AFTER THE first fresh cider stands slip by and the "Luray: 18 Miles" sign comes into view, we turn onto the twisting Virginia state road that runs along the trout stream and meanders on up into the Shenandoah National Park. Then it is a few slow minutes up that road to our destination: the farm.
For its owners and dozens of their friends, the 35-acre farm just this side of Sperryville is a weekend retreat, resort, voluntary labor camp and a sure bet for good homemade food and lots of ways to work up a hunger, from hiking and ice skating to splitting old apple tree stumps into firewood for the wood-burning stove in the living room, or riding astride the sturdy little white "Rollin' Bolens" mower hauling brush (or children) in the trailer cart. wAnd even on a non-working farm, barn roofs need to be painted, fences mended, the vegetable patch put to bed for the coming season.
With appetites piqued by cold air and hard work and play, it is only natural that in fall and winter, the dining room and kitchen are the hub of the house; we are first drawn by the irresistible scent of spiced cider mulling on the stove. On a winter afternoon, the indoor activity is likely to be tinkering with the big brown metal oil heater that lords over the dining room sometimes impolitely belching smoke, sometimes clanking empty promises of heat on a snowy day. Last year it was a birds' nest in the chimmney causing the problems. This year, who knows? Eventually, however, the heater is coaxed into operation and people settle around it as if it were a roaring open fire.
Arranged close to the heater are a small round table draped in a Missouri great grandmother's woven wool coverlet, and three old white wicker chairs from a porch in the North Carolina Blue Ridge. In the center of the room is a seven-foot-long wooden table made from a discarded 18th-century door set on two homemade sawhorses and surrounded by assorted second-hand chairs.
Breakfast at that table is becoming a tradition. No matter what time a guest arises, our host has been up for hours, has lighted the infamous heater and is off at the barn readying some piece of gear -- the chain saw, the mower, the canoe -- for whatever project is on his list for the day; and our hostess has made cream biscuits. They are thick and just turning brown on top. The bacon is sizzling, and its scent combined with that of hot coffee wakes up late sleepers.
On the table are cherry preserves made by a neighbor woman, honey from Culpeper, two plates of butter, and a platter of fried eggs. The children have already downed one batch of biscuits. Now some children are outside on the rope swing and others are on their eighth hour of a marathon Monopoly game on the living room floor. There are no newspapers. There is no TV. Breakfast is a long, lingering affair, quiet at first, then more animated as we begin to discuss plans for the day over second and third cups of coffee.
Two guests wash the dishes. Tomorrow morning they will cook a one-dish "farmer's breakfast" of Canadian bacon, eggs and slices of coarse white bread. They brought the ingredients with them, stopping at the Eastern Market in D.C. for the sausages and bread before they left for the country.
Although our hostess keeps staples in the house and often brings a pot of soup and a turkey or ham she has cooked at home, she relies on her guests to bring the main ingredients for the dishes they will prepare. Over time, she has found sharing the cooking the most efficient way to handle meals at the farm, and from the guests' point of view, it is perfect. To them, cooking in the country simply does not seem like work.
Our hostess, by her own admission, avoids the kitchen at noon. But inevitably, someone wanders in, reheats the remains of Friday night's soup, slices down the ham, sets out the bread, mustard, cheese, pickles and beer on the kitchen picnic table, and the others drift in and help themselves.
Ah, decadence, thy name is Somebody Else's Country Home!
By late afternoon a plate of cheese and crackers has materialized in the living room, even a jar of caviar and some chopped onion, or a piece of pate, the leftovers of a cocktail party Friday night back in D.C. All is set on a split-log coffee table in front of a woodburning stove that heats this room. People come and go, usually carrying a glass of wine, making occasional trips to the kitchen to help the evening's cooks, to set the table or to play a vintage Joan Baez album.
