Well-Laid: The art of food styling

It’s having a moment but fancy food styling dates back way further than instagram

Foraged wild florals, marble slab serving platters and pretty palates to satiate the palate. Table dressing and design has become an extension of fancy plate styling for the modern chef but how did we go from breaking bones with our bare hands and guzzling drinks out of human skulls (Homo Sapiens at Cheddar Gorge liked to sip their water in style) to today’s well-laid spreads?

The term ‘setting the table’ literally came about in the medieval period when the table itself would have to be constructed every mealtime out of trestles and a long slab of wood. Any ‘dressing’ of the table might have involved a dirty, rough cloth that diners could wipe their mouths on — basically an oversized, communal napkin. Nice.

In Ancient Greece, the design of the table itself was as important (if not more) than what was on the table. Animal shaped table legs were found on ivory and bronze tables (always low for a laissez-faire banqueting style — lazy Greeks) while centrepieces might have involved rock crystal and decorative leaves. Crockery wasn’t really a thing but the ‘skyphos’ (a deep, decorated, two-handed vessel for drinking wine) definitely was. This took pride of place at any Greek dinner party and was slurped at by one and all.

In Medieval times, soup was drunk straight from the bowl and cutlery went as far as a knife to spear meat, which was served up on a thick hunk of bread (the ‘trencher’). Aristocracy might have indulged in a pheasant or two as dramatic centrepieces, but crockery and cutlery was sparse. Before this, the Ancient Greeks took to dining on flat bread (using it to wipe their greasy mitts on too), while the Romans developed expensive tastes for silver spoons and tableware.

Check out any medieval painting of a dining scene and you’re likely to come across a tiny vessel to hold salt called a saltcellar. Salt was still seen as a luxury commodity so it’s no surprise that those that got first dibs on a sprinkling were higher ranking members of the dinner party.

In context, salt had long been seen as a symbol of wealth. Roman soldiers received a payment of salt, and the Latin word for salt, ‘sale’, forms the root of the word ‘salary’. If your table had one of these back in the day, then it was seen as pretty damn decadent.

The same goes for marzipan, which was brought to Northern Europe from Venice and the Eastern Med during the Christian Crusades. Dinner party show-offs would have their cooks mould a colourful fruitbowl centrepiece out of marzipan as a saccharine finale to a feast. This was later replaced as the centrepiece by the pineapple, a sweet symbol of the moneyed since Columbus brought it to Europe from the Caribbean in 1493. Thanks to its aesthetically pleasing spiky appearance, the pineapple’s been present on our tables ever since — from gelatin-sheen upside down cakes in the 1950s, to ornamental brass pineapples knocking around East London living rooms today.

In the 17th Century, mirrored surfaces and platters were laid out across the table to reflect the huge selection of dishes, while phallic food-focused centre pieces towered high in dramatic pyramid shapes. ‘Service a la Russe’ (serving up each dish individually from a sideboard) in the 18th and 19th Century made room on the table for plenty of pomp. Think dramatic candelabra and floral centrepieces that took over the entire table. You couldn’t move for strands of ivy at a catch up with your mates during the Victorian era — and matching colour palettes were de rigueur.

Fast forward to the 1950s, an era of burgeoning mass production and convenience, and dramatic table dressing is all but abandoned in favour of the convenient, wipe-down PVC tablecloth stamped with space age graphics and popping primary fruit patterns. It gets worse. The Swanson Food Company invented the TV dinner in 1954, inviting households all over the US to ditch their tables all together.

Thankfully, our tastes and compulsions have once again changed. Mobile phones and the internet have taken the place of the television as a 21st Century addiction. London-base experiential event producer Victoria Baker and set dresser Matilda Gould are both in agreement that Instagram has changed the way we think about setting the table. “I really think the rise of Instagram has played a big part in the need to decorate the table more so than ever before,” says Gould on the recent trend for pattern-on-pattern maximalism.

The world’s best restaurants are also becoming increasingly ‘grammable’, with Denmark’s Noma and Central Lima Peru leading the charge on crafting impressive ‘rustic’ table settings that link back to the food’s ‘natural’ environment (nests for eggs and mossy beds served on aged wooden tables). Or on the flip-side, Moscow’s Grand Cafe Dr Zhivago and Voskhod — restaurateur Alexander Rappoport behind both — bringing dining themes like the Russian Revolution and the Space Race directly to the table with symbolic centrepieces.

Ana Kerin of London ceramics studio, Kana, stands by the idea that we’re going ‘back to basics’ on setting the table. Her raw, textured, sculptural ceramics are a win with clients like Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi and nod to our 21st Century need to rewind to a simpler time. It’s not quite a tumbler made of a human skull, but are you likely to instagram that?

Photography Ella Louise Sullivan

Freelance journalist writing about travel, the environment, food and life for The Guardian, The Independent, The New York Times and The Telegraph.

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