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Iconic and history-rich Highclere Castle, the beautiful real-life Downton Abbey castle where a real-life lord and lady reside, has welcomed royalty, statesmen, and notables from the worlds of business, academia, and the arts for elegant fêtes since 800 AD.
The current lady of the manor, Lady Fiona Carnarvon, who's published books including At Home At Highclere: Entertaining At The Real Downton Abbey and the new Christmas at Highclere stopped by the Departures office to help us channel a little Downton Abbey class for our next gathering.
So your family home may not have "between 250 to 300 rooms", or be putting up 75 Christmas trees this holiday season, but you can certainly entertain like a lord or lady.
Be Strategic With the Guest List
No matter how delicious the amuse-bouche or how beautiful the table settings, the most important part of a gathering are those who make it. "Who are you inviting? Will they get on? Will they clash? Who'll be sparking conversation with who?" are the questions Lady Carnarvon asks herself first. It's about the people and the conversation so you want a mix of personalities to keep the conversation lively—no memorable party sticks with small talk after all. Write the list of names down and see who you could pair up with who at the table. "I bring some smart friends and I bring some idiotic friends" laughs Lady Carnarvon.
Know When to Plan a Lunch Over a Dinner Party
Timing is everything when it comes to entertaining at home, not only when it comes to knowing when to switch the oven on. If you're inviting people you don't know so well, you're worried about a lag in conversations, or your guests are notorious over-stayers, then time your gathering to a lunch and not a dinner says Lady Carnarvon, that way they're not spending "too much time relaxing" before or after food is served.
Tell a Story With Your Menu
With 1,300 years of history, and some very renowned guests popping by over the years, Lady Carnarvon—who's an avid historian—has plenty of tales to tell and artifacts to show at dinner parties, like the old butler's gin and tonic recipe. Hosting can be thirsty work, after all. Apart from delving into recipes from your own family history, she likes to include her family favorites, like her mom's Apple Charlotte for dessert.