Toasts, gestures and other curiosities

The joy of dining is undoubtedly linked to the pleasure of taste. However, it is also clear that a hearty meal will be even more enjoyable if shared with friends, because sharing is an indispensable part of a good meal.

It is this truth which makes way for the custom of the toast; that is, the act of raising your glass and drinking to someone’s health.

This gesture has very ancient origins. The Greeks already had what was known as the “philotesia”; that is, a toast combined with the declamation of verses in honour of a friend. The Romans, however, called it the “propinatio”; that is a toast often accompanied by the phrase “bene vos, bene nos, bene te and bene me” [roughly: well-being to you all, to us, to you, to me] in honour of the diners, a custom which has evolved over time into “your health”.

Wine, with bread, is the supporting pillar of the Christian liturgy. Christianity acted as a spokesperson for wine and its culture in the Western world, communicating new and deeper values. With the advent of Christianity, the gesture of the toast was thus initially transformed into “bibere in amore sanctorum”, that is, drinking in honour of the saints. This practice later fell into disuse in the Middle Ages as it was considered working-class.

However, this custom of toasting appears not to be an exclusively European one. We only need to think of the Russian “Na zdorovye”, or the famous “Cin Can” (which is said to have come from the more correct “ch ‘ing ch’ ing” originating from the coast of Canton, in China) both of which are intended to convey best wishes or thanks.

Another interesting curiosity related to the toast comes from the custom, among some populations, of looking one another in the eye as the glasses meet. This also has very distant origins. In the medieval era, if someone was intent on poisoning, there was a very high risk that their own chalice would be contaminated with the liquid from the poisoned cup when the glasses were clinked together. This could only be averted by carefully watching the gesture. However, this would prevent you from looking your dinner partner in the eyes, so making your intention obvious.

Nowadays, looking into the eyes of another guest is actually a way of wishing them well; in the past, however,

During the Middle Ages, it was thus not uncommon for the cups of enemies to be poisoned during banquets; hence the infamous Italian gesture of pouring “alla traditora” [like a traitor]. There were actually special rings made to contain poison, so that the bejewelled fingers would end up over the cups when the wine was poured from underneath, thus making the act of poisoning very easy. The gesture is nowadays considered unlucky for this reason.

By contrast, the act of beating the glass on the table immediately after the toast and before the drink, comparable to “giving thanks”, has a rather virtuous origin. It was done to pay homage to whomsoever had made it possible to drink that glass: for example, the winemaker if it was wine, or the host who had served it, as if in recognition of the hard work.

We should know how to take and pass on the best of these customs, the legacy of our ancestors: respect for the work of others, knowing how to share, recognising true friendship and giving thanks for one’s own good fortune; all necessary ingredients for perfect conviviality (a derivative of the Latin ‘convivĕre’, meaning ‘to live together’).

Ilaria Giardini
for Tenuta Liliana

"risk their own chalice would be contaminated"

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