I DON'T WANT to write about this. Not about my special place. Not about the place where we went long ago for our fifth anniversary with our baby - our first - whom we took along because he was too new for us to leave for very long. In those days the Coventry Forge Inn had no rooms to stay in, just a restaurant said to be the finest in Pennsylvania, or farther if you cared to take a bold stand in such matters.
Over the twelve years that followed that encounter, memories became crowded and blurred, but I always remembered the rack of lamb, even if I no longer knew what I remembered about it. I also recalled a glassed-in porch, an effusive welcome, and a waitress who insisted on holding the baby while we ate because the dinner was too good to warrant an interruption.
While I don't pretend it was purposely sent to us, I received an indirect message this spring, when somebody happened to mention that the Coventry Forge Inn now had rooms to rent. And our anniversary was coming.
It takes two and a half hours and 250 years to get to the Coventry Forge Inn from here. The oldest part of the building dates from 1717, a small log house to which was later added stone. Forty years later it became an inn for a while, then, after being used for a hundred years or so as a private home, it became a restaurant again in 1954.
Outside its village of Coventryville, life went on. In fact, one might say that life changed a great deal. But in Coventryville the changes aren't much noticed. Oh, some houses were built, and the town added a structure to house the Franklin Cornet Band wagon. Mr. Franklin invented a stove and tested it in what is now the inn. Methodism hit the town in a big way, and in 1862 the Coventryville United Methodist Church kind of took over the landscape.But then things settled down and went along without much change that the eye could see. Except for a gas station, a classic Fifties gas station.
Beyond the crest of the hill, ramblers and split levels have been creeping along the road. But you can't see them down in the village, where the inn sits. On a Saturday night, the parking lot of the restaurant is full: two Cadillacs, a Mercedes, a Continental, Saabs and Citroens and the like. But they belong to people who are in and out in a couple of hours, not neighbors like us who stay overnight.
We stopped across the street where the sign says "antiques," and a young couple lead us through hallway of his photographic portraits to her antiques shop in the basement. They told us about their life a little bit, and we told a bit about ours. They have lived in their pre-Revolutionary house for a couple of years now. Have they eaten at the inn? "No," she answered, "I haven't been invited."
Barely had we walked across the street before a car stopped and the driver signaled us over. She is the president of the historical society had already heard there were visitors. Just wanted to make sure that we stopped by the headquarters to pick up some brochures.
"It's Walley's town," they say in Conventryville E. Wallis Callshan, proprietor of the Conventry Forge Inn and resident since 1937. He sits in his overstuffed office amid cookbooks spilling all over the book-cases and chairs, looking rather more overstuffed than he did twelve years ago. He doesn't talk any more than he has to, but if you persist you will hear that butter isn't what used to be, but they still can get cream to their specifications from a local dairy, and trun it into creme fraiche themselves.They raise their own trout for truite en bleu, and this winter have hopes of a supply of fresh quail and partridge. A neighbor woman grows their herbs and sorrel, another brings tiny green beans and garden lettuce. In August when their peaches can be picked absolutely ripe, they poach them in white wine with almonds.
It still sounds worth the trip.
The guest house is two doors down, on the other side of a stone house of considerably dignity. Our houses - and it was totally ours that weekend, since word of its existence had not yet spread - has five bedrooms onthe seconds floor, plus several first-floor reception rooms that look like the middle stages of a museum-in-the-making. Except for thick gold carpeting, everything shows respectable antiquity - Empires sofa and brass chandeliers, brass lamps and writing tables, white walls hung with hunting prints and edged with blue-gray woodwork from a Colonial palette.
We splurged. For an anniversary we passed up the $30 and $35 single-bedded roomes for the best in the house, a *40 cavern with two double beds shouting distance apart and andstill room for an enormous mirrored armoire and mahogany bureaus and marble-topped bed tables and plush covered armchairs and cane chairs and enough left over to dance if the mood struck us. We were back in a world of white chenille bedspreads and porcelain lamps, of windows sills deep enough to sit on, of double layers of draperies. A modern air conditioner and, in a bathroom the size of a Manhattan hotel room, a bidet. I won't quibble with discreet updating.
As far as vision extended, that world was made to embellish our private world. Great pink bubbles of peonies clustered along one side of the garden, a parade of rounded box-woods on another. The walks were edged in carefully manicured ivy, low walls with geraniums. Beyond, the hillside was veiled with wild flowers. Along came an extra from a Luis Bunuel movie, tuxedoed and mustachioed, stepping across the green velvet lawn with a silver ice bucket cooling the wine we had ordered.
