Interview with Culinary Icon Jeremiah Tower Upon the Release of the Brilliant Biopic “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent”

Jordan Wright
April 28, 2017 

With the release of Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, a film produced by his old friend Anthony Bourdain for Zero Point Zero Productions and distributed in the US by The Orchard, Tower can finally claim his due as the creator of California cuisine as the first celebrity chef in America.  It’s an appellation he richly deserves.  As a result of his early efforts sourcing local ingredients and California wines, he engendered the movement which became known as American regional cuisine.  After Tower’s meteoric rise in the 70’s at Chez Panisse, where he partnered with Alice Waters’ in the famed Berkeley hot spot, he held Executive Chef positions at a number of successful restaurants, ultimately opening his widely acclaimed Stars restaurant, a glittering French-inspired brasserie frequented by celebrities, socialites and city politicians.

His first book New American Classics won the James Beard Foundation Award in 1986 for Best American Regional Cookbook and, after opening a string of Stars outposts worldwide, in 1996 he won the Beard Award for Best Chef in America.  In 1989 San Francisco’s massive earthquake destroyed his beloved Stars.  Soon after the elegant spot was shuttered, Tower went into hiding.

In 2002 he published Jeremiah Tower Cooks: 250 Recipes from an American Master and one year later America’s Best Chefs Cook with Jeremiah Tower and a wonderful memoir entitled California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution.  His latest effort, published last year, is the flippantly titled and indelibly humorous, Table Manners: How to Behave in the Modern World and Why Bother.

After years of living around the world and off the grid, “I have to stay away from human beings, because apparently I am not one”, he surprisingly resurfaced to helm the spectacular rise and fall of Tavern on the Green, the swank Central Park watering hole owned by two neophyte restauranteurs. “Running a restaurant is difficult enough without people getting in your way,” he contends.

Lovingly directed by Lydia Tenaglia, beautifully edited by Eric Lasby, and tenderly scored by Giulio Carmassi with Morgan Fallon’s evocative photography, the film commences with scenes of Tower as a young boy, neglected by his alcoholic mother and abusive father and feasting alone in five-star hotels and ocean liners while they cavorted with café society.  It was in these splendid temples to gastronomy where he poured over hand-written menus and supped solo on lobster and caviar – his passion for haute cuisine engendered by the kitchen staff who “adopted” the impressionable child allowing him to roam freely in their vast kitchens.

One of the most fascinating and creative American chefs, Tower lends his personal diaries and family films to this emotionally alluring biopic.  Cameo appearances by Bourdain, Mario Batali, Ruth Reichl, “He defined what a modern American restaurant could be.”, Wolfgang Puck, Jonathan Waxman and Martha Stewart, give us an insider’s view to his influence and legacy.

I spoke with Tower by phone and he surprised me with his puckish charm and self-deprecating humor.  A man at peace with himself, I thought – a man who had accomplished much.

Are you excited for the release of “The Last Magnificent”?

Jeremiah Tower – Oh yes!  It was very strange for me to watch it.  Lydia Tenali, the Director, did a great job.

Are you pleased with the result? 

It was very odd.  Actors see themselves in a role when they watch their films, but it was different watching yourself on film.  I was surprised I did it.  I’ve never really done anything like that before.  Looking at yourself on the big screen and having people talk about you is odd.

Does the movie augur your return to the culinary scene?

No.  I did that for 35 years.  I’m now getting my physical and mental health together.  I went to the beach.  Though I might, you know, if I had a beach bar in Thailand where I would cook whatever the fishermen brought up from their boats.

I read your book California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution in 2003 and noted what a raw deal you got in terms of recognition for your culinary direction at Chez Panisse.  Does it feel like some divine retribution to finally have the respect you’re due for creating and promoting California cuisine? 

I give thanks to Anthony Bourdain who produced the film.  He had the same reaction as you.  It pushed his justice button.  He wanted to tell the story.  He’s a wonderful guy.  He’s an outrageous guy.  Did you know my book has been revised and reissued?  It’s now called Start the Fire: How I Began a Food Revolution in America” and it’s just been released along with the movie.

Your influence was also enormous in terms of promoting local farms across the country.  Was that your familiarity with the French way of buying locally that inspired you?

It’s hard for people to understand that everything you can buy in Whole Foods today you couldn’t buy then.  So I reached out to local farmers and fishermen to find the ingredients – eels, cheese, mushrooms foraged from the Berkeley hills.  They would just show up at the kitchen door with whatever they had and I’d work with that.  The whole foraging thing started for me at Chez Panisse.  Also with the California regional dinner we held where I mentioned the Monterey Bay prawns and trout from Big Sur on the menu.

What was it like to cook for Julia Child so many years ago?

Julia was wonderful to be around because she had such great energy and knowledge.  But, you know, she couldn’t cook.  Neither could Craig Claiborne.  Pierre Franey did all the cooking.  I did cook for her at her apartment in Santa Barbara.  The first time was at her home in the South of France and I went with Richard Olney who was an amazing author on French food.   As soon as we arrived Julia said, “Start cooking.”  So we prepared the meal.

The movie is unsparingly honest about your misfortunes – the devastating earthquake at Stars in San Francisco, the vagaries of taking over a kitchen with partners that knew less than nothing about food and service, and even the AIDS crisis affecting your relationships with the gay community.  Do you feel as though you’ve had a run of bad luck or were these misfortunes just products of the times?

As for the controversial AIDS lawsuit [Tower was sued for discrimination by one of his waiters who had AIDS at the same time he was privately financially supporting other members of his staff who had AIDS], I had a letter from the attorney saying if you countersue, “I will hang you.”  The case was thrown out of court twice for insufficient evidence but the third time they brought it, I was found guilty.

I read somewhere that “the measure of your life are the chances you take”.  I’ve always pushed everything off to the edge.  A friend of mine, a restaurant owner in New York, told me, “It’s easy to run a successful restaurant, it takes a genius to run an empty one.”  When we closed Stars, it cost me millions and millions of dollars.

I thought the editing was superb, the interspersing of family films and the young actor who portrayed you as a boy depicting the events that influenced your future life as a chef.  Is there anything you would have liked to have said that wasn’t represented in the film?

I mean, they had to cut 20 minutes out of the final cut, and they didn’t explain that after I sold Stars for a lot of money I took off for the George V in Paris.  If that was a fall, I’d like to do it all over again.

You’ve always been the pioneer – out in front on the food scene.

When you’re out in front your neck is on the chopping block and then the guillotine comes down.

The movie portrays you as a person who enjoys his solitude.  After so many years of hobnobbing with celebrities, socialites and great chefs, are you happier being on your own or have you just had enough of the chichi scene after you reached the pinnacle of success only to have it snatched out from under you?

When you work very hard and achieve a lot of public noise, one needs to find a balance.  I’ve chosen the solitude of a beach in a great Mayan city.

How would you prepare iguana?

I haven’t but I’ve seen that done in the jungle and, you know, you clean it, put it on a spit and eat it.  It tastes like a reptilian chicken.

This interview was conducted, condensed and edited by Jordan Wright.

St. Patrick’s Day and Oatmeal ~ Celebrating Ireland’s Amazing Exports ~ Interview with John Flahavan – CEO of Flahavan’s

Interview with John Flahavan – CEO of Flahavan’s
March 14, 2017
Jordan Wright 

Not all of us will be guzzling Guinness or Harp while wearing shamrock beads and green Pilgrim hats on St. Patrick’s Day.  I leave that to those cookie-baking elves.  As fanciers of Irish beer, Kerrygold butter and Irish cheddar (how did we ever live without these?), there are other ways to celebrate the Auld Sod.  Recently Flahavan’s Oatmeal hit the US market.  Their non-GMO and gluten-free products are now readily available in our area and around the country. The company, based in Ireland, boasts a seven-generation provenance.  Surprisingly, this is the pre-eminent oatmeal in Ireland, and rated Ireland’s favorite food brand.  I loved hearing that it is also Ireland’s oldest family-owned company.  Another little-known fact is that Quaker Oats and John McCann’s – the so-called “Irish oatmeal” we see in our supermarkets – are completely unknown there.  Oddly enough McCann’s is processed and packaged in the US.  So if you want real Irish oatmeal, I urge you seek this product out.

