Antiques and Collecting: Perfect Marriage of Fine Silver and Old Glass; with Seasoning Came the Cruet Sets. Richard Edmonds Traces Their History from 18th Century England
Byline: Richard Edmonds
Until the second half of the 17th century, when foreign cuisine began to penetrate England, the English had always maintained a rock-hard prejudice against uncooked food and veg.
The common belief was that their unwashed skins spread plague and that maggots and caterpillars caused intestinal worms in humans if swallowed.
However, medical research was advancing and it soon became apparent that fruit and vegetables were beneficial against scurvy and other vitamin deficiency diseases.
In 1699 John Evelyn published his famous book Acetaria, A Discourse of Sallets . Evelyn suggested that the use of herbs, vegetables and even edible flowers were a great addition to a meal. The dressing which Evelyn favoured reads today like a classic vinaigrette - good olive oil, vinegar, mustard powder and the mashed yolk of hard boiled eggs. When this substance was brought to the table in a bottle set in a stand you can see that the cruet set was beginning to achieve wide popularity.
Among the earliest cruet stands are those made in Japanese porcelain by Arita, painted in the characteristic 'Imari' palette of underglaze-blue, iron-red and gilding.
In later years cruet bottles were also made by the Chinese for export to Europe and England and these began to arrive around 1700. But it is the silver cruet sets with their glittering glass bottles that are show stoppers and it has a lot to do with the perfect marriage between fine silver and old glass. The effect under candlelight at a dinner table is marvellous.
One of the earliest silver cruet sets by silversmith Anthony Nelme, who flourished around 1715, was known as the Warwick Cruet because it had belonged to the Earl of Warwick and consisted of five silver casters and gave its name to the basic cruet set which generally comprised two silver-mounted oil and vinegar bottles and three decoratively pierced casters for sugar, dry mustard powder and pepper.
Other makers of early cruets included Paul Crespin, William Beilby of Newcastle, and Augustin Courtauld. During the second quarter of the 18th century almost 70 per cent of these 'Warwick Cruets' carried the mark of Samuel Wood.
During the 18th century trade with the Far East grew dramatically. Among the cargoes of luxury goods coming into English courts was a wide variety of new spices from India, China and Indonesia, as well as from the West Indies and the Americas.
The Capsicum plant gave us chilli and Cayenne pepper and these could be used at the table as required from the cruet.
Heavily spiced food was necessary since the meat and fish served up at table were often well past their sell-by date. Refrigeration in the 18th century was primitive and consisted of lumps of ice hacked from frozen lakes and ponds in the winter and stored in ice houses in the grounds of great properties until required.
The most popular new sauces imported from the East was soy made from fermented soya beans and ketchup originally made from fish pickled in brine. Small cut glass bottles were made to contain these additions to food and they are often found today with miniature silver or Sheffield plate labels hung around their necks - they are delicious little things if you come across one and they imitate the larger labels made for wine and spirit decanters.
From the 1770s miniature decanters were made with little engraved labels inscribed with the name of the contents and later decanters appeared in green and blue glass with the label painted in gilt on the body. …