IN MIDDLEBURG, Va., people spend a lot of their time living, breathing and thinking horses. They breed them, raise them, show them, race them and play on them. In fact, in Middleburg people spend a lot of their time playing, at least those who are born into a life of immediate retirement.

One of the games they play well is the fox hunt. About three times a week the men, women and children of Loudon County's Middleburg Hunt Society gather at a local famr, mount their mahogany-colored horses and ponies and go off with the hounds to outsmart and catch the fox. On a good weekend up to 150 people may gather for the hunt. When they do, a "hunt breakfast" usually follows with hearty food and good drink.

On this particular Saturday morning, the gathering took place at the farm of Rosamund Pettibone, 85, referred to by many as the grande dame of Middleburg. Lively and rounded, she laughs her way before the hunt through the gathering down by the large horse barn below her eight-bedroom mansion. "Good morning, Miss Pettibone, you're looking well today," the hunters greet her from six feet above on their mounts as they sip sherry from Waterford crystal offered on silver trays by the children of John Pettibone II, her son.

Amdist the greetings a small truck pulls up. When huntsman Albert Poe opens the back door, out jump 44 small, medium and large howling dogs (hounds in hunt country) ready and waiting for the hunt master, Melissa Cantacuzene to blow the horn, signlaing that the hunt has begun.

Off they go, over white wooden fences and farmland, beyond Rosamund Pettibone's 262 acres graced by the white columned mansion, three tenant houses, superintendent's home and three barns which house the feed for her hogs, chickens, goats, 300 black angus cattle and a dozen horses. A hilltop view of this land, which borders the Blue Ridge Mountains with 200-year-0ld oak trees and rolling green hills, brings alive a storybook image of the Virginia countryside.

Meanwhile, up in a kitchen large enough for necessities -- just large enough -- Alise Cook calmly puts the finishing touches on the food, which three hours later will be consumed by the 45 cold, invigorated hunters and 50 other guests who, for various reasons, decline to join the hunt this day.

She has been cooking since 7:30 a.m. The traditional Pettibone fare will be turkey, ham, cranberry sauce, peas, spoon bread, hot Kentucky biscuits, and for dessert, fruitcake. There will also be single-serving-sized pecan, cherry and lemon pies prepared by John's wife, Susan Pettibone, an avid hunter and the hostess for the day.

Cook, with strength in her smile and body, has been cooking for the Pettibones for 29 years, her entire working career. Her reputation as a great cook is uncontested by all guests, who come not only for the party but also for herdelicious, hearty meal. g

Preparing a meal for one or cooking for 100 people is all the same to she says. She is reserved, and doesn't like to share her kitchen with onlookers, but can be persuaded to share her recipes with a little prodding.

The kitchen air is filled with the scent of spoon bread slowly baking in a 20-inch ceramic bowl. More than enough for 100 people, it nevertheless will be devoured within 10 minutes of appearing on the table. On the counters lie hand-painted platters which will display her country ham and freshly baked turkey.

The breakfast begins promptly at 1 p.m., at the insistence of Rosamund Pettibone, who refuses to let her gathering to turn into "just another cocktail party." As guests filter back to the pantry for Bloody Marys and martinis, the butlers begin placing the food on the table in the formal dining room, with its large French doors, an oak fireplace, antique furniture and paintings of hunts.

The hunters begin to filter in and the volume of voices grows as the hunt is recounted to those who were and were not there. Emilie Brzezinski, wife of national security affairs advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, and daughter, Mika (a classmate of John's daughter, Michelle Pettibone) were there. Governor Averell Harriman does not ride, so he had to hear it second hand from his wife, Pazmela, who does ride. Mrs. Harriman is a Middleburg Hunt member, so occasionally the Harrimans host hunt breakfasts at their Goodstone farm, down the road from the Pettibones.

Author Jane Price McLarey, a member of the Orange County Hunt, grew up in Middleburg so imbued with the hunt that she wrote a novel about it.

Rose Marie Bogley, the only member of the hunt to ride sidesaddle, was also on hand for the breakfast. Bogley, who hosts an annual hunt breakfast at Christmas time, traditionally serves turkey and baked beans. Bogley makes the beans herself, because. as she said, "I don't know what I do to them, but everyone loves them."

