Longleat House is just possibly the loveliest of England's great stately homes. It sits in all its golden stone splendor, a great gleaming Italianate honey cake in a pleasant Wiltshire valley at the edge of Salisbury Plain. This makes it on Midsummer's Eve, venient. Try to make it on Midsummer's Eve, when the Most Ancient Order of Druids keeps a midnight vigil. It's a ceremony said to be 3,000 years old, not a bad run.
Longleat, which takes its name from a stream, the Long Leat, is a two-hour drive south-southwest from London. Worth a stop en route is Lacock. Lacock, almost entirely owned by the National Trust, with no building later than 18th century, is often calledEngland's prettiest village. The 14th-century inn, the Sign of the Angel, complete with stone walls, oak beams, and a charming garden, is perfect for lunch or dinner, usually a beautifully prepared roast and fresh, crisp vegetables.
Purchased by Sir John Thynne, the present owner, Lord Bath's ancestor, for L 53 in 1540, Longleat was completely rebuilt in the 16th century and is considered one of England's best examples of Italianate architecture.It has everything a stately home should.
There are magnificent parks laid down by Capability Brown, a wildlife park, an orangery, a pet cemetery, rose gardens, and a lake. Inside, there is a great hall complete with minstrel's gallery; a grand staircase, with a yellow state coach used at every coronation since George IV (1821) parked underneath; a series of ornate, gorgeous rooms with furniture from every period; a collection of 30,000 books, costumes, pictures; and a ghost.
But what makes Longleat especially interesting are certain details that tell you this was, until very recently, a lived-in house. The table in the breakfast room with its ancestral portraits is set as it might have been during the present Lord Bath's boyhood. A jar of strawberry jam is there; so is a cereal box.
The Lower Dining Room has a table set with racks of toast -- as if the first course, pate perhaps, were about to be served. Even the very grand state dining room with its amazing centerpiece (1,000 ounces of silver) looks set for dinner -- finger bowls, fruit, and candles line the massive tables. But nowhere is that sense of a working house stronger than in the wonderfully restored kitchen.
The butchery is gone now, but in the large, airy kitchen, where sculptured tuberoses hide the ventilators, mannequins in checked dresses and crisp white aprons prepare crabs and artichockes at the 200-year-old pine table.
A scrubbing woman (a mannequin) polishes the stone floor. There are huge pottery canisters on a shelf variously marked tapioca, rice, sultanas, currants, raisins, semolina, macaroni, and barley. Row upon row of gleaming copper pots and molds are in easy reach.
In a corner there is a 200-year-old mortar and pestle once used for grinding grain into flour and, later, for preparation of more sophisticated dishes like pates and pies, a sort of Victorian Cuisinart. A set of pewter is displayed in an elegant dresser, and, above the door, a series of bells marked "billiard room ," "drawing room," etc., once called a huge staff of servants.
Next to the kitchen is a pantry where a squad of servants devoted themselves to washing vegetables and other menial chores. And then there is the not-to-be-missed cook's room.
The cook, who was queen below stairs, was entitled to her own parlor. It's a room where exquisite attention to detail has been given.
The mannequin-cook sits before the fire in a rocker, waiting for the copper kettle to boil. There is a sampler on the wall, a few pieces of obviously prized Delft ware on the shelves, and an altogether authentic air of cozy Victorian comfort.
One elderly gent, it seems, visits the room regularly, simply because it so perfectly evokes his childhood.
It's not just the mannequins, however, that give you a sense that Longleat was recently inhabited. Lord Christopher Thynne, Lord Bath's son, who with his father runs the house, can just remember when Christmas lunch at Longleat meant 40 footmen in attendance. Although Lord Christopher admits he's probably more likely than not to have coffee and toast, he confesses a certain nostalgia for an era when breakfast at Longleat meant endless rows of silver serving dishes on the sideboard.
One of them would certainly have contained kedgeree. Here is a recipe for it , devised by Peter ffrench-hodges, author of several English cookbooks. It can be prepared the night before it's served, which made it useful for those who lived at Longleat when there were 40 for breakfast. Lord Christopher's Kedgeree 1 1/4 pound smoked haddock 3 hard-boiled eggs 6 rashers streaky bacon 6 ounces (3/4 cup) mushrooms 9 tablespoons (an English tablespoon is about 1 1/2 ounces) uncooked long grain rice 8 ounces (1 cup) butter 3 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley Salt and pepper
Trim haddock and soak for 30 minutes in cold water to remove excess salt. Wash rice and mushrooms; slice the latter. Cut rind from bacon. Simmer haddock in enough water to cover for 10 minutes. Boil rice 13 minutes in a large pan of boiling salt water. Test after 13 minutes; it should be perfect. Place rice in a sieve and run boiling water through it to separate the grains, then drain, cover with foil, and store in refrigerator. Peel and chop hard-boiled eggs.
Fry bacon until crisp and crumble. Saute mushrooms in bacon fat. Then combine with bacon and eggs.
When fish has cooked, cool slightly for easier handling, then remove bones, flake it, and combine with other ingredients except rice. Mix together and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover bowl with foil. Store in refrigerator overnight. Before serving, mix rice and other ingredients together and put in a casserole with butter and heat thoroughly in warm oven. Sprinkle with chopped parsley at the point of service. Serves 6.