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Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

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epergnes are pyramidal dessert centerpieces of silver, gilt-bronze, ceramics, or glass featuring containers and baskets for the display and consumption of edible sweets, biscuits, fruits, and condiments. Many were designed with interchangeable elements and branches for candles and were displayed on raised mirrored platforms. A French-sounding moniker of unknown origin, the term “epergne” (sometimes epargne) was apparently coined in England in the early eighteenth century. In France, an epergne was called a surtout de table, girandole garnie, or machine; in Germany, it was a Tafelaufsatz or Plat de Menage, notwithstanding that these terms were not specific to dessert centerpieces and were applied to savory or figural centerpieces as well. Whereas “epergne” is not found in either Joseph Gilliers’s Le cannameliste français (1751) or Henri Havard’s Dictionnaire de l’ameublement et de la décoration (1894), both authors discuss and illustrate the surtout, which by the mid-seventeenth-century had supplanted the medieval standing salt on the princely table. Stefan Bursche, one of the earliest scholars to tackle the phenomenon of table decoration at European courts, also associates the surtout with the tradition of displaying pyramids of fruit at high-style baroque banquets in Italy and France. Both Julius Bernhard von Rohr, in his Einleitung zur Ceremoniel Wissenschaft der Privat-Person (1728), and François Massialot, author of Cuisiner royal et bourgeois (1705), described a surtout as a kind of dormant that remained in place for the entire meal, its containers refilled at intervals with savory foodstuffs and condiments and, finally, with dessert and its accompaniments.