British ‘Bake off’ queen Mary Berry is causing a stir with her declaration that the dining room is dead. Not so say I, and many others, as I get the table ready for the festive season.
As society in general moves to a more casual lifestyle, and even fine dining restaurants are having a hard time, it’s reasonable to assume that in most households sitting down to family dinner is a lost habit. People in a rush are much more likely to grab a take out (take away for my Brit readers) and gobble it down in front of the TV, than make themselves a proper meal and eat it at a table in a dining room. Many people live in condos, apartments and flats that don’t come with a separate dining room, although I’ve seen a few that position a windowless box in the interior as an optional dining area/study/extra bedroom and leave it to the new owner to decide how they’ll use it.
Even at my most enthusiastic, I seldom cook a full meal for one, when I’m alone, making do with dishes that last several meals. When there’s two of us, there’s pleasure in making more of an effort. Diane is often the recipient of my first efforts with a new recipe and since photography is involved if I think it will make a good article, we will sit at the table in the dining room and enjoy a leisurely progress through a couple of courses.
Flowers for all seasons adorn our dining room table
Mary Berry, 82, the television cook and food writer, and former Bake Off judge, says she surrendered her dining room when she recently downsized and realized most meals were eaten in the kitchen. Promoting her new book, Mary’s Household Tips and Tricks, she revealed her views at a literature festival in the UK. It’s odd that in a book which tells the correct way to lay a formal table, she also admits abandoning her own.
Letter writers from The Daily Telegraph immediately jumped into the fray and condemned her. “What would our dinner guests think of us all crammed into the kitchen surrounded by cooking clobber,” wrote one. “Cooking smells permeate the house from an open kitchen,” complains another, while a third admits: “When we cook we often leave a mess in the kitchen that we don’t particularly want to look at or clear up until later.” All good points that speak against having an open kitchen with a counter and stools separating it from the living area, or an entire open plan floor with kitchen exposed. But that’s what’s in vogue at the moment, as I can attest from extensive research (eating at friend’s condos).
The trouble with kitchens is that they have become, as Ysenda Maxtone Graham, writing in The Spectator back in 2015, calls them ‘the cold heart of the home’ — “spotless, minimalist, metallic kitchens … white floors, white walls, glass-topped tables and matching white laminate cupboards … perched on white stools at the cuboid white island under a row of dazzling hanging lights that … made the surfaces shimmer.” I could go on, and did in The kitchen: Bleak and dreary, but I’m sure you get the point. The kitchen is no longer the warm and welcoming spot of old, where the family could gather for a cosy kitchen supper. It is at best unfriendly and at worst downright alien.
So, I contend there’s still a place for a proper sit down dining experience and to that end we keep a very nice formal dining room going. We have French doors to the kitchen, which can be kept open so I can participate in entertaining our guests while performing culinary duties, and then closed when the meal is on the table. I always seem to use every pot and pan in the kitchen, even when I prepare most of the meal in advance, and I would hate my guests to see the mess I have left behind. For that very reason alone, I am utterly against kitchen dining.
Our dining table is a lovely antique reproduction with a beautifully inlaid top. It was made by the venerable English firm of Restall Brown & Clennell (RBC) which began in 1905 at a factory in London’s East End, before moving to Lewes, Sussex. After a long history with several generations of the Brown family in charge, the company closed its operations in 2015, just down the road from where my mum lives. We kept meaning to visit their offices over the years, but procrastinated and when we finally drove up it was to find the site locked up and abandoned. What a shame to see such traditions and craftmanship lost.
When the table, and other fine RBC pieces, sat in Diane’s retail store on Avenue Road, it sold for many thousands of dollars, so I’m glad it has found a good home. Columnist and Master Chef judge William Sitwell, writing in The Times, has a list of do’s and don’t for hosting. He says: “Do have a table to sit around. No one gets dressed up to come round for a telly supper or to sit at your posh new kitchen breakfast bar.” Another dining room supporter.
Normally, our table lives in a round configuration, making it ideal for a meal for four or five, but one leaf makes it perfect for six or seven and two leaves extend it sufficiently to sit eight comfortably and 10 at a squeeze. Although we occasionally feed that number at the table, for a book club or a big family dinner for instance, I’m most comfortable with seating for six. That allows us to have two couples for dinner for a convivial evening.
We even mix up friends who don’t know each other so we can hear some new stories. There’s nothing more boring than rehashing the same tale over and over. Diane, quite rightly, stops me dead if I start to repeat myself. “Tell them,” she smiles, “About the time you were killed by a lion in Africa.” With four guests, I can cook a three-course meal easily and still find time to enjoy the conversation before dinner and relax with the kitchen doors closed and the mess hidden afterwards.
Diane is wonderful with flowers and has a few tricks that make the table beautiful. One ideal is to have a centrepiece that is not too high to impede the flow of conversation across the table. Sometimes we even get out a stunning Baccarat crystal coupe and she fills it with flowers.
Those who know Diane will not be surprised to learn that we have several sets of table ware, glassware and cutlery, enough to stock a small shop. Table cloths have been cleverly custom sewn from Ultrasuede in various sizes and colours. The point of all this is that making the table look special is part of the fun of creating an enjoyable and special occasion for your guests. For family dinners the regular everyday stuff will do, of course. But no need to let the table and service be boring. Make the effort to lay the table properly. Select a few well-chosen flowers, minimal table decorations, and plate the food interestingly.
A successful meal is assured. The dining room lives on.
POSTSCRIPT: With this posting Gentleman’s Portion achieves it’s fifth anniversary: five years worth of stories on food, travel, life, good wines and whisky, posted regularly every week. This is my 209th article, columnist David Moorcroft, who sits at the table of friends above, has written more than 50 tales of his cruising life, and our wine expert Jim Walker posts his 21st story next week. My runaway top story among readers is Eggs Benedict, Florentine and Royale.
Lisa and Alex, also featured above, drove around the world getting ‘married’ more than 70 times and becoming Global Wedding Experts along the way. I first wrote about them after we met in the Bahamas five years ago.
GIFT IDEA: How about a copy of my e-book Market to Table: The Cookbook as a gift idea for friends, family or anyone who loves to cook, now available on Lulu.com, i-Tunes and has just launched on Amazon.