At the Intersection of Eat Local and Good Taste

Sustainability invigorates a historic small-town store in Virginia.

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 8, 2008; Page F01

MILLWOOD, Va. -- Before Juliet Mackay-Smith bought the Locke Modern Country Store six years ago, the owners' idea of "modern" was selling bait and hardware along with bologna sandwiches and dry goods.

Mackay-Smith interprets the word a little differently. Sure, she has turned the gathering spot 70 miles west of Washington into a combination coffee bar, wine shop, bakery, deli and grocery store. Sure, the freckle-faced, jeans-clad 46-year-old has become a rural version of Ina Garten or Martha Stewart. But more important: With the store as the backdrop, she is the linchpin of a hyper-local network of sustainable food production.

Just off Route 50 in this Clarke County village, Mackay-Smith is selling locally produced food; holding regular tastings of affordably priced wines (including many from Virginia); working on a cookbook; trying to produce a line of dressings, chutneys and sauces; and refurbishing the building next door so it can become a restaurant.

That's when she's not overseeing her 130-acre farm 10 miles away in White Post, where she tends her horses and, with her husband, raises two teenage daughters.

The town, like the store owner, is unassuming and charming. Among the few structures there other than Locke are an antiques store open "by chance or appointment" and a restored, water-wheel-powered grain mill that dates to George Washington's time.

Mismatched picnic furniture and pitchers of sweet tea someone hasn't brought in yet rest on the front porch of Mackay-Smith's neatly painted clapboard shop. When you walk into Locke, which occupies a site where a general store has operated since 1836, a door chime signals your arrival and someone looks over to offer a greeting without fail.

A look around the 1,800-square-foot space takes in good things to eat and drink in every nook and cranny: local honeys, apple juice and vinegar; coffee roasted in Rappahannock County; hot sauce made in homemade barrels; bloody mary mix; dairy products in glass bottles from an all-natural, certified organic creamery in Pennsylvania. Mackay-Smith's mother even gets into the act with a terrific tomato ginger marmalade and those pitchers of "Wizzie's" sweet tea. The store's cases and shelves speak of history.

Mindy Biddle, 46, handles most of the cooking duties, with a particularly deft hand at baked goods. Her tart and pastry crust is durable yet delicate, not an easy balance to strike. Double chocolate chip and snickerdoodle cookies and peppermint patty brownies never stick around there long. The apple cake and gingerbread cake are irresistibly moist.

And then there are the wines. Mackay-Smith handles the program, always making an effort to educate herself, always looking for value. A dry-erase board lists more than 70 bottles under $15.

"Juliet has a great eye for quality," says wine distributor Fran Kysela. "She has the ability to discern real value and seek out the interesting. If she were an art critic, she'd be a good one. Some people have that talent and some don't."

Mackay-Smith's talent showed itself at a young age. She remembers her love affair with food beginning at age 9, when she first inverted a cast-iron pan to reveal a glistening pineapple upside-down cake. "The moment of doing that will always be magical to me," she says.

Though her mother was, and is, a good cook, Mackay-Smith didn't refine her cooking skills until just after college in Boston; for a year and a half, she worked for high-end caterer Alison Healy of Creative Celebrations, taking to the business quickly.

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