19 Aug 2022

A plea for plates

There has been much commentary on social media about the increasingly bizarre tendency for pubs and restaurants to serve food in a wide variety of receptacles that bear no resemblance to a plate. At one end of the spectrum we’ve probably all encountered wooden boards and slates; the more extreme end encompasses everything from miniature shopping trolleys and upside-down umbrellas to goldfish bowls.

Clearly the search for novelty and talking points is relentless, while the pressure to create photogenic dishes that will make their way on to Instagram and the like is intense. But the fact is that food is for eating, and any receptacle that makes food less appetising or simply inaccessible is clearly not doing its job. Many of us will have watched, crestfallen, as ice cream, served on a slate, melts and runs inexorably on to the table. The more hygiene-conscious amongst us will ponder how some of these novelty items are cleaned; a cracked wooden board looks like a breeding ground for bacteria. The array of weird and wonderful receptacles appears to be a prime example of the triumph of style over substance…Over-elaborate presentation of the food becomes the talking point, and there is a suspicion that the wilder flights of fancy are masking dishes that are at best mediocre.

It seems strange that many novelty receptacles are taking us back to the dark ages of dining, when ceramic or metal tableware was not readily available. People in the Middle Ages ate off slices of coarse bread, which – at the end of the meal – were thrown to the dogs, or given to the poor as alms. These were known as trenchers (from the old French word, ‘tranchier’, meaning ‘to cut’). By the 16th century bread trenchers were replaced by more practical versions, made of wood for most of the population, and pewter or precious metals for the wealthy. Everyday trenchers, made of thin slabs of wood, were imported in large quantities from the Baltic region, or simply home-made.

By the end of the 16th century, wealthier people were beginning to use platters, initially made of pewter or fine metals. When costly Chinese porcelain began to arrive in Europe, the appetite for it was insatiable. The Dutch created much more affordable tin-glazed earthenware, called Delftware, which also became hugely popular in the 17th century. Eventually, after much experimentation, Europeans began to manufacture their own porcelain, pioneered by Meissen in 1708. By the mid-18th century French aristocrats were dining exclusively off porcelain tableware and the British followed suit. Wealthy aristocrats commissioned increasingly elaborate items of decorated tableware, which became a status symbol. Britain’s reserves of china clay were a crucial factor in the growth of British porcelain and other pottery. Decades of experimentation by innovators such as Josiah Wedgwood led to a boom in the manufacture of British earthenware and stoneware, which were much more affordable than porcelain.  By the 19th century pottery had become a standard item in working class households and the true era of the plate had begun.

These eminently practical items have evolved over many centuries to become an indispensable part of everyday life. They can be merely functional, or beautiful and stylish objects that will enhance your table as well as your food. Why settle for anything else?

A Guide to Plates

With so many contemporary designs and shapes available, these are simply guidelines, not rules:

• Side plates: Usually about 6 inches in diameter, these plates can be used for small starters or amuse-bouches, and also can be used for bread and butter.

• Pudding plates: Usually about 8 inches in diameter, these plates are used for puddings but can also be used for side salads. Not all puddings are suitable for these plates – for example a crème brûlée would be better served in a ramekin.

• Dinner plates: Usually about 10 inches in diameter and used to serve all main meals. These are the most indispensable items in your plate collection, so think carefully before you invest and bear in mind that plates with a larger diameter may not fit in your dishwasher.

• Soup bowl: For formal dinners soup should be served in a wide shallow bowl with a flanged rim and a diameter of approximately 9 inches. In less formal settings, and especially when serving a puréed soup that will quickly lose heat, you may opt for a steep-sided soup or cereal bowl, with a diameter of about 5 inches.

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