In H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald writes:
“I once asked my friends if they’d ever held things that gave them a spooky sense of history. Ancient pots with three-thousand-year-old thumbprints in the clay, said one. Antique keys, another. Clay pipes. Dancing shoes from WWII. Roman coins I found in a field. Old bus tickets in second-hand books. Everyone agreed that what these small things did was strangely intimate; they gave them the sense, as they picked them up and turned them in their fingers, of another person, an unknown person a long time ago, who had held that object in their hands. You don’t know anything about them, but you feel the other person’s there, one friend told me. It’s like all the years between you and them disappear. Like you become them, somehow.”
That is exactly the sentiment I felt this past Friday at the Spring Farm to Table dinner held at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
Chris, our friend Julie, and I headed to the estate at 6:20 pm for the appointed 6:30 pm cocktail hour. Due to the inclement weather — a soft steady rain – we ambled to the mansion and join our fellow dinners for cocktails on the piazza.
This is the very same piazza where General Washington and his wife, Martha, would entertain guests on a warm June evening, watching the serenity of the Potomac flowing by just beyond the gently sloping hill on which the mansion sits. That sense of time distorting and realizing you are looking at sights, smelling smells that people over 200 years ago experienced is, to say the least, disorienting.
We finished our cocktails and followed the crowd to the kitchen garden, a beautifully laid out traditional English garden with fruits, vegetables and herbs growing in profusion due to the solid 4-week drenching that northern Virginia received during May.
Dean Norton, a 40-year veteran of Mount Vernon and Director of Horticulture, shared his knowledge and insights on 18th century gardening and how important a kitchen garden was (and in my opinion, still is).
“You really showed guests who came to your home that you knew your stuff if your kitchen garden had celery, asparagus and artichokes. Of course, General Washington and Mrs. Washington had these in profusion in their kitchen garden,” noted Dean.
Dean also showed us The Gardener’s Kalender by Phillip Miller from 1775, a renowned volume covering all matters botanical to help folks like General Washington have a successful garden. After admiring the beauty of the garden’s layout and the research and restoration work that has gone into the garden to assure it is true to the 18th century, we moved on to the Mount Vernon Inn for our farm dinner.
The meal was very nice – kudos to the chefs at the Inn and the gardeners at Mount Vernon who grew many of the ingredients.
The amuse bouche was a luscious and tasty veal slider wrapped with prosciutto and topped with a cabbage slaw and a sage aioli. The pairing with a Pinot Grigio Verduzzo was inspired.
Our first course was a panzanella salad with spinach, tomatoes, radishes and chive dressing. Of all the dishes, this was my least favorite. The bread pieces were either too toasted or stale, making them difficult to eat and not particularly appetizing. The vegetables, on the other hand, fresh from the garden we had just toured, were delectable.
The second course was roasted Guineas hen topped with herb gravy and served with whipped parsnips and carrots. Beyond delicious! Tender, flavorful and juicy, the slight gaminess of the hen was offset beautifully by the sweetness of the parsnips and carrots. Paired with a red Scala Dei (literally, “Ladder of God”) Priorat Garnatxa, the dish was truly special.
The third course was a wild board chop stuffed with Swiss chard and bacon and topped with a horseradish-mustard sauce. Very interesting and flavorful combination.
The final course was a lovely strawberry-rhubarb cobbler served with a fabulous Canadian ice wine from Inniskillin winery’s Niagara-on-the-lake vineyards.
This was a different and memorable occasion to see, feel and taste some of the things that General Washington himself might have eaten at his wonderful home on the Potomac — Mount Vernon.