This time of year is meant to be the season of goodwill but harried hosts may feel it’s anything but. Unexpected visitors dropping in; having to adapt military strategies in order to feed the hordes and never being sure if there’s too much or too little food in the house (usually it’s the former) all combine to raise stress levels.
Unsure hosts may feel unfit to cope with the frenetic level of entertaining that might be expected of them, but arguably there is no better man in the country to look to for advice than Francis Brennan. The hotelier and TV star can be described as the ultimate host and he dedicated several sections of his book It’s the Little Things to the art of being both a host and an exemplary guest.
The Irish have an embedded tradition of hospitality, dating back thousands of years and mandated by the Brehon Laws, and Francis believes that this custom is still going strong. “I think we just have a warmth that’s there automatically,” he says before breaking off to tell a story about the Italian tourist he stopped to help on the way to this interview. “I see people doing that all the time – it’s just built into us. We’re there to help and the hospitality industry just magnifies that.”
He believes that a good host has several attributes, and an ability to talk is one. “Nothing is worse than going to dinner parties when the fellow beside you doesn’t talk. If you’re a good host, you’ll probably be a little bit outgoing,” he maintains. Being able to select the right party mix of people is another quality vital to the success of your gathering. “You all know your own friends and who might and mightn’t work together. Then sometimes you throw an odd one in and they might stir it all,” he says. “And then, of course, get the age group right. It’s great to mix ages. Older people have loads to contribute and they have stories from life, whereas young people in their 20s would only have a few years under their belt for stories.”
One of his most important dictates is that hosts need to be organised and this isn’t too difficult.
“If you’re having a party coming in, and for Christmas Day especially, you could do all sorts of things in advance. You can make your trifle, and it’s much better made a day or two before. You’ll have your plum pudding made and if you’re having a soup, you can make it the day before. You don’t have to do everything on the morning of the day,” he says. “Nowadays, we’re all a bit spoiled with prepped vegetables where you can get your sprouts peeled and your carrots batoned. At Christmastime you can treat yourself and get those. Don’t obsess: get on with it and enjoy it – and stay off the wine a little bit until you’re on top of your organisation.” The only thing to really stress about is your turkey. “Make sure you know the weight of it and cook it according to instructions because nothing is worse than finding out at 4pm in the afternoon that the turkey is not cooked – and that has happened to all of us,” he says.
For Christmas Day, he advises organising all your glassware, china and linen the day before and setting the table. “Don’t be waiting until Christmas morning to do that. It’s generally in the ‘good’ room, as we all know, which you won’t be using the day before.”
As a non-drinker himself, he has plenty of suggestions on how to give non-alcoholic drinks the wow factor, something most hosts will be more than conscious of given this year’s stricter drink-driving laws. He suggests adding ice and sparkling water to fruit juices like mango and passionfruit with a little bit of grenadine and to “throw a dash of elderflower into a glass with club soda – it really lifts it”.
Let’s presume that if you’re having people over, you will have done a moderate tidy-up of the house. For the finishing touches, you don’t have to spend much money, according to Francis. “Everything we use in the Park [Hotel, Kenmare] for decorations is real and we’re really lucky because we’re in the countryside and can get loads of greenery, but even at Christmastime down Grafton Street they sell that lovely holly and all the rest. You can pick up flower arranging oases in hobby shops, and you can make the wreath however you like,” he says. “If you’re out walking, you can collect cones and stick them in your hot press in a box for a day or two and they open out beautifully. You can do lovely things with boughs of trees and some spray snow in a can, which is marvellous. Red berries are great too.”
You don’t necessarily have to buy decorations or table centrepieces, he concludes. “You can get everything you need and make them yourself.”
Francis’s key hosting tips
● Always have a few extra small gifts because you never know… It could be a little hand cream or bar of soap, and unisex. For youngsters, I always have nice books.
● Make sure your guest room is well stocked. Have water and secondly a little flower. It doesn’t have to be a bouquet but it’s nice that someone took the care to do it. A nice soap is essential, and so are fluffy towels.
● Involve children and make them part of the Christmas scene by letting them help with decorations.
● Have thank-you cards so that children learn to say thank you. If Granny gets them a teddy bear, they then write a little thank-you note.
● A small gesture can mean a lot to a person. If you know one of your neighbours is on her own, invite her in.
Interview by Claire O’Mahony
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