Setting the Scene
Great food, great company, great conversation… We all know the formula, but it’s how you achieve it that’s the problem.
Chez Moi in Provence photo by Grant Sainsbury
Formal dinner parties were all very well in the days of “Downton Abbey”, but that was a century ago. These days, the only people with a taste for silver candelabras, bone china and fish knives, are the likes of Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet!) and its not about how much money you spend to make a dinner party memorable. It is the trouble that the hostess or host has gone through to show how much she or he cares. Hopefully, people don’t come to you expecting to eat lobster and caviar, or Michelin-star cooking. They come because they like you and are hoping to have a good time.
Having said that, dinner parties still require a sense of occasion, but with a fresh approach.
first impressions counts
Don’t be afraid to be theatrical. Be bold. An exquisite and imaginatively decorated table will create the mood of the evening and a lasting memory.
Here are some of my tips to create simple and imaginative table decorations.
Chez Moi in Provence photo by Grant Sainsbury
1. Start with one thing, a colourful dish, a bunch of flowers, an antique piece… A bouquet of sweet peas will lead to a romantic mood- pastel table cloth, pretty china.
A tangerine tablecloth fits an autumn setting- an arrangement of sunflowers, dahlias, germanise and red roses, or a pyramid of oranges and pomegranates on a bed of dried leaves and nuts scattered all over the table.
My favourite colour is white. My house in the South of France is all white. But an all white table can look very formal. I suggest adding touches of colour. Green foliage is my answer. But of course you can chose a bouquet of multi-or single colour flowers, colourful napkins, glasses, or an interesting piece of vintage china as a centre piece. For a special occasion-say a golden or silver wedding anniversary, I would use silver or gold antique pieces.
2. The days when young couples put on their wedding list 96 pieces bone china dinner service are mostly over. They often like to follow trends and be able to change now and then, without spending a lot of cash. Luckily, many stores produce good stuff at reasonable prices. Start with one pattern. Over the years you can update with additional pieces in different styles and colours to compliment the originals.
3. If you plan a large party and have to borrow from family or friends, it’s not imperative that all the china matches. In fact, an eclectic mixture is more fun and bound to attract comments from your guests. There are no rules, only that colours and shapes compliment one another. The choices are endless. And why not use different styles for each course as in Japan, when each dish is served on meticulously coordinated bowls or plates? I like to mix vintage and modern china. It always creates a “WOW” factor. Antique fairs, second hand shops or car boot sales are good hunting grounds. So are art fairs and art colleges. You might even discover the next Grayson Perry!
Chez Moi – photo by Grant Sainsbury
Dried leaves pressed under two sheets of Perspex make an original tray. You could also use photographs, postcards, stamps…
5. Food looks more impressive served on extra large plates. The empty space frames and enhances the look of the food.
4. How you present the food is just as important as it’s taste. It can be on a dish, but also on many other things – a basket , a terracotta pot, a piece of wood , a slate tile, fresh or dried leaves…It’s how the food interact that is important . So, think about it carefully and try to be original.
6. A bowl overflowing with seasonal fruits can be an alternative to a flower arrangement. In summer, a pile of glowing red cherries look stunning, In the autumn I would use oranges, pomegranates, pumpkins, and an assortment of nuts. A dish served on a bed of dried leaves in all shades of bronze, always looks spectacular. Baskets filled with fruits- and also vegetables and aromatic herbs give a more rustic look. For a formal dinner, I love an opulent table laden with fruits and nuts, Caravaggio style.
7. Herbs in terracotta pots – rosemary, thyme, mint, not only adorn the table, but fragrance the room. Keep an eye out for old terracotta pots in different sizes the next time you visit a nursery.
8. A drop of perfume on light bulbs also fragrance a room.
9. Hollowed out apples, oranges, artichokes, pumpkins, squashes – depending on the season, make attractive candleholders. When I entertain on my terrace in France, I often use shells witch complement the Mediterranean view. Such candleholders add wit to the table and are usually a great talking point.
10. Use as many candles as possible, not just on the table, but around the room. Their flickering light create a magical atmosphere. Place them in front of mirrors and you double the effect. Group candles in various shapes and sizes, all around the table, but never use scented ones as they interfere with the aroma of the food – the same applies with strongly scented flowers.
13. Did you know that adding a few drops of bleach into the water, will keep it crystal clear, and lengthen the life of your cut flowers? The French say that a glass of red wine given to an indoor plant, once a month will strengthen it. They would say that!
14. Be original. How about moss instead of a tablecloth?
How about using old baking tins as candle holders?
11. To double the burning time of your candles and to reduce the dripping wax, put them in the freezer for a couple of hours before lighting them.
12. Tie a fresh flower or a sprig of herbs, and a name tag around a napkin with garden twine. It gives an understated charm.
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