According to etiquette - How to set a table with wine tasting glasses?
by Piers Grimley Evans Glassstyle / July 2003
Around the world, sophisticated couples are discovering the joys of the dinner party ... and encountering a series of difficult dilemmas. How do you set a table with wine-tasting glasses? What should you bring when you are invited to dine? Roberta Mascheroni, an expert on good manners, reveals the rules that govern dining and entertaining, clearing up the knotty issues that cause most embarrassment and uncertainty.
Over the last five years, the country that invented etiquette has rediscovered manners. Italy, home to Castiglione's The Coutier, has been reconverted to formality by the Ii Galatea a test of the Milanese aristocrat Roberta Mascheroni who teaches at La Scuola delia Cucina Italiana, in Milan, Italy (firstname.lastname@example.org). Her advice ranges to areas of life unknown to a Renaissance courtier like Baldassare Castiglione (he never wrote an email), but it focuses on Masheroni's special passion - the conventions of elegant dining.
Dining, because it offers such clear opportunities for embarrassing gaffes is one area she feels we all have much to learn about. "The essence of good manners," she says, "is genuinely wanting to put the other person at ease. They are just a way of putting into practice the Christian principle of treating other people as you would like them to treat you." At a formal meal, however, good intentions are not enough. The best way to make a good impression is to know the rules. Take the present you bring your host. A nice bottle of wine? Absolutely not. "This is one example of where a lot of people go wrong. It is not good manners to bring a bottle of wine. Obviously, your hostess will have organised a meal and chosen a wine that perfectly accompanies the dishes. But if you bring wine she will feel that she should open it. If you know the rules, it is easier. If you really have to bring wine, always bring two bottles and clearly say, "for another occasion". If you are a hostess and a guest brings wine or a dessert, you must do the same. Thank your guest and tell them that you will enjoy it together at another time."
There is also a sophisticated protocol for setting the table. As fashionable couples across Europe increasingly entertain their friends at dinner parties, it is one of the areas where Roberta Mascheroni finds she is most often asked for advice. She has also been forced to extend the conventions of established guides as changes in dining present new quandaries.
For instance, one fundamental convention for a place setting is that the knives are on the right and the forks on the left of the plate. They are positioned in order of use, starting from the outer edge, with the knife blades pointing towards the plate and the forks' prongs (unless you are in France or in the house of a francophile Piedmont aristocrat) curving upwards.
But what about the fork for spaghetti? "There is one particular issue that creates a lot of uncertainty. If you serve pasta, where do you put the fork? Now a lot of people, reading the traditional style guides will read that all the forks go on the left, so they will put it on the left. In fact, the reason for putting forks on the left is simply because you use them with your left hand. But a fork for spaghetti (and you should only set a fork - if your guest wants a spoon as well, he can ask) is held in your right hand. Put it on the right. And the same goes for a spoon for minestrone.
The current trend for wine tasting presents a further complication. "The convention for glasses is that they should be in a diagonal line above the plate to the right. The order from left to right is water, red wine then white wine. Some people will say that the centre of the red wine glass should be in a line with the principal fork. If you have a fourth glass for dessert wine (and never set a table with more than four glasses), then it goes above the red wine, which moves slightly out of line with the water and white wine to give it room."
These rules, however, cannot be applied when the meal involves wine tasting. "The appropriate glasses for wine tasting are far too big to be put in the traditional position. If you are going to taste more than one wine, in fact, the best thing is to take away the first glass and replace it rather than have both on the table simultaneously. There is another problem with water. This, according to convention, goes on the left, but to make space for the larger wine-tasting glass it is best to serve water in a tumbler that is much lower than the tall wine glass. Put this on the left and every time your guests want to take a sip of water; they will knock over their wine glass. So the rule is, put the water tumbler on the right of a wine-tasting glass. Here, the essential factor is the height of the glasses - which should descend from left to right."
In general, Roberta Mascheroni links the entire table setting to the convenience of the diners. The centrepiece, for instance, should never be too large to present an obstacle to seeing across the table. But as it is such an attractive part of the table setting, even in limited space there should always be some flowers (not highly perfumed) or, if you want to be creative, something like a display of fruit. In really cramped conditions do not omit a centrepiece (or, even worse, take it from the table during the meal) but simply put a flower in a small vase by each place setting.
For similar reasons of respect for your guests, the napkins should not be presented in intricate shapes. It is actually much more convenient for a guest to use a napkin that has been simply folded into a neat rectangle. A concern for hygiene is also better displayed in a simply presented napkin rather than one that has been manipulated into an exotic form. Clear logic also dictates the precise positions of your plate on the table. This should be at a distance of two fingers from the table's edge positioned so that if any food drops from a guest's fork, it will be caught by the table, not his lap. Of course, now that service plates have been introduced - these ensure that the guest never sits at an empty setting while a new course is brought - the rule changes. As a service plate is itself designed for catching any falling morsel, its edge is precisely aligned with that of the table itself.
Roberta Masheroni also argues that, as the conventional place setting is not arbitrary but functional, it presents only limited room for personal creativity. "Lots of people like to show their personality and imagination by giving their table setting a distinctive feature. This is absolutely fine, but I suggest that if you want to do something a bit different with your setting, do it with just one aspect." For instance, you could decide to have a different colour napkin rather than one that matches the tablecloth. This is fine, but if you want to do this, make sure that everything else follows the established pattern. You could also use coloured glasses if you like, but again make sure that everything else is according to the rules. And only use the coloured glasses for water - a wine connoisseur will not appreciate having a glass that prevents him from enjoying the colour of his wine".
One specific area where she notices that convention is already changing is with wine glasses. It is, she says, now common in some of the most sophisticated homes and restaurants to set places at which each diner will have wine from a different set of glasses. The resulting variation in height and shape is actually an attractive and chic effect. She is also very enthusiastic about another slightly unusual approach to place setting - giving each guest his or her own salt and pepper pots. Again, this has a clear functional logic - allowing each diner to apply the precise quantity of salt or pepper that suits his or her palate.
A further tip for the host is to serve white wine and young red wine in a jug, as this helps to remove the chemicals that can cause headaches but always present the bottle alongside. If necessary, do this on an trolley or small table rather than on the main table. And always aim for overall harmony of colours and forms - so that your centrepiece, for example, has the same shape as the table, round for a round table or square for a square table.
For guests, the crucial points to remember are: bring a gift - either flowers (a bunch to be sent in advance, not brought on the day, of an odd number over five) or something personal like a book; do not put your hands on the table in Britain or America (although in the rest of the world you can and in Italy it is actually considered odd to leave your hands on your lap); and, finally, use the correct signal when you have finished a course - if the plate is considered as a clock, put your knife and fork together at twenty minutes past four. A final point: good manners are no substitute for good intentions. An elegant dinner depends on understanding etiquette, but impeccable manners and settings do not guarantee a good evening. Roberta Mascheroni reminds all her pupils at the prestigious Scuola di Cucina Italiana that, unless they genuinely want to put people at their ease, their dinners will never be successes.