At Highclere Castle there is a certain method of entertaining, which the Countess of Carnarvon has got down to a T after years of practice. She takes us through her steps for creating the perfect shooting weekend…
Shoot to Thrill: The Countess of Carnarvon’s Top Tips
Who to Invite
It’s all about sharing the beauty and colours of the countryside, so I try to invite people who might not have seen Highclere at that time of year, balancing that with those whom I haven’t seen for a while. It’s supposed to be eight guns for the shoot on Saturday but I’m often chaotic and have nine, plus their partners and sometimes, depending on exeats, the children. I also invite my friends that live in London to join us for tea.
Plan in Advance
If you are inviting guests from abroad, give them plenty of notice so they can fit the weekend in with other travel plans. When I have friends coming from America, Austria or Belgium, I invite them six or seven months in advance. I always try to put people in a bedroom they haven’t stayed in before and always serve different food each time.
What to Pack for Elevenses
Our chef Paul makes scrummy sausage rolls with sage and sometimes a little grated apple. If it’s hot you might want to make cold soup. I like to serve a different flavour each time, following the seasons, so around this time of year I would suggest using mushrooms. Make sure there are always little snifters of sloe gin available.
This should be fairly formal. When planning the menu, try to think about the kinds of food you have already served that weekend. For example, if you have served a spinach and nutmeg soup with lamb or guineafowl on the Friday night, select a nice piece of fish from your local fishmonger for the Saturday. If you have served a lot of heavy food, serve the fish simply with seasonal veg and skip the potatoes – you will all sleep a lot better for it.
Setting the Scene
I must admit that Luis (our butler) always sets the table. He does it the way that Colin set it before him, which he learnt from his predecessor, and so on. My job is the flowers, which I pick from the garden. Around this time of year, we grow a lot of blue flowers so the bees have a chance to make the last of the honey. If you are using the plants with leaves that turn red in autumn, pick a spare bunch and keep them in a bucket in case they wilt at the table.
If It Goes Wrong
Who cares? It’s about spending time with people you love and having a laugh. As I get older, I become less of a perfectionist. I’m keen on store-cupboard cooking, so you could always throw together a risotto in 40 minutes with a splash of brandy and parmesan. One year the beef was really overcooked (this was well before chef Paul’s time), so we ordered a takeaway.
Enjoying the Spoils
We send ours to a game dealer and they come back prepared. Partridge and pheasant meat are both very good. The meat is free range, low in fat and contains few, if any, antibiotics. I cook the birds upside down so the juices run into the breast to keep the meat moist and serve with red cabbage and some little carrots. You could serve the breasts with chestnuts and mushrooms, then pick off the remaining meat to make comforting stews and curries.
A Shooting Weekend Highclere Style
I organise the weekend at the end of September and early October (partridge season) as an excuse to see my friends. On Friday night I hold an informal dinner, usually something easy like a delicious soup so that guests travelling late from London won’t worry if they are stuck in traffic… The only problem is that we will be ahead on the cocktails!
The guns set off early then the ladies will normally join for Elevenses. I turn back early to make sure everything is set up for lunch, where I will serve something simple or light, like shepherd’s pie followed by poached pears with blackcurrant cassis. Everyone goes out shooting again after lunch before they reconvene back at the house for a big dinner.
We always finish with a harvest festival on the Sunday and sing lots of hymns. We try to see how many animals can fit into the church: chickens, Shetland ponies, dogs, you name it. This year we will have the Bishop of Basingstoke coming to take the service.