It’s party time in Paris! Trish Deseine is visiting her friend Greg Delaney’s charming, laidback house to find out how he does Christmas. A consummate entertainer, Greg has lots of tips and tricks for creating atmosphere and presenting a relaxed but very special feast for friends …
Greg Delaney has been based in Paris for over 20 years (before that he worked as a journalist in Ireland) enthusiastically embracing the French “art de vivre” both in the capital and in the Languedoc, near Béziers, bastion of his French family-in-law (he’s married to Patric and they have three children – two in their 20s, one aged 17). An invitation to one of his parties is not just a promise of great food but – as Greg’s background is in arts and features journalism and TV production – an occasion for interesting encounters with the worlds of media, art, showbusiness, and politics. Greg loves Christmas festivities but does not believe in striving for perfection.
“Every year,” he says “I GO for it, knowing that it’ll all most likely fall short of expectations.” Without professional entertaining obligations – “the rest of the year I host dinners to help oil the job” – at Christmas he can relax more and enjoy being at home. “Our house in Clichy, Northern Paris, has been described as a party house – it’s a big open space with an open fire. Around Christmas I do more entertaining than usual; people must see and admire my tree – which goes up weeks before December 24, which is the French rule. I’ll have neighbours in for wine, soup, cheese (heated rounds of camembert or Mont d’Or), saucisson, bread and flavoured butters. I will also host a couple of proper dinners, and most probably a party for as many as can come.”
Christmas with the family in the Languedoc is a much more traditional affair. Greg covers the fireplaces with tree branches, ivy, mistletoe, and baubles, lights fires and lots of candles, plays Frank Sinatra – et voila! Policed by relatives who’ll ensure that the old codes are adhered to, baby Jesus does not appear a minute before Christmas Day, or the wise men before the Epiphany!
Here are Greg’s tips for a party everyone will enjoy, including the host.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD GUEST LIST?
Parties are for everyone, even “problem” friends and relatives. Dinners need more careful attention.
HOW DO YOU GET PEOPLE TO MIX? WHAT ABOUT MUSIC? DO YOUR GUESTS DANCE?
Keep filling their glass. I think everyone tries their best once they have bothered to leave their lairs. I’m of an age where I’m awkward on the dancefloor. With the kids now young adults, I rely on them and their friends to distract from the ignominy of my dad-dancing. In France, people only dance to what they know – old songs by Dalida, Claude François, Michel Sardou. Woe to anyone who thinks you can play Sven Väth and expect the French to move.
HOW DO YOU PLAN?
Sort yourself out in advance. Peruse cookery books etc. You should NOT be super-busy on the afternoon of the event. That’s when you should be double-checking and assembling of what’s been pre-cooked or bought. For a dinner, I set the table a day in advance and that often inspires what I’ll cook. At Christmas, I will warm up a cheap bottle of red wine, a jigger of cognac, orange slices, cloves, star anise, and cinnamon for the smell. In my experience, people only pretend to like vin chaud which I call liquid heartburn. But the perfume is pure Christmas. Once you have enough alcohol and the lighting is right, and you’ve an idea of a rising line in music, you’re home and dry. I think food at a “partyparty” is less important than drink, lighting, and music. Not so a dinner, obviously.
AND THE SHOPPING?
All done in advance. Cut corners where necessary – I’m all for “semi-homemade”. You can, for example, serve a wow soup with a shop-bought version augmented with a homemade pesto, a can of coconut cream or by spooning in toppings of homemade zaatar or mascarpone with grated lemon or lime peel. Do things with confidence. Ensure you have lots of fresh herbs, edible flowers, pomegranate seeds, to visually lift what you’re serving. Sesame and poppy seeds, nuts, sumac, chili flakes all come in handy. That said, I never know whether I’ve pulled it off; your guests are obliged to thank you!
In terms of food, Jamie Oliver. The approach he takes is so generous – it’s not about careful measurements, rather it’s instinctive – handfuls of this, handfuls of that – enthusiastically brought together. Always taste as you go. Ultimately, inspiration can come from anywhere – a restaurant, a shop display, a market stand. I recall a smart party in London where boxes of unshelled prawns and bottles of Chablis were served. Nothing else. That struck me as the height of chic – and I’ve replicated it with great success.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN A FRENCH AND IRISH CHRISTMAS?
I think Ireland goes for it more! I’m always struck by the pre-Christmas madness. All those meet-ups in town in the run-up as if there was a ban on public gatherings post-Christmas (let’s hope there won’t be this year). The traditional Irish Christmas dinner is an exhausting nightmare to bring together. Whoever’s doing the cooking will be ragged before they’re à table. In France we convene on Christmas Eve and eat shop-bought foie gras, platters of langoustines, oysters and fruits de mer. It’s a low-stress feast all about buying the best. You are not obliged to mark Christmas Day – although I like roasting a bird (never a turkey though). Plates of buttered pasta with shavings of truffle is equally acceptable and celebratory for Christmas Day. Candied fruit, calissons d’Aix en Provence, nougat, nuts and papillotes (a soft Quality Street-like sweet wrapped in sparkling paper) are part of the festivities in France. I’ve served plum pudding and the French consider that the devil’s work. I also buy expensive chocolates filled with a lime caramel, and chocolate orangettes too.
WHO DOES IT BETTER? THE FRENCH OR THE IRISH?
