Christmas get-togethers: tips form the experts
Three experts share their tips on hosting the perfect festive get-together
Joanna and James Fennell of Burtown House in Co Kildare.
It’s the season of the festive get-together, but party season brings its own particular anxieties for those welcoming friends and family into their homes. For the party professionals, however, this time of year can be a chance to show off their unique interpretation of what a great Christmas or New Year’s hootenanny in 2019 should look like. Three experts share their tips on hosting the perfect party.
THE FLOWER EXPERT
For florist and owner of The Garden Mark Grehan, the festive season is all about reconnecting, relaxing and resisting the urge to overcomplicate. “The key to creating the perfect floral display at this time of year is to keep it simple. A good tip is to lay out your crockery, plates, napkins, and vessels on the table first so you can see what space you are working with before you even think about what flowers to add to a setting.”
When it comes to small get-togethers like cocktail parties or pre-drinks before a meal, Grehan suggests awakening guests’ senses.
“Consider something scented like hyacinths and mix them in with hellebore and some hypericum for texture. Make sure you plan ahead – take a picture of your vessels to bring to the florist to help you select, and make sure to collect flowers a day or two beforehand so that they have opened fully in your home and have had time to breathe in their new space.”
This season’s most sought-after colours include purples, blue tones, and pinks, while texture-wise, asparagus fern is being used a lot with cypress and other foliage. “Look to dried flowers too,” Grehan adds, “they add maturity and seasonality to space.” While table settings will be the biggest focus for most hosts, Grehan suggests remembering other spaces in the home too.
“Create something tall and elegant in the hall as a welcoming piece for visitors – it’s small additions like this or wreaths – which are more popular than ever – that will set your home apart.”
THE PARTY EXPERT
“Imagine your guests in situ on the night of your party and think about what will excite them and make them feel comfortable at the same time,” suggests Kate O’Dowd, stylist, event planner and founder of Love & Gatherings.
“The excitement at a party comes with the welcome – the smells, music, and lighting as they enter the space, quickly followed by the visual details, which show you’ve put thought and effort into their experience.”
For O’Dowd, attention to detail is what sets a soirée apart from the others, “Comfort is key, beginning with temperature – always heat the space before guests arrive, turning off the heat source before anyone arrives – and good chairs. You can wing the rest.”
Often, the hardest part of planning a party is knowing where to start. O’Dowd has the process down to a fine art, with a routine that’s fail-safe if followed: “Begin by creating your version of the festive style, based on what palette and materials will work in your home. If your interior style is minimalist, up the hygge with logs stacked by the fire, an abundance of candlelight and casual arrangements of festive foliage like hemlock, holly, and sprigs of fir.” As for on-trend accessories and essentials, she suggests heavy linen napkins.
“If you gravitate towards the glamorous, use a patterned tablecloth, match or mismatch your napkins and add coloured glassware with vintage silver cutlery. Fine taper candles at various heights, with low floral centrepieces, create a focal point without blocking views across the table, while bespoke menus on theme with the tablecloth will really ramp up the luxe.”
THE FOODIE EXPERT
For Joanna and James Fennell, third-generation proprietors of Burtown House in Co Kildare, the key to creating the perfect meal for any festive get-together is a collaboration. “Creativity, lots of fresh herbs and including any kids at home to get stuck in,” says Joanna, the house and estate’s foodie. She, along with grower Dermot Carey and new head chef Rodrigo Gonzalez, formally of Noma Copenhagen, have created a new standard for seasonal produce at their Green Barn restaurant, so their interpretation of festive food is all about comfort, taste and using what you have to hand.
When it comes to starters, for instance, Joanna recommends keeping it real. “At the Green Barn, we try to stay away from deep-fried foods – they’re easy to get right but there are so many more fresh, healthy nibbles to choose from. We like to start with crudités from our seasonal fresh produce, oven-roasted Romanesco broccoli and spring onions. We use our own silky aioli, beetroot hummus, roasted chestnut dip or tzatziki from Irish organic yoghurt with lots of garlic and grated cucumber.”
Not everyone has delicious homegrown veggies and herbs in the garden, so Joanna notes good suppliers are key. “I’m a big fan of La Rousse Foods, our local Ballyhubbock sheep’s ice cream and we always use Sheridans’ cheese at Christmas. For drinks, our most popular organic wine is Moulin de Gassac from Curious Wines in Cork.”
The house has become famous for its efforts toward zero-waste. Leftovers are an opportunity to get creative. “On Stephen’s Day, we stir up our very favourite Christmas leftovers soup of sautéed onions, potato and bacon in lots of good-quality Irish butter. A wonder leftover dish is a quiche or frittata to use up any vegetables and cheese, and I also like to make Christmas pudding ice-cream.”
With so many different tastes, palettes and food requirements in any given family now, how should people approach serving dishes that please everyone? “Vegetarian is always a good start,” says Joanna. “Toons Bridge halloumi is delicious as a meat alternative and my one must-have dish at this time of year is a terrine. You can use any protein you like and it’s always a good excuse to use up sourdough when it’s getting lonely inside the bread bin. Just cut it into thin slices and into the oven with olive oil, salt and pepper. Simple and delicious.”
“A roll of good, thick velvet ribbon. Pop a velvet bow on your table napkins for instant glamour, use it for gift-wrapping, to drape as a garland, to add personality to simple wreaths, or for a cute festive hair-tie.”
“Vessels are a great starting point when choosing blooms and foliage. Find a selection you love and that works with your colour palette and take it from there. Less is more.”
“We’ve recently fallen in love with Irish strawberry and blackberry wine from Wicklowwaywines.ie.” Three Irish Strawberry Wines and Three Irish Blackberry Wines, €131.70, wicklowwaywines.ie