Joneve Murphy reaches beneath a row cover and pulls a baby French breakfast radish from the loose, dark soil. She hands it to her boss, chef Patrick O’Connell, who carefully brushes off the dirt, removes the roots and bites into half of it. The radish, he declares, should be paired with foie gras.
This verdict is from the palate that has launched a thousand trips — actually, many thousands of trips — since 1978, when O’Connell co-founded the Inn at Little Washington and put both the little Washington and by extension the big one on the world’s culinary map.
O’Connell needs little introduction. The inn is renowned for its food, accommodation, sense of occasion. Its awards include two stars in the Michelin Guide. Through the acquisition and conversion of sundry satellite buildings (21 and counting), O’Connell has transformed the historic town center into what he calls a campus but what is perhaps more accurately seen as an epicurean village, one that is constantly changing.
If a house needs reorienting to the mother ship, the inn, he will alter the facades; if it needs moving to align with a desired axis, it will be shifted. “I love moving houses,” he said, walking through his apple tree allée. “I put them where they should have been.” The next candidate for relocation is a yellow clapboard house used as staff offices.
The formal, ornamental gardens are the glue that binds the structures together, and he takes me to the Low Garden, a large terrace with a central fountain and a boxwood parterre that connects peripheral features, the apple allée, the redbrick Town Hall — built by a pupil of Thomas Jefferson’s — and the detached, historic Claiborne House. The yellow house, when it is moved and spruced up, will face it on the other side of the Low Garden’s terrace.
Some of these formal gardens will be open to the public Saturday when the town of Washington is on the Historic Garden Week tour in Virginia for the first time. Five private properties in and around the town are also open, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. A related farmers market with food vendors will be staged in the parking lot behind the post office, another building that O’Connell plans to redo.
Not all the inn’s gardens will be open; visitors will not see the koi pond nestled behind the restaurant, a linear garden that imagines a stream turned into a channeled water garden. Nor will they see some of the small courtyard gardens that serve each of the guest cottages. These hidden spaces are restrained confections of boxwood hedging and brick paving, surrounded by wooden fences, and good examples of how you can create formal but cosseting little gardens in the smallest of yards.
The Low Garden is on the tour, as is the expansive lawn behind the old tavern, which leads to tree-framed views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and to the working vegetable garden, cherry orchard and sheep pasture, with its perimeter path.
The vegetable garden is a crescent-shaped fifth of an acre, ringed in wire deer fence and sloping in a way that reveals the raised growing beds. The Rappahannock clay has been lightened and enriched over the years. Murphy, the farmer in residence, and two seasonal gardeners will raise as much as 8,000 pounds of produce before year’s end.
Now, the pea vines are conspicuous. The lettuce and spinach, started in the greenhouses across the field, are beyond seedling stage. Murphy is also growing three varieties of beets before the summer crops go in next month. The fence forms a gigantic trellis for tomato plants and climbing beans.
The fact that the vegetable garden is utilitarian, and not a decorative potager, is telling. The food is supplemented by a network of local farms and gardens, but diners are not instructed in the origins of the ingredients.
O’Connell seems not to have embraced the precious sensibilities of the contemporary farm-to-table movement. Getting fresh, locally grown food was a given from the beginning, he says, and was the thing that set the restaurant apart in the 1970s, when “French restaurants in D.C. were still serving canned vegetables,” he said.
He used to barter pies for fresh vegetables and found local herbalists who could take you through the forest and “show you everything that was anything. We had sassafras tea, pokeweed salad, dandelion greens, morels. Nobody made a big deal of it. It was just one of the joys of country living,” he said.
Behind the inn, he has recast a cooling tower as a large dovecote. He sometimes uses bamboo or, more frequently, holly as a way of removing things that interfere with the idyll. “I don’t like cars and I don’t like streets, so I do everything I can to obliterate both.”
The inn itself was formerly, unbelievably now, an Amoco station. O’Connell, who once thought of becoming a stage actor, has likened what he does here as theater. To my mind, this pursuit makes him more of a gardener — restless and creative and driven to turn dreams into something real but still a bit unreal.
“There’s a kind of serenity that people have when they come here,” he said. “You have to be able to cast a spell.”