Life Interiors

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Peek inside Carolyn Donnelly's seaside escape

Carolyn Donnelly, creative director at Dunnes Stores, invites us to her unique ocean-side home and shares her summer soiree tips

Carolyn Donnelly

Published 21/06/2014 | 02:30

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Carolyn Donnelly
Carolyn Donnelly
An enthusiastic cook, Carolyn likes to dip into Nigel Slater books for entertaining ideas and serves Prosecco, Chablis or a Cotes de Rhone with her fish from nearby Howth harbour

I am lucky enough to live in a wonderful location in Howth near the sea, so all of my summer entertaining involves the outdoors. As the years go by, my cooking mantra is to keep it simple.

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When I was much younger, I would go to enormous lengths to prepare recipes that were fiddly and time consuming and involved sourcing ingredients that were invariably disappointing and not worth the effort. Nowadays, entertaining friends and family is all about fresh ingredients, simply cooked and presented in a casual, informal setting where the emphasis is on easy food, easy presentation and easy conversation.

My outdoor table is relaxed, often with sprigs of lavender from my garden stuffed into small coloured glass vases, which I collect at the local fete or bric a brac stalls. Hydrangeas, big and blowsy, are another favourite table decoration and I grow several different varieties and colours at home that can quite simply be lined up along the table in glass jars for dramatic effect.

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I've started buying top-up plants each season in Howth Garden Centre for my large pots and planters dotted around my garden. For me it's all about colour – I don't like anything too garish, so I stick to white, blue and the softest pinks, and of course lots of delicate sweet peas for cutting.

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I don't generally use tall candles when I'm entertaining. I usually use a lot of tea lights down the length of my table in a mixture of coloured glass holders collected over the years. Quite a few of my favourites are from my Eclectic (CDe) collection. Tableware for me should be casual with large colourful platters: wooden serving boards and big bowls I've collected over the years, crisp white vintage linen napkins, some CDe cutlery, small duralex glasses for wine and some large stencil patterned plates from my collection.

I think the less fuss when laying the table is best. I have some lovely vintage cutlery with bone handles that only comes out when I'm entertaining (because they cannot be put in the dishwasher and have to be hand washed). I found my old linen napkins at a local fete and the cutlery items can be picked up in second-hand shops and markets.

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Mismatched pieces work just as well. Rows of small vases with wildflower stems in each complete the simple table decoration. Or try herbs like rosemary with their distinctive purple flowers and wonderful scent.

This summer I'm using my new bright printed tablecloth, hanging lights and jute cushions from my collection in my outdoor seating area. I suppose I design pieces that I can see fitting into my home easily and that I know other people will also find useful.

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When it comes to outdoor eating, the Italians know a thing or two about relaxed. A big platter of antipasta never fails. Good Parma ham, roasted tomatoes and peppers, grilled aubergine, mozzarella and olives with some fresh crusty bread and olive oil will get the conversation going and allow me to sit and enjoy it all away from the kitchen.

Another great fuss-free starter is a salad favourite of mine from Jamie Oliver with figs, mozzarella and Parma ham in a wonderfully light lemony dressing. Because I have access to great fish in Howth, my outdoor eating will often be fresh Dublin Bay prawns or any fresh fish cooked on the barbeque. I usually buy my fish in Beshoffs of Howth.

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A favourite dish for the oven is a typical Spanish dish of bream or bass cooked on a bed of thinly sliced garlicky potatoes, small tomatoes and anchovies. It's so easy and all that's required alongside is a big bowl of lightly dressed green leaves. Generally I just put a really good olive oil and balsamic vinegar on the table for everybody to dress their own salad.

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In terms of cookbooks, I like Rick Stein for fish, Nigel Slater for easy entertaining and Lucas Hollweg, who is responsible for my go-to easy fish recipe. Dunnes Stores always has wonderful steaks and for a special occasion I love to butterfly and marinade their full leg of lamb in garlic, rosemary, lemon and good olive oil.

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For a summer aperitif you can't beat a gin and tonic or a cold glass of Prosecco. Generally we drink a Cotes De Rhone Guigal with meat or a lovely cold Chablis with fish.

I'm a big country music fan so I might play anybody from Lee Ann Womack to George Jones or some mellow jazz sounds from Aretha Franklin or Billie Holiday. For a peaceful life, we always feed my dog Maddie (who features on my CDe label) before we start eating. She's now 14 years old but you'd never guess it as she still manages to catch any titbits that fall from the table with impressive speed.

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