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Eating at the largest private home in America

Decades ago, the Vanderbilt family pioneered farming techniques for their grand Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. The farm and gardens still feed guests today.

Posted: Sep 3, 2018 6:31 AM
Updated: Sep 3, 2018 7:03 AM

Walking through one of the three hydroponic greenhouses he oversees at the Biltmore estate, Eli Herman notices that the nasturtiums are growing "like crazy."

"I don't know if you guys have any use for nasturtium greens," says Herman, Biltmore's Field to Table operations manager, talking with the estate executive chef Mark DeMarco.

"You know who could take those? Cole Pate at the Bistro," DeMarco says, referring to his sous chef at a restaurant on the estate. "Send him a few pounds and see what he thinks."

While Biltmore's first modern-day greenhouse was established in 2010, Herman and other staff started developing the current hydroponics program in 2011 -- a system of growing plants without soil, using a nutrient solution to feed them -- and rolled it out in three greenhouses in October 2017.

It's another typical day on the west side of the 8,000-acre Biltmore estate, where farmers and chefs work together to grow produce and raise animals using modern methods, while supplying some of the ingredients needed by the estate's seven restaurants.

Country's largest home also a working farm

Biltmore was the brainchild of George Washington Vanderbilt, who wanted a grand home in the European style -- and had the money to pay for it.

From the start, he wanted to restore the overworked land and turn it into a working farm on the estate that employed the best practices of the day and fed its residents.

"The tradition of agriculture here goes way back," says Ted Katsigianis, Biltmore's vice president of agricultural sciences.

Designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted working closely with their client, Vanderbilt built what is still the largest private home in the United States on 125,000 acres.

He moved into his 250-room house in 1895 as a bachelor and married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser three years later. (After he died, Edith sold 87,000 acres to the federal government, which led to the creation of Pisgah National Forest.)

Their only child, Cornelia, was born in 1900. Cornelia married British diplomat John Francis Amherst Cecil in 1924, and they opened the home to the public in 1930 to increase tourism to the area during the Great Depression.

Their descendants still own and operate the estate, and they have been welcoming guests ever since.

Focusing on farm to table cuisine

Most of Biltmore's 1.5 million annual guests come to visit for the day, touring Vanderbilt's mansion, enjoying special exhibits (like the current Dale Chihuly show), visiting Biltmore Winery -- which claims to be the most visited winery in the United States -- and eating at the site's restaurants.

They often eat produce grown by the Field To Table program operated by Herman, a 40-year Biltmore employee, who works directly with Biltmore executive chef Mark DeMarco -- a 15-year Biltmore veteran -- and chefs at the estate restaurants to grow some of what's needed year-round to feed their visitors.

About 1,600 acres of the 8,000-acre estate are working farmland, while about 5,800 are dedicated forestry acres.

While it's not possible to feed all of those visitors from food raised on the farm, guests can definitely eat food raised there, especially during the peak growing seasons.

There are state-raised lettuces, berries, eggs, pork, lamb and beef on the menu and wine made from grapes grown on the estate vineyard, along with grapes from other suppliers. (And like most of their Asheville restaurant counterparts, Biltmore restaurants highlight local, sustainably grown and sourced food from local farmers and suppliers.)

Much of that farm-raised, local and sustainable food is obvious to many visitors when they look at a menu. What they often don't see is Biltmore's return to its roots as a home for agricultural best practices and experimentation with new farming methods.

Designed by Olmsted

Planning for the farm started when Vanderbilt hired Olmsted to realize his vision, says Katsigianis, noting that the famous landscape designer best known for designing Central Park planned an estate with formal garden areas, natural garden areas and farmland.

"George, as you can imagine, a man of the Gilded Age, was influenced by the great estates in England and France," which prided themselves on growing their own food for their family, visitors and staff, he says.

That's why the estate had an extensive agricultural program that originally included dairy cattle, a Berkshire hog farm, poultry, meat birds, laying hens, vegetable crops and field crops.

A 1904 menu book is evidence of the farm's bounty. "For instance, we had more than 20 varieties of apples," which meant the kitchen served "all sorts" of apple desserts, says Leslie Klingner, Biltmore's curator of interpretation.

"You see definitely personal preferences," she says. "They were having not only wild turkey, but turkey raised on the estate."

Prior to World War I, the estate focused on having a robust dairy operation, and that helped keep trouble at bay during the Great Depression and two world wars, says Klingner. "We have so many instances where people who lived on the estate talk about how life was so rich for them," she says.

But chain grocery stories selling cheaper milk made door-to-door delivery unprofitable, and the dairy was discontinued in 1982.

A return to raising animals and growing produce

William A.V. Cecil, the grandson of George Vanderbilt, wanted to re-launch a farming program that would feed his guests as his grandfather had done before him.

"I came on board and helped make the transition from the dairy operation to grazing livestock," says Katsigianis.

"We started out with beef cattle, with Angus beef cattle in 1983. In 1984 we added sheep. Over the years we've added the poultry back and we've added pigs back. Today we have this very, very varied operation."

"Some of the animals are used to produce food for our restaurants. A lot of them are also breeding stock that are sold to farmers throughout the region."

A great house should make wine

Cecil, known on the estate as "Mr. Cecil," also wanted to make wine.

He hired French winemakers and studied growing grapes in the North Carolina climate. The first grapes were planted in 1971, and after some initial testing, the wine company was established in 1983.

The former dairy was rebuilt as the Biltmore Winery, which opened to the public in 1985.

"He thought if you have a French Chateau, why not grow wine?" Klingner says. "North Carolina isn't the most predictable place to start a winery, but Mr. Cecil had a vision, and he persevered, and he started this winery."

The Biltmore winery now produces about 150,000 cases annually, using its own grapes and grapes purchased from other vineyards.

Vanderbilt's descendants are still hungry

The family has continued to add to its hospitality and agriculture programs.

The family added the high-end Inn on Biltmore Estate in 2001 and the modern Village Hotel in 2015, and both have restaurants serving food raised on the estate.

The estate farmers first planted canola in fall 2012 and harvested its first crop in 2013, processing it into oil for fryers at the estate restaurants. The subsequent waste oil is turned into bio-diesel fuel for estate vehicles.

They also planted a test plot of barley in late 2016, harvesting it during the summer of 2017. It's now malted by Asheville's Riverbend Malt House for use in the estate's Cedric's line of craft beers.

When estate chef DeMarco started 15 years ago, Biltmore used traditional farming methods to grow crops.

"With the seasons, you have lettuce for a few months, then you'd switch to tomatoes to cucumbers," he says. "It was all very seasonal."

"Never did I dream in 15 years that we'd have greenhouses of hydroponics that we can keep lettuce on our menu year-round."

Making their founders proud

George and Edith Vanderbilt were both agricultural visionaries, says Herman.

"Mr. Vanderbilt did a lot to change the agricultural practices when he started here, where people were farming the slopes and grazing the flatland. All the good soil was just washing into the river," says Herman.

He introduced agricultural practices that were cutting edge at the time, like greenhouses that produced crops in wintertime, high quality livestock and cattle barns that were open air in summer and temperature-controlled in winter.

Vanderbilt even established the first US school of forestry, a predecessor of the US Forest Service, on the estate.

Herman hopes that Vanderbilt would be "very proud of how we continue that way of thinking here, and how we're protecting the environment and moving forward on cutting edge agriculture still today."

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