When it comes to the annual landmarks of your social calendar, little is more significant than the moment you set your festive table. Here, our friends in food and hospitality share their tips on how to get it just so.
The manner in which you lay on a spread is almost as important as what’s served. It’s why we’ve asked a few of our favourite people, from cultural commentators to culinary whizzes and a top concierge, just what Christmas means to them. Some talk animatedly about their favourite dishes, others offer some do’s and don’ts for the big day. One even comes clean about wishing his guests would leave more promptly.
“The company is more important but I love the actual table-setting too. Our Jewish Christmas Eve is a family affair. Every member selects a favourite dish. There’s a tradition of hors d’oeuvres with a starter of crabmeat-stuffed avocado, cheese fondue and green salad; and we have a family recipe for mocha cake with something called ‘hard sauce’, which is basically vanilla, icing sugar and butter. It’s strange but it makes everyone happy. I also like a good chenin blanc. Less so honey-roasted ham, Santa figurines or fingerbowls.”
“Christmas dinner should be different from a normal meal and have a crazed, ritualistic element in its presentation, irrespective of whether it tastes nice or not. There should ideally be a big turkey or joint and many side dishes, containing things that are never usually eaten. But avoid centrepieces so magnificent that people can’t converse with those on the opposite side of the table. Don’t bring out the china, silver or glass, which will divert too much attention from the food. And don’t employ table placement by rank. Make sure that you’re sitting at one end so you can see everyone. (If you have a long, straight table, sit in the middle.) I like asti spumante sparkling wine to drink, followed by Baileys with pudding – and I avoid excitable knitwear.”
“Sydney recently emerged from a five-month lockdown, so the only real rule seems to be to engage in endless holiday dinners to make up for all of that precious lost time. I love cooking with Australian ingredients: stir-fried sweet yabbies, a native freshwater crustacean, with XO sauce; native lemon aspen and Geraldton wax; steamed school prawns with ginger, shallot and native sea parsley; my Australian-Cantonese coleslaw with native bush mint; plus deep-fried silken tofu with native ‘old man saltbush’ salt and finger lime. Forget the fancy tablecloth; it’s all best eaten with your hands and plenty of chilled drinks.”
“I plan every detail, from the guests’ arrival to their happy goodbyes. They’re greeted by candles in the garden and with warm towels to cleanse their hands. Then there’s champagne with snacks and music. In the dining room are seasonal flower arrangements. I serve my family a four- or five-course meal, with a choice of two wines. I like fun desserts, such as ice cream with caramel popcorn and gold leaf. Then there’s more wine and some tea. I also like to prepare small gifts for guests to take home.”
“Hosting is about making people happy and at ease. I love a well-dressed table and candles. Warm light is essential. It’s also about tradition; I use plates that I’ve had for years. On the menu are prawn-cocktail salad, tortellini with capon broth, a barolo-based stew, polenta and panettone with a lightly flavoured cream. I’d start with a franciacorta, then opt for a barbaresco or a barolo.”
“I lay everything on the table so I can have a meal without needing to get up. That’s best for continuous conversation too. I ask people to bring a favourite Christmas dish so we can eat food cooked by us all; I like the idea of a collectively made dinner. I always make romeritos, a Mexican dish of seepweed with mole. I like hot, spiced fruit punch with tejocote, guava, tamarind and sugar cane. And don’t forget flowers. We get poinsettias, which are from Mexico. The Aztecs called them cuetlaxóchitl (‘wilting flower’) and saw them as a symbol of the life cycle.”
“I have two daughters and love having them and their families with us. Dinner is served after 19.00 but we have a festive porridge at about noon after the Christmas Peace is announced on TV. First we have the fish dishes and drink schnapps, then ham with wine and beer. After the main courses, there’s a break before the sweets and cheese. Always have good chocolate available. Take your time and do everything with care. Create traditions. Make time for joy and hope. Write your own Christmas stories.”
“I’m not too fussy about table dressing. There’ll be a bird (usually Bresse chicken), plus foie gras and smoked salmon – all Parisian staples, though I’m Anglo-Canadian. The cheese will be from Laiterie la Chapelle, most likely a raw cow’s milk tomme, and bread from La Boulangerie Pajol. We’ll drink natural wine, probably a bottle with uneven fermentation and a funky tang – rumour has it that it won’t give you a hangover. As the evening winds down, there might be a bit of Bing or Frank, along with more wine to fuel that warm and fuzzy holiday feeling.”
“Always decorate the table with some seasonal fruit, branches and leaves. For Christmas I suggest pine-tree branches and candles. Dinner should always be as cosy and boozy as possible. Start your guests off with a punch or a cocktail. Christmas dinners should be convivial; my go-tos are pots of goulash, fondue, or a big bowl of fresh truffle pasta. Dinners shouldn’t be too formal. Think fuzzy sweaters rather than ties; leave the fancy dresses at home and bring the ugly sweaters out – it’s the only time of year when you can get away with them.”
“I watch the Luis Buñuel film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie before laying the table. I eat matzo-ball soup, gefilte fish, vareniki dumplings and latkes. Once the table is set, I usually stand by the window and wait for my guests to come, worrying that no one will show up. Once they arrive, I can’t wait for them to leave. And what don’t I want to see on the table? A cockroach!”
“I like decorating the table with holly, mistletoe, Oaxacan carved animals, candles and my Christmas napkins. When you have children coming home from around the world, they don’t want you to change a thing. We usually have oysters as a starter, then roast turkey, stuffed with a buttery, herby stuffing and served with lots of gravy. We also love celery in a creamy sauce and sprouts. To drink? A grape and melon cocktail with fresh mint.”
“I try to make it as warm and inviting as possible, so people feel comfortable and enjoy each other’s company. That means that the place can’t be overdecorated. We have turkey, stuffing, oysters, vegetables and gravy; it’s almost like a British dinner. And make sure that everything is on the table from the start: I like to serve myself. My advice is to avoid inviting people that you don’t really want to see and try to avoid awkward situations too (this can be rather difficult). You could say that about any day but it’s particularly important at Christmas.”
“I’m a fan of using the nicest things that you own, even when it isn’t a particularly important occasion, while not making a big fuss of it. In France it’s easy to find well-preserved sets of vintage porcelain, crystal and silverware, so I try to take advantage of that. There should also always be colourful cloth napkins and table linen. Place settings don’t have to match perfectly. And a beautiful red wine looks so much more significant when it’s transferred from the bottle into a decanter. My mother makes delicious, homey American holiday meals involving baked ham, huge turkeys, gravy, greens and a genuinely unforgettable sweet potato pie. In Paris, my mother-in-law makes equally impressive, more refined fare: a turkey or capon that she wraps in lard, served with mounds of baked apples and chestnuts and a celery purée. I don’t want to see any smartphones, plastic bottles, cigarette packets, scented candles or empty glasses on the table. When it comes to drinks, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel: everyone feels best when champagne is flowing.”