Photographs by Andrea Hubbell + Sarah Cramer Shields. Words by Megan Headley.
In a state boasting an embarrassment of riches, Nelson County’s home to a lion’s share. On Saturday evening, we eagerly joined 150 guests at the Carriage House at Oak Ridge Estate for a Taste of Nelson. The six course feast, orchestrated by Tracey Love and Gail Hobbs-Page’s Hill & Holler, paid homage to all the glorious edibles and imbibables coming from this neighbor to our southwest. We left filled to the brim not just with summer’s splendors, but with an overwhelming gratitude for all these artisans do out of their belief that good food comes from the good earth right beneath our feet.If the land in Albemarle speaks of history, the land in Nelson speaks of abundance. At 5pm, the sun hung hot and heavy in the sky beneath cotton candy clouds. Birds lazily swooped over hills that, when nestled among them, feel like the warm and generous embrace of Mother Nature.
During the outdoor cocktail hour, beer from the area’s three breweries (Blue Mountain, Devil’s Backbone, and Wild Wolf), cider from newcomer Bold Rock Cider, and wine from Cardinal Point and Veritas made their way into the glasses of mingling guests who kept one hand free for passed canapes from The Rock Barn’s Ben Thompson. These one-bite wonders that sang of the season–like caprese-topped rounds of grilled bread and Asian pear tartlets strewn with Gail’s 120 day-aged Esmontonian–were (almost) too pretty to eat.Thompson had some help though. In the kitchen, Clifton Inn’s Tucker Yoder cut jewel-like rounds from multi-colored heirloom tomatoes while Bill Thomas added pickled okra to paprika-sprinkled deviled eggs. It was something the Davis Creek Tree farmer who’s “75 and holding” had never done before. Nor had he ever had a six-course meal in his life, which is precisely why Thompson, who Thomas got to know after “getting hooked on his meat”, offered him this opportunity to assist.
It’s this sense of collaboration that defines every Hill & Holler dinner, and by extension, our entire local food and beverage community. Jam According to Daniel’s Daniel Perry lent his able hands to the kitchen staff while Blenheim winemaker Kirsty Harmon was among the serving staff–just because she thought it’d be fun (and because harvest hadn’t ramped up yet). The back of the menus offered special thanks to the more than 30 area artisans–from a.m. fog to Virginia Vinegar Works–who contributed to this meal that was sourced almost entirely from Nelson County. While the sustainability behind eating and drinking this locally is no small feat, the fact that it’s possible is a blessing not lost on any of us as we savored the five family-style courses, each prepared by a different chef and matched with Nelson County wines, beer, and even a lavender mead from Hilltop Berry Farm.
We sat ourselves indoors at round tables adorned with burlap runners, mismatched vintage place settings, and wildflowers happily occupying log vases. August’s volatile weather patterns along with the event’s size necessitated a departure from Hill & Holler’s trademark long table set amidst a field, but even if the seating was reminiscent of a wedding, the lack of family drama, awkward speeches, and a conga line proclaimed otherwise. Then, of course, there was the food.
Private chef Ellen English, Zynodoa’s James Harris, Tucker Yoder, Ivy Inn’s Angelo Vangelopoulos, and caterer Claudia Gibson gave local produce, fish, and meat center stage in each course that served as a tasty tour of the county’s ample bounty. Relishing the remaining crumbs of Gibson’s peach rugelach with the final licks of Vangelopoulos’s corn ice cream, the chefs humbly received our applause and the evening’s beneficiary, The Nelson County Pantry, reminded us of the 300 households every month that their organization (and events like this) help to feed.
Ben Thompson took the microphone to thank his mentor, Double H Farms’ Richard Bean–a man who, with his partner Jean Rinaldi, has farmed in Nelson County for more than fifteen years and has likely touched the lives of every guest in the dining room by way of it. Bean stood with tears in his eyes, flooded with the emotion of seeing a community (that he in large part built) coming together to satisfy our most basic need in a way that recalls the past, enriches our present, and perhaps most important of all, cultivates our future.
While the hard-working staff enjoyed their own feast from Nelson’s soils–all, that is, except for Mr. Thomas who chose to take his meal to go so that he could experience it with his wife–we stepped into a starry night rife with crickets adding their own melody to the cicadas’ chorus. On the drive home, our cheeks hurt from laughing, our bellies grumbled their own versions of gratitude, and our souls felt nourished by the land all around us.