If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, celebrity chef Clodagh McKenna could not only write the book, but also give Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes advice on the perfect fairy-tale ending. Saying yes to the Honourable Harry Herbert of Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey to you and me), bathed in the golden light of a candlelit dinner in the grounds of his estate, Broadspear House, it was clear that months of lockdown had provided the two paramours with all the happily ever after ingredients they needed.
“People say lockdown either makes or breaks you, and with Harry, I mean, anybody could lock down with him, he’s a very gentle character,” she says on Zoom from her artfully decorated cooking studio, an outhouse on the estate, which she turned into the perfect WFH space.
The godchild of Queen Elizabeth proved to be quite the multi-tasker when it came to lockdown labour – popping over to McKenna's studio each day to film 120 cooking videos, which saw her Instagram following shoot up from 40,000 to 93,000 in a matter of months. For someone whose main job is in the world of horse racing, his camera game is seriously impressive – framing, panning and zooming like a pro – and he did deskwork too, helping McKenna reply to the hundreds of direct messages she received on Instagram each day.
“Harry is so brilliant. With the IGTV, there’s quite a lot of back work to do,” she says. “You have to get one cooked ahead and sometimes I had to do it three times, if I was doing pastry or something. I’d get him out last minute, because we recorded it live. Because he was inside in his own little space in the house, so he’d come out and do a quick 10 minutes with me, which was brilliant.”
One of the "biggest movers and shakers in horse racing", Herbert is reputed to run the most successful racehorse syndicate in Europe, but a read through his CV reveals that not only is the gregarious 61-year-old Etonian the chief executive of Highclere Thoroughbred Racing and of The Royal Ascot Racing Club, and co-ordinator of The Cartier Racing Awards, he also has talent as a "television commentator, public speaker and raconteur". His "real love was the stage".
He has his own agent, H Talent Management, which has Frankie Dettori, Lester Piggott, and Marco Pierre White on its books, as well as (perhaps more of an outlier), Nigel Farage.
But back to Hampshire and the romantic bliss of Broadspear. Since she moved into Herbert’s country home two years ago, the couple have been busy restoring the 18th-century walled garden, uprooting the undergrowth, planting an orchard with 32 varieties of trees, setting up a working fruit and vegetable garden and enjoying the fruits of their labour. This is impressive when you consider that neither of them had experience gardening.
"Every night we were watching all the old episodes of Monty Don on BBC Player, which were so helpful, and Alan Titchmarsh, and also following Darina [Allen] and Clovis Ferguson down in West Cork. They were messaging me tips, and I was following her and doing exactly what she was doing," says McKenna.
“We just worked it out. We also worked out what it was that we wanted, things we wanted to eat. The only thing about it is that you get such an abundance of everything, of one thing at once. There was a lot of work, but it was that kind of happy tiredness.”
Their plan is to become fully sustainable. They have beehives, cattle and pigs, and most recently, have added six Burford Brown hens to their menagerie, who promptly started laying nice brown eggs.
I found it really interesting to see for real, what people needed help with. And it was quick, weeknight suppers
Settling into her stately home-from-home has been easy. Herbert and McKenna are sociable types, many of her friends live nearby, her sister just two hours away, and whereas life at Broadspear pre-Covid had been weekends of lively, though not lengthy, dinner parties (they like to hit the bed at nine o’clock), now the cooking focus is more sofa supper than “pass the Port”.
There is of course a cookery book, Clodagh’s Weeknight Kitchen. McKenna said it was incredibly easy to write, taking six months rather than her usual three years, and it features 120 dishes, including plenty of their dining-a-deux favourites.
“It wasn’t planned at all, it just happened organically. And I had to come up with new recipes all the time,” she says. “I found it really interesting to see for real, what people needed help with. And it was quick, weeknight suppers. Because I felt during lockdown, I was like, where has the day gone? And when it came to six o’clock, I was exhausted from work. It was like, what are we going to have for dinner?
“There’s no, ‘oh let’s pop out tonight’. There was just so much cooking going on. So the book was an aid for me and an aid for my Instagram followers. In the morning we’d film the IGTV and I’d spend the afternoon developing recipes. We had a nice time. We got into a routine very quickly. Working in the day, and in the evening, we’d treat ourselves to a drink every single day. I don’t care. It’s lockdown, we’re doing it.”
So what are her favourites? “I probably do a baked egg with cream every one to two weeks; it’s just like a really classic comfort to have in front of the TV,” she says. “I made prawn cocktail quite a few times over the summer, I think it can be so beautiful. And I made a lot of curries. I did cauliflower ones, I have a beautiful Moroccan chicken tagine with chickpeas in it, that’s really beautiful, and the Indian coconut, tomato and fish curry, I love that one.
“And dessert-wise, I love the peach tatin, with orange blossom and crème fraiche, and also the poached pears in Marsala and star anise, they’re so easy to do and they’re so beautiful.”
So apart from work, and her wedding, what are McKenna’s plans for the future? “I think my next book will be about everything we’re doing here. About how to live a more sustainable life,” she says. “I feel so passionate about it at the moment. Because we’re really trying to make where we live, Broadspear, a completely sustainable homestead, and bit by bit we’re getting there.”
If it all sounds a bit Felicity Kendall in The Good Life, I'm not the first to mention it. Broadspear with McKenna and Herbert would make great television, I suggest. "We'll see, there's definitely been interest in it. I don't know," she says. "I've been called Felicity a lot. I still haven't watched it. I must watch it."
In the meantime, McKenna is building up an online store which is now managed by Alison Corfield, her good friend, who worked for Jamie Oliver for years. She even sells a Happiness Box, with a carefully chosen vase, candle and candlestick holder. It's all about spreading the Broadspear magic. So we too, can "make it beautiful, for a memorable supper every time".
