Thomas Jefferson never slept at the Willow Grove Inn in Orange, Va., but he did design the building that became the inn, and, more important to epicures, he influenced the fine food served there.
This years marks the 250th anniversary of our third president's birth; what other excuse do you need to travel to and enjoy a meal at this historic site in the Blue Ridge foothills?
But before you take off, here's a quick history lesson: The inn began as a manor house in 1778. Three presidents passed by in their carriages. Battles were fought within shooting range of the building.
The structure, built for plantation owner Joseph Clark, is considered one of Jefferson's many architectural triumphs. Its exterior features include a brick-and-frame front, Palladian windows, a hanging porch and stately columns.
Innkeeper Angela Mulloy fosters the Jeffersonian connection with 18th and 19th century furnishings in the public rooms and eight guest rooms. And her 100-seat restaurant pays homage to Jefferson's view of food and wine as the "eighth lively art."
Long before he became ambassador to France in 1785, Jefferson imported French wines and European foods for his own use. He brought macaroni to America and never tired of trying to grow semolina wheat to make it here. He popularized ice cream and was the first to flavor it with vanilla, which he also put in poundcake -- his favorite dessert. He liked to boast, "I can season a salad better than a Frenchman."
Willow Grove chef Doug Gibson, who grew up on a farm near Baltimore, has been Jefferson-inspired to grow the inn's vegetables and herbs, and harvest the property's pecans, walnuts and chestnuts. Every morning he bakes desserts and sourdough and whole-grain breads. And he makes his own ice cream and sorbets.
The menu naturally shows an 18th-century influence, with house-smoked Rappahannock trout cakes; grilled rabbit sausage with brandied peach compote; loin of lamb with minted leek marmalade; and grilled pork loin with blackberry cider glaze. The poundcake that chef Gibson serves is from an old Mulloy family recipe, served with fresh berries or brandied peaches, another Jefferson favorite.
Willow Grove serves lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. During my visit, I enjoyed the chef's terrine of hare with sorrel and wild cress, roast squab, salad of field greens, macaroons with vacherin of wild berry mousse, and poundcake.
For more information about Willow Grove Inn, call (800) 949-1778.
WILLOW GROVE INN POUNDCAKE
1 cup sweet butter
2 cups sugar
4 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups sifted flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
fresh or frozen berries or brandied peaches, optional
sweetened whipped cream, optional
Cream butter and sugar until light in texture. Add egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla and mix well. Sift dry ingredients. Add to butter mixture alternately with // milk, beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Beat egg whites to soft peaks. Fold into batter. Spoon into a buttered and floured 10-inch tube pan. Bake in a 350-degree oven 1 hour. When cool, slice into 12 pieces. Serve with berries or sliced brandied peaches and sweetened whipped cream.
2 pounds peaches
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
2 cups brandy
Blanch peaches in boiling water. Peel, slice and cool. Bring sugar and water to a boil. Add brandy. Pour over peaches. Let stand for 24 hours or longer.