The table arts museum
This choice may seem surprising, in so far as the image that springs to mind when one thinks of an abbey is one of prayer, manual work and austerity. However, as of the Middle Ages, monasteries were the birthplace of several gastronomic delights: wines, beers, ciders, cheeses, cured meats... Humble convents were renowned for their speciality sweets, jams, liqueurs, biscuits, doughnuts etc; a whole range of fine recipes, many of which were lost during the Revolution, which delighted generations of gourmets and built the reputation of nuns and monks from such and such a town or such and such a monastery. In modern times, many of the greatest French abbeys developed hotel activities aimed at an upper class clientele. The financial means of these establishments and the bourgeois or aristocratic origins of the monks helped in recruiting the best cooks. After the closure of the abbeys during the Revolution, these "men of art" set up their own businesses, opening restaurants or hotels.
At Belleperche, time has preserved all the facilities created for this role as a hostel: guest rooms laid out along the massive access gallery, grand staircases, winter and summer reception rooms, kitchen, refectory, built in 1701, as well as the ruins of the beautiful Gothic-style refectory and, to round off the time-line, a kitchen built around 1900 with its tiled work surface. This is why, based on historical reality and following a concerted decision-making process begun in 1995, the Tarn-et-Garonne General Council chose to orient the new function of Belleperche towards table arts, a subject that connects different eras and countries and which plays a role in everyone's daily life.
Since 2002, the council has assembled collections which illustrate the evolution of tableware objects used for beverages and the consumption of food, as well as decorative table items dating from the Middle Ages to the present day.
"The table is set" is a foretaste of what will become the museum's permanent exhibition. In the abbey's former grain store, with its impressive vaulted nave covering almost 500 m² , the visitor is invited on a journey through time in eight stages, taking in six fully laid tables, three thematic "areas" (exotic drinks, wine service in the 18th century, and typical 19th century tableware items) as well as two very different, although contemporary, dining rooms, one in the "Henri II" style, and the second "Art Nouveau".
Stage 1, from the end of the Middle Ages to the 17th century
Stage 2, the era of sugar and the multiplication of objects (tea pot, coffee pot, chocolate pot, sugar bowl and ice bucket, cruet sets, sauce boats, compote dishes and juice jugs, salt cellars, mustard bowls, spice cases
Stage 3, the 18th century in full swing (French-style service, table decorations, plates, glasses, serving dishes and soup tureens)
Stage 4, the beginning of the 19th century and English influence (pipe clay, fine earthenware, crystal, porcelain...)
Stage 5, French and Russian-style service
Stage 6, the 19th century and industrialisation
Stage 7, around 1900, between Art Nouveau, Rococo and new materials
Stage 8, the 20th century and latest trends ;
The aim of "The table is set" exhibition is to display a portion of the collections, including the most significant objects, and to satisfy the expectations of the public: to get close to objects from the past in order to rediscover our cultural heritage, and appreciate this essential element in the lives of past generations which shaped our own dining customs.
The exhibition is intentionally laid out in a simple manner, yet with a wealth of information presented through a wide range of supports, as colourful and varied as the museum's collections and the tableware items themselves. When the refurbishment works (commencing in 2010) are completed, the new rooms will be able to host thematic exhibitions.