I turn again to the inimitable Elizabeth David for inspiration. Here she has written about ‘buffet’ tables. She seems to have quite a lot to say about what such a spread should look like. Buffets are, of course, reminiscent of the ‘harvest table’ that is now on offer for lunch at the restaurant, during the week. The wonderful thing about David is that, while everyone else was decorating platters in the most unfortunate and embarrassing ways, or trying to get everything onto, or into, silver and glass, she knew better. Her culinary and visual taste transcended her time. She should be forever deemed an Ultimate Judge; a final arbiter of good taste. Hume was wrong about only this one thing; what is aesthetically correct is not subjective. Elizabeth David’s advice on the vessels for salads and stews and soups rises above the fashions of the 50s, 60s and 70s in England; the decades over which she produced her incredible books.
Here she is in ‘South Wind Through The Kitchen’ in a chapter called, ‘Buffet food’. She speaks about catering for a party; and what is the harvest table at The Glenwood Restaurant if not a party? I have edited her words slightly, to fit our physical page.
“The presentation of party dishes, and of course of all food, is an important point. Cold food should certainly have a lavish and colourful appearance, but to varnish it with gelatine or to smother it with whirls of mayonnaise seems to me a misconception of what makes for an appetizing appearance. The effect needed is not of food tormented into irrelevant shapes but of fresh ingredients freshly cooked and not overhandled. The most elementary hors-d’œuver such as a plate of radishes with a few of their green leaves, a dish of green and black olives and another of halved hard-boiled eggs (not overcooked) with butter and bread on the table, is ten times more tempting than the same ingredients got up in a pattern all in one dish and garnished with strips of this and dabs of that. You are, after all, preparing a meal, not decorating the village hall.
As for hot food, if it has not acquired an appetizing look during the cooking, a few blobs of cream or a border of mashed potatoes will do little to improve matters. There are, of course, way of making good food look especially beautiful. The colour, size and shape of the serving dish is obviously important; food should never be crammed into too small a dish; serve rice and pilaffs on large shallow platters, not pressed into deep glass casseroles; for the serving of fish and of grilled chicken, which could be spread out rather than piled up, a long narrow dish is best.
Paesant and country stews of beans or lentils, deep brown daubes of meat or game, onion and oil-flavoured ragoûts of pimentos or purple-skinned aubergines lose some of their particular charm (and also get cold) when transferred from earthen pots to a smart silver entrée dish, and all the delicious brown bits on the bottom and sides of the dish are lost. Dark glowing blue china, the dark brown glaze of slip ware pottery and plain white always make good backgrounds for food.”