Spinach Salad with Spicy Tomato Vinaigrette and a Visit to the Chef’s Garden and Wine Cellar at Keswick Hall

We have traveled through many states in the South over the last year searching for some of the great places, farms and people behind our food. One state that we had not been to on our travels, before now, was Virginia. I went to school in Richmond and have visited several cities in Virginia for vacation over the years (Virginia Beach and Williamsburg to name a few), but searching for culinary adventures brought a new perspective to Virginia for this visit.

As you may know, if you are a regular reader of Pratesi Living, our first stop on this road trip was outside of Charlottesville at Keswick Hall in Keswick, Virginia. This area is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains and has extremely fertile soil with a moderate climate. Charlottesville is probably best known for Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s home), the University of Virginia and beautiful farm country. It is also known for great food, especially now that Keswick Hall has recently been designated the #1 hotel in North America for food with a score of 97.8 in Condé Nast Traveler’s Gold List for 2011.

University of Virginia

Keswick Hall graciously arranged for us to meet with most everyone related to food and wine at the property during our visit so that we could get a broader perspective on the area and have a better sense of why this place is so special beyond the obvious beauty and history of the hotel.

Visit with the Head Gardener, Amy Lewis

Amy Lewis, the Head Gardener at Keswick Hall, showed us the gardens on the property and her special project, the Chef’s Garden, which she is working on with their Executive Chef Dean Maupin.  She said he knows the importance of growing some of their own produce, herbs and specialty items (like edible flowers). They have been working together (since he came on board as Executive Chef last September) to choose and grow the foods he will use in the kitchen. Many of these foods are grown from heirloom seeds (especially the tomatoes and many varieties of cherry tomatoes that Chef Maupin prefers).

Amy said they will occasionally test some things that are not available in the local market and then they will contract for those items with larger growers if the chef is interested in those products. It is a great way for them to work together to maximize their own garden as well as introduce unusual and heirloom plants and produce to their guests.

One of the favorite lettuces that they grow is Tennis Ball Lettuce, which is an heirloom variety and is just a beautiful lettuce. Other favorites in their garden include several types of heirloom beets (Soldier, Golden and Red Ace), Dwarf Gray Sugar Peas and Prickly Seeded Spinach.

Amy says that many chefs talk about using local ingredients, but she feels that this chef really is doing as much as possible to work with the local farmers and the gardeners at the property. She is excited to be able to provide lettuce to the hotel through December with the addition of growing tunnels in their garden.

There has been a vast movement across the country to produce and provide locally grown produce, meats and other proteins to the chefs. We are familiar with several farmers who work with chefs to decide on the crops they will grow for the restaurant and matching the growing cycle to ensure the freshest and most unusual items are available to the chefs.

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