I enjoy setting a nice table. Decor to match the theme. Fresh flowers somewhere in the room. The “nice” cutlery brought out. But I don’t even come CLOSE to how my nanny set the table. No one has.
The chairs, dark, old and somewhat rickety, padding added to make up for decades of bottoms firmly planted, all sitting snug to ensure everyone fit. And we all did.
First, a lightly padded layer on top of the table itself. Covered by a cotton table cloth of little design. It would be nothing fancy, no garish print or god forbid plastic of any kind.
The placemats were small and stiff and intended to more protect the wood of the table from the heat of the plate than a giant rectangle of plastic intended to catch the scraps of a messy eater because yes, the plates were always heated. The mats had printed images of hunting scenes from the 1920’s or castles with lush greens around them. We would always check to see which ones we were given and trade if the need arose.
The silverware, clean, shiny, laid out just right without being so abundant that it was confusing. The forks always seemed big and the dessert spoon and fork always sat at the top of the placemat. I can still see my Pipe sitting at the table when I would pop in randomly for lunch, cleaner and cloth in hand, shining up the silver piece by piece.
For the life of me I cannot recall what type of napkins there were but something tells me Nanny likely would have had cloth. I was a kid, I didn’t use napkins.
A short little vase sat in the centre of the table with some fresh flowers spilling out. Nothing ostentatious. Just some carnations, maybe lilacs from outside.
I don’t recall candles on the table. Only the one candle on the shelves behind the table that looked like it must be old fashioned because the holder part looked like a saucer and had the little finger hold so you could carry it and walk around. They only did that in the olden days.
Pepper came in a tiny pepper shaker and salt came in a wee dish with an even more wee spoon. I would get in trouble for playing with the doll size set, pouring the salt over itself.
If it was lamb there would be a mint sauce in a green glass dish with a spoon. If it was beef there would be horseradish in a clear glass dish with a spoon.
Everything came out on its own serving tray or bowl. Glass, china, silver. Nothing chintzy. You passed around and helped yourself and never would Nanny ever dare to provide you with a plate that already had food loaded on it. We chose how much of what item we each wanted. It was a family dinner, not a restaurant.
I remember there never being salad.
Pipe and one of us would clear the plates away and another one of us would help Nanny bring out the dessert. There would always, and I mean ALWAYS, be more than one option.
Most frequently, and if we were lucky, there would be treacle tart. Oh my god the treacle tart. There would, more often than not, be warm custard, perhaps a little cake that felt very heavy and very much not from a box, or little meringues with pineapple on top. She would sometimes do a pie with pastry from scratch and would moan about how the pastry didn’t work out, every time.
When we had all had our fill and my dad would announce that his sufficiency had been suffonsified, one of us would help Pipe clear away the remaining items from the table and create the long line of dishes to be done on the counter.
We would take the little orange contraption that both swept and collected the crumbs off the table and give it a whirl before placing it back on the little stand in the kitchen.
The table cloth got folded, same with the liner underneath. If there was left over food, we would go to the hall cupboard and rummage through bags full of twist ties, bags full of margarine containers, bags full of bags and find something to store everything in.
We made fun of Nanny for the twist ties. Every time.
Then, when one of us had helped Pipe with the dishes, we would all sit in the living room, surrounded by the haze of a room full of smokers, port or sherry in tiny glasses lining the coffee table, the candy dish decimated by little fingers, and we would talk and play the alphabet game until it was time to go.
I’m very glad that there was so little in the way of technology back then. And while it is indeed an absolute way of life now, I will work to get back some of what we had when we sat at my Nanny’s table.
It was all very much just like my Nan. Fancy, but not overly so.