After a decade of roof tile dining encounters, Jane Hill has had her fill of so-called splates, which are unsuitable, impractical… and about to get a bit of a slating.
The first time I was served food on a slate was in Hoxton nearly 10 years ago.
I’m not a natural Hoxtonite. Aside from that time as a student when I cut my own hair with a pair of nail scissors and a Bic razor and accidentally ended up with a spiky, half-shaved do, I’ve never been cool. But I’d got a good price at a new hotel I’d read about in the Guardian, so I took myself down to hipster London for the weekend.
I ordered a burger. It arrived on a roof-tile. The chips came in their own little bucket, the burger was a thick slab of meat, black outside and pinkish within, on a bun that nowadays we’d call “artisanal”. It was the sort of burger that’s commonplace now; the sort of burger people Instagram and tweet. But in those pre-Twitter days, all I could do was look at it and then eat it.
There are plenty of creative ways to make use of slates. Using them as plates need not be one of them
And that’s when I realised how unsuitable slate is as a plate. It was cold and rough and sharp-edged. My knife and fork scraped like fingernails down a blackboard. I started to wonder how they washed the slates after use. Does slate even go in a dishwasher? I might as well have been eating my dinner off the pavement.
Who looks at this and thinks: ‘dinner party’?
I’m someone who likes a lot of sauce with my food – ketchup, mayonnaise, gravy. But there’s something weird about ketchup on a roof-tile. The conjunction of textures is just wrong. As I dipped my chips in the ketchup I realised another issue: slate is flat. It has no rim to keep the sauce contained.
I’m an untidy eater. I have trouble keeping my food on my plate at the best of times. My mother used to make me wear an apron over my school uniform for meals, well into my teens. And there, in that hipster restaurant in Hoxton, as I struggled with the rimless slate ‘plate’, I managed to get ketchup all down the front of my blouse.
Fast forward 10 years and slate as plates is standard practice. Restaurants have adopted it willy-nilly. I’ve even been served steak on a slate, complete with a little jug of sauce to pour over it. And over the table, and the napkin, and myself.
Slate is everywhere on TV cooking shows. Even contestants on Come Dine With Me have succumbed. And then there’s The Great British Menu, where slate has become so commonplace it’s now old hat.
Chefs compete to find new ways to serve food, and some of them have moved beyond slate. This year the challenge was to design a menu for a group of D-Day veterans. Among the dishes on offer: a tin opener and two tin cans of food; a wooden box lined with a map of the Normandy coastline containing a sausage roll; a Welsh rarebit flavoured with rabbit meat, served in a hutch.
We all know food was scarce during the Second World War. Maybe plates were scarce too. Perhaps Britain’s supply of crockery was destroyed in the Blitz. But I’m pretty sure that at no point during the war, when a family was driven by hunger to kill and eat its pet, was the rabbit brought to the dinner table still in its hutch.
I started to wonder how they washed the slates after use. Does slate even go in a dishwasher? I might as well have been eating my dinner off the pavement.
When I was growing up, almost all food was served off proper plates. There were a few exceptions. Sometimes we’d eat our chips out of newspaper. I’d heard tell of a magical place called McDonald’s where burgers were eaten out of boxes.
My parents would occasionally report back from a rare night out on a phenomenon called “chicken in a basket”, which worried me. Whenever I’d eaten chicken it was either served with gravy (if hot) or Heinz salad cream (if cold), either one of which was likely to seep through the holes in the wicker basket.
But on the whole we had cups, saucers, plates and bowls, all of them made from china, all of them eminently suitable for their function.
So why has slate as a plate become a thing?
It goes hand-in-hand with the back-to-basics trend, the drive to become more “real”, more “artisanal”. We’re in an era of farmers’ markets, ethically-sourced food, earthy flavours. Slate is chunky, rough-edged, of the land. Anyone who has been stuck in a caravan in North Wales during a wet August will have been to the slate mine near Blaenau Ffestiniog and seen it being hacked from the very heart of the earth.
It all looks fine now, but what happens when you fancy a bit of pouring cream with your strawberry?
Slate is great for floor-tiles, blackboards and those little plaques you put outside your house with the number on. The Llechwedd Welsh Slate Company, which runs the tourist “attraction” at Blaenau Ffestiniog, sells all sorts of slate items including some for kitchen use: coasters, cheeseboards, table mats and canape trays. But not plates. Emphatically not plates. They’re the slate experts and they know its limitations. Chiefly, that it’s flat.
If restaurants want to be real, earthy, back to basics, artisanal, here’s a suggestion. How about some kind of baked clay? It’s been in use since Neolithic times; it’s as earthy as you can get, given that it is indeed actual earth.
Baked clay, shaped into a slightly curved organic form that holds the food and its sauce. Something like – oh, I don’t know – a plate?
Jane Hill is a novelist who also does standup comedy. When she’s not doing either of those, she works for the BBC on local radio projects. She lives with her partner in rural Leicestershire and once reached the Mastermind semi-finals.