OTT perhaps but does fish cutlery still have a place on the table?
I thought I was being posh when I proudly acquired a set of six Sheffield-made fish knives and forks in an antiques centre but now I know I am just common. Or should that be vulgar? Or affected? Like most things, it all depends of timing.
When they first appeared in the late 1700s they would have been made of silver, to stop the fish and vinegar reacting with the metal. By the mid-Nineteenth Century they were in every middle class home – and that was their downfall. Come the 1920s and with the invention of stainless steel almost everyone could afford a set. It was soon noticed.
The poet John Betjeman sneered at the nouveau riche in his poem, How To Get On in Society, which begins: “Phone for the fish knives Norman,”* in which he pokes fun at them and the lower middle classes for aping their betters.
At one time if you were ordering fish in a restaurant you would be given fish cutlery as a matter of course. “Are you having the fish, sir?” the waiter would purr, removing your ordinary cutlery and replacing it with a fish knife and fork. But it doesn’t seem to happen so much now – or perhaps I am not going to enough posh restaurants.
I had these thoughts on a visit to the top-rated Rafters restaurant on Oakbrook Road, Sheffield, and noticed the locally made Carrs Silver fish knives and forks set out for my wife’s loin of cod with a crab beignet and tarragon-spiked gnocchi. I’m sure it tasted better for the right eating implements!
Rafters co-owner Alistair Myers reckons his is one of the few restaurants still with fish knives. “We do it because it is the correct and proper way. It’s important from the service point of view. Some of the younger staff ask ‘what is this?’ but we believe in keeping the art of service alive. After all, you wouldn’t eat soup with a dessert spoon, would you?”
No one is quite sure why the fish knife with the curly-wurly blade is as it is. There is no sharp edge but then you don’t need one to cut through fish which is why they can be made in solid silver). The point could remove small bones and the wide flat blade is an aid in filleting fish off the bone but if you have ever watched an old-fashioned waiter doing the same job he will use two forks.
I love the fish knife (the fork is little different if slightly more ornamental than its cutlery cousin) because it is a leftover from its Victorian heyday. Manufacturers listed increasingly obscure items in their catalogues to drum up business, aimed at those who wanted ’cutlery bling,’ as it we might call it today. A Victorian place setting could be a bewilderingly complicated-looking arrangement, guaranteed to catch out those lower down the social strata.
One cutlery manufacturer listed around 150 different items of flatware, as it is called in the trade, but that is nothing compared to Carrs, based on the Holbrook Industrial Estate near Crystal Peaks, with187 pieces, according to managing director Richard Carr, who supplies to the trade and retail. Not that he expects a customer to buy them all. “We have a bespoke place setting of 38 different eating pieces and let chefs decide their own setting based upon what food they serve,” he says.
He has seen a decline in fish knives and forks, certainly on the retail side. “It’s becoming less fashionable with the more casual dining style. If I go to eat at friends’ houses and have fish, invariably they will use normal cutlery.” (According to a survey for Debenhams in 2009 28 per cent of people didn’t have fish knives and could not see the point.)
Richard’s not yet been tempted to carry a spare set in his back pocket but he does use them at home. I confess I get them out for fish and chips from the chippie!
He still supplies fish cutlery to restaurants but this tends to be for places at the top end of the market, such as Rafters. And wealthy Arabs, who buy the whole range.
Sales of fish knives may have declined but Richard is sanguine, like an angler who knows he will one day catch his trout. “If we look five years into the future things (may) come full circle.” Take, for example, pastry forks. Sales have taken off with the boom in afternoon teas and tearooms.
I ask which items of his cutlery are the most obscure and he offers the asparagus tongs (popular in the Middle East) and the snail fork. Of course, if you really want to be super blingy, there’s the silver chip fork. And Americans like the spork, a cross between spoon and fork.
There can be no doubt what Betjeman would have said about that!
*Betjeman uses words then thought common: phone, for telephone; Norman, as a name; fish knives, as a product.