Tag Archives: North Carolina

Asheville: the Vanderbilt Estate

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Thanks to my conference’s organisers, R and I were able to get about $20 off price of entry each, otherwise we probably wouldn’t have visited Biltmore House, the home of the Vanderbilts – the normal entry price is $50 per adult.

As with a number of historic houses in the US, they allocate ticket-holders time slots in which you can view the house. We had enough time before our slot to check out the grounds, but there were also restaurants where you could have spent the time – or the estate also includes a winery, in an area called ‘Antler Village’, where you can also find accommodation. The whole estate is 125,000 acres, so it’s best to visit by car – take care to read the signs for directions to the house, or you might find yourself headed the wrong way on a one-way system of slow estate roads…

Anyway, we eventually made it to the parking lot for the house and gardens, and went for a wander. While we were visiting in what was still pretty much winter, there were some things to see in the gardens.

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It took us about an hour to while our way down to the Bass pond and back to the Italian Garden and South Terrace, walking through the Shrub Garden, the Spring Garden, the Azalea Garden, the Walled Garden, the Rose Garden and the Conservatory.

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While the azaleas and roses weren’t out, there were plenty of Spring flowers in evidence, and some beautiful magnolia trees. We also saw Cypress Tree ‘knees’ for the first time! Of course, the Conservatory had plenty of flowering plants in its tropical-house atmosphere; it was clearly designed to display wealth – I’ve never seen so many orchids in one place.

As we walked up to the South Terrace and Italian Garden we began to appreciate the beauty of Biltmore’s setting. Asheville is located on the western Blue Ridge Mountains, but its also just to the east of the Great Smoky Mountains. Biltmore has panoramic mountain views, and some lovely terraces from which to enjoy them.

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The house itself is a sight to see. We had been told that it was ‘crazy’, but we thought that might be in part because Americans are less used to stately homes. Biltmore is the largest privately owned house in America, at 178,926 square feet (thank you Wikipedia), but R and I respectively grew up near Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire and Penrhyn Castle in Bangor.

But it’s true. Biltmore is crazy. As we walked along the South Terrace we encountered the almost French Chateau style towers, with their strange diagonal windows, its Tudor chimneys, and Gothic crenelations, and then we walked through the Italian garden with its faux Roman/Greek statues. It was a bit bewildering.

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As we followed the self-guided tour around the house we became confirmed in our view that this place is really a monument to a family with a lot of money and no taste. We couldn’t help but compare this palace to the modest homes of Washington and Jefferson. Biltmore was just crammed with as much treasure as could be seized from the Old World as possible. The thing that most amazed me was that one of the ceilings had been painted by a Renaissance Italian painter – they had transported the entire thing from Italy! They also had Napolean’s chess set…

The Vanderbilt who commissioned the house was not the famous industrialist and ship builder, Cornelius Vanderbilt, but his grandson, George. Born into the Vanderbilt fortune, his brothers managed the family business while he whiled away his time in study, building this house, and the pursuits of a country gentleman. We found it very strange that the dining room of Biltmore was decorated with flags from the war of independence, for this family that seemed to be intent on reproducing the British class system in the new Republic.

Apart from the sheer amount of treasure, the house did just seem like a turn-of-the-century British stately home; American fans of Downton Abbey must love it. The things that stood out for us though were the expensive modern touches that British families hadn’t been able to afford in the early twentieth century as war, social change and economic downturns altered their way of life. At Biltmore, in this period, the Vanderbilts and their other rich friends had plenty of fun. There was a games room with not one, but two billiard tables, a bowling alley, and an indoor swimming pool and gym complex, complete with changing rooms!

It took us about an hour to tour the house, and by the end we were a little shell-shocked, and in need of our beer and oysters (see my last post). Overall I found Biltmore a little much. But I certainly wouldn’t have minded waking up to those views every day.

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Asheville road trip: the Blue Ridge Mountains

You can drive to Asheville, NC, from DC in roughly 7 and a half hours. That decided the matter – rather than flying, I would enlist R as a co-driver and we would take the Thursday to drive down to my conference, via the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Departing from the interstate and winding our way along the Blue Ridge Parkway obviously added a few hours to the journey time, so we started early and left DC before the morning rush. In about four hours we were having an early lunch (at a Chik fil A just outside of Roanoke, VA), and then it was on to the Blue Mountain Parkway. We came off I-81 at Fort Chiswell and found the Parkway from there, after driving through some tiny Appalachian towns with great names like Independence and Sparta.

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Very soon we realised that the Blue Ridge Mountains are far wilder, bigger, and higher than those that make up the range around Shenandoah. The parkland was also more varied, with more dwellings and communities visible in the form of rather ramshackle houses and farms. The valley the interstate runs through had already shown itself to be pretty poor, full of trailer homes and scantily clothed children – a rural poverty that made me think of that drawn by Barbara Kingsolver, of families struggling to pay the bills. It was also full of evangelical churches – some in the valley had been huge modern buildings like airplane hangers, but the ones in the mountains were smaller, some quite ramshackle, and with traditional white spires.