The breakfast serves a different purpose for everyone. To Albert Poe, its anticipation keeps the hunters quiet in the field so the hounds can concentrate. "They know they can talk later," he said. And it tempers the competitiveness with the promise of neighborliness.

To Pamela Harriman, it is a social event, and it is good food. "These people have been cooking the same way for years. The style doesn't change so you know it's good." Averell Harriman admitted no opinion at all.

To Bogley it is an opportunity to socialize.

To Rosamund Pettibone, it is exhausting. She was napping in the den by the party's end.

By 3 p.m. the house empties and all that remains on the linen-covered table are a few peas and the candles. From the kitchen, Cook shares a few of her recipes.

VIRGINIA PEPPERED CURED HAM 1 Virginia peppered ham, any size American-style mustard Ground cloves Brown sugar Sliced pineapple and Maraschino cherries, for decoration

Soak ham overnight. In the morning rinse to remove excess salt and pepper.

Wrap in foil and bake at 350 degrees at approximately 20 minutes per pound. When done, remove ham from oven and skin it. Cover ham with mustard. Sprinkle lightly with ground cloves and cover with brown sugar.Decorate with pinapple slices and cherries. Return to oven and brown at 350 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes. SPOON BREAD (Makes 2 (10-inch) casseroles) 5 cups milk 4 cups cornmeal 1 cup flour 1/2 cup sugar 1 tablespoon salt 12 eggs 6 tablespoons baking powder 1/2 pound melted butter

Scald 3 cups cold milk. In a separate bowl mix remaining 2 cups of cold milk with cornmeal, flour, sugar and salt. Add to scalded milk and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens. In another bowel beat eggs. Add hot cornmeal mixture, baking powder and butter and beat at medium speed until well mixed. Pour into buttered casserole dish and dot with pats of butter. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. CRANBERRY SAUCE 2 Cups sugar 1 cup water 1 pound fresh cranberries 1/2 cup crushed pineapple or favorite marmalade, optional

In a saucepan boil sugar and water until sugar dissolves. Wash and remove stems from cranberries.Add to sugar/water mixture and continue to boil until skins pop (about 20 minutes). Either leave cranberries whole or chop in pieces and add optional pineapple or marmalade. Chill before serving. c NEITHER LIGHT NOR DARK FRUITCAKE 3/4 pound butter 1 pound sugar 10 eggs 1 pound flour 1 teaspoon powdered cloves (light) 1 teaspoon powdered cinnamon 1 teaspoon vanilla Pinch of salt 2 pounds dates, cut up 1 pound seeded raisins 2 pounds currants (washed in warm water) 1/2 pound citron 1/2 pound figs 1/4 pound candied cherries 1/4 pound candied pineapple 1/4 pound candied ginere 1/4 pound blanched almonds 1/4 pound pecans 1 cup bourbon whiskey

Cream butter, add sugar, mixing well, then eggs, two at a time, beating thoroughly. Add 1/2 of flour to which cloves, cinnamon, vanilla and salt have been added. Cut up fruit and soak with almonds and pecans in whiskey overnight. The next day, dredge with the other half of flour. Combine with first ingredients and bake in slow oven in well-greased tube cake pan. Always put pan of water in oven to keep cake from becoming to dry. Decorate with nuts, cherries and pineapple. Pour whiskey over cake after it is cool, which ensures delicious flavor and helps keep cake moist. From "The Hunt Country Cook Book." PECAN PIE Pastry: 2 cups pastry flour 1 teaspoon salt 1 cup butter 2 to 3 tablespoon ice water

Sift flour with salt. Work in butter. Add ice water, drop by drop, until moist enough to form a stiff dough. Roll out and lay in 9-inch pie pan. Filling: 3 eggs 1 cup white Karo syrup 1 cup light brown sugar 1 cup pecans, chopped fine 1 teaspoon vanilla 2 tablespoons flour 2 tablespoons melted butter

Beat eggs and add remaining ingredients. Pour into uncooked pie shell. Bake at 325 to 350 for 45 minutes or until firm in center. Serve with whipped cream. From "The Hunt Country Cook Book"