Christmas with Rachel Allen
The TV chef brings her Scandi heritage to bear on the busy family Christmas at Ballymaloe, where ‘everyone can run amok’
Rachel Allen: “About 60 or 70 people come and spend Christmas at Ballymaloe.”
The Christmas spirit was instilled in TV chef Rachel Allen as a young child, with regular visits to a festive-forward Canada to see her grandparents.
“Before we began decorating trees and lights outside in Dublin, they’d been doing it in Canada for a long time. All the trees on all the streets were lit up beautifully. It was always magical,” she says, ahead of this year’s festivities. “My grandparents were originally Icelandic, and their way of decorating has stuck with me. I have those sweet little wooden Christmas decorations, and I love the simple red and white decorations – I still love that Scandi look.”
Last year, she gave the minimalist style a bold twist and added multi-coloured Peruvian decorations she’d found in a craft shop – after all, Christmas involves building on traditions, as her recipes often show.
Another example is that of the Allen Christmas get-together at the family epicentre of Ballymaloe. What began as the late Myrtle Allen inviting “everybody who wanted to come and join” for Christmas, has now continued after her death in 2018.
“She always had that ‘everyone’s welcome’ attitude, and now about 60 or 70 people come and spend Christmas at Ballymaloe,” says Allen, the granddaughter-in-law. “Because the house is closed, it doesn’t run as a country house hotel over Christmas, everyone can run amok. The adults each take on a small job to make organising it easier, there’s board games, and you’ll find the children grab trays from the kitchen to slide down the stairs. It’s really special.
“The good thing is you don’t have to cook if you don’t want to. I’d text a cousin of Isaac, my husband, to say how many of us are coming and what we want to do that year. It’s great to be in the kitchen because there are five or six people in there, and it’s a big restaurant kitchen. But I can also say that I’d be waitressing or washing up, depending on how I feel.”
At her own home in Shanagarry, Co Cork, where she and Isaac live with their three children, she’s found that the key to organising large dinners is to create an order of work. This involves lists, figuring out cooking times, and working backwards. To accommodate festive season drop-ins (or night-time nibbles), she prepares soups, pâtés and terrines in advance.
The best meals are the spontaneous ones, when people come around to say hello or to drop off a gift and you want to invite them in for a bite to eat
“The best meals are the spontaneous ones, when people come around to say hello or to drop off a gift and you want to invite them in for a bite to eat,” she says. “To me, it’s welcoming to have light bites that you can offer. I love how the fridge is always heaving with lots of delicious things.”
As far as her own Christmas traditions go, the favourites both involve sherry: she and her sister Simone remember their grandmother with a glass of her favourite tipple before lunch, which they now enjoy in a toast to grandma. And later, she serves a sherry trifle recipe created by her husband’s maternal grandmother – in other words, Darina Allen’s mum.
“I make her sherry trifle every year, and I love it,” she says. “You make a Swiss roll with delicious raspberry jam, cut that into slices and line the bowl with the slices of Swiss roll. Then make a delicious crème patisserie custard and put that inside, then layer more slices of Swiss roll, sherry, and more custard. Then top it off with cream. I never liked sherry trifle until I tried that one, and now I get it.”
More than anything, after a busy year on British and Irish TV, countless appearance at food festivals and cookery lessons, she’s looking forward to winding down work at Christmas. And with more drama at home than she expected, she only has one thing to say about ringing out 2019 on New Year’s Eve: “Bring on 2020.”
Rachel Allen will be appearing at the new Taste of Dublin: Festive Edition at the RDS, Dublin, from November 28th to December 1st. dublin. tastefestivals.com