Posted in Kafevend Blog
Some things have very descriptive names of the 'does what it says on the tin' variety. Beach hut, wind break and sewing machine are all perfect examples. Then there are the things with imaginatively descriptive names that can often be a little misleading: the horse chestnut has nothing equine about it save a horse shoe shaped scar left on the twigs by their falling leaves; elephant seals have nothing whatsoever to do with elephants, except for being huge of course! So if you've never had occasion to speculate on today's subject matter- bone china- you'd be forgiven for assuming that it got its name simply by virtue of being white like bones, but you'd be wrong. It falls into the other camp, the true label camp, because it really is made out of bones!
While the nation of China had been ahead of the game for centuries with porcelain, bone china was a relative late comer in the latter half of the eighteenth century. The first person to work on its development was Thomas Frye, an Irish artist and inventor. The proximity of the cattle markets and slaughter houses to his factory in London's East End meant that bones were readily available. He was keen to develop a material less fragile than porcelain and with repeated experimentation he was able to perfect his formula. However, it was Josiah Spode and his son of the same name who are generally credited with really getting to grips with the optimum method of producing this high quality tableware. Spode's business, located in the Potteries, paved the way for other manufacturers to join the trend, which grew rapidly due to decreasing levels of trade with China; import duties on porcelain were very high.
The bones contained in bone china exist in the form of bone ash. Having been completely denuded of meat and thoroughly cleaned, the bones are heated to around 1,000°C. This both sterilises them and allows them to be finely ground with water ready to be added to china stone and china clay. Despite its delicate look, bone china is less prone to chipping than either porcelain or fine china. In fact, it's because of its inherent strength that it can be made into such thin and delicate products. The higher the proportion of bone ash, up to 50% in some cases, the more translucent the finished product. Bone china is fired twice; during the first 'biscuit' firing up to 20% of items are lost, but those that survive both this and the second firing known as 'glost' are very resilient objects. We conducted a stock take here on the blog and really did discover less chips on our bone china mugs and cups than those made of fine china.
We're not alone in feeling that tea also tastes better when drunk from bone china. Fortnum and Mason, no less, recommend using cups made of bone china in their guide to making the perfect cup of tea. Whether the flavour is enhanced scientifically or the effect is merely psychological, it does seem to make a difference!