My Christmas – With TV Chef Clodagh McKenna

Irish chef, author and This Morning cookery host Clodagh McKenna lives in Broadspear House on the Highclere Estate – the home of Downton Abbey – with her husband Harry Herbert. Known for her stylish tablescapes and delicious recipes, we thought it a good time to ask Clodagh to share her festive traditions – from oysters and bloody marys to table sparklers and homemade decorations.
By Heather Steele

At the moment, I’m excited about my Christmas decorations. We’ve just finished putting them up. Since we moved to Broadspear House and started our sustainable farm, I’ve been trying to make our Christmas decorations as sustainable as possible and it’s become really fun foraging for things across the estate. This year, I’ve used feathers, fur and pine cones. Last year, I made a lot of decorations out of dried mushrooms. I saved them and they all lasted, which was quite a surprise when I opened the box!

I always make my own Christmas wreaths. This year, I opened my own shop in the grounds of The Retreat at Elcot Park – which sells everything from homewares and utensils to homemade Christmas cakes and lots of lovely fresh produce – so I thought it would be a great idea to sell the wreaths, too, as people always ask me where they can buy them. I did so in partnership with my friend the florist Nikki Tibbles of Wild at Heart. We’ve always wanted to do something together, so she came down and together we made these beautiful wreaths using pheasant feathers, different types of berries, fur and pine cones. Her warehouse looks like Santa’s grotto at the moment, with all of her incredibly talented team in there, and they worked on recreating the wreath. I think we’ve sold about 100 in a week!

One of my favourite ways to decorate is with ribbons. Every time I get presents wrapped up in a beautiful ribbon, I keep it and then tie all the trees around the house in ribbons come Christmas. One tree is really colourful and I just feel like the energy is really good. Another tree is more colour co-ordinated and is covered in lovely decorations that Harry and I have collected since we’ve been together. Instead of an angel, we’ve got a handmade mouse at the top of our tree that we got at a Christmas market when we first started dating.

Three weekends ago, I spent the weekend prepping food for Christmas. My main task was making crab apple jelly, as our crab apples were suddenly ripe and ready to go! We made pots and pots of it, which we’re going to serve with our turkey this year instead of cranberry sauce, as cranberries are imported. I’ve already ordered my turkey from a lovely local couple who have a beautiful organic sustainable farm; and our smoked salmon is coming from a sustainable smoked salmon farm in Ireland. At the end of the summer, we pickled cucumbers and beetroot that we’ll serve with a cheeseboard or as sides, and I’ve been growing some carrots especially for Christmas Day lunch.

I always do seafood on Christmas Eve. I order lobster from Dorset and we make homemade spaghetti with our own eggs. We had a huge number of tomatoes leftover at the end of the summer, and I made it into a delicious chilli and tomato sauce, which has been frozen with the Christmas Eve spaghetti in mind.

We host Christmas at our home every year. We're a big family and mostly all live in the park, so we share the hosting duties between us. We built a pub during lockdown, and now Christmas revolves around there. This will be the first time we’ve done it, but on 23rd December my sister-in-law and I are going to put on a Christmas stocking ride for all the smaller kids in the family. They will all be on their ponies and everybody will ride around the park hunting for their presents. We’ll then all end up in the pub for mince pies and hot chocolates.

Our family kicks off Christmas morning with a big traditional breakfast – the kind we only indulge in once a year – before dressing up in our Christmas finest to go to church, followed by a big walk. After that, we open presents in front of the fire with a glass of bubbles. For lunch, which starts around 3pm, we have Carlingford oysters from Ireland and a Baileys coffee at the end – it’s my Irish contribution! On Christmas Day itself, we’ll all be in a beautiful house called Milford Lake House, which is my sister-in-law’s. I’ll still be involved with all the cooking, though.

There’s nothing like a traditional Christmas pudding. But I also love trifle. I don’t really like a classic sherry trifle – instead I do a mascarpone trifle with madeira, creme de cassis and homemade custard folded through with mascarpone. Even describing it is making me hungry! 

We’re also selling lots of mince pies at the shop. I love that unperfect shape – and could eat ten in one sitting! I like to make a mincemeat with brandy and lots of candied peel and I always like to serve them warm with Waitrose’s brandy and orange double cream. It always sells out, so last year I bought ten tubs!  

My tablescapes are generally as natural as possible. Last year, I wanted to mix things up, so I foraged for pine cones and sprayed them with an off-white paint. You could also leave them natural and add berries and pin LED soft lights. I also love to decorate with fruit as it adds pops of colour and I think it’s important to for decoration to have a second life afterwards. Figs, grapes and oranges are all great, and clementines look so beautiful because they've got that green leaf on them. Figs last for two weeks on the table and it doesn't matter if they get really ripe, because then you can make them into a big chutney, which is easy to do in one pot. And it’s always lovely to have grapes, as people will pick from the table and it makes it so much more inviting.

I am such a big fan of Aspiga, and last Christmas I wore one of its lovely green and pink dresses. This year, I think I’ll wear one of their navy cord jumpsuits. The most important thing on Christmas Day is that your outfit is comfy and there’s room to expand! Aspiga manages to be both cosy and a bit glamourous at the same time.

Between Christmas and New Year, there are lots of lunches. On Boxing Day, we always have a big meal back at our pub again. I love getting up in the morning and making the pastry and then taking apart all the leftover ham and turkey. I actually prefer Boxing Day lunch to Christmas Day, as it’s more relaxed – we’re all just in jeans and sweaters with lots of things to graze on. Then that night – like everyone else in the country – we’ll do a curry night and play games and watch lots of Christmas films. My favourite is Love Actually.

On New Year's Eve, I have about eight of my closest friends around. We’ll have supper together, have a little sing song and they’ll all stay over and it's really low key and cosy. Between Christmas and New Year, I don’t tend to change up my décor – I’ll just mix up the candles and put long sparklers on the table for everybody to take outside for the midnight countdown, which is fun. I don't like to get stressed about cooking, as I do so much of it, so I’ll probably do a big pot of beef bourguignon, or chocolate beef chilli, or an Irish stew. I usually do something a bit more special for a starter. Last year, I did a big bowl of langoustines with aioli along with lots of Irish soda bread. Then for dessert, we had a big tiramisu. At midnight, we’ll set off a couple of fireworks outside. 

On New Year’s Day, we host a big brunch for around 40 people, complete with a bagpiper. So, whoever stays over on New Year’s Eve always has to be up early to help with the prep! I usually do something like a whole poached salmon, potato salad, cucumber pickles, spiced beef and soda bread. We’ll also served plenty of Bloody Marys and oysters.

I’ll take down the decorations on 6th January. In Ireland, the day is called Women’s Christmas – the decorations come down that day, and then that night all the women go out for dinner to give themselves a treat for all their hard work over Christmas! 

To check out Clodagh’s new store, visit ClodaghMcKenna.com & follow Clodagh on Instagram at @Clodagh_McKenna.

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