Yesterday I spoke with CEO John Flavahan by phone who rang me from Waterford County, Ireland where the company is based.  Due to the blizzard, his flight to the US was cancelled and unfortunately we would not have the opportunity to meet in person.  Still I was ready to learn more about his company and hoped to seek clarification of the sometimes-confusing types of oatmeal.  John’s Irish lilt was a joy to hear as he lovingly spoke of his ancestors and the history of their centuries-old mill.  He is especially proud of the mill’s award-winning approach to sustainable production and renewable sources.  Our conversation below is followed by fantastic several recipes to try at home. 

Whisk and Quill – As the oldest mill in Ireland, your mill is a veritable anthology of the history of milling in Ireland.  How excited are you to introduce your oatmeal to America? 

Flahavan’s is the oldest grain mill that is still working in Ireland. Given my family’s long history in milling, I have a great personal interest in history and have enjoyed tracing back the history of the company to 1785. This is when my great, great, great grandfather took over the mill, and it is quite likely that the mill was operating before that. There are records in the 1656 Civil Survey showing that there were two mills in the village of Kilmacthomas, and we believe that the Flahavan’s mill could be one of those mills.

In my quest to know more, I discovered old letters from America dating back to the 1850s and 1860s from a family member (Matthew Kelly) in Chicopee Falls, MA, USA to my great grandfather, Thomas Flahavan. One of these references the political climate among the States following the election of a new US president: Abraham Lincoln, when he described with the ultimate understatement that “The South don’t like him” Matthew went on to describe the taking of Fort Sumter which was the first act of the Civil War and mentioned the rebels attacking towards Washington.

So you can see how our family has been engaged with the USA throughout our history.

We often hear stories of Irish people travelling back to the States with Flahavan’s packed into their suitcases or asking family at home to send care packages over to them in the US. Equally many American visitors to Ireland have discovered our creamy oats while visiting Ireland and contact us to find out if they can purchase our products in the States.

Today, I see great synergy between our values of wholesome, delicious wholegrain goodness and the growing foodie / health trends that America is currently valuing, perhaps more today than ever. 

Can you describe the difference between instant, steel-cut or pinhead oats, rolled oats, quick oats, and old fashioned? 

  • Steel Cut Oats are produced at one production stage back from the rolled oats. They are produced using the whole roasted groat, cut with a steel blade just two or three times to preserve a nuttier, richer texture. Steel cut would have the lowest GI.
  • Quick-to-Cook Steel Cut Oats are the same as Steel Cut Oats, but cut into smaller pieces to enable quicker cooking.
  • Rolled Oats are the Steel Cut Oats, steamed and rolled into the flat flakes with which you might be most familiar. This process also enables a quicker cooking time of just 3 minutes.

Pinhead oats are effectively the same as steel cut oats.  They are known as Pinhead oats in Ireland and as Steel Cut Oats in the US.  We do not sell “instant oats” in the US. Our rolled and quick to cook options are so wholesome, unsweetened, quick and simple to make that we believe they suit the busy but health-conscious lifestyles of American consumers well. 

What’s the difference between Scottish oats and Irish oats? 

One key difference – between not just Irish and Scottish oats, but oats from Ireland’s South East and elsewhere – is the unique microclimate of the South East of Ireland.  We use specially selected oat varieties that are perfectly suited to the exceptionally long, damp, mild growing seasons which allow for more complex flavor development.

What do you do with the bran part of the oat? 

Our oatmeal is sold as a whole grain without the bran removed.  However, we can actually separate out the bran to produce a product called oatbran, which we sell in small quantities in Ireland.  It is most commonly used in baking wholesome Irish brown bread but can also be used as a porridge. 

What are “oatlets”? 

“Oatlets” is not a term that is relevant to the US market.  In the Irish market we brand the equivalent of the Rolled Oatmeal US product as “Progress Oatlets”.  This is an historical term that dates back to 1935 when Flahavan’s were the first mill in Ireland to begin rolling the steel cut/pinhead oatmeal into flakes in order to reduce cooking times and make the product more relevant to modern living trends.  This was seen as very progressive at the time, hence the phrase “Progress Oatlets” was coined.  We have registered it as a trademark.  In the US, these rolled oats are simply called Flahavan’s Irish Oatmeal.

Most Americans are familiar with Quaker Oats and John McCann’s.  Tell us why Flahavan’s is a better choice. 

Well, Flahavan’s is still a 100% family owned company with an historic milling tradition and 235 years of experience.  We’ve been sourcing our oats from local family farms within 50 miles of the mill for generations.  Everyone knows Ireland as having a mild damp climate, particularly in the South East and our local oat growers use specially selected oat varieties that are perfectly suited to these ideal oat-growing conditions.  The oat grain therefore develops and ripens more slowly which produces a plumper grain filled with more natural starches thus enabling us to produce a distinctive naturally creamy Flahavan’s oatmeal, with a delicious wholegrain texture.

Smaller scale, sustainable production is also at the heart of Flahavan’s 230-year old milling process. Over 60% of our mill energy comes from our own renewable sources.  The millstream was originally channeled along the valley of the River Mahon and was used to power the mill wheel is still used to this day, but we are now using a water turbine installed in 1935 to generate a proportion of our electricity.  We also burn the outer shell (the husk) of the oat to generate the steam used in our cooking process and use our own large scale wind turbine to generate electricity to help power the mill.

Flahavan’s produce, package and ship Irish oats worldwide from here.  It’s also worth noting that Irish oatmeal consumers would not be very familiar with Quaker or John McCann’s.  Flahavan’s is the most popular brand of oatmeal in Ireland, where people eat more oatmeal (60 portions) per capita than in any other country.

Do you process your oats on grinding stones or with steel blades? 

Even though we’re a small company we are still relatively modern and use steel blades to produce our oat flakes.

What will I discover about the taste of your Irish oatmeal vis a vis American oatmeal? 

You’ll find Flahavan’s oats have a more wholesome texture and a naturally creamier taste than oats grown elsewhere, thanks to the unique Irish microclimate and our distinctively small-batch, slow-roasted, sustainable production methods.

What’s your favorite way to eat oatmeal? 

I would sometimes soak the oats overnight for an extra creamy bowl of porridge but I would always use some raisins pre-soaked in apple juice as a topping.

Which of your products is the most popular in Ireland? 

Our most popular product continues to be our Flahavan’s Progress Oatlets, which is the very same product that can be found in our Irish Rolled Oatmeal box in the US. 

What is baobab powder? I see it listed as an ingredient in one of your recipes online.  

Baobab powder is a superfood gaining in popularity in health food circles for its high levels of vitamin C, other vitamins and minerals and a supposed immunity-boosting value.  It comes from the raw fruit of the baobab tree, which grows in Africa and some parts of Australia.

In our recipes, we like to maintain a balance between the enjoyment of traditional oatmeal preparations and innovations that authentically reflect the globalizing popularity of our oats.  For example, Flahavan’s oats have become popular in South Korea as a healthy source of whole grains and so we have enjoyed developing recipes that honor South Korean flavors, such as Turmeric Kimchi Oatmeal with a Fried Egg.

Do you use oat groats to process your oatmeal? 