In most instances, dinner is a simple, robust dish that can remain "nearly ready" for hours -- at least until the children are in bed or until we find the last piece of sky for the jigsaw puzzle. These are nights of Mary's chili, Alice's Creole, black bean or Italian chick pea soup, Molly's hot chicken salad, Marianne's choucroute garni and Susan's soup made from our hosts' last pumpkin, today saved by a guest from a frosty demise.
Rarely does a cookbook appear at the farm. There is a dogeared copy of "Beard on Bread" that lives on a kitchen shelf and opens by itself to the cream biscuit recipe. But most of the one-dish winter meals are a combination of memory, best guess, imagination and whatever substitutes are on hand for ingredients someone forgot to bring.
This is where the herb garden against the stone wall behind the kitchen is indispensable. There are few problems that a handful of lemon thyme or a few leaves of the season's last sage or marjoram cannot solve while -- as a bonus -- adding a come-hither aroma to the kitchen.
Desserts, especially, are an ode to the art of improvisation. Staymans bought along the road go into pie, or sauce, with plenty left over to pile in the wooden bowl on the kitchen table to eat whole for snacks or to slice and pop into the choucroute . Persimmons are ripe on the tree near the stream and someone halfway remembers a recipe in the cookbook just published by her child's school. July's blackberries from the hill by the pond, saved in the freezer, become a tart, from a recipe this group of friends has long shared and no longer needs to write down.
Tonight, dinner is to be a gala affair. There are but two lone souls in the kitchen: our host and me. We are preparing two doves, a woodcock and six quail that he and an office colleague shot last month, wrapped in paper and froze at the farm.
Soon the drainboard is covered with tiny feathers -- ridescent blues and browns and mottled grays. Carefully, we remove bits of shot and skin the birds. We congratulate ourselves; we have removed only one tiny leg by mistake.
All the birds fit neatly into the large skillet. We sprinkle them with salt and lemon juice, saute them quickly, cover them and keep them warm in the oven while we deglaze the pan with a bit of wine, shallots and herbs. Then we add a dash of pepper and a spoonful of cream for enrichment and pour the sauce over the glistening fowl. Meanwhile, someone else has tossed a salad, set out French bread and poured wine. The blackberry tart sits cooling for dessert. Dinner is served.
Although cooking at the farm is a result of imperfectly remembered recipes, they are based on dishes the cooks have either originated or adapted from books. A few of them follow. SUSAN'S PUMPKIN SOUP (6 to 8 servings) 2 cups canned or fresh pumpkin meat 1/4 cup butter 1 large onion, finely minced 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 2 cups heavy cream 2 1/2 cups chicken stock, homemade or canned 1 slice orange peel 2 inches long and 1/2-inch wide, stuck with 2 cloves
To prepare fresh pumpkin cut off the stem end of the pumpkin and scoop out the seeds and stringy parts. Cut the pumpkin into large chunks and steam it until the meat is soft. With a large metal spoon, scrape the meat away from the shell.
Melt the butter in a skillet. Saute the onion in the butter until limp. In a food processor or blender, puree the pumpkin, onion, salt and nutmeg until smooth. With the processor or blender going, pour in the cream. Transfer the mixture to a large saucepan, stir in the chicken stock, add the orange peel and simmer slowly for 15 minutes. Remove the orange peel and ladle the soup into bowls. Garnish with tiny slivers of blanched orange peel or a dollop of creme fraiche and a sprinkling of freshly grated nutmeg.
