Samui Wining & Dining
It’s a Folding Business

From humble origins, the napkin has become an integral part of fine-dining.


5Imagine a family dining room, somewhere in the late 1700s. There’s a few friends present, plus their children. There’s silverware on the table. And there’s a very fine linen and lace tablecloth. You enjoyed the partridge brains in aspic, you’ve been knocking back the wine, and you’re now looking forward to the boar’s head in brandy sauce. Later, there’ll be mixed fruit in syrup. Eating can be a messy business. And every time you need to dab at your chin, you use the tablecloth. Everybody does. Peasants use their shirtsleeves, because that’s all they’ve got. But good families use the expensive linen tablecloth.

    Gutenberg is credited with inventing the printing press. Edison created the electric light. But nobody has laid claim to ‘inventing’ the table napkin. Although you can bet it was an angry wife somewhere that said ‘No more!’ to the messy tablecloths after every meal! Somewhere, sometime in this period, clean little remnants of the last wrecked tablecloth began to appear. The table napkin had started to emerge (‘Wipe your chin on this!’).

    Emerge? Yes, well it took a few decades before it developed into the form we now know. In the early days, napkins were larger than we expect today, and fixed onto the wall at strategic places around the dining room. Not terribly convenient. Neither was the habit of not washing them until they became really messy! The French, on the other hand, went in a different direction. As a solution to smeared tablecloths, they decided to have not one, but three. The top one was the one to use for sticky fingers and chins!

      And so it didn’t take long for the napkins to find their way onto the table: one for each diner. Each person had their own linen napkin and the habit was to wash them once a day – after they had been used for three meals. But in doing so, other problems were created. Yes – now we’ve all got nice clean tablecloths (many of them to be passed down the generations as heirlooms) but now we’re also all squabbling over the best napkins. Children (and some husbands) protested that today they’d got a stained napkin – but last time they hardly used it! And so the napkin ring came about – the personal napkin ring.

       Back in Victorian times, each new-born child was given their own silver napkin ring. And there was usually a silver Apostle spoon at the same time too (hence the expression ‘to be born with a silver spoon in his mouth’).

       Today in restaurants, napkins have become a universal sign of quality, part of the care and attention to detail that fine-diners have come to expect. Not only is it a practical consideration, but it’s a mark of standing – a badge that says quality. As more and more fine-dining restaurants emerged, so did the need to create a unique dining environment. Décor? Lighting? Style? Ambiance? All of them are necessary considerations…as is the table setting itself. And table napkins? Well, they now come presented in every style imaginable!

      Some weeks ago I was sitting in a restaurant with a friend – a well-travelled ex-restaurateur. We got onto the subject of table napkins. Immediately, he picked up the napkin from the table in front of him and began to fold it into a fan. He then went onto make a crown – but then he failed at the next one, the lotus flower. “Hmmm,” he explained, “coarse linen and it’s been washed too much – not enough starch.” He went on to say that that in order to create works of art with napkins, they should be a fine cotton linen with no synthetic blended-in, and also have been carefully washed and starched, and then ironed flat! Of course, although we might not fully appreciate it, the attention to detail in the finer restaurants often equals their standing as a successful venture.

      We’ve come a long way from the days when we used the tablecloth!


Rob De Wet


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