There is essentially a groat in each individual grain of oat.  We slowly kiln these groats twice, while still in their husks, to optimize their flavor and naturally creamy texture.  We then remove the husks and cut the groats using a steel blade.  To make rolled oats, we then steam and roll the cut pieces into flakes.  We power the steamer using our own renewable energy, which has been generated by burning the discarded husks.

What products are available here in the States? 

Our product range in the US consists of Flahavan’s Irish Steel Cut Oatmeal; Flahavan’s Irish Quick to Cook Steel Cut Oatmeal (cooks in 5 minutes); and Flahavan’s Irish Oatmeal – our rolled oats that cook in just 3 minutes.  In your area, we are in Harris Teeter, some Wegman’s markets and Giant in Landover, MD.  It is also available to order from Mybrands.com and amazon.com 

What else would you like our readers to know. 

We are committed to innovation and sustainability.  Flahavan’s is one of the founding members of the Irish Food Board’s Origin Green Programme, the only sustainability program in the world that operates on a national scale, uniting government, the private sector and food producers through Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board.  This independently verified program enables Ireland’s farmers and producers to set and achieve measurable sustainability targets – reducing environmental impact, serving local communities more effectively and protecting the extraordinarily rich natural resources that our country enjoys.

We are proud to say Flahavan’s has been recognized on numerous occasions by Irish green industry leaders for our sustainable approach to milling, which in February saw Flahavan’s winning 3 awards at the Green Energy Awards 2017 (Green Food & Beverage Award, Sustainable Green Energy Award and Green Medium-Sized Organisation of the Year).

For us, it’s all about wind, fire and water.  Investing in a wind turbine in December of 2015 reinforced our commitment to a sustainable future.  We also use a special technique of burning the discarded oat husks that fuel the boiler used in the steamrolling process to make rolled oats.  This eliminates the use of diesel fuel.  Also, the mill captures the power of the local River Mahon, just as it has done for over 230 years.  We are a seventh-generation family company.  I am the sixth generation, and my son James and my two daughters, Annie and Ellen, also work in the company. 

Flahavan’s St. Patrick’s Day Oatmeal
with Irish Whiskey, Honey and Cream
Serves 3-4

Ingredients

3¾ cups (900ml) of milk
1 cup (130g) of Flahavan’s Irish “Quick to Cook” Steel Cut Oatmeal
Drizzle of honey
1 tbsp. cream
1 tbsp. Irish Mist Liqueur (or any Irish Whiskey)

Method

  1. Place the oats and milk in a saucepan and bring to a boil.
  2. Reduce heat and simmer for 5-7 minutes until cooked.
  3. Place in a bowl and drizzle with honey and cream.
  4. Top with Irish Mist Liqueur.

Recipe by Chef Neven Maguire

Flahavans Overnight Irish Breakfast Shake
Serves 3-4

Ingredients

1 1/3 cups Flahavan’s Irish Oatmeal (rolled oats)
8 oz. almond milk
1 Tbsp. cocoa powder
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
Agave syrup or honey to taste
1 small banana, sliced and frozen overnight
Handful of popcorn (optional)

Method 

  1. Mix the Flahavan’s Organic Irish Porridge Oats, almond milk, cocoa powder, cinnamon and agave syrup/honey in a re-sealable bowl and leave in the fridge overnight.
  2. In the morning, add the banana to the oat mixture, then place in a blender and blend until completely smooth.
  3. If the shake is too thick, add more milk for a thinner consistency. If it’s not sweet enough, add more of your preferred sweetener.
  4. Top with popcorn for some extra-special froth.

Matcha Green Tea Oat Cake
Makes one 9-inch cake

Ingredients 

Cake Batter

1 cup coconut flour
2 cups coconut sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 ¼ cups warm water
½ cup coconut oil, melted
1 cup Flahavan’s Oatmeal
1 cup almond meal
1 ½ teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup orange juice
½ teaspoon orange blossom extract
4 Tablespoons dried matcha (green tea) powder

Toppings

pomegranate seeds
pistachios
raspberries
powdered sugar

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F
  2. Combine the warm waters and matcha green tea. Whisk vigorously to froth the tea.
  3. Separately, in a large mixing bowl mix all dry ingredients together.
  4. Mix coconut oil, orange blossom extract, and orange juice together in a separate bowl.
  5. Mix wet ingredients into dry ingredients and stir to combine.
  6. Beat the cake mixture by hand for 3 minutes. Let batter sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.
  7. Grease the inside of a 9-inch cake pan with coconut oil.
  8. Add batter to pan and spread evenly.
  9. Bake the cake for 30 minutes until a cake tester comes out clean.
  10. Turn cake out onto a cooling rack and cool completely for at least an hour.
  11. Dust cake with powdered sugar and fresh berries.

Executive Chef Jerome Grant Fulfills His Dream at the New African American Museum’s Sweet Home Café

Jordan Wright
March 15, 2017
Photo credit ~ Jordan Wright

The National Museum of African American History and Culture

The National Museum of African American History and Culture

Jerome Grant is exactly where he’s supposed to be.  And for that he exudes gratefulness.  As the first Executive Chef of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the young chef had long dreamed of working at the newest museum on the Mall.  In the works for the past hundred years, the museum at finally opened to the public last September.  It seems unfathomable that we ever lived without it.  The building’s unique architecture rises both in tribute and testimonial to African Americans and their indelible contributions upon the fabric of this nation.  For Grant, its opening was timely, completing his own truly American story of his rise to success at the helm of a new icon to African American culinary roots.

Jerome Grant takes a break at the Sweet Home Cafe

Jerome Grant takes a break at the Sweet Home Cafe

Seven years ago Grant began his Washington area career with Restaurant Associates serving as Sous Chef to Richard Hetzler at the Mitsitam Native Foods Café, the award-winning restaurant ensconced in the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI).  Grant was there when Hetzler’s much lauded cookbook, The Mitsitam Café Cookbook, was published.  Here he found a mentor in Hetzler who prepared him for the job of running large scale food operations. When Hetzler moved on, Grant took the helm, developing his own approach to seasonal and regional Native American dishes.

Jerome Grant takes a break at the Sweet Home Cafe

Jerome Grant takes a break at the Sweet Home Cafe

In 2013 Restaurant Associates gave Grant a promotion to work at the Castle Café.  He wasn’t particularly looking forward to preparing soups and sandwiches, “I went through the motions”, but he accepted with the guarantee of moving over to Sweet Home Café in 2016.  Last year under the guidance of RA Culinary Supervisor Albert Lukas and Bravo Top Chef finalist, Co-Host of ABC’s The Chew and NMAAHC Culinary Ambassador Carla Hall, Grant began taking the reins in the pristine 10,000-square foot kitchen.

But before all that the chef watched the museum rise slowly out of the dirt and reflected on his own story.  A parallel tale of ancestors making their way to America.  In his case two grandfathers who emigrated from the island of Jamaica and came by boat to Philadelphia.

Shrimp and Anson Mills Grits

Shrimp and Anson Mills Grits

In the beginning Grant worked alongside Lucas to identify the separate regions represented in the café – the Agricultural South, the Creole Coast, the Northern States and the Western Range – each featuring their own historically-influenced dishes.  To her credit Hall was positive and supportive, offering suggestions and critiques while texting encouragement as the menu began to take shape.

Duck, Andouille and Crawfish Gumbo

Duck, Andouille and Crawfish Gumbo

“People came to eat at Mitsitam more than tour the museum,” he told me.  (A 2012 RAMMY Award to the Native American café didn’t hurt.)  “Here we have coincided the café to be part of the whole museum experience.”  (n. b. The NMAAHC now reports that visitors spend an average of six hours touring the property and 25% of visitors dine at the Sweet Home Café.)

