At La Villa French Restaurant in HCMC’s District 2, we’ve recently added sterling silver flatware to our stunning table settings. At most restaurants silver has been replaced by stainless steel, but in the world of fine French cuisine we care about all the details, from the quality of the ingredients to the shape of the soup spoon.
Why is silverware such an enduringly pricey and prestigious item? Here’s a short history to fill you in.
Getting Your Fill at Court
It has been said that all roads lead to Rome, but when it comes to social graces, the rules of fine society begin and end in France. In the 17th century, the Château de Versailles was the centre of chic in Europe. The French style dominated in all matters of good taste, from the dinner table to the strict etiquette for how to say hello at an elegant party.
If we were having dinner with Louis XIV, we might see tables lavishly draped with brocaded fabrics and gold and silver platters piled high with wild duck, fresh truffles and potatoes drowning in the finest beurre de bretagne.
In the court, the etiquette was so maddeningly intricate that only the highest born, who’d spent their lives amongst royals, could possibly remember to follow them all. Some of these customs would go out of favour over time, like the ban against water glasses on the table, which made it necessary to summon a servant each time someone wanted a sip of water, but others are still au courant.
Even today you’ll notice French diners never put their hands in their laps at the table. This is due to a scandal, known as “l’affaire des poisons”. Two-hundred men and women of the court were found guilty of purchasing vials of arsenic from a famous druggist. The poison was nicknamed the “succession powder” because its intended use was to advance the line of succession for the King’s throne. When this treasonous plot was uncovered, the King decreed that all guests must keep their hands in full sight throughout the meal to avoid a dose of poison making its way from a secret vial into his drink.
Surprisingly, this command served another purpose for the ladies of the court. By keeping their hands on the table, they were able to reveal the jewelled bracelets on their wrists, and thus show off their wealth.
At this point, there was another way to show off one’s wealth: with the very tools used to eat. Since the time of the Romans, the use of precious metals in dinnerware had been reserved for nobility and the very wealthy. Royalty ate off gold and silver plates, while the common folk were relegated to steel, tin and wood. However, it wasn’t until Catherine de Medici came from Italy to France with a set of pure silver forks and spoons in tow, that a full set of silverware was introduced to the French court.
Put a Fork in It
Spoons and knives had been in play since the earliest Homo sapiens but it took much longer for the fork to become de rigueur in culinary society. Initially, the French found it highly suspect. One could spear a chunk of meat with a knife, or ladle out some soup with a spoon, but what could a fork do that one’s hands couldn’t? Even Louis XIV refused to use a fork, and knives were periodically outlawed to avoid dinner guests ending disputes via bloody ends.
Yet, as manners became more refined and guests less prone to violence, it became more important to keep one’s hands out of the dishes and to use only the precious utensils to carry the food from the plate to one’s mouth. The French way of holding the knife in the right hand with the blade down and the fork in the left hand with prongs towards the plate is still considered “proper” across Europe and is known as the Continental style.
By the 18th century, silverware was being used all over the world in the highest levels of society. It was often created with a woman’s taste in mind. Wealthy families would buy a female child a few pieces of silver cutlery each year until she was of marrying age, and the set would be included in her dowry. The bride’s initials was commonly engraved in the silver pieces, along with ornate details like flowers or vines.
This attention to bespoke details is perhaps part of silverware’s enduring appeal. Even though, in modern households, sterling plating or stainless steel has largely replaced pure silver cutlery, a set of “real” silverware is considered the height of refinement and carries the high price tag to go along with it. The expression “being born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth” reflects this association of fine silverware with wealth.
Polishing the Silver Spoon
In the past, most wealthy families had a full staff on hand to take care of their households. The staff would wash the silverware in hot water and a gentle soap after use, hand dry it and then polish each piece with a soft cloth. The silverware would then be wrapped in protective flannel and stored in special boxes. These are still the rules to follow if you’d like your silverware to retain its brilliance and beautiful patina; these days, however, few people have an army of housekeepers to deal with the task.
Most restaurants and cafes have forgone the delicate process of dealing with sterling silverware as well, and have opted to throw their stainless steel into the dishwasher instead. It is more practical and is typically designed with that utilitarian use in mind. The style of the flatware often veers towards simplicity and modernity.
However, for a special dinner there is nothing like dining with the real deal. Most people don’t know that silver is a metal with antibacterial properties, which helps keep diners safe from foodborne illnesses. It is also an element that is very malleable and thus easy to form into the beautiful, sculptural forms of fine cutlery. Finally, silver is a metal with a low reactivity, so it won’t change the flavour of food like copper and tin will.
The exquisite silverware recently introduced at La Villa is imported from France. Some restaurants provide expensive items only to VIP guests but at La Villa, every guest is important and deserves the same top-quality service.
When you arrive at La Villa you will be shown to your table by our outstanding staff, at your place you’ll find elegant porcelain dishes, long-stemmed wine glasses, and, of course, beautiful silverware. Our knowledgeable sommelier can help you find the perfect glass of wine to pair with our “Melt in the Mouth Crab Ravioles” or “Pan-fried French Duck Breast”. When the food arrives, you’re set to dig in and enjoy the Michelin-star-worthy meal.
Reserve your table at La Villa today to experience true dining refinement with our top of the line silver flatware.