There are two traditional styles of serving elaborate meals: the French, and the Russian. Here in the United States, one of our eating traditions is to dine in courses, but do you know where that dining style was originally pioneered? Read on to find out!
Service in the French style, or à la française, typically involves all of the courses being laid out on the table at the same time in a grand display if food. In order for all the courses to fit on the table, the host not only need a grand dining table, but several display platforms with multiple layers to maximize space. The soup, fish, meat, and dessert courses would all be set on the table together, which made an exceptionally lush and impressive tabletop that hosts used to impress their guests. In addition to the raised and multi-tiered trays of delicacies, individual dishes were served before entering the dining room, and the guests could serve themselves seconds as they pleased.
The French style of dining evolved from the Middle Ages. In those days, forks had not yet been popularized so even the most formal meals were eaten with bare hands. However, there was still quite a bit of dining etiquette at play in the dining room culture of that time. Guests would bring their own knives, and men would serve the women seated next to them. Any guest could serve themselves or ask to be served any food, but it was considered rude to make a scene by requesting a food that was inconveniently far away on the table.
As the ages progressed, more and more pieces came to adorn the tablescape, from fish forks and dessert spoons to elaborate epergnes and meat dishes. However, with larger parties and an increasing variety of foods on the table, dining in this style became complicated as tablescapes overflowed with food and dining accessories. Thus, dining à la française fell out of fashion in favor of a more streamlined style pioneered by the Russian people.
Rather than an emphasis on visual presentation, the Russian style focuses on the service aspect of the meal. Instead of a grand display of specialty foods, each course is brought to the table sequentially. This requires many more servers to be present at the table, which was also considered an indication of wealth. Most American, English, and French restaurants today serve in the Russian style, with credit for popularizing it typically being given to a Russian diplomat named Alexander Kurakin who served in the embassy in Paris in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. By the middle of the 19th century, even the French were dining à la russe.
Because there were fewer objects on the table at any given time, the styles of how to best decorate a table changed. Rather than intricate pieces to display food, the Russian style of dining ushered in a period of more purely decorative pieces to adorn the dining table, such as candelabra and porcelain figurines. Still, the tablescape maintained the high level of quality and elegance previously established for service items in the French style.
Today, the multi-course meals we eat in our homes and at restaurants are much more reminiscent of dining in the Russian style, as most cultures adopted the format over the last two hundred years.
M.S. Rau carries an exceptional selection of antique sterling silver, from serving pieces, flatware, candelabra, and more to decorate your dining table, regardless of whether you dine à la française or à la russe.