Pan Fried Trout with Hazelnut Butter

Pan Fried Trout with Hazelnut Butter

Before the museum opened its doors Foodways Curator, Joanne Hyppolite asked Grant and Hall for donations to the Gallery.  Hall is donating her mother’s cast iron skillet and Grant’s giving his chef’s jacket from opening day.  “It means a lot to me to be here.  I’m a local kid.  I grew up in Fort Washington,” he proudly says. “I believe my position here shows that you can set goals and achieve them,” adding, “Sometimes when I ride my bike here in the morning I get emotional being a part of the history of the culture.  I learned to cook for my grandmother and mother and I never thought I’d do something so historical.  It’s been a dream come true.”

"Son of a Gun Stew"

“Son of a Gun Stew”

From the start Grant and Lucas set a goal of “low and slow”, taking small batch cooking and expanding it to accommodate larger crowds.  The 400-seat cafeteria style restaurant goes through 1,000 lbs. of oxtail every week for its Jamaican Pepper Pot Stew and 200 lbs. of catfish every two days.  An Oklahoma made smoker handles 900 pounds of brisket, pork, chicken and cold smoked haddock.  When it comes to crackling good fried chicken, it’s made three times daily.  And Miss Deon, who heads up cold prep, provides the café’s potato salad recipe.

Smoked Haddock and Corn Fish Cakes

Smoked Haddock and Corn Fish Cakes

You’ll find dishes that evoke the South like Brunswick Stew with chicken and rabbit, Lexington Style BBQ pork, and familiar delicacies like pickled watermelon rind and sweet corn pudding.  The Creole menu is even more expansive with Duck, Andouille & Crawfish Gumbo, Pan-fried Catfish Po’boys, Shrimp & Grits, Candied Yams and Red beans & Rice.  The Northern States menu features Oyster Pan Roast, a dish inspired by Thomas Downing, a New Yorker whose tavern doubled as a stop along the Underground Railway.  From the Western Range are two dishes I’ve become enamored of.  “Son of a Gun” Stew made of braised short ribs and root vegetables and Pan Roasted Rainbow Trout with Hazelnut Brown Butter that I’d swear comes from a cast-iron skillet cooked over a campfire.  Go West, pioneer, if you want the High Mesa Peach and Blackberry Cobbler.

Chocolate Pecan Pie

Chocolate Pecan Pie

There are exciting new changes on the horizon for the café – an expanded retail operation was successful last Thanksgiving with guests able to purchase whole dinners for takeout.  As of this writing you can take home several in-house baked goods including Sweet Potato Pie, Banana Nut Cakes, Corn Loaf Cakes and cornbread.  I’m particularly partial to the mouthwatering Chocolate Pecan Pie.

Though it’s a challenge to secure a timed ticket, I have been fortunate enough to have eaten at the café three times, trying nearly every main dish and a few of the desserts too.  The dishes are inspiring and rich with the history of African influences on the American culinary culture.  And though I’m certain you will find your personal favorites, mine is the best version of Shrimp and Grits (made with Anson Mills grits), I have ever wrapped my mouth around.  Soon everyone will be able to avail themselves of all these delicious dishes without timed entry tickets.

The Wonders of Nelson County Revealed

Jordan Wright
September 15, 2016
All photo credit – Jordan Wright

The view from 20-Minute Cliff

The view from 20-Minute Cliff

Usually a trip through Nelson County has us making a beeline to Charlottesville.  And though Thomas Jefferson’s university town has beauty, history and terrific restaurants, there are tons of other attractions in this bucolic county worthy of a visit – and a few night’s stay.  Let Route 151 be your guiding star.  For our adventure we allowed five days and four nights, and only scratched the surface, vowing to return to the places we discovered and those we’d heard about and missed.  And although this is piece is entirely subjective, feel free to design your own trip by cherry-picking from our favorites.

Farms dot the landscape on the Blue Ridge

Farms dot the landscape on the Blue Ridge

Once past the Manassas exit on Route 66, the road opens up to spectacular vistas, rolling countryside and the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Bill Coffee’s family-owned Buckland Farm Market outside of Warrenton on Route 29, is always our first stop.  The large farm store has a dizzying array of homemade cheeses, fresh fruits and veggies, plants and preserves, and more importantly, a wide array of mouth-watering baked goods.  In autumn there are pumpkin turnovers and pumpkin whoopee pies along with Southern pecan and apple pies.  You’ll also find the widest selection of Bob’s Red Mill products.  If you’re on an overnight stay, bring a cooler and stop on the way home for farm-raised beef and eggs.  The haunted corn field will open weekends throughout October and pick-your-own pumpkins are in the field now.

The Spa at Wintergreen Resort

The Spa at Wintergreen Resort

After purchasing a few jars of local honey and the prerequisite snacks, we proceeded up the mountains to check in at Wintergreen Resort, heading post haste to the serenity of The Spa for massages.  The full-service spa offers a variety of options and we chose a combination of Swedish, deep tissue and reflexology.  The ‘Green Tea and Lemongrass’ stress-shedder includes a salt scrub, hot stones and Vichy shower for the ultimate in relaxation.  From now till November the treatment switches over to the autumn-inspired ‘Pumpkin Chai’ sugar scrub.  Afterwards don plush terry robes and relax with a cup of herbal tea in the lounge overlooking the woods, or a swim in the indoor pool.  Finish your hydrotherapy in the steam room or sauna before heading off to dinner.

Fresh cut bouquet from Pharsalia

Fresh cut bouquet from Pharsalia

Wintergreen has several dining options and the Copper Mine Bistro in the heart of Blackrock Village is the homiest of all.  Have breakfast here if you are planning on morning activities at the resort.  Golf, tennis, mountain biking and skiing are the most vigorous activities, but for less of a workout there’s yoga, trail walking and swimming.  Visit the Nature Center to learn about the flora and fauna and archeological history of the area.  Guided walks leave from here or you can venture out on your own using their free trail maps.

Devil’s Grill is the resort’s fine dining restaurant.  And as with the other four restaurants, guests can go casual, though here tables are dressed up with candles, flowers and white linens signaling a fancier repast.  A new chef has arrived since we dined there in late June, but expect locally-sourced seasonal food with a gourmet flair.

The morning brought rain and mist and the fern-bordered path to the Copper Mine Bistro was dense with fog.  Weather in the mountains has a habit of improving after a few hours and by the time breakfast was over the sun had broken through the clouds and we took off for the mountain course to make an early tee time.

Devil's Knob golf course

Devil’s Knob golf course

Devil’s Knob is the most challenging of the two courses (18 holes at Devil’s Knob and 27 holes at Stoney Creek), and I’m afraid in our zeal we didn’t do it justice.  But it was worth every scenic moment.  Sitting at an elevation of 3,800 feet and cooler than its sister course, Stoney Creek (designed by Rees Jones), we found wildflowers and wildlife our chief distractions.  This beautifully laid out Ellis Maples designed course takes advantage of the spectacular mountain views and rushing streams cascading down from the mountain tops.

The cottage gardens at Basic Necessities

The cottage gardens at Basic Necessities

Lunch brought us off the mountain to a small cottage surrounded by a lush perennial garden where we met Kay Pfaltz, an avowed Francophile with a joie de vivre that’s indelibly contagious.

Let Kay Pfaltz choose your wine

Let Kay Pfaltz choose your wine

Kay is the author of the charming memoir Lauren’s Story: An American Dog in Paris and co-owner of Basic Necessities with Sallie Justice and Rosie Gantt.  Together they helm this restaurant and retail store.  The enchanting spot reflects a distinctly French flair drawn from Pfaltz’s years as a writer living out her dream in Paris with her adored beagle, Lauren.

