In spring, we all know what a young man's fancy turns to. Mine turns to asparagus. Those toothsome green shoots pushing up through themud sing me an irresistible song of spiritual renewal after weary winter.
Each May, my husband and I head off to the foothills of the Blue Ridge and Hill High Orchards, which grows and sells asparagus commercially.
"Growing asparagus is like pulling eye-teeth," a farmer once told us, and having seen our seeds washed away one spring, and inadvertently planting our asparagus roots upside-down the next, we believe him.
But after coming out for a decade, we still never knew that owners John and MarySleeter would have in store when we got there. The Sleeters, both in their mid-30s, bought Hill High from John's father, who settled there nearly 40 years ago, mainly to grow apples, the famous Blue Ridge crop.
Their autumn harvest of half a dozen apple varieties is still their biggest cash crop, but the younger Sleeters added asparagus as a May crop, pick-your-own strawberries for June, berries for July, peaches and nectarines for August. They also expanded the small retail shop, selling home-baked pies, dumplings, apple butter (still made in copper kettles according to John's mother's recipe), cider and other delicacies.
We liked to picnic by the Hill High pond, watching the mallards preen and the two talky but graceful swans glide by.
We waited for the cold spell to snap and set off a spurt of asparagus growth. One day, the voice at the otherend of Hill High's hotline told us: come and get it!
Checking first to make sure all systems at home were go (good supply of butter and freshlemons in refrigerator, fresh filets of shAd nestled alongside for our sybaritic spring dinner that would be topped off with a fruit pie), off we went on a cool but glorious spring Sunday.
We threw some empty milk jugs into the trunk-in case we had time to stop at the honey factory just up from the orchard for a year's worth of wildflower honey - and took the scenic Maryland route past the dogwoods and redbud of Seneca, heading out through Darnestown and Poolesville, and then White's Ferry across the Potomac.
Reaching land, we took Route 15 left and after Leesburg picked up Route 7 west, one of the old colonial highways. We kept our eyes open for Hill High's Conestoga wagon, on the right, just before Round Hill. After parking, we made straight for the big white log house that fronts the orchard's large commercial fruit-storage facility.
"Be our guest," said the rug by the front door. So did the deletable fragrance of fruit pies and apple dumplings bubbling away in glass-windowed ovens tended by Virginia, Hill High's chief pie lady for as long as we could remember. We passed up rhubard, peach, cherry, blueberry, blackberry, pecan or cinnamon-sauced dumplings for the Dutch apple pie. (In winter, there are also mince and pumpkin pies.)
Poking around the shop, we pickedup a some home-grown popcorn, then spotted something new: fruit and nut breads, among them pumpkin, banana, applesauce-raisin, cranberry. Thelabel read: "From Polly Jane's Kitchen in nearby Hanover." We settledon an orange-nut bread and a hunk of longhorn cheese (the shop stocks 35 varieties) and cider for a light lunch.
But hey! What's this? No asparagus! Quick. Over to Virginia to find out why.
Virginia obligingly rang up John Sleeter for us, and he drove right over in his pickup truck to meet this emergency head on. The weather had turned too cold again, stopping further asparagus growth for the time being, he said, but if wewanted to drive on over to the fields with him, he'd poke around and see if he could come up with enough stalks to make reasonable provision for dinner.
On our way to the fields, we were treated to a striking panorama: hundreds of acres of apple and peach trees in full bloom, black raspberries leafing-out, strawberry fields stretching beyond us.
We passed the pond, but couldn't spot the two swans. Sleeter filled us in: "Lady died and Sir Winston couldn't adjust," he told us. "Swans mate for life, you know. Sir Winston got surly, mean and ornery, whacking everyone in sight with his wings. We had to move him to an isolated farm." Poor Sir Winston, so-called because "He got a lot of respect," Sleeter hadonce said.
A few fishermen were scattered around the pond, after the good-sized bluegill and bass that are said to be in there. Customers arefree to fish as they please.
"Problem is, I don't want people to fish out the Israeli carp I put in to eat the algae. They don't reproduce, but they're so big and fat, folks don't want to throw them back in," JohnSleeter sighed.
Up at the asparagus patch, there acres wide, the wind whipped around us. It was cold there, all right, but still, here and there, some skinny purplish-green spikes were visibly thrusting up throughthe dark earth.
Using the hunt-and-peck method ("This is just like huntin' for Easter eggs," Sleeter said), he deftly sliced each stalk at ground level with a sharp kitchen knife." If you pinch and pull it, the stalk never fills out properly the next year. That's why we can't let customers pick their own," he explained.
Soon we had what seemed like plenty for dinner. Back at the shop, the yield weighed in at exactly two pounds, 85 cents a pound. "I like it just this size," Sleeter said. The asparagus was mostly about six inches long, and thin, with few white woody ends, a sharp contrast to this year's big, fat, tough supermarket asparagus that looked more like stakes than stalks. When asparagus is this tender and fresh, you can just wash it and eat it raw, or very slightly steamed.
Settling up our bill, we chatted a few more minutes, and Sleeter told us that once warm weather sets in for good, the asparagus will shoot up overnight. The harvest period in only three weeks, till the endof May; then the strawberries begin.
Aa we left, he told us that future plans at Hill High include red raspberries. He promised to let us know when.
We still had time to get some honey a few miles farther out on Route 7, at the Virginia Honey Company, just past Berryville, where (at 75 cents a pound) we filled our jugs with two gallons of wildflower honey made by bees that pollinate the surrounding orchards.
We could have chosen orange blossom, lighter in color and flavor, for the same price; but it had been trucked up from Florida, and somehow didn't seem authentic enough for the day's outing.
Then it was straight back home, by the Virginia Route this time.
To a dinner that would be a rite of spring. CAPTION: Picture, THE STALKS OF SPRING: THE HILLS ARE ALIVE WITH THE FRESH ASPARAGUS.; ILLUSTRATION, NO CAPTION, BY SUZANNE RICHARDS.