I don’t even remember how we made the initial connection over the internet. But Sylvie Rowand–she of the Rappahanock Cook & Kitchen Gardener blog–and I of The Slow Cook–have been trading comments and food ideas electronically from the shared perspective of cooking kitchen gardeners. We grow ours here in the District of Columbia, about a mile from the White House, while Sylvia tends a farmette outsident Washington, VA, some 70 miles distant from us and better known as home to a world-class restaurant, the Inn at Little Washington. We’d been threatening to pay Sylvie a visit and she made it easy, inviting us to one of her famous cookouts. Sylvie and husband Keith, as part of her personal chef and catering business, specialize in spit-roasted lamb. Keith builds a roasting pit with concrete block, starts a fire with natural wood charcoal, then starts turning the lamb on his portable electric spit. This particular lamb started around 9:30 am, and we were carving it by 1:30.
Sylvie doesn’t exactly advertise the fact that she’s French, but it comes through in her elegant food writing. We learned yesterday that she actually hails from Reunion Island, a volcanic outcropping in the Indian Ocean off Madagascar. The island is barely 40 miles long, but it’s considered a department, just like regions of France on the European mainland. Sylvie has to be the first person we’ve met from Reunion Island, but the French consider it their own version of Hawaii.
Sylvie’s gardens are set on a lush hillside, complete with a small greenhouse and a chicken coop with five laying hens and a very active–and very large–rooster. Her catering business even in this rural setting is doing well enough that she was recently able to quit her part-time day job. Besides cooking weekly meals for families and arranging dinner parties and small weddings, Sylvie gives cooking lessons and gardening workshops and hires out as a garden coach. “Sylvie Rowand gardens because she likes to eat and eats well because she gardens,” reads a flyer she displays at the local post office. I like that sentiment. I think it applies to all of us kitchen gardeners.
Sylvie has also found a niche catering for weekenders in this part of Rappahanock County. It’s a lovely corner of Virginia with rolling hills, forest and winding roads not far from Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive. Many Washingtonians keep weekend houses here. Sylvie said she and husband Keith were the first to start spit-roasting lamb commercially. On their first job, they actually dug a pit in the client’s yard to do the roasting, then came up with the idea of making a portable pit using concrete blocks. Sheep, and lamb, is a growing business in the area, Sylvie said. The meat from this one was incredibly moist and tender, and I would say mild. Some people are put off by the flavor of lamb. They think it’s too gamy. But that’s exactly the flavor that draws me too it.
Keith had also cooked a whole turkey in his smoker. He put me to work carving it. Sylvie had invited about 30 friends to this shindig and they all looked hungry. There was no time to waste. We started filling platters with sliced turkey and sliced lamb. Meanwhile, the guests were setting out food they’d brought, potluck style–pasta salad with mushrooms and vegetables, a curried garbanzo salad, couscous, spinach salad and a ton of decadent desserts. Our own contribution was the deviled eggs we make with chili-garlic sauce and Szechuan peppercons. Aren’t deviled eggs pretty much required at a potluck?
Sylvie also kindly invited daughter to bring her swim suit and spend part of the afternoon in the Rowands’ pool. We weren’t sure there’d be any kids for her to play with, so she brought one of her friends from school. You think they didn’t have a blast? When they weren’t goofing around in the pool, they were wading in a nearby creek. Oh, to be 10 again!
Sylvie and I lately have been debating the merits of beef tongue–she preferring to cook hers without brining, me insisting on a one-week brine before cooking. Now I have her interested in pickling mustard greens. “I have lots of mustard greens,” she says. It’s great to be able to compare notes with another gardener who likes to cook, especially someone as knowledgable as Sylvie. And she’s a darn good writer as well in her adopted English. Thanks, Sylvie, for inviting us to share part of your Memorial Day weekend in your incredible home and gardens and creating an occasion for us to meet you finally.