The highs and lows of pimping your table

All the rage: Japanese table settings. (Photo: Supplied)

An upwardly mobile friend tells me that it doesn’t matter what you eat, it’s what you eat off that counts.

In the Seventies in London I went with my mother to lunch with Elizabeth David. My ma said she was a writer. I had no idea she was a famous cook. We ate in the kitchen and she and my mum smoked throughout the meal, sometimes standing with their backs to the Aga to warm their behinds. I don’t think there was any special table setting except a big bowl of midnight-black figs. It illuminated the whole meal. The bowl was a mustardy yellow and it stays in my mind although what we ate has vanished.

An upwardly mobile friend tells me that it doesn’t matter what you eat, it’s what you eat off that counts. It has to be Japanese named stoneware, rinsed in pure gold, licked by vestal virgins, tantalised by a million ancient customs and even buried underground. I found these very plates in a hole-in-the-wall shop called Setamono in Salt River ranging from R500 to R1,000 with a slightly overzealous aficionado of all things Japanese in charge. 

Darrin Morrisby, who owns Setamono Japanese Homeware, has that look in his eyes of someone with a long-held passion – in his case it is for Japanese everything. His tiny shop (enough for a couple of Japanese families to live in comfortably) is neatly stacked with bronzy, slightly archeological table weaponry.

There are modern Toki plates dipped in a solution of water and real gold to give an unearthly glow. The longer they’re soaked, the more you pay. But if you’re lucky you can find mid century Toki plates with quirky designs on eBay. If you want to crack the social elite dinner party you also need a few Tiki plates and of course a Hidochi, the unique Japanese table grill. The name to look for is Konro, made from diatomite. 

Dissolve to a recent dinner party.

From the start I was aware of the table in the background, blocking the fire. With its little asperities and collusions, fig leaves sprayed with gold leaf, a bright purple bowl full of peeled naartjies lent a sort of flesh coloured topography to the whole thing. There were shimmering jewelled jellies in tall glasses, glass trumpets full of sweets wrapped in silver and gold, a string of white camellias down the centre of the table and lots of deep troughs of fabulous greenery.

The whole thing was so glitteringly decorated it was like a lightning strike.

But when it came time to eat I was a bit done in and longed for something plain. The hostess had by then set a hundred candles alight so it looked a bit like Brunhilde’s immolation scene from Götterdämmarung.

But many good cooks prefer to keep things simpler.

Marlene van der Westhuizen, one of my favourite cooks in Cape Town, stands by an old recipe, good linen tablecloth, well creased, NOT ironed, simple crockery and very good large linen double napkins. “You don’t want it to look like the afterparty at a Eurovision contest.” 

It made me wonder how people set about planning meals. Is what we eat off as important as what we eat? Personally I am so greedy I could eat off the floor but it is wonderful to think that people still go down to the wire – plan, imagine and buy special crockery.

Clementina van der Walt, a much admired Cape Town ceramicist, says, “For me it is everything. When you see someone drinking out of a supermarket mug, with no care, it is really disgusting. Food takes long to prepare and it needs to be served fastidiously.”

One of her clients, Kate Owen, widow of Ken, famously admired for his writing, has bought a whole set of her latest Fusion ware, wildly patterned with an African aesthetic. “I love the look. I lay it out, perhaps for dinner in the garden. I love them and think carefully what to put on them.”

Mervyn Gers has a way with a green glaze. (Photo: Supplied)

How important is crockery and china to the whole meal? Does roast chicken taste better out of hand painted Meissen?

Very popular but a bit too Dutch for me are blue and white Spode Willow patterned crocks. Reproductions are easy to find and make perfect table companions.

There are world class ceramicists in Cape Town. Mervyn Gers is peerless with his small acute touches, the gold interior of a cup, a mingle of fishes that swarm through a three-piece set. I am in love with his deep green glazes with their toxic glow but hasten to add, very safe to eat off.

Mervyn Gers’ work is peerless. (Photo: Supplied)

But my favourite of all is Wonki Ware; it is matchless because you always find something that suits your mood and style. The story goes that the agent had a first big order. When she took it to the client, the client said, “But it’s all wonky.” Thus Wonki Ware was born.

I have noticed that a lot of imaginative local restaurants like the divine hole-in-the-wall in Hout Bay, Mexicola Locale, have started using individually crafted plates by local ceramicists. It adds spark.

The Big No

Never buy decorator or fashion candles, supermarket utility candles are the best and you can afford to clump them. I use small Bitterino bottles (that red Bitters drink that tastes like alcohol but isn’t), one candle in each. The perfumed candle is actionable.

Cutlery is tricky; rather eat with your fingers than buy Kmart stuff or even the next step up, plastic handles, a real turnoff. The smartest if you can find it is Swedish Army cutlery, to die for, workmanlike and workable and often available in junk shops. If you are lucky, as I once was, you can find Georg Jenson odd knives and forks in antique shops.

The Fifties was a good time for cutlery, especially Scandinavian silver which doesn’t make that awful cheap clatter on a plate that sounds like an advancing parade of kettle drums. I like the European habit of keeping your plate and cutlery for the next course.

Drinking glasses are always a problem, cheap glasses look smudgy, expensive glasses look ritzy with too much cut. Bormioli Rocco have a range I love (get from Yuppiechef), ridged and industrial looking; use for everything. I have an almost clinical prejudice against cheap stemmed wine glasses, well let’s be honest, to any stemmed wine glass. They are never used in countries like Greece, Turkey and Armenia, too dangerous if there is a fight. Supermarkets often have surprising coloured glass like the delicious pink dessert dishes and lime green tumblers I found in Pick n Pay.

Plain white is the most used crockery because you can’t go wrong. Now they are wrong unless you’re into dashboard dining or running a sick bay. I noticed in cooking competitions on Netflix (when did cooking take over the doccie industry?) they mostly used burnished Japanese, possibly because they are indestructible.

The Big Yes

Visitors from abroad warm to anything African but don’t go overboard. A tour guide friend plays the sound of crickets but you don’t need to go that far. Nguni place mats look great, brown and white and black and white.

We don’t really make enough use of flowers. All those tropical flowers that you have scorned most of your life make vibrant table companions, Schiaparelli pink anthuriums in clumps, bowls of frangipani, the strange shaped strelitzia, banana leaves, also good to eat off. When I went to Mauritius I went home with the young man who cleaned my room and we had dinner off banana leaves.

And yes to anything by Mervyn Gers. (Photo: Supplied)

Small napkins are out. Huge and linen or just the wonderful Afrikaans tradition of a vatdoek, passed around for hand wiping. At the beginning of the century a highly-paid specialist was hired solely to fold napkins. A host with poorly-folded napkins was thought to lack class. 

I love the crockery equivalent of amuse bouche. Coming to the end of a meal I cleared my plate (I seem to remember made by the famous ceramist Hylton Nel) to find a little rhyme written on the bottom of the dish.

Across the floor flits the mechanical toy,
A little circus horse with real white hair.
His eyes are glossy black.
He bears a little dancer on his back.

I have always remembered it. DM/TGIFood


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