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Art, Culture, and Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy Feast: A History of Grand Eating

Nefs were a sort of table-ornament shaped like a boat or a ship. Some were used either purely for decoration; to store table-linens or eating-utensils; or to hold some sort of condiment (the V&A's Burghley nef may have been a saltcellar) or beverage (one 16th century drawing of a nef, now at the Kunstbibliotek in Berlin, says that "When you remove the upper part, the lower section becomes a drinking vessel that holds two measures of drink"; the Gilbert nef has a spout projecting from the figurehead); there’s even a few clockwork nefs.

Although Arts and Crafts in the Middle Ages describes nefs only as a type of saltcellar, it does provide some interesting (if uncited) details:

The salt cellar was always a piece de resistance, and stood in the centre of the table. It was often in the form of a ship in silver … The silver ship was commonly an immense piece of plate, containing the napkin, goblet, and knife and spoon of the host, besides being the receptacle for the spices and salt. Through fear of poison, the precaution was taken of keeping it covered. This ship was often known as the “nef,” and frequently had a name, as if it were the family yacht! One is recorded as having been named the “Tyger,” while a nef belonging to the Duke of Orleans was called the “Porquepy,” meaning porcupine.

Worth Their Salt has a history of salts and nefs, and includes a photo of an early 20th century wheeled nef shaped like a 15th century ship. See also Stefan's Florileigum: Nefs.

More nefs from Sotheby’s auctions.