There’s no carolling here and le père Noël looks like a saint rather than our jolly Santa. There’s little madness in the shops – which are decorated with exquisite restraint. St Stephen’s Day isn’t particularly marked – there are no obligations or sales to stand in line for (the sales don’t start until the second week of January). If you’re not in the mood, I think it’s quite possible to turn your back on Christmas in France altogether. Which you couldn’t do in Ireland. All told, I think we – the Irish – are better at celebrating Christmas. The effort we make is Herculean – and I’d like to think that I bring a bit of all that to France.
Sometimes the best party food doesn’t look like it’s from a magazine! And Greg’s much loved friand – in effect a large, spiced sausage roll – always goes down brilliantly. He adds a readymade spice mix bought from the roast chicken stall at the market and dried cranberries and hazelnuts for a festive feel.
10 minutes preparation
40 minutes cooking
• 500g sausage meat • 2 handfuls dried cranberries • 2 handfuls shelled hazelnuts • 1 tablespoon barbecue/roast chicken spice mix • Salt and pepper • 2 sheets of readymade puff pastry • 1 egg, beaten
1. Mix the cranberries, nuts and spices into the meat and season lightly.
2. Lay one sheet of pastry flat, set the meat on top and close with the second sheet, pinching the sides to seal.
3. Brush the pastry with the beaten egg and cook for 40–45 minutes, covering if the pastry browns too much.
4. Serve with cranberry sauce and fresh leaves.
Little Waldorf Salads
Fresh and crunchy, in vibrant Christmas colours, these look great and are a perfect contrast with the hot, buttery friand.
45 minutes preparation and assembly
• 2 tbsp Hellmans mayonnaise • 1 tbsp Greek yoghurt • 2 large sticks celery, chopped finely • 2 handfuls walnuts or pecans, chopped • 2 handfuls of dried cranberries or sultanas • Salt and pepper • 3 Granny Smith apples • 3 bright red apples • Juice of a lemon • Pomegranate seeds, apple slivers and parsley to garnish
1. Mix the celery, walnuts and dried fruit with the yoghurt and mayonnaise. Season with salt and pepper.
2. Slice the apples very finely into rounds, rub with lemon juice to avoid them discolouring. Reserve slivers to garnish.
3. Set the fruit, nut and celery mixture onto each round of apple, garnish with slivers of apple, pomegranate and parsley and serve.
One of Greg’s strong points in party prep is his “semi homemade” approach. If you are catering for numbers, he says, forget the peeling and chopping and don’t shy away from jazzing up shop-bought soups with croutons, toppings and flavourings. For mushroom soup, fry shiitakes until crisp then toast some almonds in the pan with them. Greg likes to add coconut milk to pumpkin and carrot soup, then top each serving with some pan fried pumpkin chunks and edible flowers. Asparagus soup is garnished with steamed, buttered and thinly sliced asparagus spears tossed with dill and chervil.
Grilled Oysters And Foie Gras
15 minutes preparation
5 minutes cooking
• 12 freshly shucked oysters • 150g raw foie gras • Pomegranate seeds • Fleur de sel • 30 grated parmesan
1. Heat the grill to High.
2. Cut the foie gras into small chunks and set on the shucked oysters.
3. Grill for 3-5 minutes until the foie gras is browning and the oyster bubbling.
4. Top with pomegranate seeds and some fleur de sel and eat immediately.
Bitter Salad Leaves With Pecorino, Beetroot, Radishes And Pomegranate
This is real ruby beauty for a Christmas table.
10 minutes preparation
• Red salad leaves – radicchio, red endive… • 1 or 2 cooked beetroot (not in vinegar!) • 8–10 radishes, topped and tailed, sliced thinly • 75g shaved pecorino or parmesan (optional) • Pomegranate seeds to garnish
1. Assemble all the ingredients together, serve with good olive oil and white balsamic on the side.
Trish Deseine’s Black Forest Trifle
I brought dessert! Deliciously rich and retro, with lots of wow factor, chocolate is always a good idea. Serve with some fresh fruit alongside and bowls of chilled clementines.
35 minutes preparation
3–4 hours resting
• 4 egg yolks • 80g icing sugar • 200ml full fat milk • 100 ml double cream • 200g dark chocolate • 200g amareno cherries, drained • 3–4 tbsp kirsch • 6–8 trifle sponges or 10–12 sponge fingers • 300ml double cream • 75g grated dark chocolate or chocolate curls to decorate
1. For the chocolate custard, bring the milk and 100ml of cream to a simmer. Do not let it boil.
2. Whisk the egg yolks and icing sugar together until the mixture is pale and frothy. Pour the hot milk into the eggs and whisk.
3. Pour the custard back into the saucepan and heat until the custard has thickened, taking care not to let it boil and curdle.
4. Remove from the heat and cool slightly before adding the chocolate. Leave the chocolate to melt for a few minutes before stirring it through the custard. Cover the surface with clingfilm to prevent a skin forming and chill well for 3 to 4 hours.
5. To assemble the trifle, press the trifle sponges or sponge fingers into the bottom of a large, deep glass dish. Pour the cherries, reserving some for the decoration, with the kirsch onto the sponges and leave to soak. Spread the chocolate custard over the cherries. Top with the whipped double cream and decorate with the cherries and grated dark chocolate.
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