the Makings of a Meal: Spring Equinox at the Ivy Inn
At first glance the deer-fenced beds at Harvest Thyme Herb Farm outside of Staunton, VA seem just as barren as the rest of the landscape looks on this gray March day. Sure, the Blue Ridge Mountains provide a regal backdrop to the rolling hills of the Shenandoah Valley, but the earth is still reeling from the 56 inches of snow that blitzed the area this winter. As testament to the wild winter, a huge bed of rosemary still stands upright, but on closer inspection the stalks are brown and a bit curled at the end, and proprietor Dierdre Armstrong admits that when rosemary looks dead like that, it’s usually…dead. A huge lavender bed is all elbows and broken arms, with plants hollowed and cracked in the middle and rough around the edges. In this late winter landscape, what in the world will be for dinner?
Dierdre and Phil Armstrong are not dismayed; their porch and basement filled with fluorescent lights and adjustable seed-starting tables are jammed with life, and shelves of dried herbs and heirloom seeds hint at the off-season activities around here. Among the treasures, beans from Wise County via the visionary chef Sean () in Charleston, SC; Italian heirloom seed varieties carefully labeled and stored in a rolling card catalog, and a green called () that Angelo has specifically asked them to grow for him. Dierdre likens the () to tumbleweeds, and describes how it dried up and rolled away the last time she grew it.
After offers of coffee and muffins, including a homemade Rosemary and Apple jam, Dierdre and Phil lead us outside to scout for food to serve on Saturday, March 20 at the Spring Equinox Farmer Dinner at the Ivy Inn (just a few days from now). I’ve been invited along on this journey as a scribe and helper; I dutifully snap photos and make notes, wondering where it will all lead but knowing that proprietor and chef Angelo Vangelopolous and chef Mike Perry will work their magic and find some spring food among the last vestiges of winter.
First Dierdre digs for sunchokes (or Jerusalem artichokes), something they planted to hide their inherited compost pile from the neighbors: Sunchokes are the tuber of a sunflower-like plant, and while their cultivation is as passive as food can possibly be, the flavor is remarkable enough to spark some excitement from the chefs. We move up the hill to what will become the squash, bean and corn, or ‘deer candy’, beds. Growing all around us are some resilient ‘weed’ cresses — creasy greens among them — that Dierdre identifies and we dutifully taste. Marked with delicate white flowers (imagine, flowering at a time like this!) the cresses are added to Angelo’s list from which the final menu will be crafted.
We move on to the perennial herb bed, which is the first bed that they installed and already shows signs of life this year. Green onions, chives, and wild arugula are bravely bursting into the early spring, and the existing thyme and sage plants also show signs of life. Dierdre calls out quantities of each item that will likely be available, and Angelo just nods — he’s feeding 75 to 80 people, and will be using his skills to make these precious morsels stretch to include all his guests. Fortunately, early spring greens have a lot of flavor. The word we keep using is ‘assertive’.
The Armstrongs show us their Parsnip Palace, and the new neighboring Carrot Condiminium. These root crops grow the best in loose soil (the opposite of red clay) and are often grown in barrels or in raised beds; the Armstrongs have the added challenge of several large Black Walnut trees, which essentially poison the soil around them and make in-ground cultivation impossible. So they have raised their parsnip and carrot beds above the ground level, and hemmed them in to protect from deer. When Dierdre digs her hands in the soil and pulls parsnips, Mike actually cheers. What a treat to have this time of year! Usually parsnips would only arrive later in the spring, but these have overwintered in the ground and are super super sweet. Angelo makes a note of it with a smile on his face.
On the ride back to C-ville we go over the menu, and I hear the wheels turning and churning as the fellows work out what to serve, and how, and with what. Sounds like the parsnips and sunchokes will be available in some quantity; creasy greens, chives, green garlic, thyme, flatleaf parsley, and perhaps some wild arugula will also bless us with their presence on Saturday. Perhaps most importantly, both the growers and the chefs have resolidified their enthusiasm for working together again this season. I feel like I have witnessed a seasonal resolution, renewing the commitment to fresh, beautiful food and to the creative preparations that showcase it. It’s no small thing.