A Lamb Feast

As laughter and murmurs of animated conversation drifted from the terrace with view of the Blue Ridge Mountains into the kitchen (where I, the chef, was putting finishing touches on the dessert plates) and as guests raised their glass for a toast shortly after sunset, I knew that dinner was a success. One can never be sure.

What makes a great dinner is always an interesting study. Everything must come together and there is not necessarily one formula by which to abide. Many different people in very many different circumstances have pulled together very successful affairs, having contrived to get that “magic” to work. On Sunday, the hostess certainly did that: she put together an interesting and varied guest list; she set a beautiful table in a very enticing setting; she provided great food (if I may say so, since my partner and I were cooking), and most importantly she made all her guests – not just the guest of honor – feel wanted, welcome and special.

First, she set up a 30-ft long table on the terrace (there were after all 32 guests), dressed it with vintage cotton linens, assorted china and pottery, and fresh flowers that she had just picked. It looks at once refined and casual – perfect for a country diner. She and I (the hired chef) cooperated on a menu with a Mediterranean feel but firmly rooted in the Northern Piedmont: many of our ingredients were sourced in Rappahannock County. The “pièce de resistance” was a lamb mechoui (a lamb, stuffed with herbs, and slowly spit-roasted on an outdoor fire) that my partner cooked for most of the afternoon. It was brought from the fire pit onto a side table and carved in front of the dinners. That little drama added to the sense of expectation that had build up during the cocktail hour when guests were able to go and watch the lamb being cooked over the newly dug pit, while sipping on Spirited Lemonade and munching on freshly baked pissaladière (a Provençal onion, anchovies & olive tart), stuffed grape leaves and tapenade.

Lamb mechoui

The buffet, set up inside in the great room that opens onto the terrace, used colorful platters and bowls containing ratatouille (the real one, made traditionally by cooking each vegetable separately before gently folding them together for a long slow cooking in the oven, melding all the vegetable and herb flavors together sumptuously); couscous salad with dry cranberries, cucumber & mint; a fennel, watercress and cherry tomato salad; roasted rosemary lemon chicken (in case some guests did not eat lamb); and bread, freshly baked in the outdoor fire pit using Dutch ovens. The lamb came from Touchstone Farm, in Amissville; the chicken were from Belle Meade in Sperryville. The vegetables and herbs were from Sunnyside Farms, in Washington, VA, Waterpenny in Sperryville and Laughing Duck Gardens kitchen gardens as well as from the hostess small but productive vegetable garden. For dessert, I made fresh peach ice-cream served with prettily arranged lemon verbena poached peaches and cookies. The peaches were from Roy’s Orchard in Sperryville and Williams Orchard in Flint Hill.

What a way to start the week: cooking for this 32-people mechoui sunset feast, using beautiful local ingredients from small farms and orchard around us.

I will say nothing of the cleaning up afterwards…

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