LOVETTSVILLE, VA. -- Halfway down Rodeffer Road, past the trees and the new subdivision of ornate brick houses, lies an unexpected treasure from the past.
There, in front of a cedar picket fence stands a block of stone steps that have endured heavy use -- by gentlemen mounting horses and hoop-skirted ladies climbing in and out of horse-drawn carriages. Behind the fence rests a ramshackle 200-year-old frame house that old-timers say once served as a stopping point on the underground railroad.
Yet it is more than looks that links the old Rodeffer house to history. In the kitchen, current owner Barbara Libarkin preserves the harvest from her family's six-acre lot the old-fashioned way: Collecting produce from her garden early in the morning, Libarkin makes a flavorful array of jams, fruit butters and relishes by cooking them over low heat for hours and hours. Pectin -- the modern day thickener used to hasten cooking and increase yield in many jams and jellies -- is scorned. "It makes the taste thinner and weaker," says the 51-year-old Libarkin, shuddering at the mere thought of pectin.
Instead, Libarkin relies on the time-consuming process of evaporation to thicken her butters and jams. That requires constant stirring -- enough, she says, to drive you "meshuga."
But the results are worth it. Her apple butter is a dark brown spicy spread that evokes images of a crisp fall day. Mixed with rhubarb, the apple butter turns into a creamy tasting spring delight, good enough to eat with a fork, without any muffins or bread. Then there's zesty pumpkin butter, sweet almond apple butter and tomato butter which, laden with cloves, is an intriguing spread for the adventuresome -- as are her tart plum jam and rich grapefruit-orange marmalade.
Watermelon pickles are cool and spicy, while the beet relish is a mildly sweet concoction that makes even the most ardent beet-haters consider reexamining their dislike for the red vegetable. The tomato salsa has a bright, fresh taste, although it is probably too mild for most salsa enthusiasts.
Sold under the name Brookdale Farm, (the official name of the farm when the Rodeffer family bought it in 1858), Libarkin's products are available locally at a handful of farm stands and country stores, including Chantilly Farm Market, Morning Glory Farm in Arlington and Montpelier Supply Co. in Montpelier Station, Va. (President James Madison's historic home.) Libarkin also sells many of her products at fairs in Northern Virginia, including those held in Waterford, Bluemont, Lucketts, Oatlands, Vienna, Fairfax City and Aldie.
Libarkin never intended to go into the business of making preserves. As she says, "if you had told me this when I was growing up in Chicago, I would have had you certify me for St. Elizabeth's."
"The business just sort of happened," adds her husband Morton, 56, who retired last year from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission where he served as deputy executive director of the advisory committee on reactor safeguards. These days, the Brooklyn-born engineer spends his time tending the garden and remodeling the house. While the work may not be as challenging intellectually, it is, in many ways, more rewarding. "For all the time I worked, part of my job was to worry about the safety of reactors. So what you did at the end of the year was to sit back and congratulate yourself because nothing happened. That's not satisfying. To me, watching beets grow and seeing improvements from year to year -- that's satisfying."
Neither of the Libarkins knew anything about gardening before they moved into a three-bedroom house in Shepherd Park in 1968. Once there, however, "we started clearing the yard and discovered we liked it," she says. "We even moved bushes that were six feet in diameter and they survived, so apparently we had a talent for it."
So in 1976, with four children between the ages of 3 and 10, the Libarkins decided to look for more acreage with the goal of trying to live off the land. In addition to their garden, they have raised bull dairy calves (one a year), sheep, goats (for milk they drink) and chickens.
Libarkin, who has a master's degree in social work, attributes her love for working the land to her labor-socialist upbringing. Although she's quick to note that she's no longer a socialist, she says her daily childhood after-school Yiddish lessons still have a strong influence over her. "In the Yiddish books, the only good things to do were to work and study, study and work."
Her love for manual labor is evident not just in her hands -- stained with dirt even when clean -- but also in the many stories she delights in telling. There was the time, for instance, when her son gave her two loads of manure as a birthday present. It may sound odd, she says, but it was one of best gifts she's ever received.
Her love for preserves, she adds, was also a gift -- from her grandmother. "My grandmother made quarts of plum jam before she died. I was 8 then. The jam lasted until I was 12. After that, I could never find good jam. I used to buy foreign jam, which came close, but when the dollar declined, it became so expensive that I was determined to learn how to can... . So that was my grandmother's inheritance. That's a better inheritance than money, don't you think?"
To learn how to make jam, Libarkin first read the canning book published by the Ball Corp. More ideas came from old country cookbooks and just plain inductive reasoning, she says.
Initially, the jams and fruit butters were made only for herself and four children. Her husband, not liking sweets, favors her relishes instead.
Selling the jams began in the late '70s when inflation hit and government salaries were frozen. "We were put in a bind," she recalls. "I had some leftover preserves so I sold them at the nearby Waterford Fair and earned $65."
