartan, compared to the Plautelli Nelli painting (above) and the spread below. Could it just be the different feminine viewpoint? (The tablecloth shows its folds. There is some blue embroidery at each end, with a knot to shorten it from the floor.)
The Last Supper - Marcos Zapata, 1753 - Cuzco Cathedral, Peru
Zapata was an indigenous painter (Inca). The seating is circular. John is mooning as usual and Judas is looking at us defiantly, clutching the cash. Once again there are no individual plates, no cutlery.
In the centre of the table is a roasted guinea pig, (still eaten in Peru). Like the "sacrificial lamb" of other "Last Suppers", the guinea pig was the sacrificial animal for Inca ceremonies. But the accompaniments remind us of the bounty that came from the "New World". Not just a bit of lettuce but baskets of corn, potatoes, capsicum - native fruit and vegetables. (The table cloth has a nice lace trim.)
And styles change, with the last supper not always a sedate line-up.
The Last Supper - Tintoretto, 1594 - Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiori, Venice
Passion and dynamic action, with not only the guests in a frenzy. The "caterers" take centre stage (with help from a nice looking dog) piling on food as the guests taper into the background. (A cloth just covers a line of trestles.)
The Last Supper - Peter Paul Rubens, 1631 - Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan
Action and fabrics, lovely dog, the anguish of Judas, the pining of John, and the introduction of the eucharist - no food. We know nothing really of the Holy Grail (the supposed chalice used at the last supper) but I'm sure it was not the one housed in Valencia valencia holy grail The carved red agate cup in the Valencia Cathedral is too elaborate for something supposedly used two thousand years ago in Jerusalem. (Nice tablecloth.)
The Last Supper - Benjamin West, 1786 (British American) - Detroit Institute of Art
Still a topic for the 18th century, with Christ surrounded by the usual suspects. Could that be Thomas, shrouding his eyes, who would doubt that Christ had risen or Peter who would deny knowing him when questioned by guards? (Nice tablecloth.)
The Sacrament of the Last Supper - Salvador Dali, 1955
National Art Gallery, Washington U.S.A.
Spiritual, luminous and severely symmetrical, the guests are gathered in a dodecahedron (that's a ball made of twelve pentagonal facets, for twelve apostles, twelve months of the year, twelve hours in the day... (Enormous cloth, pristinely folded.)
Friends gathered together but what do they all have in common?
Great tablecloths. More next post.
Thank you for reading and sharing my 2019 musings. It’s been a strange year. Let’s not ruin the mood of hopefulness that the new year might bring – let's look forward to contentment and sanity.
The new January front page may shock. Dizzie (Gillespie) is helping out before friends arrive. It's my personal statement against hand-sanitiser.
Our local greengrocer has become a haven of taste and a benefit to our suburban community. Year by year it has moved to more organic produce, less plastic, more interesting vegetable displays, along with the obligatory vegan dips, seaweed salad, Italian vinegars, kombucha drinks, kimchi “chutneys” and stylish hessian carry bags. The associated butcher is all grass-fed and free-range.
But there's a new development. Each check-out now flaunts a pump bottle of hand-sanitiser. Natural, healthy living is being compromised by the fear of natural "people" germs. More people are harmed from lack of money than from handling it!
The Murdoch Children's Research Institute has found that 1 in 10 infants now suffers from food allergies, all probably due to our modern lifestyle. "Australia has the unfortunate title of being the food allergy capital of the world." Their hypotheses can be summed up as the 5 Ds - Diet, Dry Skin, Vitamin D, Dogs and Dirt. (For dogs read - dogs, cats, rabbits, macaws, siamangs etc.)
They believe that infants should be introduced to as many foods in their diet as possible between 6 - 10 months. Any infant unfortunate enough to suffer dry skin due to eczema is more likely to be sensitive to certain foods. Vitamin D deficiency is likely to show an increase in food allergies.
The last two - dogs and dirt - are easy. Get them outside touching "stuff", stop them washing their little hands at every opportunity, don't spray their schools bags, their bouncing balls and the kitchen bench tops with germicidal sprays.
And get that dog inside, give it a kiss and get that cat in the bed.
(Old "folkloric" linen tablecloth - "Spanish Blackwork" embroidery, out of Denmark, possibly Polish.)
Shocked? Tell me. 👇
The Last Supper - nun, Plautilla Nelli -Florence - c.1565
(We'll never know what was served at Christ's last supper but this is how she saw it - lamb, lettuce, bread, broad-beans (or fava beans), herbs and red wine. (Personally, I might have added a lemon but...) More about the painting and in particular, the tablecloth next post.