Clodagh’s Weeknight Kitchen by Clodagh McKenna is published by Kyle Books, €20. Photography by Dora Kazmierak
Honey-roasted carrots with torn burrata and salsa rustica
Roasting carrots in honey is an absolute must. The sweetness of the honey with the carrots is just so delicious. You can also use butternut squash, pumpkin or courgettes instead of the carrots. If you have the carrot tops (the green leaves from the carrots) chop them up and add them to the salsa. Burrata is a soft cow’s milk cheese made in Puglia, Italy. It could be mistaken for fresh mozzarella as they look similar from the outside, but once you tear a burrata open you will see it is filled with soft milk curds and cream.
16 small carrots
100ml (3½fl oz) olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons freshly chopped mint
100g (3½oz) whole almonds, chopped
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 medium burrata balls
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/gas mark 6.
2 Put the carrots in a roasting tray, toss with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast for 25 minutes, shaking the tray occasionally, until the carrots are tender and slightly blackened in places.
3 Leave the carrots to cool slightly, then transfer to a serving platter.
4 Meanwhile, make the salsa rustica. Combine the chopped herbs, almonds, lemon zest and juice and the remaining olive oil in a bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper.
5 To serve, use your hands to tear each ball of burrata into large pieces, then set on top of the carrots and spoon the salsa rustica over the top. Finish with a little flaky sea salt and a twist of black pepper.
A slow-cooked tagine with lots of warm spices is my idea of a perfect supper. You can swap the chicken for lamb, pork or beef or add in other pulses such as butter beans for a vegetarian version. If you have the time, reduce the heat and slow cook it for a couple of hours, as the meat will get more tender and the flavours will develop further.
To make my jewelled couscous to serve alongside, pour 400g (14oz) wholegrain couscous into a bowl and stir in 1 teaspoon of both ground cumin and cinnamon and 100g (3½ oz) raisins. Pour in 600ml (20flfl oz) hot chicken or vegetable stock, cover with clingfilm and leave to cook in the steam for 15 minutes. Remove the clingfilm and separate the grains with a fork. Stir in 3 tablespoons of pomegranate seeds and 2 tablespoons of freshly chopped flatleaf parsley. Season with salt and pepper and mix well.
2 onions, finely diced
6 garlic cloves, crushed
4 sprigs of coriander, finely chopped
4 sprigs of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
6 chicken breasts, bone in and skin on
Pinch of saffron threads
200ml (7fl oz) chicken stock
50g (1¾oz) raisins
500g (1lb 2oz) canned chopped tomatoes
80g (2¾oz) blanched almonds, toasted and chopped
200g (7oz) pomegranate seeds
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Mix half the onion, garlic, coriander and parsley together in a large bowl.
2 Add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the lemon juice, 1 teaspoon of the ginger, 1 teaspoon of the cinnamon and the turmeric and season well with salt and pepper. Rub the chicken breasts with the mixture to coat. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave to marinade for 2–3 hours in the fridge, or, for best results, overnight.
3 Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4.
4 Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a frying pan. Fry the chicken for 3 minutes on each side until slightly brown. Put the remaining olive oil, onion, garlic and ginger in an ovenproof pot. Stir the mixture and place the chicken on top.
5 Heat the saffron in a dry pan for a minute, then sprinkle it over the chicken along with some pepper and 2 teaspoons of cinnamon. Add the chicken stock, raisins and chopped tomatoes and scatter over the remaining fresh coriander and parsley. Cover with the lid and cook for about 1 hour in the oven until tender. Check the tagine regularly, making sure that the sauce doesn't dry out, adding a splash of water or more stock if necessary.
6 To serve, garnish the tagine with the toasted almonds and pomegranate seeds and serve with couscous and a dollop of yogurt, if you wish.
Peach Tarte Tatin with orange blossom cream
This is so gorgeous, caramelized ripe peaches on a crisp thin pastry base served with a decadent orange blossom cream. If you don’t have orange blossom water just use the zest of an orange instead. You can make this a couple of hours before serving, and leave it to rest at room temperature (not in the fridge). It’s also delicious made with apples, pineapple or pears.
150g (5½oz) caster sugar
70g (2½oz) unsalted butter
½ vanilla pod, cut in half lengthways
6 peaches, halved and stoned
325g (11½oz) ready-made puff pastry
For the orange blossom cream:
250g (9oz) crème fraîche
2 tablespoons orange blossom water
1 tablespoon orange zest
1 Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4.
2 Place a cast-iron pan or an ovenproof frying pan over a low heat and add the caster sugar and 100ml (3½fl oz) water. Stir until the sugar has dissolved.
3 Once the sugar has dissolved, increase the heat to high and simmer for 12–14 minutes or until the syrup is a light golden-brown colour. Stir in the butter and scrape in the seeds from the vanilla pod, then cook for a further 2–3 minutes or until you reach a caramel consistency.
4 Arrange the halved peaches, cut-side up, over the caramel.
5 Roll out the puff pastry so that it covers the peaches in the pan. Place the pastry on top of the peaches and fold the edges down the sides so that you're tucking in the peaches. Make three small slits in the centre of the pastry with a sharp knife and bake for 45 minutes until the peaches are caramelized and the pastry is golden.
6 Meanwhile, to make the orange blossom cream, whisk the crème fraîche with the orange blossom water and orange zest and set aside.
7 When the tarte tatin is cooked, carefully invert the tarte out onto a serving dish. Slice and serve with a dollop of the orange blossom cream.