Libarkin started filling more and more jars, and in turn, began receiving more and more requests for her jams -- enough to finally set up an official business in 1983 and sell to some local country stores.
Last year, Libarkin made and sold 7,825 half-pint jars, "more or less." She keeps no inventory, selling the product as she makes it. "When it's gone, it's gone."
She declines to say how much money she makes, other than to note that although it is profitable, it is not a huge moneymaker -- especially considering her time and effort.
The day begins early for Libarkin. "I have to get up early in the morning to pick berries from the garden. Otherwise the birds take everything. I don't mind sharing but the birds have no control," she says, pointing to her mulberry tree. "This year, the birds took every single mulberry."
On the other hand, she is quick to note that she also benefits from the birds who through their droppings start many new plants -- from elderberries to pumpkins. "Volunteers are my great delight because you never know what they are going to be," she says admiring one such pumpkin plant.
Reluctant to weed out the volunteer plants, the Libarkins find that their garden is not a neat patchwork of plants. A berry plant may end up growing near the vegetable patch, but that doesn't bother them. Nor do the two neighborhood geese that have made the Libarkin pond their home. Instead of shooing them away, the Libarkins merely built a fence around the garden to keep the fowl from eating the crops.
After the morning harvest, Libarkin -- wearing blue jeans, a T-shirt, black sneakers, a green apron and a hairnet (required by state health officials) -- starts processing the fruit for the preserves. Listening to National Public Radio, she cooks several different batches of preserves on a commercial stove in a small corner of her kitchen. On the wooden floor and counters nearby are stacks of canning jar boxes -- some of the jars are waiting to be filled; others, waiting to be labeled.
When the raspberry jam is done, Libarkin carefully ladles the thick red liquid into sterilized half-pint jars and then sets the jars aside until she has enough to process in her canner. By the end of the day, she has more often than not made 200 jars of jams or butter. "Sometimes I cook until 1 a.m., especially if the apples are coming in. You don't have any flexibility; when the fruit is ready, you do it or you lose it."
Yet her work is not so demanding that she and Morton won't take time out for visitors -- and graciously welcome them with a feast from her garden. On one early summer day, the banquet starred a large dish of saute'ed vegetables -- including the year's first potatoes and zucchini and the last of the season's asparagus, all picked that morning. That, in itself, would have been enough, but there also was steamed and buttered beets, steak (from last year's dairy bull calf) and, of course, her relishes and preserves.
Dessert featured a peach and raspberry pie. The recipe? "Oh, that's easy," she says, rattling off the directions as she is wont to do when anyone asks her how to make a dish. In fact, she has even written a pamphlet, "Brookdale Farm Secrets," giving detailed instructions on how to make apple butter (for 1 to 100) and apple pie.
Back in the kitchen, Libarkin checks on the double batch of apple butter she had let rest during lunch. "I know that I'm going against the economic trend," she says, stirring the pot. "I'm not shuffling papers or selling junk bonds. But I'm making something I'm proud of."
LIBARKIN'S FAVORITE APPLE BUTTER (Makes 1 scant cup)
Libarkin usually makes a far larger batch of apple butter than the scant cup this recipe makes. Nevertheless, in this quicker-cooking version the spicy taste is similar. If pressed for time, you may use commercially prepared unsweetened applesauce but be careful when adding sugar. Although unsweetened, this kind of applesauce tends to be sweeter than homemade apple pure'e. Homemade pure'e can be made easily by cooking peeled and cored apples with a little bit of water, either in the microwave or on top of the stove. The cooked apples should then be pure'ed in a food processor or blender.
1 cup apple pure'e
1/2 cup sugar, or less depending on the sweetness of the apple pure'e
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
Mix all ingredients together and cook in a 9-inch skillet over low heat, stirring constantly, for about 45 minutes, until desired thickness. One test is to draw a line through the butter with a knife. If the line closes slowly, the butter should be thick enough. Similarly, when a mound of apple butter remains on a spoon and doesn't drip off, the butter is thick enough.
Cool and store in a clean, covered container and refrigerate.
Per tablespoon serving: 29 calories, 0 gm protein, 8 gm carbohydrates, 0 gm fat, 0 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, .5 mg sodium.
ONE-APPLE VANILLA APPLE BUTTER (Makes scant 1/2 cup)
This is a quick apple butter recipe with which commercially prepared unsweetened applesauce can also be used.
1 tart apple or 1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/4 cup sugar or less to taste
1/2 teaspoon vanilla Peel and core apple and cook in microwave or on top of stove in a little water (no more than two tablespoons if cooking on top of stove and even less in the microwave). Pure'e the apple. You should have 1/2 cup.
Add sugar and cook over low heat, stirring frequently, in a 6-inch skillet, until the mixture is almost boiled down. When a line drawn through the butter closes slowly, add vanilla. Continue to cook until thick, stirring constantly.
Cool and store in a clean covered container and refrigerate.
Per tablespoon: 33 calories, 0 gm protein, 9 gm carbohydrates, .1 gm fat, 0 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, .2 mg sodium.