Coco Chanel is reported to have said that before going out, go to the looking glass and remove one thing. Such strict restraint is difficult for me at times, but I’m working on it.
Around the so-called holiday season, advertising is heavy with food and drink. (And adding to the junk in our environment, are the stocking fillers. Just don't go there!) I wonder at the sanity (and the decorum) of it all. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an indulger. I love specialness, I love treats, I love generosity but are the trinkets and the feasting becoming unseemly?
When I was in the business of preparing galas for special occasions, everything from weddings to the selling of luxury cars, the underlying theme was over-abundance. It was important to provide food that was not just generous, special and delicious but it had to be seen to be too much. It was important to entertain family, friends and clients in such as way that there was enough to discard, to throw away.
A friend described an event overseas where the pre-dinner drinks and nibbles offered not only elaborate canapés on trays by waiters, but buffets of ethnic diversity around which to wander - sushi freshly prepared, tiny shashliks on a grill, sliders (that'a mini hamburger, in case you didn't know) Peking Duck pancakes, barbecued ribs - all more than could be consumed - and then guests sat down to dinner!
Is this a way of soothing memories of fear and deprivation in our recent and distant past, in our family, our cultural identity and history? Or is it about power, showing that you can?
It certainly has little to do with hospitality and generosity. Too much can be embarrassing and now, in the 21st century, perhaps it's also awkward. Waste is no longer chic.
The President, entertaining National Champions, the Clemson Tigers.
(Feeding the Tigers) And he doesn't think much of the salad eaten by the First Lady.
Ample - generously sufficient to satisfy
Plenty – lots, perhaps more than seemly
Adequate - quite good quality but less than excellent, passable
Abundant - Lots, and lots and lots of it
Groaning - so overladen that the tables (and guests) groan beneath the weight.
Has the festive season made me grumpy?
This is not a recipe blog but these are worth sharing. If you're going to have something sugary, this might be it.
Candied Grapefruit Peel.
Cut the ends off the grapefruit.
Lay the fruit on one cut side, then with a sharp knife, remove the peel in sections, working around the fruit.
Cut from top to bottom, taking both the peel and the pith. (You may even get a little piece of flesh - which is allowed.)
Cut the peel into long strips (size of course depending on your grapefruit). The strips will swell so make the strips around 1cm (1/4 inch) wide, no more.
Place strips into a large pan, allowing no more than two layers deep.
This "film poster" has gone viral. I apologise that I can't attribute it.
Anyone who is diagnosed as gluten-intolerant is relieved to finally understand their condition. Those who are gluten intolerant probably wish they weren't (despite better gluten-free processed products now available). Strangely, many who are not gluten intolerant, want to be and wish they were.
Many years ago, I suffered terrible migraines from drinking white wine. A small glass from a chilled cask of Chateau Marbay would put me to bed in the dark for 48 hours, my right eye throbbing so badly I wished I could gouge it out with my Swiss Army penknife. After looking at my problem from all angles with my clever doctor, she suggested I drink better quality, go for an over-seas trip and dump the boyfriend. It worked and I can now knock back a Puligny-Montrachet with the best of 'em.
What I'm saying, is that if you have a problem, check it out and and try to solve it. But I'd go with science rather than with Gwyneth Paltrow and the wellness warriors.
Peanuts are good but not for those with a peanut allergy.
Prawns are good, but not for those with a seafood allergy.
People ask, "Why is gluten so bad?" It's not, unless you are allergic to it.
Gluten only hurts people who are allergic to it. It is not a poison. It's a protein found in certain grains (wheat, barley etc) which enables elasticity in dough. It's essential in making good pasta and for bread with its delicious crust and aroma (the Maillard effect). Unless you are a coeliac or a non-coeliac gluten intolerant, why have gluten-free bread when you could have the real thing?
Dusting foods before cooking doesn't require elasticity. Rather than dust fish for example, with flour, I like tapioca flour or real corn flour (made from corn).
The television programme, Loving Gluten-Free, offered pizza without guilt. Guilt? There are more serious things to feel guilty about than pizza.
At a recent cooking demonstration, the dessert was praised as being gluten-free, so you know it's healthy. No! Not particularly!
Silvia Colloca, a little cutie with a TV cooking show and credentials sealed by her Italian heritage, tells us she has searched for ages and now finally has a recipe for gluten-free bread. It's not good bread. It's a substitute bread. Fine, but I can hear the ciabattas and schiacciatas weeping in the background.
If you get a bit poorly from eating too much pasta, but a little is OK, perhaps check this out. You might be barking dangerously up the more fashionable tree. You can't have a little bit of a coeliac allergy, just as you can't have a bit of leukaemia or be a little bit diabetic. (Coeliacs sufferers - 1% of population, irritable bowl syndrome 12% - just saying.)