The shop at Basic Necessities

The shop at Basic Necessities

In the front section the shop is filled with a wide array of cheeses, freshly baked baguettes, patés and sausages – perfect for pairing with wines from Pfaltz’s expertly selected collection.

Pfaltz, who pens a local wine column, makes her selections based on taste, style and affordability and I homed in on a few sumptuous, well-priced burgundies and a number of carefully curated Virginia wines from the Commonwealth’s better winemakers.  Her clientele certainly benefits from her discriminating, Gallic-honed palate to guide them.

Chocolate cake at Basic Necessities

Chocolate cake at Basic Necessities

The dining area is in the back and overlooks more gardens.  Provencal patterned tablecloths echo the French theme while floral print china and sprays of wildflowers in stone crocks adorn the tables.  Lunches are served Tuesday through Sunday, with dinner service on Friday and Saturday nights only.

Thanks to Justice and Nelson County cook, Mae Collins Tyree, we were able to partake of a lovely French-inspired luncheon.

Charcuterie platter at Basic Necessities

Charcuterie platter at Basic Necessities

I was particularly taken by the delicacy of a watermelon + tomato gazpacho, a classic Croque Madame and a lavish charcuterie platter with all the accoutrements.  Pfaltz’s choice of a nice French rosé put us in mind of the French Riviera on a summer’s day.  We capped off our French feast with a slice of richly dense and multi-layered chocolate cake.

Nelson County boasts ten wineries, three craft breweries, two cideries, one meadery and two distilleries.  You will most assuredly not get to visit them all in one trip.  We gave it our best shot and epically failed.  However you choose to approach this tempting dilemma, it is ultimately more satisfying to focus on a few, all the better to savor the experience.  In this way you’ll be able to spend quality time with folks eager to share their passion for the land and their commitment to their products.

Tony and Elizabeth Smith at Afton Mountain Vineyards

Tony and Elizabeth Smith at Afton Mountain Vineyards

At Afton Mountain Vineyards winemakers Tony and Elizabeth Smith are proud owners of their upscale winery whose vines were planted in the 1970’s.  Formerly known as Bacchanal Vineyards, the Charlottesville couple bought the vineyard in 2009, and doubled the acreage under vine.  They expect their annual production of 2,200 bottles to increase to 5,000 in the next few years under the care and watchful eye of winemaker Damien Blanchon who hails from the South of France.

Currently the winery produces 15 varieties – something for everyone’s palate.  Their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2012 Petit Verdot recently won gold at the 2016 Monticello Cup Wine Competition and they are exceedingly proud of being the area’s only producer of Pinot Noir.

Enjoying a glass of Petit Verdot Reserve at Afton Mountain

Enjoying a glass of Petit Verdot Reserve at Afton Mountain

From the elevated tasting room on a drizzly afternoon you might see a group of horseback riders make their way across the vineyard.

Riders tour the vineyards at Afton Mountain Vineyards

Riders tour the vineyards at Afton Mountain Vineyards

Rebel’s Run at Afton Mountain is a nearby stable providing guided tours of the vineyard and the scenic countryside.  Riders stop in to relax with a glass of wine beside the lake before heading back to the stables.  ‘Sip and Saddle’ packages can be booked through the stables or local B&B’s who pack box lunches for the riders.

Christine and Denver Riggleman beside casks of their aged bourbon

Christine and Denver Riggleman beside casks of their aged bourbon

A stop at the wildly successful upstart Silverback Distillery introduced us to Virginia-born owners Christine and Denver Riggleman.  After years of living the transient military life and raising their three daughters, Denver offered his wife Christine the chance to choose their next path.  To his utter surprise, she told him she wanted to start a distillery.  Their daughters, who are very much hands on in the endeavor, voted on the nickname they had given their father, “Silverback”, after the massive gorilla – their term of endearment in reference to his large build.  (He has since shed the excess pounds and it’s difficult to picture him as inspiration for the simian moniker.)

The tasting lounge at Silverback Distillery

The tasting lounge at Silverback Distillery

Silverback Distillery opened for business less than two years ago and has already been the recipient of eight international awards.  Combining a blend of Virginia grains with American craftsmanship, they currently offer Beringei Vodka, Strange Monkey Gin (winner of Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition), Blackback White Grain Spirit and Blackback Rye Whiskey.  An aged bourbon is coming soon.  Stop in for mini cocktails – the London Mule with gin, ginger beer and lime juice was our favorite quaff.  They have limited distribution and most sales are here at the Tasting Room, so be sure to pick up a bottle or two to take home.

Bold Rock's Tasting Room

Bold Rock’s Tasting Room

Close by you’ll find two local craft cideries – Bold Rock Hard Cider uses 100% apples from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, while Blue Toad Hard Cider gets 100% of their apples from New York state.  No concentrate bases whatsoever like the larger cideries.  Farm to Tap.

A worker checks the hoses on the tanks at Bold Rock Hard Cider

A worker checks the hoses on the tanks at Bold Rock Hard Cider

Bold Rock is a massive operation with three locations in Virginia and one in North Carolina, while Blue Toad is a tiny speck on the map.  Try them both and judge for yourself.

The Tasting Room at Blue Toad Hard Cider

The Tasting Room at Blue Toad Hard Cider

If you’re looking for an active bar scene, Devils Backbone Brewing Company is nearby.  This large craft brewery, recently purchased by Anheuser-Busch, is set on 100-acres of farmland with plenty of outdoor seating in its naturalistic gardens.  Families congregate at the covered outdoor bar as children explore the paths.

Barbecue at Devils Backbone

Barbecue at Devils Backbone

The restaurant features sixteen beers on tap to pair with simple pub food.

The restaurant at Devils Backbone Brewing Company

The restaurant at Devils Backbone Brewing Company

If you’re lucky enough to be in Nelson County on a Saturday, head for the farmer’s market.  Along with pretty flowers, fresh fruits, cheeses and veggies, you’ll find some unusual vendors like local bladesmith, T. Hipps, whose line of heirloom quality handmade cutlery called Karma Blades, will set you apart from the run-of-the-mill chef or hunter.  Or Lynne Ross of La Sunflower who makes her beauty products with comfrey and other natural home grown herbs.

Purple cauliflower from the season's bounty

Purple cauliflower from the season’s bounty

Stop by Barefoot Bucha’s stand to try their organic kombucha made locally with organic ingredients and served on draft and pick up a homemade lemon meringue pie from The Hungry Fox.

The James River Cut-ups entertain the crowd at the Nelson County Farmers Market

The James River Cut-ups entertain the crowd at the Nelson County Farmers Market

Hopefully you brought a cooler to take home John and Jade Sonne’s organic pork, eggs and berries from Spruce Creek Farms and some kimchi and fermented drinks from Farmstead Ferments.

Fermented vegetables from Gathered Threads

Fermented vegetables from Gathered Threads

Where else can you find okra hot dogs and cider brats? Why from The Rock Barn, of course.  Other unique finds are fermented vegetables from Gathered Threads, who offer wide range of products from tsukemono, gingered carrots and apple & juniper sauerkraut.

Essences from Primal Wisdom

Essences from Primal Wisdom

My personal favorite from Virginia Vinegar Works is ‘Blackberry Cabaret’.  Not too sweet, not too tart – it’s the perfect addition to any kind of salad.

Sandy Beebe shows her artwork

Sandy Beebe shows her artwork

And, if you want to know why painter and printmaker Sandy Beebe, whose works are reminiscent of Grandma Moses, moved to Nelson County, she’s at the market every Saturday and is delighted to chat about its charms.

Mary Wolf owner of Wild Wolf Brewing Company

Mary Wolf owner of Wild Wolf Brewing Company

All this food and no stove to cook it, was making us hungry.  So turning back onto the Brew Ridge Trail we headed for lunch at Wild Wolf Brewing Company to meet owner Mary Wolf whose son Danny Wolf is the Master Brewer.

