Hot asparagus is usually served with melted butter or hollandaise, cold asparagus with vinaigrette. Unless asparagus is a vegetable accompaniment to a dish, or covered in sauce, it should be eaten with the fingers. The asparagus spear should be picked up towards the blunt end of the stem, the budded tip dipped in any accompanying sauce and eaten bite by bite. There’s no need to chew through any tough, woody ends of the stems; they should be left neatly on the side of the plate.
The leaves of an artichoke should be peeled off one by one, starting with the outer leaves. Hold each leaf by its pointy tip and dip the rounded base in the butter or sauce. Eat just the tender, swollen base of each leaf, and leave the rest. Place discarded leaves on the side of the plate. When you reach the centre, the smaller leaves and hairy choke are cut away and discarded to reveal the heart which is cut into pieces and eaten with a knife and fork.
Do not pick individual grapes from a bunch. Use either the fingers, or grape scissors, to remove a small bunch.
A wedge of lemon usually accompanies fish or seafood. Squeeze the lemon against the tines of a fork, which channel the juice. Keep the lemon wedge low over the plate, cupping a hand around it while squeezing to avoid spraying neighbours. If serving segments of lemon make sure to remove all visible pips. Wedges are best but, if used, half-lemons may be served wrapped in muslin and squeezed with the fingers (without using the fork). Lemons to be used in tea or drinks should be pre-cut into small rounds and possibly then in half again and served on a side plate.
Usually consumed raw, but occasionally cooked, kumquats are eaten whole, including the skin. The top end may be cut off first.
At the dinner table, apples should be cut into quarters and the core removed from each piece. Then use fingers to eat the quarters. Elsewhere, just hold and crunch.
Either peel the orange by scoring the skin in four quarters with a knife, removing the skin, and then eating the segments. Or, if it is difficult to peel, treat a large orange like a grapefruit and cut it in half and eat with a teaspoon. Tangerines may be peeled and eaten with the fingers.
Serve strawberries hulled. Do not be tempted to think they look more attractive with the green left on as they are awkward for a diner to eat with a spoon and fork. If they are served as finger food, use a knife and cut the whole leafy end off.
Pips and Stones
Pips and stones should be discreetly spat into a cupped left hand and deposited on the side of the plate or discarded. Do not fiddle or play with plum or cherry stones.
A whole lobster in its shell will typically arrive at the table already cut into two halves, allowing easy access to the flesh. Use a knife and fork, or just a fork, while holding the shell steady with the hand. The big claws usually come cracked but if not, use special lobster crackers and then pull out the meat with a fork. If you want to get meat out of the smaller parts, use a lobster pick. Too much digging can look greedy and messy but too little may seem unappreciative, so aim for a balance.
Use an empty mussel shell as a pincer to extract the other mussels from their shells. Using a fork is also perfectly acceptable. The sauce around the mussels can be eaten with a spoon, like soup. Put all empty shells on the spare plate or bowl provided and use the fingerbowl as required.
Eating a Whole Fish on the Bone
Work down one side of the spine at a time, from head-end to tail end. Ease mouthful-sized pieces from the fish. Never flip the fish over to reach the flesh on the underside – lift the entire skeleton up and gently ease the flesh out from beneath. Small bones should be removed from the mouth with fingers and placed on the side of the plate.
If the prawn arrives intact, begin by removing the head and tail; do this by giving each end a sharp tug. Peel off the shell, starting from the underside, where the legs meet the body. If the prawn is uncooperative, discreetly bend it against its natural curve to loosen the shell. Finally, remove the black thread from along the back before eating the flesh. To eat a prawn served headless but with its tail attached, use the latter as a handle and discard after eating the flesh. Langoustines may be treated in a similar way. Use the finger bowl as before.
Raw oysters are served on a bed of ice, accompanied by fresh lemon wedges and sometimes mignonette (shallot and red wine vinegar dressing). They will be already shucked (i.e. detached), but use your fork to prise the flesh from the shell if any sticks. Squeeze the lemon over the oyster in the shell.
