Starting with the decision to invite
I reserve the act of table setting for myself. It begins with a decision to have family or friends over for a meal, once the guest list is firm. I consider the season, which, coupled with particular eating habits and/or restrictions of the majority, then settles what will be served. Now I can select the table settings, glass and silverware.
Deciding on table linens comes next, followed by flower choice. In keeping with what is available at the florists’, I may opt to celebrate the season or to complement the theme of my table, from lavish bouquets to sprays of wildflowers; from celebration to the simple reminders of nature’s beauty.
Dressing the table with care
When I set a table, I experience a particular brand of emotion unlike any other. Seeking to impart pleasure transports me. I get immense satisfaction from eliminating even the smallest crease as I iron a tablecloth, or folding symmetry into an elegantly pressed napkin.
The cloth is laid. Plates, knives, forks, spoons and glasses find their places, joined by the table center and battery of amendments (salt and pepper cellars, wine coasters, candleholders and a pitcher for water). I save adding the napkins for last, unless I change my mind, and decide on place name holders. Or decide at the last minute to change the tablecloth, or to use entirely different dinnerware. Or to change everything. Once the table is ready I turn my attention to the meal.
Preparing the meal with attention
It is a given that though the starters and desserts are sometimes furnished ready-made, sacred French tradition dictates that I, as host, prepare the main dish, and to tradition I defer. As the cooking nears readiness, so must I; and with a last inspection of my table, my attention shifts to the living room. I lay out a selection of aperitifs and before-dinner nibbles, accompanied by cocktail napkins and coasters. I put match to votive candles as my guests begin to arrive.
Having welcomed and seen to the settling my guests, I serve the drinks and appetizers. Whatever the season, I have a fondness for bottarga – pressed mullet roe – presented in smaller or greater quantity according to the number of vegetarians, who make up no small part of my group of close friends.
Just before moving to the table, I light the dinner candles, and fill the water glasses – which, incidentally, identifies them as such among sometimes two or three different glasses next to each place setting – and the festivities begin. The preparatory phase is quickly forgotten, as conviviality is neither a product of table dressing or menu, but the fine-tuning of myriad elements that set alight a desire for celebration. The table is, of course, lovely; the meal appropriate, and the wines superb. Yet these are of secondary importance. What matters most is partaking of a good supper in good company. The quarrels, the twinkle of an eye, a raised voice, the anecdotes, or reports on the latest shows or of travels recently taken, are as act upon act of a play at the theatre. The dishes succeed one another; a different wine follows the next. I keep a close eye on both glasses and courses to be certain each guest is thoroughly satisfied all the way through to the final act: dessert. Occasionally, after a move to the living room, conversations continue over liqueurs or a fragrant cup of herbal tea.
The ritual of farewell: An emotional conclusion
The curtain falls, and the guests depart, signaling the commencement of a ritual as important to me as the dinner itself. I change the background music to a melancholy playlist, extinguishing the candles for this last fragment of festivity. Traces of end-of-evening scents – a blend of eaux de toilettes, cooked foods, and candle smoke – drift among the disorder of the now abandoned table. Napkins lie perched on chair seats, crumpled on upon table, or abandoned next to chairs on the floor. The whole makes for a tableau that never fails to move me; this ephemeral moment of communion; this happiness of company shared, having set the world to rights. It is both comforting, and essential.
My table setting was but a pretext. But a table beautifully dressed with love and care is indeed an invitation to joy, felicity, and conviviality.