A Christmas celebration in the grand Victorian manner has been a tradition since 1895 at Biltmore House in Asheville, N.C., which is set against the spectacular backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
America's largest privately owned residence, the 255-room French Renaissance chateau in the center of 8,000 manicured acres is open to visitors 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Dec. 31.Candlelight tours of the lavishly decorated "castle" are especially delightful during the Christmas season. They are scheduled Tuesday through Sunday, plus Monday Dec. 26. More than 500 lumineries line the front lawn and all the fireplaces are lit.
The estate is open 6:30 to 11 p.m. for those with tickets to the candlelight tour.
Tickets for daytime visits are $26 for adults with varying prices for children. Admissions for candlelight evenings is $29; reservations only (phone 800 289-1895).
Visitors receive "A Christmas Past" booklet, which offers ideas on duplicating some of the charming Victorian decorations for tree and table. There are directions for making paper fans, "tussie mussie" nosegays, clove-studded citrus pomander balls and even real sugar-cone ornaments topped with Styrofoam "ice cream" balls, glittered and beribboned. It would be easy to make enough cones for a table-tree in the kitchen or on a buffet table.
Much of the glitter, social ritual and European customs we have come to associate with the secular celebration of Christmas are rooted in the 19th century and Victorian age.
The most glittering celebration of all took place when George W. Vanderbilt, grandson of the industrialist Commodore Vanderbilt, opened his newly built country mansion on Christmas Eve in 1895.
In a letter to a friend dated Dec. 26, 1895, one of the Vanderbilts' frequent guests, author Edith Wharton, wrote: "Yesterday, we had a big Christmas fete for the 350 people on the estate - a tree 30-feet high, Punch and Judy, a conjuror, presents and refreshments. It would have interested you, it was done so well and sympathetically, each person's wants being thought of from mother to last baby."
Wharton returned for the winter holidays with other guests who came by rail from New York and were entertained by hunting expeditions, parlor games, afternoon teas, huge Victorian feasts and recreation in the chateau (which contains a bowling alley and swimming pool).
Wharton spent Christmas with the Vanderbilts in 1905, too, 15 years before she wrote the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel "The Age of Innocence."
The charm of Biltmore House at Christmas is that handmade decorations are combined with shimmering glass ornaments, ribbons, brass and beads. It's a wonderful eclectic effect that can be copied in smaller modern homes.
At Biltmore, however, there are no less than 30 Christmas trees, 200 wreaths, 1,500 poinsettias and 10,000 feet of evergreen roping. And then the staff complements each room with natural topiaries and creative centerpieces and arrangements.
The epic Victorian feast is much more difficult to duplicate - and who would want to? But the Biltmore staff has attempted it some years, serving a menu with 35 items. Guests enjoyed such exotic foods as turtle soup, roast goose with chestnuts, suckling pig, Duckling Prince of Wales, Venison Talleyrand, mincemeat pie and - what Victorians called "the triumph of the housewife's art - flaming plum pudding.
Other dishes included Pheasant Biltmore, medallions of quail, crown roast of lamb, creamed onions, hubbard squash, sugar peas with wild mushrooms, whipped potatoes, watercress salad, Waldorf salad, fruit tarts, hazelnuts with praline mousse, English trifle, Cherries Jubilee and Bananas Foster. Whew! Just a typical hours-long six-course 1890s dinner, complete with as many as 57 different flatware pieces.
Holiday menus at the modern Biltmore Estate restaurant, called Deerpark, are more manageable.
A menu might include wild-mushroom soup, Cranberry Waldorf Salad (see recipe), roast turkey with apple-walnut stuffing, butter-rum acorn squash and Pumpkin Roll (see recipe).
CRANBERRY WALDORF SALAD
2 cups fresh cranberries
1 cup sugar
1 cup diced, unpeeled apples
1 cup grape halves
1 cup orange sections
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
4 tablespoons whipped cream
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
Wash cranberries and rub off stems. Chop coarsely (easiest in a food processor; they bounce in a blender). Add sugar and let drain overnight in the refrigerator by setting berries and sugar in a fine sieve over a pan.
Combine sweetened cranberries next day with apples, grapes, oranges and nuts. Toss lightly. Top with a ribbon of Chantilly Dressing, made by mixing the whipped cream with mayo and powdered sugar. (Use any drained cranberry juices by adding to orange juice as a morning beverage.) Makes 5 1/2 cups, or 10 servings. Prep time: 30 minutes.
- From Biltmore Estate's Deerpark Restaurant.
BILTMORE PUMPKIN ROLL
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon ginger
2/3 cup cooked, mashed pumpkin (may use canned)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 3/4 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup sweet butter, softened
8-ounce package cream cheese
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup chopped walnuts
Beat eggs five minutes at high speed of electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Slowly add sugar and continue to beat well. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger (or substitute 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice). Have oven heating to 375 degrees, with rack set at middle position.
Sift dry ingredients into pumpkin and stir to blend well. Stir in lemon juice.
Spoon batter into a well greased-and-floured 15x10x1-inch jelly roll pan. Spread into corners. Bake at 375 for 15 minutes. Turn cake out onto a linen kitchen towel sprinkled with powdered sugar (rubbed into the towel slightly). Trim off any overly crisp cake edges, if necessary. Begin rolling cake and towel together at the narrow end. Cool.
Meanwhile combine the filling ingredients: 1 3/4 cups powdered sugar, butter, cream cheese, vanilla. Beat until smooth. Mix in nuts. Unroll cake and remove towel. Spread filling evenly and then reroll cake, ending with seamside down. Sift powdered sugar over top. Chill, covered airtight. Prep time: 45 minutes.
- From Biltmore Estate's Deerpark Restaurant.