Gathering plants and greenery becomes a fun treasure hunt.
More than 20 people carry the 35-foot-tall Fraser fir into the Banquet Hall.
Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
Biltmore Estate's four restaurants serve fabulous food all year, but during the holidays, the chefs pull out the big pots and the Victorian-era recipes; then they cook up treats fit for, well, a Vanderbilt.
Pastry chefs Heather Gatesman and Heather Gonzalez work hard to put the finishing touches on the Biltmore gingerbread house, a small-scale version of the mansion. "We assemble the house and decorate it here in the Deerpark Restaurant," says Heather Gatesman. "Then we transport it to the Main Kitchen, where it's on display through Christmas."
Formed over a wooden base, the gingerbread house features a rolled fondant roof. The quantities of the ingredients boggle the mind: 72 pounds of powdered sugar, 6 pounds of butter, 4 1/2 pounds of brown sugar, 6 pounds of molasses, 21 pounds of flour, and 1 pint of red food coloring.
Meanwhile, right next door, the Stable Café--located in what used to be the Vanderbilts' horse stables--presides over dinners during Candlelight Christmas Evenings, which take place in November and December and bring in many guests.
"We start planning menus during Candlelight the year before so we can see what works best," says Stable Café chef Don Spear of his seasonal offerings. "We found a chef's journal for the house from Victorian times and have been using that as an outline."
October seems to be the month when Biltmore Estate's planning for 2004 holidays begins the final push. The season officially opens this year on November 6, complete with luminarias, candlelight tours, and dinners, so the pace quickens on the property.
Christmas decorations begin adorning Biltmore House in early October, and midmonth, the Stable Café and courtyard start their metamorphoses. By late October, the floral staff members have created their magic with miles of garland and ribbon. The big tree arrives in early November, and that means all hands on deck.
O Christmas Tree--Epilogue
It's here. The day that Biltmore staffers wait for all year--the raising of the tree. And this Fraser fir is a beauty. The freshly cut giant lies out front, wrapped in vinyl and waiting for the Engineering Services staff to don gloves and walk the 35-foot-long bundle into the Banquet Hall.
With military precision, the crew hoists the tree and marches it into the house, watching out for priceless furnishings and chandeliers. Walkie-talkies crackle as the green-shirted staff members deliver their prize into the Banquet Hall. Wade Ledford, who has overseen tree-raisings for 29 years, shouts out orders, and ropes are attached. Fifteen staff members pull from the organ loft while 12 pull from the floor as the tree slowly rises to its full height. After a couple of collective gasps and a close call with a swaying chandelier, it's up, and the onlookers break into applause.
Proud of the work they do in placing and adorning the tree, the Engineering Services crew has its own special ornament for the arboreal behemoth. "We hang a burned-out lightbulb on it," says Wade. "We began doing it as a joke. Because we are maintenance, it's our ornament. Now people look for it."
Currently all eyes are on the gigantic Fraser fir, but there are still many nooks and crannies to decorate. Granite lions out front will sport bright red bows around their necks. Luminarias will line the long drive leading to the house. Hundreds of poinsettias will snake their way into the Winter Garden, where choirs will sing and entertain guests who tour this holiday masterpiece of a house.
But right now, the massive tree is in place. A year's worth of planning has paid off in a beautifully decorated Victorian showplace that thousands of guests will enjoy. Somewhere, the first Vanderbilts must be pleased at their legacy of hospitality at Biltmore.
For more information: www.biltmore.com