If no blender or food processor is available, force the steamed pumpkin meat and sauteed onion through a sieve, transfer it to a large saucepan, then simmer with the cream, chicken stock and orange peel. MOLLY'S FARMER'S BREAKFAST (10 servings) 16 slices homemade white bread sliced thin 8 slices Canadian bacon 8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper 1 teaspoon dry mustard 1/4 cup chopped onion 1/4 cup chopped green pepper 1 to 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce 8 eggs, lightly beaten 3 1/2 cups milk Dash of cayenne pepper 1/4 cup butter
Butter a 9- by 13-inch baking dish and line with half the bread. On each side of the bread slices place 1 round of bacon and one-eighth of the cheese. Top with the remaining bread. Mix the remaining ingredients except butter, pour over the bread. Cover the dish with foil and refrigerate overnight. One hour before baking, remove the dish from the refrigerator and uncover it. Melt the butter and pour over the bread. Bake the casserole one hour at 350 degrees. Adapted from "Bountiful Breakfasts" MARIANNE'S CHOUCROUTE GARNI (6 servings) 2 (1 pound) packages sauerkraut 1 small red potato 2 tart apples such as Staymans 1 large onion 1 (5 pound) pork shoulder blade roast 1 Polish sausage
Drain the sauerkraut and place it in the bottom of a large, heavy Dutch oven. Grate the potato over the sauerkraut. Core and quarter the apples and slice the onion and add them to the pot. Add the pork. Cover the pot and bake at 325 degrees for 3 to 4 hours unitl the pork is tender. Cook sausage. Serve right from the pot or pile the sauerkraut in the middle of a platter and place pieces of sausage and chunks of meat around it. LLOYD'S RICE AND VEGETABLES (10 servings) 4 tablespoons vegetable oil 2 onions, sliced thin 1 medium bunch of broccoli, peeled and cut into 1-inch lengths 6 carrots, peeled and sliced 1/2-inch thick 1 head cauliflower 1 teaspoon curry powder 2 pounds ground chuck 1 jar (8 ounces) mango chutney 1/2 cup raisins 1/4 cup soy sauce or more, to taste 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 4 cups cooked rice
In a wok or large Dutch oven, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil, add half the onions, broccoli, carrots and cauliflower and saute until lightly softened, but still crunchy. Sprinkle with half the curry powder, stir and remove the vegetables to a bowl. Repeat the saute process with the remaining vegetables. vIn the same pot, heat 2 more tablespoons of oil. Add the beef and saute over high heat until just brown. Drain off the oil. Return the vegetables to the pot with the meat. Stire in the chutney, raisins, soy sauce, pepper and rice. pCover the pot and simmer about 1/2 hour or until serving time. DAPHNE'S GRANDMOTHER'S PERSIMMON PUDDING (10 to 12 servings) 1 cup persimmon pulp 1 cup flour 1 cup sugar 1/2 cup milk 1 egg 1 teaspoon cinnamon 2 teaspoons baking soda 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 1 tablespoon melted butter 1 teaspoon vanilla 1/2 cup walnuts 1/2 cup raisins 1/2 teaspoon salt Splash of brandy or rum
If you are using wild persimmons for the persimmon pulp, which are small and difficult to handle, cut them in half and put them through a food mill to remove the skins and seeds. If you are using the larger store-bought persimmons, simply squeeze the fruit in your hand; the skin and seeds will separate easily.
Line the bottom of the upper section of a 1-quart double boiler with a circle of waxed paper. Combine remaining ingredients and pour into lined pot. cCover the double boiler and steam the pudding for 2 hours or until it is springy in the center and pulls away from the sides of the pot. Turn out on a platter and serve with lemon sauce, hard sauce or ice cream. From Burgandy Farm Country Day School's "Burgandy Cooks" MARJORIE'S BLACKBERRY TART Crust: 1 1/2 cups unsifted flour 3 tablespoons sugar 3/4 cup butter, cold 1 1/2 tablespoons white vinegar
Combine flour and sugar. Work in butter by hand or with a food processor. Moisten with vinegar until dough forms a ball. Break the dough into small lumps, spread them over the bottom of a tart pan and press the dough down onto the bottom and up the sides of the pan. The sides of the crust should be thicker then the bottom. Filling: 1 cup sugar 2 tablespoons flour 3 cups fresh or frozen blackberries
Combine sugar, flour and 2 cups of berries. Pour into crust, piling filling higher in the middle than around the edges.
Bake at 400 degrees for about 45 minutes or until filling is bubbly and crust is golden brown. Remove from oven. Pour the remaining cup of berries over the tart filling. Cool tart and dust with confectioner's sugar.