There are few things more satisfying on a chilly winter’s day than a warming soup served in a chunky bowl. And what is it about drinking tea from delicate china that makes us sit up that little bit straighter? Every day we use tableware to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, but we rarely consider the huge effect it can have on our enjoyment of the food or drink we’re about to consume. Modern lifestyles have had an influence on the way we eat, and we’re much more casual diners than our grandparents or even our parents were. The slow but steady demise of the dining room has also played a major part in the way we serve our meals, with families and friends more likely to gather round the table in an open-plan kitchen than make time for a formal feast. ‘Social norms have relaxed so much,’ says Australian chef Bill Granger. ‘It’s ironic that in sophisticated urban environments, we’re dining more like French peasants did 300 years ago.’
Trends in tableware are influenced by fashionable foods and the way in which we eat them. ‘Restaurants and their menus have a huge bearing on what people buy,’ says Dik Delaney, head of design at Royal Doulton. ‘Often food lovers are keen to see how chefs use tableware before taking the ideas home and recreating them’. Gone are the days when ‘proper’ dining meant dusting off granny’s best china and serving up on a full dinner set. Now we’re more likely to take our cue from a local gastropub and enjoy hearty British recipes from rustic earthenware, or an Asian pick ‘n’ mix banquet from glossy lacquered bowls. Think of jewel-like nigiri or seaweed-wrapped California rolls served on a round dish – somehow not right? Graphic foods like these look best lined up in regimented rows on square plates. ‘They’re still the only appropriate shape on which to serve sushi,’ says chef Bill Granger.
Plain and simple
Tables of chic eateries everywhere have increased the popularity of simple white serving ware in our kitchens (think back – it really wasn’t so long ago that a matching set of patterned plates was everyone’s table staple at home). A favourite with the majority of chefs and restaurants, a plain white plate can provide a ‘frame’ for food, transforming even the most basic beans on toast into a culinary delight, while still proving the perfect foil for more adventurous dinner party dishes. As a result, chefs are increasingly being asked to collaborate with tableware companies when they’re developing new products – take Jamie Oliver’s collection for Royal Worcester and the new Gordon Ramsay range by Royal Doulton. For the latter, a design team visited the TV star’s restaurants to study how both chefs and customers used their plates. The resulting tableware is both glamorous and functional.
The new essentials
‘We don’t need complete dinner services any more,’ says Wedgwood design and creative consultant Francesca Amfitheatrof. ‘Attitudes have changed and we can be adventurous with a less formal mix-and-match approach.’ Instead, it’s all about customising your crockery, so compile your ultimate wish list before investing in some good-quality basics. Space and storage limitations make today’s kitchen essentials work harder and, as a result, you’re more likely to need flexible items and dishes that can double up. Don’t waste your funds on cups and saucers just because tradition dictates if you know you won’t use them. On the other hand, if you’re a coffee lover, proper espresso cups will be a good investment if they make your morning shot that much more enjoyable. Above all, it’s essential to think about your particular needs and cooking style when choosing crockery.
o Large dinner plates will give food room to breathe. According to John Lewis, the size of tableware has increased over the last few years, and many plates are now 30cm whereas the standard is 27cm. Also think about pieces that can work for starters, sides and desserts.
o The experts agree that multifunctional, medium-sized bowls are an essential. A favourite with foodies everywhere, they can be used to serve anything from soups and salads to pasta and puddings, with deep versions being ideal for casual eating when food is balanced on laps.
o’Go for some supersized serving dishes so that everyone can tuck in,’ suggests Thomasina Miers, Masterchef winner 2005 and author of Cook (Collins, £16.99). ‘Bountiful plates and bowls are becoming an absolute must for people cooking at home’. Choose porcelain serveware that can go straight from oven to tabletop.
Share and share alike
The popularity of foods from around the world means meals are far less likely to be brought ready-plated to the table, as in many countries the act of sharing with your fellow diners is integral to a meal. Instead large platters and bowls allow everyone to help themselves, a trend that translates well into contemporary social settings. ‘Sharing is key in Chinese and oriental cooking, so I usually make an array of small dishes that allow guests to sample a little of everything,’ says Ching-He Huang, author of China Modern (Kyle Cathie, £14.99). ‘It’s a lot less formal, especially when you have groups of friends that are new to each other.
Colour and texture
‘The classic white plate is the white T-shirt of the tabletop world,’ says Donna Hay, Livingetc’s contributing food editor. Donna suggests thinking of your tabletop in the same way you think of fashion. ‘Adding colour or texture is easy to do with dipping bowls, platters and other smaller items. Just as with fashion, these are those inexpensive accessory purchases that are easy to part with after the trend has passed’. Another way to introduce personality is by mixing basics with well-loved, vintage hand-me-downs or flea-market finds. ‘We’re definitely getting more eclectic,’ says Bill Granger. ‘I used to have cupboards full of white plates, but now colour and pattern are creeping back in. I have plates that don’t match for the first time in years.’ This works equally well in reverse if you’ve inherited a traditional dinner service, as by interspersing homely items, you can create a much friendlier atmosphere. Alternatively, Caroline Clifton-Mogg, author of China and Glass (Jacqui Small, £25), suggests going for different textures and tones of white to create a more varied look. ‘Buy dishes that include white in the design, but add one or two new colours or a motif in a different hue.’
Care and cleaning
o The majority of modern tableware is now dishwasher safe. New plates usually have glazing over the decoration, so the pattern will not fade.
o Older or hand-painted items won’t have a protective glaze, so will fade over time even through hand washing. You can tell if an item is not glazed by feeling for a slightly raised pattern. If in doubt, wash by hand.
o Check manufacturers’ instructions to see whether items are suitable for the microwave, oven or freezer. Any gilded pieces will not be safe in a microwave.
Expert essentials – what the pros can’t live without
o ‘Definitely big oval platters. They’re great for piling up food to look generous without being messy.’ – Bill Granger, chef and restaurateur.
o ‘A large pasta bowl that can be used for warming soups in the winter and creative salads in the summer – ideal for alfresco entertaining.’ -Stuart Cullen, Villeroy & Boch.
o ‘A large, wooden, beautiful salad bowl – mine is my grandmother’s, along with her beautiful salad spoon and fork.’ – Thomasina Miers, Masterchef winner 2005.
o ‘My lacquered wooden sushi trays and my oriental ceramic plates and bowls I bought from an oriental store in north London.’ – Ching-He Huang, author and presenter of Ching’s Kitchen