Menus now carry warnings in parentheses (V) (VG) (GF) (LF). Supermarket shelves have warnings. A lovely, all-natural organic peanut butter (Darryl's Fresh Roasted - Drumcondra, Victoria) is made from only peanuts and salt. The very correct brown paper label announces it's gluten free. Last time I looked, peanuts didn't contain gluten. I long to see (B. S. Free).
We pathologise food and moralise it - good, bad, healthy, unhealthy. Warnings on processed foods are worn like a red badge of courage. Will we soon see stickers on apples declaring them gluten free? For a light hearted look, see the video Menus
Is basic understanding of biology and physiology lacking? There is so much good food out there that "glutards" can be "integrated" and enjoy themselves. But IMHBIO*, there are some who wish not to be integrated, who wish to be given special consideration and sympathy, even though they are not gluten intolerant.
Why would you? I don't get it.
*IMHBIO - In my humble biased and intolerant opinion.
Join the conversation. Comment 👇 - see fine print.
Almond Biscuits - Plate Arabia Valencia, Finland, mid 60s
Better than average biscuits. Make twelve for morning tea or smaller with coffee for the end of a meal.
The idea comes from jennycancook - the most WASP/Middle America cooking blog ever BUT warm, witty with great ideas nonetheless.
And whenever possible, get help - cook with a friend.
And the "Gin & Tonic" award goes to the first person to recognise that as well as being easy, elegant and wholesome, these biscuits are gluten-free! Don't eat them because they're "healthy", eat them because they're delicious.
Almond, Pine Nuts & Chocolate biscuits
3 Tbs softened butter (or try 45 gm)
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups almond meal (blanched or not)
1/2 teaspoon baking power
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup toasted pine nuts (or other nut, chopped)
1/3 cup dark chocolate chips
Is this a Paella or just my deconstructed dish of chicken, mussels and saffron rice? How important is tradition when it comes to a national dish? (Spain of course in this instance). Should it constrain us or free us to improvise?
They say Paella was once a meal eaten outdoors, made in a flat pan over a fire pulled together from foraged sticks. It was a meal eaten by workers in the fields from what could be caught and added to with rice and herbs, (often rabbit and snails). Somehow it evolved into a dish of many elements, but held together by rice, garlic and saffron.
I've been told by a friend just back from Madrid that as the dish is originally from Valencia, everywhere else, you just call it rice - arroz con pollo y langostinos, for example. Only in Valencia is it Paella. In Cordoba, you order rice with...
Now that's taking local appellation very seriously. Close relatives of the Paella, or rice cooked with other "stuff" (as a one pot dish) are everywhere.
The best polo I know is Shireen Polo - rice, chicken, slivered pistachio and almonds, orange rind, carrots, saffron, the whole sweetened with a dangerous amount of sugar which makes the golden colours glisten. It's definitely made for an occasion.
Is a Jumbalaya just a saffron-free Paella? Is Biryani just a young sibling of the Pilau? (Didn't some Persians drop down into India some centuries ago?) Is Paella just Shireen Polo without the nuts? There is certainly different rice used in each dish, perhaps different spicing but ultimately, I guess, it's down to provenance, locality, country, "terroir". So in Australia, what do we call it?
And is there ever a life situation, gastronomic or other, that can't be illustrated by a Seinfeld episode? Compare dumpy George with the sexy, exuberant Kramer.
George Costanza: Paella? It’s a mélange of meat and fish with rice. Very tasty.
Kramer: Have you ever had really good paella? Oh, it's an orgiastic feast for the senses. A festival of sights, sounds and colours.
So I have a nice robust chicken, some locally sourced mussels, tiny broad beans picked that morning by my brother Jean-Pierre, (grown by his wife Liz), and enough saffron left with which to be generous before my next "gift box" arrives.
As usual, I'm with Kramer, the hipster doofus. (Seinfeld, season 5, eps 18 & 19)
And it's a very difficult dish to make in small quantities!
Georges mother Estelle Costanza: What am I gonna do with all this Paella?
(And this very week, in the Spectator, I read about Paella. paella-five-top-tips
Zeitgeist! We concur and I further learn you eat it with a spoon, which I feel very comfortable with. Yes, yes, the Spectator is a monstrously conservative mag. It can, unfortunately, be very amusing. Trust me, I balance it with The New Yorker, The Guardian, The New York Times et al and my natural bolshy tendencies,)
So tradition or improvisation? A close friend and I should/could host a cooking show. No, not The Two Fat Ladies but the Traditionalist and the Iconoclast.
