“On the Continent people have good food; in England they have good table manners,” as George Mikes writes in How to be an Alien, British people have traditionally paid a lot of attention to their behaviour around the table.
There was no fork to complement the knife in the early 17th century, when forks were recognised by the country as effeminate and unnecessary. Meanwhile, at the same time it was recognised by the French and Italian as a proper dining utensil.
The first forks were brought to England by an Englishman named Thomas Coryate around 1611, after admiring them during his travels to Italy.
However, many British clergymen were opposed to the idea of using a fork. They firmly believed that only fingers were worthy of touching God’s food.
Gradually the wealthy showed their favour for forks. They intended to impress guests by presenting their possession of forks made of expensive materials.
By the mid 1600s, eating with forks was considered fashionable among wealthy Britons.
But it still took a number of decades for the use of forks and knifes, once the markers of social status and sophistication, to become a common etiquette among the public.
“Bad table manners can turn an enjoyable meal into an embarrassment," says Tanya Thompson, who has researched dining etiquette in London. "Using both a knife and a fork to eat has held this country in good stead for centuries – it's one of the mainstays of being British."
As these dining utensils began to appear more regularly on the table, so British people adopted a series of manners to use them:
Hold a knife firmly in the hand, with the handle tucked into the palm. Place the index finger along the top and the thumb down one side of the handle.
Hold a fork firmly in the hand with the prongs facing downwards when using it alongside a knife. When using it alone, secure it with thumb and index finger with the prongs facing upwards.
Rather than lowering the head toward the food, bring the fork to the month and do not use it as a prop or gesture with it.
The UK's leading expert and coach in etiquette and protocol, William Hanson, explains British etiquette for holding cutlery in this informative video:
In addition to properly using forks and knives, British people have other table manners to obey. Here are a few British faux pas:
The general rules of eating etiquette, according to social anthropologist Kate Fox, are to show consideration for others, not be selfish or greedy, and to be fair, polite and sociable.
It is quite tricky to use knives and forks when eating peas, for example. But British people are known to eat them with elegance and expertise. Small and slow is the general rule of thumb for tricky foods.
In order to avoiding turning the fork upwards and using it as a shovel, British people squash the peas on the back of the fork and take them into their mouths.
Another difficult dish is fish on the bone. When it is being served, the small and slow principles also apply. Fillet the fish one small bit at a time, lifting each mouthful away from the bone.
Likewise, breads are broken off (not cut) into small parts and spread with a dainty amount of butter or jam. Only eating one bite-sized piece of the bread at a time is the law.
“(Table) manners are designed to slow us down, to make things deliberately difficult, to ensure than we eat the smallest possible mouthfuls in the most-time consuming, laborious manner,” says Kate Fox.