Rain falls as I gaze down at the Potomac River from the front stoop of Chuck and Beverly Morton Billand's farmhouse in Loudoun County, in the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains.
I don't mind getting a little wet for this view: Lush, tree-covered hills frame the bridge spanning the river between Virginia and Maryland.
Out of nowhere, a teen-age boy appears and hands me an umbrella so that I can linger a little longer. Near the farmhouse, I spot neat rows of broccoli, spinach, lettuce, peas, peppers, cilantro and basil. I wonder which of those ingredients will find their way into my dinner tonight.
As a high-rise apartment dweller, I don't have any outdoor space to call my own. This fact hits especially hard in the summer, when I fantasize about flagstone patios, umbrella-covered tables and dining alfresco.
So when I heard about "Dinner in the Garden" at the Billands' Patowmack Farm, I immediately called for a reservation.
On a recent summer Saturday, my fiance, Greg, and I head for the 40-acre organic farm in Lovettsville, a small town about 15 miles north of Leesburg originally settled by German immigrants in the 18th century.
As we leave the interstate, billboards and tractor-trailers give way to two-lane roads, open land and antiques shops overflowing with chairs, tables and hutches. Horses graze in fields next to rustic barns; roadside churches are so old they look as if the Founding Fathers may have been parishioners. It's almost enough to make us ignore the gray clouds gathering overhead.
We wind our way to the farm, eventually turning into a gravel driveway. At the top of a steep hill, we see flaming tiki torches surrounding a tent in front of a red-brick, white-pillared dwelling.
"Make yourselves at home," Beverly says, greeting us as we get out of the car. She points the way to the tent and the fields behind the house.
Beverly and Chuck have run Patowmack Farm since 1986. They bought the property when Beverly, a 20-year nursing veteran, craved a change. As a child, she had spent summers on her grandmother's dairy farm in Wisconsin. "I got the bug from her," she says.
They named the spread (pronounced PAT-o-mack) after George Washington's Colonial-era trading company and the Native Americans who once lived in the area.
Before dinner, we stroll around the property. An earthy smell permeates the air. Chickens peck at the ground outside a weathered gray barn housing the Billands' small farm store. Inside, shelves hold Patowmack Farm's own organic products -- jars of raspberry and blackberry jam; dried dill, oregano and rosemary; bottles of basil, garlic and pepper vinegars -- plus organic pasta, chocolate and pumpkin seeds from other suppliers.
Next to the building, beans, beets and cucumbers not yet ready for picking grow in a rectangular plot, their leafy, green stalks shooting up from the dirt.
Chuck's father, an organic gardener, influenced the couple's decision to abstain from using pesticides, antibiotics or chemically formulated fertilizers. Beverly now farms full-time; Chuck works as an urban planner in Washington and helps plant and harvest during his spare time.
We walk under a wooden arbor flanked by two torches into the dining tent's wide entryway. Because of the rain, the walls have been lowered, but plastic windows still provide glimpses of the outdoors. Candles flicker on each table; white lights and hanging plants adorn the tent supports. A waitress shows us to our table, covered by a floral tablecloth and set with real flatware and glasses, not the plastic stuff usually reserved for picnics and patios. Menus personalized for each party detail the dinner's five courses.
At $60 per person, the evening costs a bit more than cooking steaks on the grill. But this isn't your typical backyard barbecue.
Beverly and executive chef Jack Batten (who works during the week as a corporate chef at a Washington law firm) examine the gardens and develop a plan based on what's ripe for the picking. Meat and fish come from other organic producers.
Batten prepares the meals in the Billands' kitchen, which looks like a normal household kitchen, except there are two stoves instead of one.
We peruse the wine list, which features non-organic vintages from several Loudoun County wineries as well as a handful of organic varieties from the western United States. We choose an organic chardonnay from Washington State's Badger Mountain Vineyard.
As we listen to Norah Jones' CD Come Away With Me playing softly on the stereo, we can also hear birds chirping and a train whistling in the distance. The other tables are filling up with thirtysomething couples and baby boomers, many looking as if they just stepped out of the pages of a Talbots catalog.
Dinner with a view
We begin with an appetizer of crunchy toasts covered with velvety lentils and smoky pieces of duck, then it's on to creamy broccoli soup served with slices of rustic country bread. As we move on to a salad of mixed spring greens topped with tangy orange, purple and yellow pansies and marigolds, we spot Beverly visiting each table. She chats with guests about the farm, the menu and, of course, the weather. The rain pelts the tent's roof, and with each course the servers sprint from the house carrying covered trays of food.
I had opted for the chevre-stuffed chicken breast for the main course, while Greg chose the halibut Vera Cruz. We try one another's dish and can't decide which tastes better, the halibut topped with chunky, fresh-from-the-garden salsa or the tender pieces of chicken wrapped around tart goat's-milk cheese and served with thick homemade pesto.
Locals first got a taste of the Billands' organic cooking on annual Loudoun County farm tours, during which the couple served hors d'oeuvres.
"A lot of people said we should do dinners," Beverly recalls. "We said we'd do them if they would come, and it just evolved."
Beverly and Chuck started Dinner in the Garden five years ago. The meals are served every other weekend from late April through early November. Dinner starts at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays, 6:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Because the dining area accommodates only about 35 guests, reservations are required.
During the dessert course -- a rich blueberry-glazed puff of buttery mascarpone cream -- it's chef Batten's turn to work the room. He enthusiastically tells diners about the Billands' plan to build a commercial kitchen just down the hill from the tent's current location. Then they'll move the tent next to the kitchen.
The new facility, expected to be completed next year, should offer better views of the river and will give Batten and the servers more prep room. It will also allow the farm to serve dinner every weekend as well as add Sunday brunch.
As we finish our dessert, the rain finally stops. Others linger over flavored coffee or glasses of wine, but we hurry outside to take a final look at the Potomac. We're joined by Batten and another couple, who tell the chef that they'll be back again.
Reluctantly, we call it a night and return to our city apartment. We don't want to get too used to all this open space.
When you go
Getting there: From Baltimore, take the Beltway to I-70 west. In Frederick, take Route 15 south. Immediately after crossing the Potomac River, turn right on Lovettsville Road. The farm is 1/2 mile down on the left.
Patowmack Farm, 42461 Lovettsville Road, Lovettsville, VA 20180
* The remaining dates for Dinner in the Garden this year are Aug. 29-30, Sept. 12-13, Sept. 26-27, Oct. 10-11, Oct. 24-25 and Nov. 7-8. Cost is $60 per person, which does not include tax, tip or wine. Reservations are required.
* The farm store is open during Dinner in the Garden evenings and Wednesday through Sunday (May through November) from noon to 5 p.m.
Georges Mill Farm Bed & Breakfast, 11867 Georges Mill Road, Lovettsville
* A Civil War-era stone house set on a 200-acre farm in the Short Hill Mountains, about 10 minutes by car from Patowmack Farm. Four guestrooms with fireplaces and views of the countryside. Rates from $85.
For more information about lodging, dining and attractions in Loudoun County, contact the Loudoun Convention & Visitors Association: www.visitloudoun.org; 800-752-6118.