Each era has had its excesses, and during the Victorian days, horticultural decoration topped the list. Jennifer Davies, in her book “The Victorian Kitchen Garden,” describes the art of “dressing” a formal dining table, as practiced by an estate’s head gardener.
No effort was spared to bring the outdoors in. Ripe dessert fruits were offered up in grottoes of palm and fern. A grape-laden vine might ascend from the center of the table, trained to grow through a hole from a pot hidden beneath. And those efforts were modest compared with an 1873 New York table, set with not only banks of moss and roses but also “a tank full of water, over which was an aviary of song birds, and in the midst of the water two live swans swam about, the whole being adorned with superb flowers, water lilies and ferns.” Given the table manners of swans, one hopes that they were small.
I love to dress a table, especially on festive occasions, and I usually do it with food. This is partly because my husband will remove any floral displays because they are “in the way.” But I also like the custom of having certain foods for nibbling throughout the meal. Years ago, on a trip to Venice, we enjoyed the tall glasses of raw vegetables that were set on tables so that you could refresh your palate with a stalk of fennel or a slender leaf of Treviso radicchio.
Edible table art is useful when garden flowers are scarce. You might find a few sprigs of tattered roses, calendulas, Johnny-jump-ups or Salvia horminum, but mostly you’ll rely on evergreen branches and bright but inedible berries from holly, winterberry and such. Fruits pair especially well with these and can be so beautiful in their own right that I never think of them as a substitute, resorted to when flowers are on winter break.
Fruits and nuts have always seemed right for a holiday table. Baskets and bowls are fine for holding them, but lately I’ve preferred a more informal way of putting them out - and it seems I’m not alone in using a more natural style. Trailing vines or cascading branches of flowers and leaves can be found in table arrangements, bridal bouquets and more, with nothing stiff or prim in sight. Correspondingly, a mixture of fruits that look strewn or tumbled onto the table rather than captured and served can be appealing. I look for the best of our apples, especially the olive-tan russets, mixed with whatever small, unblemished red and yellow ones I can find. I mix these with the little orange clementines that are in the markets, so sweet and easy to peel.
Decorative crudités provide even more variety. The Venetian glass-of-water trick is fine, but not for every size or shape of vegetable. Most round storage vegetables can be served raw if sliced very thinly in rounds and laid on a plate. As long as they are small and tender, turnips, kohlrabi and beets can be served this way, along with very thin rounds of onion. They can be dressed, or even pickled (a popular trend), but a dip in salty water is often all you need.
The same goes for tender leaves of lettuce, savoyed spinach, Swiss chard, Belgian endive, kale and endless choices among the Asian vegetables, especially baby bok choy, which is good to eat raw either by the leaf or as a tiny head. All of these are improved by being dipped in salt water, too.
While the strongest member of the family is mashing that big pot of potatoes, let the most artful one arrange these jewels on long and skinny serving dishes, if you can find them. Try for contrasting flavors, shapes and colors, with at least one oddball, such as husk cherry.
To me, the display’s simplicity is what makes it so appetizing. If your Victorian soul insists that you fancy up the scene, make little nests out of parsley, microgreens, mizuna or frisée endive and place in each a clutch of tiny red radishes and nickel-size white Japanese turnips, to represent eggs. But spare us the swans.
Damrosch is the author of “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”