Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Master Butler.

Today it is the turn of the Master Butler, as he is described in The Perfect School of Instruction for the Officers of The Mouth (1682) – our source of fun for the week. I have previously bemoaned the dearth of servants in my home (in particular I have mentioned the complete absence of an anaetta). If you could chose only one servant, what type would you have? I would probably chose a maid-of-all-work, or at least a scullery maid, for fairly obvious reasons. I am not sure of the value of a footman in this day and age, and I am bemused by the idea of a butler, although I am aware that they are indispensible to celebrities.

A modern butler, I understand, is in charge of cellaring and serving wine – not a full-time job - even in my own household where a considerable amount of good stuff is consumed - but in previous times when households were larger and guests always hanging around, then presumably they were more essential. Strangely, this aspect of the butler’s job is not mentioned in the Perfect School.

But, I get ahead of the story. The author of our source for the week first discusses the requirements of a good butler. He must ‘to be indued with these three qualities: first, Fidelity, Good Behaviour, and Affability towards those whom he hath to do withal,’ and he is advised‘to endeavour all he can to understand his Lord and Master, and next those that pertain unto him.’ His general responsibility was for the accoutrements and setting up of the table, and the specific skills required were that he must know ‘how to fold and pleat your Table Linnen into many Figures, and the Carving of all sorts of Fruits into divers fashions.’ The seventeenth century butler’s visible work began ahead of the meal:

‘The hour of Meals now come, he must put himself in a posture of serving; and first let him put his Covering into a Basket which is for that purpose, covered with a clean Napkin; then let him set in his Bason and Ewer, the Essay Cup, and Cadnet, Flagons, Salts, Plates, Spoons, Forkes, Knives, Riders for Plates, Table-Cloaths, Napkins; of which two at the least folded in the fashion of a broken Staff, with Bread, and all other things necessary that belongs to the Covering of a Table, and side Table’

Cleverly folded napkins were a fashionable novelty at this time – so much so that the author of Perfect School noted that

‘And it is also as necessary for him to know how to fold, pleat,and pinch his Linnen into all manner of forms, both of Fish, Beasts and Birds, as well as Fruits, which is the greatest curiosity in the covering of a Table well, for many have gone farther to see a Table neatly covered, than they would have done for to have eaten a good meal at the same Table.’

Here we have butler-as-fabric artist. There are copious illustrations to demonstrate the divers ways of carving of fruit, but none at all for the napkin-folding. Imagine trying to make a complicated origami design without illustrated instructions and you will have some idea of the difficulty of folding napkins ‘like a Dog with a Choller about his neck’, ‘in the fashion of a Cross, like the Order of the Holy Ghost’, or ‘pleated in the form of a Pigeon upon her Nest in a Basket.’

Napkins were very important of course, and would be very necessary for a savoury, drippy sauce such as the following one, taken from the same book (and which also shows that bread sauce for poultry has a long heritage.)

Sauce for a Capon.
Take Bread and scorch or tost it,and then take the livers of Capons or Pullets if you please,one or other, and broyl them upon the Coals, and put them a-steeping in Wine with your Bread, and when they are steept strain them through a Strainer with a little small Spice, Cinamon, red Wine Vinegar, and Verjuice, put it in a Dish, and set it into your Dripping-pan under your Capons whilest they rost, and when they are rosted set your Sauce a-boyling upon the Coals, and season it with Salt.

Quotation for the Day.

Another peculiarity of this country is the absence of napkins, even in the homes of the wealthy. Napkins, as a rule, are never used and one has to wipe one's mouth on the tablecloth, which in consequence suffers in appearance.
Baron Louis de Closen on dining in America (1780)


Judith Klinger said...

Perhaps a large dog named Anaetta would do the trick?

I love the quote about no napkins in this country.

Anonymous said...

When I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay a long time ago, we used to do the same thing at the pension where we ate, wipe our mouths on the tablecloth.

Anonymous said...

All about footmen and butlers:

Anonymous said...

How and where did you get hold of a copy of "Perfect School"? I've been trying to track it down.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Anonymous: "The Perfect School" is available at Early English Books Online (EEBO)- which is only available via subscribing libraries (I get access through Uni of Qld library). I dont know if there is a freely available copy on the Internet.
Maybe you could email me and if you have any specific queries about the book I can help?