Oh, come on. This is too good. Don't be too easily swayed by a tuxedo and a glass of wine. WHat can you do around here anyway? The lawn has no lounge chairs, no hammocks. And I didn't see a swimming pool.
That's because it is on the other side of the restaurant, screened by tall fir trees, reached by a staircase of railroad ties. Uphill from a stream and abundant garden, the pool is shaped like a Roman bath. The shape of everything begins to look Roman. Or French Renaissance. Or invented by quiet, sunny fantasies.
Most of the fantasies that drove us to Coventry Forge Inn had to do with dinner - 1001 nights of dinner. Dinner in the brick-floored basement with its porcelain-faced clocks, its beamed ceiling and iron chandeliers. With a fire roaring in the tile fireplace. Another dinner in one of the small first-floor rooms with only four tables, maybe with the duck press carried across the well-worn wooden floors to be employed at out table. Sometime's the fantasy os of our dinner simmering in the walk-in fireplace while we savor its smells from the bar. But so far, we have been unable tp give up dinner on the glassed-in porch overlooking the dimly lit garden. The flowers on our table surrounded a butcane candle which sets the crystal glittering. The menu is better than I remembered, the Saturday night fixed-price dinner running from a choice of three soups through nine hors d'ouvres, a dozen entrees and more desserts than I can cope with. The waitress, too, runs a remarkable ganut from rural Pennsylvania twang to impeccable handling of the wine and knowledge discussion of the problems running a Pennsylvania cellar.
Our anticipation was too great. Soup was bland - mine, his, theirs, all of them. Oh, but we had forgotten about the bread - their own French bread. And hors d'oeuvres were high ambitions fully realized, the trout seeming still to swim in a pale buttery pool, snails at leat as buttery inside a mocha-colored puff pastry that flaked and melted at a taste, salmon troisgros needing just a tinge more of sorrel in its sauce but neverthless an inspired production. We missed the cold salmon, the pate, the quinche which began to edge into our memory. Another visit necessary.
And we bypassed the crab wallis, veal pojarski, mustardy veal kidneys, sweetbreaks, steaks au poivre - calling up their names brings pains. But two such commonplace dishes as duck with orange sauce and rack of lamb are here superlative. A small rack for one, crumbed and mustarded, is sliced into three rosy chops. Simple. Flawless. The duck goes higher, however, its skin red-gold and crisp as parchment, alcoholic golden orange sauce, only faintly sweet. The kitchen deals well with simplicity - buttery sauteed calves liver or tiny softshell crabs. Alongside main dishes is the freshest of the season's vegetables, most often shredded zucchini, and tiny potato puffs offering the only soggy note after the soups. Choosing a wine is hampered by Pennsylvania's legal restrictions, but there are some happy choices penciled in; on the printed list, prices swing wildly and choice is limited.
Unless you ask salad or cheese, the meal goes right into its apex, dessert. Not the chocolate mousse - too sweet. Ice cream or sherbet if you must. But after sauces and the puff pastries experienced earlier in the meals, it has become obvious what will be best among desserts. Strawberries in Grand Marnier sauce, so light and airy, settle in the now-full stomach unobtrusively. Dacquoise, a fragile crunch of ivory meringue layered with butter cream. Profiteroles looking like top hats on ice cream heads under a storm of exquisite bittersweet chocolate sauce. Any my favorite, the puffiest, yeastiest baba aurhum that has ever lightened my head. Coffee - too good to pass up. And staggering home under the Milky Way to our room.
The birds wake us in the morning, just preceding the church bells. No other sounds. We can't think of breakfast. At least until we get to the dining room. The same white porch is now sunlit, and the light sparkling on our stemmed glass of freshly squeezed orange juice starts our digestive juices roaring. The morning idles by as we linger over croissants kept warm in a napkin-covered basket. We spread them with sweet butter, with marmalade, with black currant jam, then each one again. We start with our coffee black. But the cream, as weighty and richly colored as antique satin, leads us into paler and paler blends of coffee and cream. Enough - not really, but gluttony has its limits. We need some exercise, or whatever facsimile we can muster, so we climb the stairs of the next-door church with the deacon, who looks older than the church itself but hasn't spent the morning gorging on croissants and heavy cream. The stained glass windows are glories of the Art Nouveau era, vivid and graceful and stunning. The deacon apologizes for them, "A little old-fashioned, Iguess."
The tone is in error, but the words strike our agreement. A little old-fashioned weekend. A little old-fashioned restaurant. A little old-fashioned world. Not quite a fantasy, in my fantasy I have my own special hammock, a bath full of petal scents and great fluff of a robe to wrap me as I read the morning paper I found at my door. My night table would surprise me with chocolates. But in my fantasy I wouldn't have to write about this place, either.