What our table setting says about us

How the table is set not only marks, but can also actually make, an occasion

The oil cloth on our kitchen table needs to be replaced. This is a change requiring serious consideration because the colour and pattern of the new one will set the tone and mood of family meals for the foreseeable future.

The table itself was here when we bought the cottage 15 years ago. Built of plain pine but not interestingly old, it was sturdy, functional and boring. So I painted it brilliant white.

Anticipating hard wearing years of country kitchen use I finished the surface with a few coats of heavy duty floor paint. We now had a dazzling yet tough centrepiece to our new domestic lives – pristine, shimmering and indomitable, the Platonic ideal of a kitchen table.

After a week or two of being startled by it every morning, my wife covered it with the inaugural piece of oil cloth and I haven’t seen my handiwork since.

If normal precedent is followed the new oil cloth will be cheerful but moderately so – a pleasingly neutral background for any breakfast, light lunch or casual dinner. But I must wait and see – my opinion at the purchasing stage has rarely been sought. Technically I have powers of veto but I have never exercised them. I am usually content to ratify the fait accompli.

Besides, I get to wield a potent influence when it comes to setting the table. Our sons are now of an age where they are capable of doing this when asked, and they sometimes do, but more often than not their placement of cutlery relative to glassware is frankly slapdash. What’s more, they seem strangely indifferent when I draw their attention to such lapses.

They are not, however, entirely oblivious to table-laying niceties. Usually, I place knife and fork on either side of where the plate will go – with a glass on the right, in the traditional manner.

But I can be capricious and like to keep the boys guessing. Sometimes, to surprise them, I clump the cutlery together bistro-style on a napkin a little to the left of each diner. And if the whim takes me I startle them into speech by deploying unexpected place mats.

“What’s the occasion?” they chirp brightly before realising there isn’t one. But I’ve noticed that when I do this, the subsequent conversation is often more animated than usual, and this suggests that the degree to which a table is set not only marks, but can also actually make, an occasion.

Most families have an established (though not necessarily immutable) hierarchy of feast days. In our household for example, my birthday dinner used to be a paramount event but not anymore – parenthood has seen to that.

Kitchen roll

My wife often recaptures a sense past spoiling by cooking an especially delicious dish of my choice – and I do my best to reciprocate when it’s her turn – but both of us would probably admit to feeling more particularly honoured when our places are set with the special wine glasses and the best napkins.

The boys don’t seem to grasp the subtleties of this last detail. They have reluctantly acknowledged that wiping their mouths with their hands, and then their hands on their jeans, is inelegant but their preferred concession is to randomly distribute a few squares of torn off kitchen roll. They seem sadly ignorant of napkin gradation nuances.

These ascend from light tissue squares through heavier ply paper ones, followed by workaday cotton and finally top quality linen. They also seem to lack any civilised notion of when placemats are usually called for – let alone understand the clear distinction between the ordinary and the special ones.

As for tablecloths – I suspect it will be some years before I can reasonably expect them to discern when one is appropriate or not. My wife and I have a mutual, almost instinctual sense of this which has been honed over two decades of entertaining together, but still we sometimes need to consult each other before choosing the particular table cloth most apt for the occasion under consideration.

Does the vivacious yet subtle cotton one create the correct ambience? Or what about the heavier, tastefully restrained one? And a joint decision is always required before settling on the ultimate, supreme option of unfolding the rarely used inherited white damask, which automatically confers banquet status on any meal.

Even on such obviously gala occasions, additional, extra-fine discrimination is called for in addressing apparently innocuous but important, delicate distinctions – depending on the occasion or the guests.

For example: do we light candles; or arrange flowers; and who do we bother to polish the silverware for? It would be recklessly indiscreet to discuss criteria for the last but regarding festive floral displays – the seasonality of country life makes the decision for us.

Our acre and its encircling hedgerow offer holly and ivy at Christmas, daffodils at Easter and elderflower or fuchsia throughout the summer. And candles always work. I like to see their glow reflected in my wife’s eyes. Their soft light soothes the natural boisterousness of our sons. And they render my wrinkles almost invisible.

In Sight of Yellow Mountain by Philip Judge is published by Gill Books