Waddesdon Manor looks like a film set in the early-morning mist. I want to say Hammer House of Horror, but that seems a little unfair on its creator, Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (yes, from the wine family). He built the house at end of the 19th century in the style of a 16th-century French château to house his extensive art collection in a genre that became known as "le style Rothschild". But when the mist clears, it looks a lot less eerie, if still rather incongruous, sitting as it does in the very English Chiltern Hills near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.
Then I see the cars - lots of them, parked in every available space. Waddesdon Manor has nearly 300,000 visitors a year. It was bequeathed to the National Trust in 1957, though the family still maintain an active interest, running it through a family charitable trust. The visitors have come for the house, to have a nose around the glorious collections of furniture, textiles and decorative and fine arts. They've come for the gardens - 4,000 acres of parkland. And they've come to eat and drink - 80% of the visitors to Waddesdon are fed and watered, reveals assistant chief executive and catering development manager Simon Offen.
The figure is testament to the hospitality potential of stately pile visitor attractions, but Waddesdon isn't your typical National Trust operation. In fact, it juggles a lot of food and beverage balls in the air - certainly more than just tea-and-cakes outlets.
So where do the visitors eat, exactly? There's the Dairy, hidden in the grounds, for private dinners and corporate events; there's the Manor restaurant, formerly the Old Kitchen and Servants' Hall, which serves traditional, seasonal European and British dishes (some from old Rothschild menu books); and then there's the Stables restaurant, which serves simpler food, freshly prepared - soups, sandwiches, cold buffet and a dish of the day.
And there are two kiosks, Offen's favourite as they make the most profit, positioned on either side of the house and serving proper coffee, home-made ice-cream, cakes and biscuits, home-made pizza, hotdogs, a soup of the day and small bottles of Waddesdon red and white wine. The kiosks serve a staggering 90,000 people a year. On a busy summer's day, Waddesdon can feed up to 2,000 people a day, from those who just roll up for a cup of tea and a piece of cake to those who want the full three courses with wine. At full steam, Offen needs up to 100 staff to help serve them. A challenge, then? "Er, yes - ensuring you have the right number of staff in the right place, at the right time, is quite something," he grins.
Offen has been working at Waddesdon for eight years. He's a chef by training and cites Raymond Blanc as a mentor (he cleaned mussels for him while he was studying at Oxford University). His food credentials also extend to having a successful sausage business in Oxford.
When he first arrived, Waddesdon's only food and beverage offering was the tearoom and the odd event. But thanks to its biggest benefactor Lord Rothschild, who is chairman of the trust, it has spent £3m in the last few years bringing the business up to its present state. Events now top 100 a year, plus more than 40 weddings, and the same number of private dinners, providing a combined turnover of £2m. Last year Waddesdon hosted the Louis Vuitton Classic - an all-day event for 5,000 people followed by a private dinner. Other events are smaller, including archery, clay pigeon shoots, conferences and even same-sex weddings.
But wine is Waddesdon's USP - and its cellars are the central element. They were opened to the public as part of the centenary restoration of the Manor, in recognition of the Rothschild family's long winemaking tradition. The cellars stretch down under the west wing of the house - three brick, temperature and humidity-controlled vaults housing a serious collection of Rothschild wines.
There's Château Lafite, going back over a century, with vintages from 1870 to the latest. Many of these are rare, large-format bottles such as double-magnums and imperials. There are Mouton-Rothschild vintages stretching back to 1901 with, apparently (though I didn't get to see them), six rare bottles from the second half of the 19th century. There are also dozens of wines from other Rothschild vineyards in France and elsewhere - about 15,000 bottles in all. Just don't ask how much it's all worth. "You can't really put a price on it, but I know there are bottles down here worth at least £2,000 each" says Offen, who admits that he's really a Burgundy man - "but I'll be shot for saying that," he whispers.
The wine connection is a marketing dream, and offers serious potential for extra revenue sources. Waddesdon does cellar tours for £3 per person, for instance, which need to be booked in advance but are predictably popular. Offen and his team organise bespoke tastings and dinners in the cellars, too. "We once did a £4,500 vertical tasting for a guy who visited us from Le Manoir," says Offen.
However, the best Waddesdon wine anecdote in my book is the one where a fair few visitors roll up for 1994 Mouton-Rothschild, sold in the Manor restaurant at £50 for a 250ml glass, and a bowl of shepherd's pie. Now that's classy.