Pick up the shell and bring the widest end to the lips. Tilt, and slide the entire contents of the shell – the oyster and all the juices – directly into the mouth from the shell.
Alternatively, hold the oyster in the left hand and spear the contents with a fork (sometimes special oyster forks are provided), then drink the remaining juice from the shell. Either chew and savour the unique briny, metallic taste of the oyster, or swallow it down in one – opinions vary about which method is best.
The precious roe of the sturgeon is best eaten as simply as possible, served at room temperature. Accompaniments such as sour cream, onions, chopped egg and lemon are popular, but they disguise the true taste of the caviar.
Caviar should be enjoyed in small quantities and not eaten in bulk. It may be served with blinis, small savoury pancakes. Good caviar should not taste salty. Test it by placing a small amount on the fleshy part of the hand between thumb and index finger; it should not smell. Once opened, caviar should be stored in a glass container, often a champagne flute, in the fridge, never in the tin.
Traditionally, vodka was drunk as an accompaniment, as the oil in the caviar lined the stomach, so large quantities of alcohol could be consumed.
Before soup spoons became widespread, soup was eaten with a tablespoon, never a dessert spoon. When eating soup, fill the spoon by pushing it away from you, towards the far side of the bowl. Bring this to the mouth and tip the soup in from the side of the spoon; don’t try eating with the spoon at 90 degrees to the mouth. Don’t suck or slurp. Tilt the bowl away from you in order to get the last few spoonful’s. Leave your spoon in the bowl when you have finished.
Bread rolls used to be served inside the napkin. When a guest sat down at the table and placed the napkin on their lap, they removed the bread roll and placed it to the left of their plate.
Bread rolls are eaten from a side plate to the left of a place setting. Break the roll, by hand, into bite-sized pieces that are eaten individually. Break off a new piece for each mouthful, rather than dividing the roll into chunks in advance. Butter, if desired, is taken from the butter dish, using the butter knife and placed on the edge of your side plate. Each piece, or mouthful, is individually buttered. The same applies to the artisan sliced bread often found in restaurants and to melba toast. Hot toast may be buttered all in one go but if it is to be spread with something such as pâté for a first course, follow the bread roll method as above. Brown bread and butter, served with smoked salmon, is ready buttered on the table on a plate, usually cut into halves diagonally.
Always use the cheese knife provided to cut cheese from a communal board, not your own knife. Round cheese, such as Camembert, must be treated like a cake: cut triangular portions. It is correct to slice a whole large cheddar or Stilton horizontally but, if already cut like a cake, follow suit. With a wedge such as Brie, cut slivers lengthways. Never cut the nose off a triangular wedge. Stilton is usually sliced, but if a spoon is provided, scoop a portion of cheese from the middle.
Rind may be eaten or left. Bite-sized morsels of cheese on individual pieces of biscuit should be brought to the mouth, rather than biting off mouthfuls from a large piece of cheese on an entire cracker. It is fine to use fingers to eat hard, non-messy cheese with no biscuits or bread, perhaps with celery or grapes. Cut it into small pieces first.
Quails’ Eggs and Gulls’ Eggs
Tiny speckled quails’ eggs are usually served hard-boiled in their shells, with celery salt on the side. Peel off the shell (loosen by crushing the surface lightly), dip into the salt and eat whole. The larger gulls’ eggs, that have a short season (April-May), are eaten the same way.
Usually served with their shells intact, snails require a little manual dexterity to consume and the use of special implements. Grip the shell with the snail tongs, and remove the meat with the small two-pronged fork. Whether mopping up the juices with bread is acceptable is debatable but in very formal company (or if in doubt), abstention is safer. The golden rule of being aware of the view presented to the person sitting opposite should never be forgotten.
Whole small game birds such as grouse are usually served one per person. Tackle by slicing the breast off from the bone. With a bigger bird, like a partridge, tackle the leg meat with a knife and fork. With very small birds it may be simpler to leave the legs. It is usually not appropriate to pick up bones and gnaw on them but sometimes a host will suggest everyone should do so. At an informal gathering, such as a barbecue or picnic, it is fine to eat a chicken wing or spare rib with the fingers.