Wild Wolf's restaurant is housed in a restored schoolhouse

Wild Wolf’s restaurant is housed in a restored schoolhouse

This unique, eco-friendly, family-owned brewery, offers a wide array of beers and a restaurant housed in a former 1910 high school with wrap-around porches.  Stroll around the 10-acre former garden center to enjoy ponds, a water wheel, a biergarten and rustic outbuildings.

The Gazebo gardens at Wild Wolf

The Gazebo gardens at Wild Wolf

The restaurant has an exceptional Head Chef in Chris Jack, and a talented Pastry Chef and Baker in Higgins Stewart, both of whom create truly memorable food.  According to Mary two years ago she and Danny decided to go farm-to-fork.  Now they send spent grain from their hops to a local farmer to feed his cattle in trade for beef.

Herbed gazpacho ~ Shrimp and grits

Herbed gazpacho ~ Shrimp and grits

Eggs come from the chickens that live beneath their hops vines, and there’s a vegetable garden for much of the produce and summer herbs tucked into Jack’s dishes.

Chickens feed on insects beneath the hops vines at Wild Wolf

Chickens feed on insects beneath the hops vines at Wild Wolf

In the kitchen heritage breed Autumn Olive pigs are butchered for sausages and the ground pork is added to burgers.  Grits are prepared using stone ground corn from the nearby Woodson’s Mill in Nelson County.  The craveable, crisp-crusted cornbread brought steaming hot to the table in wire baskets, is made with Ula Tortilla’s organic, locally grown, non-GMO corn flour.  This rustic restaurant retreat is a must stop for excellent, chef-driven local cuisine and hoppy IPAs made with Cascade hops used in their “Primal Instinct” IPA.  We loved knowing Wild Wolf was selected as the Virginia Green Brewery of the Year.

The Tasting Room at Democracy Vineyards

The Tasting Room at Democracy Vineyards

Was it the wine or the beer?  But somehow we missed the turnoff to Del Fosse Winery leading us to a scrappy little vineyard that hadn’t been on our radar.  Democracy Vineyards may not be on many people’s list, but we loved its quirky theme and amazing collection of political memorabilia that lines the walls of the ultra-modern tasting room.  Started by Susan Prokop and Jim Turpin on an old apple farm, Democracy now features eleven wines with such startling names as ‘Suffrage’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Magna Carta’ and ‘Velvet Revolution’.  Be sure to taste their ‘Parliament’ 100% Petit Verdot dessert wine, and ‘Freedom’ a ‘Pinotage’ varietal.

A short drive away is the Virginia Distillery Company, where the elegantly furnished Visitor’s Center signals this luxury brand.  This summer the company launched ‘The Virginia Whisky Experience’, a one-of-a-kind guided interactive tour and museum experience for its visitors.  It includes a tour of the state-of-the-art distillery and the Cask House ending in a tasting of their Virginia Highland Malt and a sampling of their craft cocktails either in the Visitors’ Center or on a 2,000-foot patio replete with water and fire features.

Inside the distillery

Inside the distillery

Fed by seven converging springs, the distillery was the dream of George G. Moore, an American visionary who was determined to see Virginia whisky come back to an area once better known for its Prohibition Era stills.  Moore died three years ago and the project was taken up by his son, Gareth Moore and wife, Maggie, who have shown the same pioneering determination.  While VDC’s whisky was aging in used bourbon casks for a minimum of three years, they began distilling and aging their Virginia Scotch Whisky in the Scottish Highlands and shipping it back to Lovingston, finishing here in port-style wine casks where it will age for six to twelve months.  Not all the malted barley will come from Virginia, as there are not enough local farmers able to fulfill their needs, so most will be sourced from Scotland’s famed Boby malt mill.

Guests settle in for a tasting of Virginia Highland Malt

Guests settle in for a tasting of Virginia Highland Malt

Until their on-site product has aged completely, the tasting room offers the Scottish-distilled Virginia Highland Malt in a number of specialty cocktails.  We particularly enjoyed the ‘South of Manhattan’ which we paired with their specialty Gearhart’s Chocolates Whisky Truffle made with their Highland Malt and sold in the gift shop.

Carol mixes the 'South of Manhattan'

Carol mixes the ‘South of Manhattan’

‘South of Manhattan’ Cocktail from Virginia Distillery

  • 4 ounces Virginia Sparkling Cider
  • 1/2 ounce Luxardo cherry juice
  • 2 dashes cardamom bitters
  • 2 ounces Virginia Highland Malt Whisky
  • Orange peel
  • Luxardo cherry, for garnish
South of Manhattan

South of Manhattan

In a shaker, mix together cider, cherry juice and bitters. Add two ice cubes and the Virginia Highland Malt Whisky.  Stir and strain into a coupe glass. Rub the rim of the coupe glass with the orange peel and garnish with the Luxardo cherry and the orange peel.

Fourth generation owner Jim Saunders

Fourth generation owner Jim Saunders

Jim Saunders is the fourth-generation owner of Saunders Brothers founded in 1915.  The affable farmer took time to drive us in his bright red truck through hundreds of acres of peach, apple and Asian pear orchards plus 36 varieties of boxwoods.  (You’ve probably seen their boxwoods in the White House gardens, planted during the Kennedy administration.)

Bouncing along the rutted farm roads, Jim regaled us with tales of the 1200-acre Nelson County farm.  Jim’s father, Paul Saunders, is the family genealogist and successful author, penning two wonderful books, “Heartbeats of Nelson”, a fascinating 634-page photo-filled anthology on the history of the county and its people, beginning in pre-Civil War times to the present day.  His second book, “Down on the Farm”, tells the history of the Saunders’ family life and the business of running the farm.  You can get pleasantly lost in these emotionally-connected stories of life and times by the Piney River.

Author Paul Saunders - Heartbeat of Nelson & Down on the Farm

Author Paul Saunders – Heartbeat of Nelson & Down on the Farm

We finished the tour in the farm store with Homestead Creamery’s delicious homemade peach ice cream from their Farm Market and left toting a basket of early yellow Sentry peaches destined for our cobblers.  Look for Saunders peaches, apples and pears at Whole Foods.  Their Albemarle Pippin was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple and is great for baking as well as cider.

Early season Sentry peaches

Early season Sentry peaches

The Rock-n-Creek Cabin is the most unique accommodation I have ever come across.  A rustic two-level A-frame cabin with wraparound porches, it is set in the woods and encircled by a series of ponds.  And though I was not particularly keen on the unidentifiable insects flitting around the bathroom floor, it’s more luxurious than camping out.

Amid his oak baskets Christy gets to work on a new decoy.

Amid his oak baskets Christy gets to work on a new decoy.

Host and owner Richard Christy is a renaissance man.  He is an accomplished chef, caterer, self-taught decoy and shorebird carver, and basket weaver.  His Buck Island Bay Decoys and Mountain Man Basketry studio is adjacent to the cabin.  I tell you this because you will be interacting with him as he prepares your dinner.  He is a font of information about the area’s wonders and a fascinating conversationalist.  As a former chef to Gerald Ford, he has helmed many restaurant kitchens around the country and continues to consult on new food products for major producers.

Richard Christy Chef/Owner of Rock-n-Creek Cabin with the first course

Richard Christy Chef/Owner of Rock-n-Creek Cabin with the first course

Back to the experience.  When booking your reservation, Christy will ask what style of cuisine you would like him to prepare.  In my case I left it to him, and after he had checked out this website, he decided he would do something un-restaurant-like and totally out of the ordinary, choosing to prepare a “wildcrafted” dinner sourced entirely from wild edibles – with the exception of the vanilla, flour and sugar used in the dessert.

