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  • OKA at Hay Literary Festival: The Art of Dining

    The History of Hay



    OKA hits the Hay Literary Festival – the mecca for everyone with an interest in anything literary, or really, anything at all. The festival is based in the bohemian town of Hay-on-Wye, aka ‘The Town of Books’. The town is just north of the ‘Black Mountains’ and was originally just a small market town until 1962 when Richard Booth decided he had to save the local economy and set up a bookshop (which is one of the greatest in the town today). He set off to America – where many of the libraries were closing down - bringing with him the strongest men from Hay, who helped ship the forgotten books back to the small Welsh town. His bookshop was an immediate success, which led the other townsfolk to follow suit, and thus ‘The Town of Books’ was established.



    In 1977, Richard Booth proclaimed that Hay was an “independent kingdom” and declared himself King and appointed his horse Prime Minister. His publicity stunt gained the town some much needed media attention, and in 1987, Hay on Wye Festival was founded, allegedly around a kitchen table. Thirty years on and the festival is still thriving, selling over 250,000 tickets every year. It has now expanded outside Hay itself - you can attend a Hay Festival in countries abroad including Spain, Peru, Denmark and Mexico.



    The Art of Dining


    OKA attended a talk on the Art of Dining, hosted by the National Trust, in which three experts discussed dining through the ages. It was a conversation between James Rothwell, Patricia Ferguson and Simon Murray, Director of Curatorship for the National Trust. James Rothwell, Senior Curator and Advisor on Silver for the National Trust, was promoting his new book Silver For Entertaining – The Ickworth Collection. Patricia Ferguson, Advisor on Ceramics for the National Trust, was promoting her book Ceramics: 400 Years of British Collecting in 100 Masterpieces.


    How was Silver used when Dining?



    Though you’re more likely to find a stainless steel cutlery set gracing your table nowadays, silver was where it all began. James Rothwell shared some interesting facts about silver through the ages, such as:

    • Every family who had any money would own some silver, even if it was just silver spoons, but the wealthier families would have “best silver and everyday silver”.
    • Why do you put a teaspoon into a cup? Because it was rude to refuse a cup of tea (and some Brits would say it still is!) but if you left your teaspoon in your cup, the servants would know you didn’t want any more.
    • Where did the term ‘born with a silver spoon in his mouth’ come from? Rothwell believes it could have come from teething toddlers being given silver spoons to chew on, as it was more sterile then almost anything else at the time.
    • Women used to lead when it came to carving. It was originally considered an incredibly important and gentile skill. There were manuals that taught you how to do it, with each part of the animal being given a number so that you knew to carve from ‘7’ to ‘9’, etc.
    • Some silver forks have the family crest on the back. Forks were originally laid upside down, with the prongs facing the table. This was due to the fashion of lace ruffs in the late 17th century when forks first started to be used (the very valuable lace would otherwise have become entangled in the prongs).


    A Brief History of Ceramics in Dining



    Patricia Ferguson explained that ceramics have been used in dining for centuries. Chinese porcelain has been coming into Europe since the 1550s, in large enough proportions to be used on dining tables. In 1708 there was a new contender on the market – Meissen porcelain, crafted in Germany. It was in the same Chinoiserie style but with European motifs. By the second half of the 18th century, there were many more local options of ceramic for the English. The four best known were: Wedgewood, Worcester, Derby and Paris, some of which are still in use today.


    The Drama of Dining with Silver and Ceramics



    There have been two main methods of serving in England since the middle ages, one was ‘Service à la française’ and the other ‘Service à la russe’. ‘Service à la française’ came over from France and involved all the food already being on the table, a seated buffet. It was a chance for wealthy families to show off their wealth, with an assortment of expensive and extravagant foods. The more lavish food would be placed near the most important and noble guests, whilst the lesser respected would have plainer and less generous offerings. The drawback to the French-inspired service was that the food would often be cold by the time it was eaten. Service à la russe’ came over from Russia and involved all the courses being brought to the table sequentially. This is still the method that is frequently used in English restaurants today.



    In both service styles, it was the artful choreography of the ceramics and silver that really enchanced the beauty of the items themselves. Whether it was all the silver and china laid on the table during the French-inspired service, or all the waiting staff presenting the silver and china platters during the Russian-inspired service, they both created a huge amount of dramatic flair – something that’s still important to remember when dressing your table today.



    See OKA's full collection of Chinese porcelain.