Sometimes you get to live a dream. One of mine was to dine at the French country home of Sharon Santoni, author of the newly released “My French Country Home: Entertaining Through the Seasons” (Gibbs Smith, $23.48).
When I told Sharon that Dan and I would be traveling in Normandy in May, she graciously invited us and our friends over to her home for dinner. It was an evening I will never forget. Her home and garden were stunning, and her hospitality, unparalleled.
The evening started with champagne and nibbles in Sharon and Eric’s garden, which was abloom with spring flowers and so deliciously fragrant. We moved inside to the dining room for a seasonal meal that started with local asparagus, followed by a roast lamb and risotto. After the cheese course, Sharon served a strawberry tart. We stayed until the wee hours of the morning, savoring every minute.
As we were leaving, Sharon handed me a package. Inside were linen table napkins monogrammed with an M and C, which Sharon had discovered at a French antique market. It was the perfect gift.
I asked Sharon to share some of her secrets for entertaining – and living — well.
Mary Carol Garrity: When hosting dinner parties, how can you make entertaining more pleasurable and less stressful?
Sharon Santoni: The important thing is to take pleasure in hosting your guests. The way we entertain changes with age. When my husband and I were young, before we had children, we held some pretty fancy dinner parties and that was fun. Then came the years with four small children running around, and weekend house parties with friends with even more children, and that’s when we moved into a slightly more laid back and sometimes even chaotic period. Today we are empty nesters and we have reinstated the Sunday lunch with friends, and love to host dinners in the garden or around an open fire indoors.
What are your tips for planning, preparing and hosting events at your home?
First of all, enjoy! Your guests and friends are looking forward to coming to your home, and they want to find you relaxed and happy. Stick to recipes that you are comfortable with. Keep it simple and don’t attempt a complicated recipe that you’ve never tried before. It will stress you, and you won’t enjoy the meal as much as you should. Prep your table and flowers during the afternoon, and have plenty of time to prepare the meal and have your kitchen cleared before everyone arrives. And if, by the end of the meal, there are a few plates piled up in the kitchen or not everything is picture perfect, it doesn’t matter: This is real life, not a photo shoot for a magazine.
How do you make it memorable?
I love to make our guests welcome with a pretty table and careful thinking about where we will be sitting before, during and after the meal. In France it is normal to spend some time over a drink before moving to the table. In the summer this is generally outside, and in the winter indoors in front of a flickering fire.
Do you have any advice for Americans on how to truly enjoy a dinner party with friends, the French way?
Take your time! We never rush through a meal here in France. Guests are invited for 8 to 8:30 p.m., and turn up sometime between 8:30 to 8:45. We enjoy drinks and nibbles for an hour or so, then move to the table. For a dinner with friends, we will generally serve a light first course, a main course, cheese and then dessert. Which means that a dinner rarely finishes before midnight, and may continue much longer, especially if we move back to the living room for coffee in front of the fire.
This column was adapted from Mary Carol Garrity’s blog at nellhills.com.