Dark and cosy evenings - tips for entertaining as the nights draw in

I love having friends and family over for dinner at this time of the year. There is something very comforting about drawing the curtains and stoking up the fire, lighting the candles and spending a few hours chatting around the table, cosy and warm while the wind howls outside.

Dark, cold nights call for simple, hearty food - soups and stews, root veggies and roast potatoes, big pots of curries and dahls. These are the sort of things I love cooking and eating most of all, which is also probably why I especially enjoy having people over at this time of year.

A big part of the pleasure for me is decorating the table with seasonal leaves and flowers. In Autumn and Winter I love using dried hydrangeas and sycamore seeds, acorns and sweet chestnuts, deep jewelled leaves of beech and maple.

A few tips for entertaining at this time of the year are -

  • Candles! They cast soft, gently light which flatters everything and everyone and create a feeling of warmth and magic. The more the merrier in my opinion - two in lanterns on either side of the doorway to welcome guests, dotted about the sitting room on coffee tables and mantelpieces, and in varying heights on the dining table. I also like to put a few around the sink, on shelves and bookcases - everywhere basically! I always buy eight-ten hour tealights from Amazon (here), so they last all evening. Just remember to blow them all out before you go to bed! 
  • Winter cocktail Presenting guests with a cocktail  (something simple and strong) as soon as they arrive is a sure-fire way to get the evening off to a good start, and feels like more effort than it actually is. Citrus flavours and spices work really well at this time of year. Last time we had friends over we made Bois de Rose (mainly because we had a big bottle of elderflower liqueur to use up) which were AMAZING. We also often make Negronis, which are warming and spicy - perfect for autumn.
  • Dark colours. I really dislike the wood of our kitchen table (think shiny laminate beech) so I usually use a tablecloth. I am a big fan of white and will usually opt for white linen on the table as it lifts the room, and creates a blank canvas for the rest of the table. Recently however I've been loving using a dark grey linen tablecloth (like this one) as it fits so well with the moody colours of this time of year, and feels soft and cosy. With a dark tablecloth, you need pops of white from plates or napkins,  but a garland of dark purple and green leaves, or pink pomegranates and apples look absolutely beautiful against it. 
  • Decorate with free stuff - foraged leaves, acorns, conkers, dried flowers and grasses, feathers, windfall fruit - all these things are cheap or free and make much lovelier decorations than expensive centrepieces.
  • Match or not - Our cupboards are filled with a complete mishmash of plates, glasses and cutlery and I use all of it, depending on what mood I'm in. There is something very pleasing to me about everyone having a different plate  and glass, but equally sometimes I crave order and uniformity. I honestly don't think it matters at all - as you love your items, you will get pleasure from using them and seeing them displayed on your table.
  • Bone handled knives - Somehow these just make tables look better than other knives. We've collected a motley gang of them from junk shops and charity shops and I love them. They're also great for icing cupcakes.
  • Spotify's folk playlist. I am a big folk music fan but Raoul is usually in charge of music and his tastes are somewhat different (to put it politely). Hence, to keep me sweet he chose this and it's really lovely. It's just the right combination of background vs. interesting and our guests always comment on it...! 
  • Self service. Decorating the table with leaves and flowers etc. is very pretty but totally impractical (as my mum has pointed out) as there's nowhere to actually put stuff. I get really flustered serving everyone individually so I invite people to help themselves from the stove. Much easier, and people can take as much or as little as they want, and feel relaxed enough to go back for seconds (or thirds).
  • Keep it simple. I always have to remind myself of this as my tendency is to vastly over-cater, make absolutely everything from scratch, over-complicate and thereby burn myself out before anyone has even arrived. Casseroles, stews and slow-roasted joints are easy, delicious, and let's face it - the only thing anyone feels like eating when it's cold and miserable outside. Ask someone else to bring pudding or cheese. And if you can't be bothered, get a takeaway (We did this with some of our friends a couple of weeks ago and it made for an incredibly relaxed, stress-free evening)

Happy autumn and winter entertaining - I hope you have some wonderful cosy evenings over the next few months!