As we wound along the parkway we gained ground steadily and were soon higher up than we had ever been on the East Coast. The mountains were truly blue and smoky looking, but once we were in them there was no sign of smoke or vapour. Apparently the blue haze is caused by isoprene, released into the atmosphere by the trees.

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We were lucky that as much of the parkway was open as it was – a few weeks before many stretches had been closed because of snow, and we kept seeing the remnants of snow piles on the side of the road and on the tops of mountains. Unfortunately though, the road around Mount Mitchell, the highest peak on the East Coast (at 6,684 feet) was still closed and we had to drop down and rejoin main roads to finish our trip to Asheville.

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Barbecue vs Grilling

If you asked many Americans, especially Texans, to come to your barbecue they would probably be confused. When we in the UK think of barbecuing we think of what the Americans call grilling. Or tailgating if it happens in the parking lot before a sports event. Barbecue is a word reserved for the cuisine that results from cooking meat slowly in a barbecue smoker oven

We’ve done quite a bit of grilling now in the States. There’s a gas grill on our rooftop, but because that was a bit hit and miss, we bought a little smoky joe charcoal grill, which we’ve used to grill mainly steak so far; we’ve tried out various marinades, chopped it up for sandwiches to feed a crowd on July 4th, and added it to salad. It’s been good.

Barbecue though, has been a revelation. For starters, there’s a different kind of barbecue in pretty much every state (and according to this Wikipedia article, even in different parts of Texas). So far we’ve both tried barbecue in Texas and South Carolina, and R has had barbecue in Oklahoma and Kansas too.

The main thing to remember is that Texas is a beef producing state, so Texas barbecue focuses largely on beef brisket. They dry rub the meat and cook it slowly in a smoker until it practically falls apart. Their sauces are rich, sweet and can be hot. Our most memorable experiences of this barbecue were in Austin last year. First we went to House Park Bar-B-Q in the West of Downtown Austin, near the graffiti wall at Castle Hills. This place was a real old barbecue shack, with a hunting and fishing theme to the interior decoration. We were a bit nervous as to how they would react to two Brits on vacation from DC, but we needn’t have worried. They were really friendly and happy to explain their menu, recommend a can of Big Red (incredibly sweet) to go with our brisket sandwiches, and even show us their 50-year-old barbecue oven. The next day we queued at la Barbecue (as I mentioned in a previous post) and ate brisket in the open air from a trestle table, dousing it liberally with bbq sauce.

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In North Carolina we stopped on the way back from our road trip at a proper barbecue place – Fullers Old Fashioned Barbecue. It was buffet style, and felt both authentic and wonderfully democratic. People from all walks of life were there having lunch. We queued for a short time, paid for two buffet meals with sweet tea, were seated, and then investigated the buffet. There was a salad bar, but like most people we skipped that and went straight for the hot food, where we found collared greens and fried okra, biscuits, and of course the meat. There were two kinds of chicken – crispy fried and smothered with barbecue sauce – but the main draw was the pork. South Carolina is pig country, and they do their barbecued pulled pork in a vinegar/mustard dressing, which was just delicious, especially with the biscuits.

In DC it’s often said you can’t get good barbecue. [People always ask me about Freddie’s place in House of Cards, but the truth is there’s very few places like that left in DC – they filmed those bits in Baltimore.] However, we’ve found two good places, and one comes with the seal of approval from Texans. Smoke and Barrel on 18th street is a great place to try barbecue for the first time, and has become our place to take visitors. You can get a sampler to share which includes chicken, sausage, pulled pork, brisket, ribs and sides. Sides include smoked asparagus, coleslaw, potato salad, sweet potato wedges, and grit cake. You can of course order extra of anything you particularly like. They ask you how you want the chicken barbecued – dry rubbed, wet with sauce or ‘muddy’ in a mixture of rub and sauce (I never understand why anyone would go for anything other than muddy) – and then there’s a range of barbecue sauces, including hot, sweet, and sweet and sour mixtures of maple syrup, honey, and chilies.

Fat Pete’s up in Cleveland Park turns out to be the choice of the few Texans we know. They have a similar range of barbecued meats to Smoke and Barrel, which you can get in a sandwich or as a platter with sides, and the traditional barbecue sauces. The only thing that raised eyebrows was the white barbecue sauce. I think it was made with horseradish, but our friends were highly suspicious of this innovation, so we avoided it. Still the beef brisket was pronounced pretty good – and from Texans that’s high praise.

Apparently you can now get authentic American barbecue in London. I’ll believe it when I taste it though, because at the moment the Camden Blues Kitchen’s ‘Texan pulled pork’ is ringing some alarm bells…