Michael Dowse: French fashion and the tureen

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As I sit in the comfort of my own home with a bag of crisps and a glass of chilled wine, I realise that I love food.

In fact I love food a great deal. In fact I love food and wine a great deal. I used to love tobacco, but that part of my life is sadly over.

Talking of food, this weekend my wife and I went for a meal at a rather expensive and extremely busy restaurant. We had been recommended to this particular establishment and so as we drove towards our meal we were, without doubt, excited.

Now, my mother always used to say, nothing is the end of the world and nothing (so far anyway) is, but our meal was probably the day before the end of the world. Many things were wrong, including the food, obviously, and many things happened and if this was a column about restaurants one week would not give enough space for copy. However, it did make me think about tureens.

Tureens were introduced in the early 18th century, reflecting the French fashion for serving stews, soups and sauces. It is said that the tureen was named after the 17th century Vicomte de Turenne, who ate his soup from his upturned helmet. In fact, the term derives from the French ‘terrine’. The tureen became associated with a show of wealth and was often the most richly ornamented and expensive piece in a dinner service.

In the 1750s matching stands and ladles became popular, and many tureens were fitted with detachable liners in thin sheet silver with two end handles; these are often sold separately as baskets. Sheffield plate liners became more popular after the 1770s. Tureens were also made in sets around this time but it is becoming increasingly rare to find sets today. The smaller sauce tureens also came into production in the 1770s.

Tureens from the late 18th century are generally oval on a single pedestal foot, influenced by architects such as Robert Adam who was producing designs to match the dining room furnishings and examples could be found not just in silver but in Sheffield Plate too. The early 19th century Regency tureens, in contrast, were massive and made of heavy-gauge silver again and were very richly decorated with lion masks and Classical ornament. The most expensive and desirable pieces had solid crests and heraldic devices on their covers. However, fewer of these tureens were made due to the increasing popularity of ceramic dinner services in this period.