It might be useful first of all to describe what a condiment is: basically, a substance that is added to food to add further flavour or simply to compliment it.
A condiment set therefore, roughly speaking, refers to a set of vessels which contain condiments. Antique silver mustard pots are a fine example, as well as salt cellars and pepperettes. The grouped vessels holding the condiments make the set! Now this may seem rather self-explanatory. There is some confusion however, and many frequent questions surrounding the nature of the condiment set. Perhaps the main one is…
“What’s the difference between a condiment and a cruet?”
The fact is – the definitions of condiment and cruet sets appear to vary. Not necessarily over time and use, but also between countries; it’s a cross cultural conundrum!
Here’s an amalgamation of what I can find from looking up dictionary definitions:
- Derivation – From Latin condimentum ‘seasoning’, from condire, ‘to pickle, preserve’
- Definition – A substance, such as a relish, vinegar, salt, pepper, mustard or spice, used to flavour or complement food.
- Condiments are food substances used to heighten the natural flavour of foods, to stimulate the appetite, to aid digestion, or preserve certain foods.
- There appears to be some discussion (especially between American English speakers and British English speakers) as to whether salt and pepper are truly ‘condiments’. But that, I believe, is a discussion for another day.
- Derivation – from Anglo-Norman French, diminutive of Old French crue ‘pot’, and/or from Old Saxon kruka; related to ‘crock’
- Definition – a small container or set of containers for salt, pepper, oil, or vinegar for use at a dining table. OR (in church use) a small container for the wine or water to be used in the celebration of the Eucharist.
HOWEVER, on further research, here are a few country specific definitions:
British: A cruet is a small container, or set of containers, for salt, pepper, or mustard which is used at meals.
American: A cruet is a small glass bottle that contains oil or vinegar and is used at the table at meals.
French: Cruet – petit flacon (small bottle), and Cruet Set – service á condiments (condiment set).
From this, may I suggest that it’s the French who have set the cat amongst the pigeons? They seem to use the words cruet and condiment synonymously…or maybe this (mis)interpretation of ‘cruet/condiment set’ has occurred through poor / literal translations?
There is, therefore some speculation whether the appropriate name for a group of vessels containing condiments should be called a condiment set or a cruet set. On the whole however, I propose that you can’t go wrong using them interchangeably. Now that we have cleared that one up, let’s learn a little more about the condiment set…
The History of the Condiment Set
It is said that no stylish Edwardian or Victorian table would be without a condiment set. Today a mere couple of vessels would probably classify as a condiment set. In the past however, it used to be something far more elaborate. Often, there would be a separate stand; complete with a handle and feet, and the standard number of vessels was four (though often there were more).
It is suggested that condiment sets originated in France, because dressing food (in particular salads) was a custom there.
The condiment set made its way to Britain in the 17th Century. Although at this time, only the fanciest houses contained condiment sets.
It was in the 18th Century when condiment sets just seemed to get bigger and bigger. They became a phenomenon. Cut glass and silver were the materials of choice. Different vessels were added around this time, such as: sugar casters, peppers, salts, stoppered bottles holding vinegar, while mustard was kept in a lidded pot.
Condiment sets tended to get smaller in the 19th Century, although some still contained ten vessels (sometimes referred to as Breakfast sets)! The Edwardian taste tended to favour only three or four piece condiment sets. Any more were deemed vulgar and pretentious.
Materials used for the condiment sets also changed in the Edwardian period. Mass-manufactured moulded and pressed glass was used widely, while pottery and porcelain sets also made an appearance towards the end of the century. Condiment sets became so popular that few dinner services were made without matching condiment sets.
Novelty shapes became popular too! Different designs include: silver salts in the shape of birds, silver mustard pots modelled in the shape of a drum, pepperettes modelled in the form of various animals (a popular design being an owl), or even vessels being modelled in the form of people. The varied styles of novelty condiment sets are indeed quite extensive!
Condiment sets are still collected today due to their varied designs. They are loved because of their popularity in the Victorian and Edwardian periods and also because they are a very practical and pretty element to add to your dining table! So, what kind of set, or even pieces, do you have your eyes on?
View our range of condiment and cruets; it may help you make your own mind up!