Wines by the glass
In addition to the main wine list, the Manor offers 30 wines by the glass, ranging from Waddesdon White (a Côtes de Duras) at £3.40 for 175ml, to Chalone Pinot Blanc, at £11.65, from the Rothschilds' Californian portfolio. Reds include Dom Martinho in the Alentejo, Portgual (£5.85 for 175ml) and Classique from Rupert & Rothschild in South Africa (£7.60) - they get around, the Rothschilds.
Marcia Waters MW is in charge of the wine side of things at Waddesdon, sourcing the 15 own-label wines, overseeing the mail-order side to the wine business, as well as conducting tutored tastings. The wine events at Waddesdon, published in a diary at the beginning of each year, range from "The science of tasting and the art of matching food and wine" (£60 including lunch), to "A tasting of Grands Vins and gourmet lunch at the Dairy" (£155).
Waters also looks after a sommelier scholarship programme, which started five years ago. It sponsors one student a year for a season at Waddesdon, and as well as being on hand for the wine dinners and special tastings, the wine scholar attends WSET courses and even gets to spend time in a Rothschild-owned vineyard in France. For the last two years, Waddesdon has hooked up with the Institute of Culinary Arts in Stellenbosch, South Africa, where the family has a wine venture, offering the place to one of its students.
Then there's the wine wholesale business - Waddesdon now supplies wine to all 120 licensed National Trust restaurants, and a wine retail business manifested in a shop. "Most people who visit Waddesdon are aware of the wine connection," says Waters. "It's a huge selling point for us," agrees Offen.
The wine shop, managed by Nigel Woodgate, gets almost as many visitors as the main house and gift shop. There are more than 80 Rothschild wines to choose from, not including vintages. And while there aren't too many takers for the 1st growth Mouton Rothschild (which starts at £100 for the 2001), many will go for the Mouton Cadet Rouge, at £7.85 for the 2002.
On the way out, we pass the wine warehouse, next to the Stables restaurant, which sells wine by the case, mostly to locals, but there's yet another hospitality outlet in the Waddesdon portfolio. Just by the exit from the estate in the middle of the curiously Elizabethan-theme-park-style Waddesdon village (it was also built by the baron), is the Five Arrows hotel.
Even though the baron was a confirmed teetotaller, he appreciated that a model village needed a model public house, and the Five Arrows was built on the site of an old coaching inn. It has 11 bedrooms and attracts mostly locals, who lap up the modern English cooking (English asparagus, poached duck egg and hollandaise sauce - £6.50, roast rack of lamb, gremolata crust, Jersey Royals, baby leeks, peas and nettle sauce, for instance) and award-winning wine list that scooped a Les Routiers Wine Pub of the Year trophy.
As a template for maximising revenue in country house hotels and visitor attractions, Waddesdon would be hard to beat.
Ways to maximise revenue
- Convert and utilise any suitable outbuildings - eg, into tearooms, souvenir shops, delicatessens, conference centres, art gallery, restaurant(s).
- If you have a specialist connection (like the Rothschild wine at Waddesdon), exploit it, eg, run wine tastings, theme gala menus around specific grapes or vintages.
- Think about converting old estate houses into B&B accommodation.
- Set up food and drink kiosks at strategic points in the grounds.
- Stage open-air events (eg, music concerts, festivals, plays).
- Pitch for prestigious product launches (eg, car model launches).
- Get a wedding licence and offer all-inclusive wedding packages.
Food at the Manor Restaurant
- Home-smoked duck and asparagus salad with fried duck egg, £6.50
- Mousseline of scallops and herbs, sauce cardinale, £7.50
- Terrine of rabbit chasseur* with rhubarb and orange chutney, toasted country bread, £6
- Assiette of lamb (mini shepherd's pie, braised lamb in rich Rothschild wine gravy*, pan-fried cutlet), fricassée of broad beans and peas, minted pea and potato cake, £15.50
- Fish casserole with white wine, tomato, saffron and garlic mayonnaise, garlic bread, £13.50
- Aylesbury duck (conft leg, roast breast and galantine), fondant potato, seasonal vegetables and sauce Bigarde, £15.50*
- Count Apponyi's chocolate pistachio torte, £5.50*
- Summer pudding with clotted cream ice-cream, £5.50
Lemon tart and mint sorbet, £5.50
** Rothschild historical recipe*