The pictures of the state dinner that French president Emmanuel Macron offered to king Charles III and his entourage surprised me. The menu was good – no oysters, no foie gras – maybe a little trolling with the lobster, but the food is not what this blog is about. It’s about appearances and expectations. Traditionally one would have expected a white damask table cloth with matching napkins. The finest linen to be found in the Republic. Preferable with a long and interesting history.
Or maybe a brand new table cloth with matching napkins in a pattern suiting the occasion. But it was not to be. Dull gold, to reflect the gold in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Splendor indeed. The hall overpowered the plates and probably also the food. The plates were Sèvres, cobalt blue, gold decoration, with tropical birds in medallions and on the plate, dating from the 19thcentury. That, was completely in the expected style. The silver cutlery and the crystal glasses were totally dulled by the gold cloth.
Would a famous chef be happy to present his signature dishes in this setting? I don’t think so. Did the decoration outshine the menu? I think so.
Also, the red rimmed wine glass, why? When ‘gold’ was the common denominator, why not something like these gold rimmed Baccarat red wine glasses, Art Deco, yes, but Wenn Schon, Denn Schon. This looked pathetic.
Should I comment on those? Autumn leafy small finger wipes, more fitting for a picnic lunch, or high tea. And then, the flowers: lots of small bouquets, Biedermeierisch, repetitive. Again, a supportive act in a clumsy and cluttering way.
The Art of the Table
Now, some history to explain my grumbling, and I quote freely from Paris à Table, by Eugène Briffault, 1846, starting from pagina 43.
“The Linen must be very white, it is the background for the décor, it is adorned with graceful patterns, and covers the table down to two-thirds of its height. Fine linen is very soft to the touch. (…) We cannot approve of woolen or silk tablecloths, in damask or in brocatelle, white linen enhances the entire service, brightens it and accentuates the finery of the table, it is fresh and appealing to the eye, the other colors cannot, like white, serve as background for all the nuances and sheen.” (Of course Briffaut approves of napkins from the same material and with the same pattern as the table cloth).
And then: “The table will be of mahogany or rosewoom, with oaken leaves, which attach and join together better than any other wood. Tall sideboards and wide buffets should be placed against the walls and packed with fine tableware to complete the opulence of the service. One thing that will need to be carefully supervised is the absence of all confusion and clutter.
What should be deposited on the table’s surface – centerpiece, candelabra, dishes, hors d’oeuvres, accessories, vases – also will need to be considered when calculating the number of guests. “ (…)
“Parisian manufacture is at the head of the industry that decorates the table; the services that ad0rn the royal tables of St Petersburg, Vienna, Berlin, Munich and Madrid are shipped from Paris.” (So much for Meissen) “All the wonders of the table service should be places with a perfect regularity and the most exact symmetry. Four glasses are set in front of each guest: the crystal called ‘mousseline’is the prettiest and most precious of its kind (…)”.
And so on, Briffault knew all about it.
So what happened between the last state dinner of queen Elizabeth II in 2014 and the first of king Charles III in 2023? I’m not sure. The Art of the Table took a trip. The foodhistorian would have preferred to stay at home with the méthode Briffault.
Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, the room says it all. The table not so much.