Our dinner was entitled ‘WILD THING – I Think I Love You’ and Christy presented us with a beautifully printed menu of our three-course dinner.

As we sipped our wine from barstools looking through to the open kitchen, the pony-tailed chef tossed freshly foraged salad greens – creek lettuce, lamb’s quarters, dandelion, chicory and cattail hearts – topping them with grated pickled duck egg, toasted pumpkin seeds and buttermilk dressing.  Our palate refresher was “Apple Pie Moonshine”, his signature concoction of homemade moonshine, cinnamon and apple cider.  Strong medicine meant for those who spend the day foraging and hunting in the woods as opposed to tooling around country roads in an air-conditioned SUV.

Blue catfish entree

Blue catfish entree

We took our seats in candlelight while Christy prepared our next course – blue catfish filets in brown butter on creamed ramps and nettles, finished with preserved fig.  A side of savory sweet potato and caramelized onion puree added sweetness and extra complexity.  It was divine!

Pound cake with wild blackberries, honeysuckle crema and spruce tip ice cream

Pound cake with wild blackberries, honeysuckle crema and spruce tip ice cream

Dessert was a harmonious medley of foraged ingredients.  Dense pound cake served with stewed wild blackberries and enhanced with honeysuckle crema and hand-churned spruce tip ice cream.  I can assert without equivocation that I have never enjoyed a meal more uniquely delectable.

The cabin with its full-sized kitchen has all the amenities you’ll need whether your bringing the whole family or looking for a romantic getaway for two.

A small group of visitors await a tour of Swannanoa Palace

A small group of visitors await a tour of Swannanoa Palace

High atop the Blue Ridge Mountains sits Swannanoa Palace – one of those intriguing places, you never knew existed.

A view from the mountaintop at Swannanoa

A view from the mountaintop at Swannanoa

Built in 1912 to replicate the style of the Villa Medici in Italy’s famed Borghese Gardens, millionaire philanthropist and railroad magnate James H. Dooley and his wife Sallie May used the 22,000-square foot Italian Renaissance Revival villa as their summer mountaintop retreat.  (You may be more familiar with the Dooleys’ better known Maymont home and gardens set beside the James River in Richmond.)  It is divinely lavish with exquisite frescoes, carvings and massive fireplaces of Sienna and Carrara marble.  Hidden doors and a secret elevator are revealed to the curious visitor, and the incongruous ‘Persian Smoking Room’ features teakwood carvings, mosaics and a mosque fresco above the fireplace.  An exquisite Moorish lantern, bejeweled with sapphires, rubies, amber and opals, hangs above the exotic decor.

Architectural details abound in the decaying palace - A bejeweled Moorish lantern lights up the 'Persian Smoking Room'

Architectural details abound in the decaying palace – A bejeweled Moorish lantern lights up the ‘Persian Smoking Room’

The 52-room Afton mansion appears to be haunted and one group claims evidence of the ghost of Sallie May.  A few years ago a team of ghost hunters from the Twisted Paranormal Society set up night beams and recording equipment in the mansion claiming to have recorded spirits within.  One year later they returned under the auspices of another paranormal show called The R. I. P. Files attempting to identify the ghosts who reside there.

The expansive pergola depicted in the Tiffany window has fallen into disrepair

The expansive pergola depicted in the Tiffany window has fallen into disrepair

The white marble palace is mostly abandoned, but guided tours of the ground floor and gardens are given seasonally from May through November on Saturdays and Sundays.

A Tiffany window at the top of the grand stairway portrays Sallie May Dooley in her gardens at Swannanoa

A Tiffany window at the top of the grand stairway portrays Sallie May Dooley in her gardens at Swannanoa

On our tour Victoria Airisun Wonderli, author of Swannanoa Palace – A Pictorial History of the Past and People, was busy signing her fascinating book on the history of the mansion.  There is currently no website for the property.  For information on visiting hours call 540 942.5201.

Author Victoria Airisun Wonderlii signs her book on Swannanoa

Author Victoria Airisun Wonderli signs her book on Swannanoa

It was high time to shed any notions of ghosts and spirits and things that go bump in the night.  And what better way to exorcise the demons than a glass of wine and a spot of lunch?

Cardinal Point's grounds provide stunning views of the mountains

Cardinal Point’s grounds provide stunning views of the mountains

When we arrived for lunch on Sunday two musicians were playing mellow tunes on the deck at Cardinal Point Winery.  Overlooking gardens abloom with roses and daylilies, we settled into a spacious sofa feeling carefree and peaceful.

As the duo took requests, we gobbled up a delicious box lunch of salad and sandwich while alternating between Vinho Verde-styled, ‘Green’ and a lively estate-grown Cab Franc rosé.  Ginger and Maya chocolate bars from Gearhart, the Richmond-based artisanal chocolatier, were the sweet finish.

Lunch on the covered deck at Cardinal Point Winery

Lunch on the covered deck at Cardinal Point Winery

During lunch, Sarah Gorman, sister of owner Tim Gorman, spoke with us about the evolution of her brother’s vineyard which currently has 15 acres under vine.

She told us how Tim, one of a smattering of Virginia owners who is also a grower, came to be a winemaker.  Tim is known for his fresh and innovative takes on classic vinifera, and naturally is very passionate about the growing side of things.  Gorman got into winemaking as a result of being frustrated by how the grapes he was growing for other vineyards were not being honored.  A creative winemaker, he prefers to ‘read’ the grapes when they are ready.  This tells him what kind of wine to make as opposed to having to force a grape to become something other than what it should be.

In a small winery such as this, he can come up with innovations, and he does.  His ‘Clay Hill’ Cabernet Franc, made with grapes from a neighboring vineyard, was a 2016 Virginia Governor’s Cup Gold Medal winner.  A classic Loire Valley style, it has also done well in international competition.  Be sure to sample some of these unique wines unknown to other Virginia wineries – like the 2014 ‘Quattro’ made from Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Viognier and Traminette grapes for an off-dry wine with notes of candied apple and pear.

Wine and chocolates at Cardinal Point Winery

Wine and chocolates at Cardinal Point Winery

Interpreting how each fruit has evolved in a season allows Tim to inform his winemaking decisions.  For his 2015 ‘Frai Chardonnay’, a wine with peach, pear and tropical notes, he stopped the ferment short of dry, leaving it with only 2% of residual sugar.  Sarah mentioned that the 2015 unoaked ‘Hopped Chardonnay’ is flying out of the tasting room with buyers surprised at how differently a chardonnay grape can be expressed.

The winery also features a five-bedroom 19th century farmhouse for overnight stays.  Check the website for upcoming events.

After doing a bit of shopping at Tuckahoe Antique Mall, we pressed on to Veritas Winery where we would spend our final night.  No, not in a vat of grapes, but at the bespoke Farmhouse at Veritas.

The flower filled pergola greets visitors to Veritas Winery

The flower filled pergola greets visitors to Veritas Winery

What we came upon was a breathtaking winery with vast expanses of green lawns, acres and acres of vines and a production facility that sustains a wine-drinking clientele of over 3,000 club members and boasts a grand ballroom for weddings and large events.

The busy tasting room at Veritas Winery

The busy tasting room at Veritas Winery

Founded by Andrew and Patricia Hodson, a British couple who moved to the county to lead a quieter life, they thought they’d put a few acres under vine.  In a short time, their flight of fancy became one of the most successful, and stunning, wineries in Virginia with many of their family members filling the roles of winemaker and managers.  We took a lengthy tour of the production facilities which are vast.  And though I took reams of notes, most are cryptically abbreviated.  Here’s what I can be sure of.  All their grapes are grown in the Monticello AVA, which consists of four counties including Nelson, and they bottled and sold their first wines, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, in 2002.  Their philosophy is to exclusively use estate or local grapes and they are most excited about a merlot they are testing using grape pomace (the skins, pulp and seeds from grapes).

