It is a cloudless, blue-sky day at Willowsford, with the kind of breeze that deposits freshness in laundry hung outdoors and carries kitchen aromas to the windows of passing cars. Chef Bonnie Moore is checking on the progress of her students as they assemble sweet potato ravioli, using long, thin scarves of pasta that most of them have made for the first time.
“As we get hungrier, we tend to put more filling in the pasta than it can really hold,” she warns the women at work table No. 6. Lunchtime is imminent, and everyone’s rustic tomato and goat cheese tarts, a first course, are cooling on a wheeled rack nearby.
Willowsford is no remedial cooking school. It’s a shiny new residential community in Loudoun County whose four separate villages are distributed among 4,000 acres. Moore is its culinary director, and her position is one of the features that has broken new ground here. Acres of working farmland and pastures, plus access and guidance to their bounty, are at the core of the developers’ promise of “inspired living.”
“I have never eaten as many vegetables as I have since I’ve been here,” says Charmaine Smith, 37. She and her family moved to the village called the Grove from San Diego about three months ago. “We pick up stuff at Willowsford Farm,” she says during a cooking class break. “My kids go to happy gardening hour there on Thursdays. We picked sweet potatoes a while back. I lost four pounds last week!”
In March 2012, the first of Willowsford’s 135 families settled into tastefully designed homes — prices range from the high $500,000s to over $1 million — on rolling Virginia land where fields of soybeans, sod and silage corn were once industrially farmed. They can fish from their rowboats in Willow Lake, follow miles of trails among the development’s 2,000 acres of conservancy open space and enjoy preferred status in Willowsford’s community-supported agriculture (CSA) program.
A trained chef with stints at the Inn at Little Washington and at L’Academie de Cuisine as an instructor, Moore was brought onboard by the Willowsford team early in the planning stages. Her input in the recreational facility called the Lodge is evident in its 1,500-square-foot culinary space, which is outfitted to an enviable degree: two gleaming Blue Star wall ovens with French doors; a Gaggeneau steam oven; a large Wolf stove top and induction burners; a Miele speed oven and refrigeration and dishwasher drawers. There are enough portable induction burners and KitchenAid stand mixers for a class of 20 or more, and a commercial dishwasher/prep kitchen in the back.
“It’s not hard to come to work here every day,” the Arlington resident says.
Moore sees herself as connecting “the dots between the farm, the kitchen and the community.” That means working with the Willowsford Farm team to find local purveyors of cheeses, meat, honey, baked goods and even kombucha for the twice-weekly Farm Stand that’s open to the public — not just Willowsford residents. She’s quick to tout the Willowsford label Country White and Farmhouse Red, the result of a collaboration with Tarara Winery in Leesburg. Bottles of both have been gently lubricating the morning.
Her recipes appear in the community’s biannual magazine called Inspired and in weekly newsletters. The written menu of this session acknowledges Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye, in the spiked apple compote that’s served with cider-glazed doughnuts; small bundles of lamb sausage from Loudoun County’s New Asbury Farm that finish off the ravioli dish; and goat cheese in the tomato tart from Cherry Glen in Boyds, Md. This class is gratis: Moore’s thanks to those who have helped at the farm and at other food-related events.
Willowsford resident Elizabeth Cowboy, a medical director for Aetna, has put her at-home workday on hold to cross the street and learn from Moore. Her husband, Ron, came along and is one of two men in the class of 21. The Cowboys find the Farm Stand prices close to what they were paying for organic food at the grocery store when they lived in Leesburg.
“This is taking my cooking to the next level, and it feels more healthful,” Elizabeth says.
The group listens intently, but not too many are jotting down Moore’s tips. No black pepper in the pasta dough, because it can cause rips when the dough is rolled. A pinch of salt in the raw egg wash will retard bacteria. Salt the ravioli filling “till one more grain would be too much” — otherwise the flavor will be muted once the ravioli is cooked.
Farm Director Mike Snow drops off fall lettuces, eggs and sweet peppers that will be marinated with garlic, fresh oregano, capers and olive oil. The farm is a 10-minute drive from the Lodge and adjacent to the Grange village. Thirty acres of its 300 total acres are now being used for vegetable and fruit production, structures and pastures for chickens and goats. The contrast of claret-colored amaranth plants and bushy greens jumps out at farm visitors.
At 35, Snow looks like something out of a photo spread for Modern Farmer magazine. He came from managing the Accokeek Foundation’s Ecosystem Farm in Maryland and speaks earnestly about his current mission.
“In a sense, there’s nothing different for me as a farmer” at Willowsford, he says. “We’re a farm, we grow food, and we do it for people who value what we do. I’d be doing that anywhere else I was farming, just like a lot of my friends do.
“What is different is the role of the farm in the community’s life and our proximity to our customers,” he says. “The farm, the Farm Stand so far seem to be a place to meet, see each other, share recipes, volunteer together and just to support good eating habits. For some people I think it’s simply quality of life . . . a sense of open space and peace of mind that there’s something productive happening here. Hopefully it’s becoming a place to learn about food and nature.”
Snow says he can’t tell whether Willowsford Farm’s CSA could provide enough food for the community’s potential 2,100 households: “No one’s ever quite done it on this scale before.” He researched similar farm-conservation communities such as Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Ill., about an hour from Chicago.
A family share in the Willowsford CSA costs $25 per week. There are about a dozen items, including an egg share and a flower share through a partnership with Greenstone Fields in Wheatland.
Back at the Lodge, Moore has abbreviated the tutorial on her doughnuts. She plates them with the compote and her pre-made mellow brown sugar ice cream. The hungry students eat lunch on the patio overlooking the lake, clinking glasses and toasting to dishes they vow to re-create at home.
Moore lets out a sigh of relief. Is this what she had in mind? Contentment reigns.
“I would like to have other chefs for cooking demonstrations,” she says. This month, Tracy O’Grady of Willow in Ballston and Jamie Stachowski of Stachowski Market & Deli in Georgetown came to talk about pairing beer and charcuterie. “I’d like to see [restaurant] pop-ups happen here.” To her, nirvana would be Willowsford residents renting out the Lodge space for cooking parties and learning how to incorporate their CSA shares in their weekly cooking. “We’ve laid the foundations, but the opportunities are boundless.”
The next cooking class at Willowsford (potpies; $75 per person) is scheduled for Nov. 21, 6:30-9 p.m. Call 571-297-2584. Moore will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com