Richard Cornish

Is there still a place for manners at the dinner table?
Is there still a place for manners at the dinner table? Photo: Quentin Jones

I got told off by my girlfriend for starting to eat before her friends at a restaurant. When can I start eating dinner? P. Fairlie

In the olden days there used to be this thing called manners. It seems your girlfriend still observes this arcane set of behavioural rules, at least while out with her friends. May I suggest in future you wait until everyone is seated at the table and the host or hostess invites the party to start the meal.

What is the secret to getting jam to set properly? K. Simms

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Get set: Pectin is the trick for making perfect jam. Photo: Marina Oliphant

The sage of Australian country cooking, the late Mrs Dorothy Floate, loved a firm set but was quite critical of Australian domestic jam skills. "Frankly speaking," she wrote in Mrs Dorothy Floate's Secret of Success Cookery Book, "one seldom finds a well made strawberry jam".

She recommended using only unblemished, freshly picked fruit, avoiding anything over-ripe. If one has to use slightly over-ripe berries, as often is the case, boil them for 15 minutes before adding the sugar (generally an equal weight of fruit to sugar).

Mrs Floate was a pectin pedant. Pectin, a type of starch found in plant cells, is extracted by boiling and bonds with itself to form a gel in an acidic solution with a high concentration of sugar. Pectin breaks down after the fruit is picked so over-ripe fruit often won't have enough pectin or acid to allow the jam to set.

Consistency is the key when cooking Polenta.
Consistency is the key when cooking Polenta. Photo: Marina Oliphant

For fruit such as strawberries and plums, she recommends using a tablespoon of lemon juice for every 2.5 kilograms of fruit. Mrs Floate was also a stickler for weights and measures saying, "Correct weight of fruit and sugar given in each recipe must be used. Dismiss the guessing habit. It is usually a failure.''

Most northern Italians superstitiously stir their polenta clockwise while cooking. Should we in the southern hemisphere stir polenta counter-clockwise? M. Howe

I posed this question to a visiting consultant from Rome, Marco Bertagni. I spoke to him at the farm of Sicilian-born chef Rosa Mitchell. It turns out that Bertagni's mother, Anna, was a polenta expert in Boara Polesine in Veneto.

What's your pet table-manners-peeve?
What's your pet table-manners-peeve? Photo: Natalie Grono

"It doesn't matter really which direction you stir polenta as long as it is done slowly and continuously over a low heat and in the one direction. This will help you avoid lumps." He said in Italian, ''La farina va gettata nell'aqua a pioggia'' - sprinkle the flour in like gentle rain.

Polenta is traditionally cut with string and not a knife, he advised. In regards to northern Italians being superstitious, he said, "In the north, there are few superstitions. That is something you will find more of down in the south.''

A friendly but heated discussion between Mitchell and Bertagni followed.

Letters

In regards to persimmons, P. Foy wrote: "Take a very wobbly persimmon, cut it in half, scoop the flesh into a bowl and top with ice-cream and passionfruit. Delicious!"

What really ticks you off at the dinner table? Share you thoughts on modern day manners at the dinner table in the comments below.

Comment of the week
The comment on this story judged to be the best by the goodfood.com.au editor will be published in The Feed in the epicure and Good Food print sections on Tuesday and win $100 in prepaid cards courtesy of eftpos. Comments will close on this story at 5pm Wednesday March 5.