The driveway at the Restaurant at Patowmack Farm is a gravel road into the past. Looking up the hill, across a field of milkweed towards the acclaimed Lovettsville restaurant, you might miss the trail head into the woods. But the woods is where we’re headed with Chef Tarver King, to forage for the dinner service this week.
Tarver is recognized as one of the Mid-Atlantic’s best chefs. He is a James Beard Award Finalist, and the Restaurant at Patowmack Farm has won praise or its ever-changing found, grown, and raised menus served alfresco on the patio or in the glass house. Foraging for his multi-course meals is one-part history lesson and one-part love letter to the land.
Here the path is winding and rutted from a recent storm that washed down towards Catoctin Creek. Beech trees and black walnut share the canopy with oaks and hickory covered with vines. We’re on our way towards the site of the restaurant’s annual Feast in the Forest, gathering ingredients from among the foliage and the forest floor. There's no grocery cart, but it's a wild version of grocery shopping all the same.
Tarver stops and kneels to dig up chicory and snag a handful of spicebush berries. He’s an endless source of information on plants, describing the spicy, citrus-like fragrance the berries will bring to a curry, and the Christmassy smell of Virginia juniper that will flavor a brine. If the cultivated farm on the other side of the hill is the restaurant’s pantry, these woods are its spice cabinet, giving diners a true taste of Loudoun.
We’re looking for chicken of the woods mushrooms, light-colored tree huggers with the texture and taste of chicken. Tarver serves of them as a vegetarian entree, marinated with kombu and garlic, then breaded and southern fried. Many diners have demanded to see the mushroom after taking a bite, convinced that a cutlet of fried chicken has been mistakenly served. While we don’t find any "chickens" on our hunt, Chef Tarver points down a deer path and says they will return to the menu this fall.
Tarver explains that mushrooms are his favorite forage find because they are so challenging to locate. “Chanterelles made me fall in love with foraging. I searched for a long time before I even found one,” he says. “Then, it was as if my eyes had been opened. I could literally pick them out of the shadows around me.”
“When people hear foraging, they expect sticks and bark, not a wild olive or a berry with juice that tastes like a fruit roll up.”
Foraging may sound haphazard, like wandering in the woods. But with an experienced chef who knows every hill and stream, it’s very purposeful. We’re visiting plants Tarver knows and greeting trees like old friends. But it is Virginia’s sweet treats -- wine berries, nannyberries, frost grapes, and recently bluebells – that the Chef likes serving to foraging first timers. “When people hear foraging, they expect sticks and bark, not a wild olive or a berry with juice that tastes like a fruit roll up.”
Tarver has been at Patowmack Farm long enough to be in tune with what’s in season and to know where hidden treasures can be found across the 42-acre property. He muses about the menu for Feast in the Forest, a multi-course dinner event that includes a hike through the woods to get to dining tables set on the edge of the creek. The event, scheduled annually for late October, is an homage to the Farm's origins with a menu that is entirely wild.
The rest of our walk reveals that it’s a great year for paw paws, that morels like to hide in the root structure of beech trees, and that sunchokes have been mapped by their blooms this summer so they can be dug up this fall. Tarver says they’ve partnered with local wineries and distilleries as well as local organic and sustainably minded farmers and hunters for the Feast, and will be inviting each to talk about their own land and their process of stewarding its bounty.
Desert, under the guidance of chef Nate Shapiro, has in the past included hickory nut pies and candy boxes filled with wild berry jellies and French-style macaroons.
Feast in the Forest is scheduled for October 18th. Reservations tend to book well before the leaves start changing, but diners can get the forage-to-table experience at dinner on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, brunch on Sundays, or at one of the Restaurant’s monthly Sunday Suppers. Look for upcoming menus inspired by the March Region of Italy on November 8 and Bangladesh on December 6.
Also note that this spring owner Beverly Morton Billard, who has owned and farmed the land since 1986, introduced weekly family style to-go meals and packed picnics in addition to in-person dining. Reservations and pre-orders are required. The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm practices social distancing and year-round outdoor dining. See https://www.patowmackfarm.com/ or call
Kristin Rock has been in love with Loudoun for more than 20 years. She’s a content strategist and writer with Inkwell Creative, developing written and digital assets for a variety of clients and passionately eradicating typos from take-out menus. www.InTheInkwell.com