Setting a handsome table


Setting the table for lunch or dinner, especially when there are guests involved, should be a pleasure. It’s an opportunity to match the type of food being served to the occasion in which it will be eaten.  This is where the design element inherent in the eating of a meal can really come into play. Even a simple every day meal can be transformed with a little attention. Here in a one-man kitchen like ours, it means that while the cook prepares the meal itself, the other person has their own allotted tasks.

There are certain basics, there are always linen napkins for each of us, there are always good silver serving spoons and candles are set – although in summer not always lit.  The rest is open to interpretation – with variations reliant on how much washing up one wants to commit too.

Because the food we cook is often of a rustic Elizabeth David/Madhur Jaffrey variety, there are days where I am warned in advance that the cooking pot is coming to the table, thus indicating that no serving dishes are required. The plates and flatware should therefore be of the more countrified type – of which there is a fair selection. We have also collected up some cooking equipment that looks pretty good on the table – a good French cast iron frying pan, a selection of smart Scandinavian enamelware casseroles and a Victorian copper fish cauldron amongst other bits and pieces.

However these occasions are usually for when we dine en famille or when close friends are in residence for a day or two. These events take place on the table in the Morning room. At the height of summer there is an even more casual meal taken on a folding table in the deep shade of the verandah but even this gets covered with one of the small checked cloths that have circulated in either family for a generation or two.


Setting the Studio table for quests is an altogether different proposition. There is an increasingly vast array of tablecloths, napkins, napkin rings, dinner services, cutlery and glassware to chose from, not to mention an army of decanters, candlesticks and even an epergne all of which can be called into service.

All these make a pretty impressive looking table almost always presented in the glow of candlelight. Although this often requires ironing linen, polishing silver and glassware and a whole lot of post function washing-up it is, as I say, one of the pleasures of entertaining.   1

However this has a downside. Inviting people to dine at home has always been our primary means of entertaining friends (we’re not one’s for barbeques or pool parties). Years ago I recall asking why there weren’t too many return invitations coming our way? Was it simply that people no longer invited people to dine with them?  A friend said guiltily that she would have us to dinner as soon as she had a decent set of …  (insert what ever you like from the list above) but until then she couldn’t match my obsessive table setting.

Entertaining is about good conversation and good company not good flatware and I will eat anything, anywhere if the company is right. However one thing that occurred to me recently is that not everyone dines the way we do and an over the top table setting can be a little intimidating and even a little overpowering in the height of summer.

So recently when we invited two new younger guests to dine I decided to force myself back to basics and to abandon formal in preference for something essentially easy going to match the summer simplicity of the room.

table 2


The Studio table, (the third since we arrived here and I’m still not sure it’s right) – is a Kauri topped table with impressive turned legs. Peter has been talking about taking the table out into the garden and scrubbing it (which we must do) but for the moment the table is a little spotted (albeit clean) but not so you’d notice in low light levels. When we use it is almost always covered with a white cloth. This was the first thing to be abandoned – tonight basic would mean basic.

On to this went contemporary woven placemats and in the centre a ceramic draining plate from an old meat dish. This is in the centre of almost every table setting useful as it is for placing hot items. The dinner service chosen was Chinese in style but of unknown origin. It is one of the services I contemplate ‘letting go’ every time we need to make room for an new one – but looking back it is surprising how often it gets used.

With a Chinese theme introduced, a red lacquer serving tray was placed at one end of the table and used to hold the dessert dishes. Old brass candlesticks were elevated from the Morning room, as they seemed more suited to a bare table than are silver candlesticks, their colouring complementing both table colouring and that of the tray. Aesthetic movement tiles provided other heatproof services and a matching pair of Aesthetic movements napkins rings were chosen for our guests.

The glasses were old and solid. The water jug is Irish lead crystal and the heaviest thing you’ll ever lift. The decanter is a 1960s one that long ago lost its stopper but get used here almost every night. The water glasses were in contrast delicate wheel turned glasses from the 1920s (note to self: hunt out an nice heavy set of plain water glasses).norwegian

Dinner (a chicken baked in an almond and onion sauce, served with okra) arrived direct from the oven in two Norwegian cast iron pots brought years ago at Webb’s. Dessert (a plum pie) was served in the copper dish in which it was cooked. Cream was served in a Victorian jug – with an Indian scene on each side.

As it turned out the blending of the more rustic method of table setting reserved for family and friend proved the ideal setting for the introduction of new friends to our crazy emphatic way of living and the entire evening passed in pleasant company – with special compliments after those for the meal – going to the rustic Norwegian cookware.


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1 Response to Setting a handsome table

  1. hamish says:

    One of the most memorable things Nick and I thought about dining at your house was the impressive array of utensils. And that they are enjoyed everyday. We wanted to find some neat old stuff when I visited Dunedin last week but no luck. Nick had a donna hay magazine that went behind the scenes in their pantry. Pantry envy! They had every imaginable bowl in every colour ever made, a warehouse full, so you guys have no problems.

    Might be home in two/three weeks will let you know. Very much looking forward to seeing the new museum

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