Sheep graze alongside the vines at Veritas

Sheep graze alongside the vines at Veritas

As for the technical stuff, they employ a reverse osmosis machine and a state-of-the-art gyro cube for riddling and they are very proud of their gravity-fed vineyard.  I felt myself going into shutdown mode, either from too much technical stuff, or the fact that we had come inside to refrigerated cellars from 98-degree heat.

The tasting went swiftly as I passed over some too young reds to get to the best of the lot.  The 2014 ‘Vinter’s Reserve’ Red is their most promising wine right now, as the 2013 cuvee won the Gold Medal at the Governor’s Cup and I found the 2013 Petit Verdot to be coming along nicely.  I had a particular affinity for the 2015 Viognier which is touted as cellaring well, and a more delicate than expected version of ice wine called ‘Kenmar’.

The Farmhouse at Veritas

The Farmhouse at Veritas

We checked into The Farmhouse at Veritas, more of a bespoke estate home, elegantly appointed with walls of books, an old-fashioned billiard table in the Gathering Room and fine antiques.  High-end decorator touches grace the eight suites that are outfitted with high-quality linens and premium amenities.  Not your typical roadside B&B, the 1839 home was where the Hodson family lived when they first took ownership of the former horse and cattle farm.  Guests can also opt for ‘The Barn Cottage’, a charming two-bedroom, two-bath cottage with a fireplace in the living room and a full-size kitchen available for guests.

Outdoor dining at Blue Mountain Brewery

Outdoor dining at Blue Mountain Brewery

As much as I preferred to luxuriate in such splendor and sneak off with a book to the second-story front porch, we took off down the road for dinner at the Blue Mountain Brewery where we arrived in time to watch the sun set.  The award-winning brewery is proud of its 20 varieties of craft beers made with their own hops, Simcoe, Cascade and Centennial, and using deep well water as well as brewing exclusively in Nelson County since 2007.

Combo pizza at Blue Mountain Brewery

Combo pizza at Blue Mountain Brewery

Char-grilled pizzas and burgers including plenty of vegan options are made from scratch and designed to pair well with a myriad of beers. (Local wines and even kombucha are available too.) We sat on the outdoor terrace watching kids run around the lawn while a lively group played cornhole.  Check the website for upcoming Oktoberfest events.

The potager garden and dining gazebo at The Farmhouse at Veritas

The potager garden and dining gazebo at The Farmhouse at Veritas

Morning at The Farmhouse brought a champagne breakfast of fresh fruits, croissants and omelets prepared to your liking by the estate’s chef.  We eschewed the screened-in porch to enjoy the pleasures of a large brick-floor gazebo.  Surrounded by the raised beds of the kitchen garden and row upon row of Chardonnay vines we whiled away the hour sipping the aforementioned Mousseux while butterflies and honeybees flit about the roses and coneflowers.  A very civilized way to begin the day before returning homeward.  Check the website for upcoming yoga and hiking retreats.

Sneak Peek! and Exclusive Interviews with “Mercy Street” Designers Amy Andrews Harrell, Costume Designer, and Ignatius Creegan, Hat Designer

Jordan Wright
January 10, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

In our October interview with Mercy Street Co-Producer Lisa Wolfinger, we examined the story behind the new PBS Masterpiece Theatre’s Civil War era miniseries.  Set in Alexandria, VA the plot is based on the true story of the Green family of Carlyle House and their hotel, Mansion House, which was commandeered by Union troops to serve as a hospital for both Union and Confederate soldiers.  Part I of six episodes was screened at the Alexandria Film Festival on November 5th and I’m thrilled to report that Alexandria is repeatedly mentioned.  The first installment premieres January 17th.

In exclusive interviews with Mercy Street Costume Designer and Richmond, VA resident Amy Andrews Harrell, and the show’s hat designer and Petersburg, VA resident, Ignatius Creegan, I gleaned some interesting facts about the creation of the show’s beautiful period costumes.

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

Harrell’s professional career started when she became Set Costumer on Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Soon after she graduated to Costume Supervisor on HBO’s TV miniseries, John Adams, the winner of four Golden Globes and thirteen Emmys, earning more than any miniseries in history.  In 2012 she was Key Costumer for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, winner of two Academy Awards.  By 2013 she was designing costumes for National Geographic Channel’s docudramas, Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy.  Most recently she was Costume Designer on the yet-to-be-released thriller Imperium.  Filmed in Richmond, VA the feature film stars Daniel Ratcliffe and Toni Colette.  Harrell has a Master’s Degree in Costume Design from Southern Methodist University.

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

What was your primary resource for research on the period?

For inspiration I used the book by John Guntzelman, “The Civil War in Color: A Photographic Reenactment of the War Between the States” as a guide.

Did you use any fabrics from the era?

I discovered a bolt of ten yards of original cotton from 1860 on eBay that I used in Jane Green’s dress.  Also I had good luck with an antiques store in Mechanicsville that had pieces of dresses of the period.  The silks were shattered, as old silk will do, but we were able to use parts of things.  We used a lot of things from there as well as from a vintage store in Richmond called Halcyon, owned by Connie Carroll.  She found some wonderful pieces of embroidery, lace and net that I could add onto Jane Green’s dress.  I loved that it came from an estate in Richmond and is of the period.

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

Costume design by Amy Andrews Harrell

How many multiples did you need to make to hold up to the mud and blood?

Only in one instance.  The first dress that Hannah wears gets ripped, so we had to make two of those.  We had very limited resources to work with, but still it was very exciting.  Whenever I looked out a window I could see one person doing three people’s jobs.  We didn’t have the breathing room I’ve been accustomed to.  We really worked without a net.

How did you keep them clean?

We knew beforehand which characters would get bloody or hurt and we had extra things for them.  While stage blood has detergent built in to it, it can wash out if it’s on too light of a fabric.  It’s unpredictable.  It can turn a garment pink when you least expect it.

What’s a costume disaster from the filming?

We had really good luck, even though at night I would sometimes have dreams that there were things I forgot – – like someone without a costume!

Photo credit: Antony Platt/PBS

Photo credit: Antony Platt/PBS

Milliners Ignatius Creegan and partner Rod Givens who live and work in their 7,000 square foot Civil War era mansion in Petersburg, VA, have worked with Harrell on many of the abovementioned films and were responsible for creating the historically accurate bonnets and caps.  Creegan’s career goes back to 1987 when he started designing and making hats for theatre, movies and private clientele.

How did you decide what to design?

We worked with Amy’s designs and found a fair number of photographs of hats from the period.  We also had designed historic era hats in the past.  We have an antique straw sewing machine we used for some of the hats.  These “straw machines” were the first commercial machines made for the industry.  Notably the Civil War was the first time sewing machines were used.

Photo credit: Antony Platt/PBS

Photo credit: Antony Platt/PBS

What was the process like?

It was interesting because I was able to use actual fabrics from the period.  I cut them up to match the dresses.  It was wonderful to be able to take a couple days to hand sew them.  Hats were something that people made by hand then.  It was an education for me to be able to work with those vintage styles and a luxury to incorporate those fabrics and trimmings including some wonderful old velvet ribbons that Amy had collected.

Photo credit: Antony Platt/PBS

Photo credit: Antony Platt/PBS

What was it like to design hats for a period piece?

It’s interesting to consider what people were wearing in our neighborhood back then.  A lot of the men’s designs are still wearable today and we are now starting a men’s collection based on what we did for Mercy Street.  We plan to expand on those designs of hats and caps for our own clientele.