Join the conversation.
Comment👇. Are you a traditionalist or an iconoclast?
My Hervey Bay scallops, grilled with herb butter and espelette pepper. I miss the orange "coral" but they're pristinely trimmed and easy! (Waechtersbach serving platter with pierced draining plate, early 1950s.)
Went to lunch recently at a new restaurant. Slick decor, "tribal" tattoos, local gin, a hint of "shabby-chic", a wine list with just enough "natural" wines to be in the zone, a tempting menu of politically-correct provenance. It was easy to have trust in the next few hours.
There were some neat, small starters and a nice idea with lamb to follow - a slow-cooked braised shoulder on a bed of puréed chick peas and tahini, steamed okra, Moroccan pickled lemon, shaved sweet potato chips, with pan juices and pomegranate molasses.
My friend said "Lamb, pomegranate, pickled lemon? That sounds nice."
Our order was taken and for main course, we requested the lamb.
The waiter said "You mean the slow-cooked braised shoulder of lamb, on a bed of puréed chick peas and tahini, steamed okra, Moroccan pickled lemon, shaved sweet potato chips, with pan juices and pomegranate molasses? Good choice." *
Strangely, when asked about bharat and nduja, our waiter said he'd have to ask the kitchen.
It was a warm spring day so we settled for a chilled glass of trendy grüner veltliner rather than a red and played around with our starters - some better than average (much better) falafels, excellent Hervey Bay scallops and grilled eggplant with pine nuts.
Plates cleared, our main course arrived and was put down for us to share. The waiter said, "We have here your slow-cooked braised shoulder of lamb on a bed of puréed chick peas and tahini, steamed okra, Moroccan pickled lemon, shaved sweet potato chips, with pan juices and pomegranate molasses."
Now I could have said "Well that's a relief because that's what the menu said and what I was expecting." Sarcasm however, would have ruined the mood.
But is this just too much information, too often?
Do we need this? Do you think this is good service? Incidentally, I'd love to go back and have more of the menu but how about "Can I describe any dish for you?" rather than automatically getting a full shopping list, cooking instructions and culinary road map?
*And what branch of people management teaches this art of positive reenforcement. Our lamb was a "good choice" but at the next table the chargrilled octopus with black rice and foraged samphire was surprisingly also a "good choice". If I'd been having a low self- esteem day, I would have been confused.
Tell me if I'm being difficult. 👇
My favourite glasses*, on the windowsill the next day after dinner, are waiting to be washed by hand. These don't "dish-wash", the shape is awkward and they're old enough to suffer pitting from the machine detergent. I wash and leave them to drain on one of those spongy towelling mats.
I love the cooking and the planning. I love the experimenting. I love the gatherings. I love the memories the next day as I dump the empty wine bottles in the bin. I love the putting away of my toys we have played with that evening. I love the calm meditation later over the ironing. But let's face it, even when there are only two of us, it's still work - the price of pleasure- the wages of sin.
Now to share. I've been a little overwhelmed lately by hospital visits, taxi servicing, consoling, listening, empathising. I'm bloody exhausted.
But over the last eight days, we've been fed and cared for at a casual lunch over-looking the beach, after a Vernissage** (a dazzling post art gallery opening dinner for 12) and a Sunday evening table of five with very amusing friends.
Two artists at work.
Left: Jo - lazy lunch on the verandah. We could be anywhere from Pt Elliott to Pondicherry, from Bali to Bora Bora.
Right: Liz - sumptuous atmosphere with cleverly re-purposed "stuff" from auctions and junk shops.
Here were three days out of eight when I didn't have to think, didn't have to face an untidy kitchen when I came to make my jentacular*** cup of tea, didn't have to unload the dishwasher. Bliss. Can you imagine how helpful, how fabulous that was?
Remember this. It's so easy to add a couple of people to an evening meal or put together a sandwich or salad lunch. It could really make a difference to someone's week.
*Glasses - The tall ones - Holmgaard Princess, mid 60s. (Catch sight of them in Darling, 1965, Julie Christie, Dirk Bogart, Laurence Harvey.) Lovely, but admittedly a touch unstable; only used with certain friends. Rear, Kosta Boda Isadora, mid 80s.
**Vernisage - the French expression for an art gallery opening. I've heard it used here sometimes. (It's possibly from the early 1800s, when artists could varnish or put finishing touches to their work before opening to the general public.)
***Jentacular - You can't live without this word. It relates to any pre-breakfast ritual - a walk, a cup of tea, the crossword...
Comment 👇 and help out a friend.