On Sunday during the Potters Market at the Coventry Regional Farmers Market, a fellow came into my booth and, upon seeing my soup bowls, told me a story about his cat and the tablecloth that she pulled off his table during a soup party he was hosting. His soup bowls, each with covers, smashed as they landed on the floor, but his tureens (yes, plural) remained intact.
That got me thinking not only about the possibility of hosting a soup party, but also about soup tureens. In Elements of the Table Lynn Rosen tells us, “The soup tureen holds about three quarts and is one of the largest serving pieces on the table. Its many beautiful shapes and designs are a very dramatic and lovely complement to your table décor.” She speculates that the tureen may have had its origins in the large communal bowls of the Middle Ages. The showy, lidded tureen as we know it today, was perfected by French potters in the seventeenth century.
There are, Rosen assures us, rules for soup tureens. For instance, if when you set the table, you put soup bowls out, then you are to serve the soup at the table from a tureen. You must never bring a pot from the stove and pour soup into the bowls. Horrors. If however, you do not set the table with soup bowls, then you must fill the bowls from the soup pot while standing at the stove, and serve your guests with the filled bowls at the table. In this case, you are not to use a tureen at all.
Not many home cooks bother with soup tureens today (one more dish to wash?), but they are appealing to make. Tureens give us the opportunity to throw larger than we throw other tableware. We can make the domed lids higher than we might for a casserole, and we can have interesting knobs. Most potters, and I count myself in this group; make matching ladles, though in reality, a ceramic ladle is a ridiculous idea. We should I suppose, make two, so that when the first breaks, our customer has another.
Rosen has a lot to day about soup bowls too. There are, she tells us, four kinds: rimmed, coupe, cream, and bouillon. The rimmed, “more accurately called a rim soup plate,” is about 9.5 inches in diameter, and, surprise, has a wide flat rim. If you have only one style soup bowl in your cupboards, she recommends this one. She even gives permission to use it for pasta. The coupe is rimless and used for informal settings. It can double as a cereal bowl. The cream soup bowl has two handles and a saucer but holds less than the other two bowls, because cream soup is “so rich.” Personally, I am more inclined to eat a lot of cream of broccoli soup and less of a clear broth and escarole soup, but no matter. The bouillon is actually a cup with two handles. Diners are encouraged to finish their soup by drinking from the handled bowls, but never from the others.
Rosen, who writes with great authority (no self-doubt here), has much to say about other table items, such as various types of plates. She adores the salad plate (7 ½ to 8 ½ inches) and passes on a recommendation from the French manufacturer Bernardaud that one should have twice as many salad plates as dinner plates. Now that’s a happy thought for a potter. She also tells us that during the Victorian era, salad plates were sometimes crescent-shaped “to fit neatly with the dinner plate.” Interesting.
Elements of the Table: A Simple Guide for Hosts and Guests has only one chapter on “China” but if you make dinner sets, it is a fascinating read.