The Charms Of Airlie House And The Castleton Festival – An Engaging Duet In The Countryside by Jordan Wright

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Airlie House. Photo by Jordan Wright.
Airlie House. Photo by Jordan Wright.

It is with heavy heart that I divulge to my dear readers one of my secret pleasures – because not to share my latest adventures is anathema to my nature. But first I’ll tell of my history with a place that has been dear to my heart for many years.

Fifteen years ago I discovered one of the nation’s most under-the-radar destinations. A secluded destination that has more in common with Britain’s “Treasure Houses” than a Virginia gentleman’s farm, although that is what it once was. It began innocently enough on a Saturday morning in the beautiful foothills of the Piedmont region where we had gone to meet friends at the steeplechase races. After driving about an hour from Washington we turned off the highway onto a country lane past a series of stone columns fitted with iron gates.  A large rock waterfall beside the road appeared as if out of nowhere. Meadows resplendent with wildflowers and a small airstrip came into view. The winding road led us high up to a racetrack that coursed over hill and dale and around several ponds.  We spent a glorious day wondering where indeed we were.

The moon gate at Airlie. Photo by Jordan Wright.
The moon gate at Airlie. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Fast forward to the following year and we are watching sheep trials on the same wondrous property. We take luncheon in the manor, tour the formal gardens, watch collies work the sheep, and stroll the grounds circling around quiet ponds bordered with more houses, cottages, swimming pools and a small pub. Herons and geese abound, frogs and crickets whir in concert and fish leap out of the water breaking the silence.  We are at Airlie House.

Trumpeter Swans swim alongside Canada Geese on one of Airlie’s nine ponds. Photo by Jordan Wright.
Trumpeter Swans swim alongside Canada Geese on one of Airlie’s nine ponds. Photo by Jordan Wright.

On our next visit we were guests at a lawn party at one of the homes on the property where the landowner’s son, a young doctor and musician, lived in bohemian splendor amidst mansions and stables and wild raspberries.

The Roger Tory Peterson Butterfly Garden dedicated to Airlie by his wife Virginia Peterson. Photo by Jordan Wright.
The Roger Tory Peterson Butterfly Garden dedicated to Airlie by his wife Virginia Peterson. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Soon after we learned of the Airlie Environmental Studies Center and its Director Dr. Bill Sladen whose swan migration program trained Trumpeter Swans, bred on the property, to follow an ultralight plane. And so, we returned for a swan conference, an international ornithological event that occurs somewhere in the world every ten years. For the first time we spent a night in one of the lovely cottages before taking off to a secret location near the Chesapeake Bay where we banded swans while cradling them in our arms. The bus then took us further south to the Great Dismal Swamp on a 32-hour expedition shared with thirty-five ornithologists speaking seventeen languages.

Poolside at Airlie. Photo by  Jordan Wright.
Poolside at Airlie. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Last weekend I returned for a stay at Airlie House for the full-on guest experience.  The 1200-acre conference center, once known only to high-level government officials, corporate CEOs and those whose business is conducted free from prying eyes, has now flung open the doors and grounds of this historic property to overnight guests, offering weekend packages, winemaker’s dinners in the field and a new partnership with the Castleton Festival. No longer is it the exclusive purview of conference attendees. At last anyone can experience its once-hidden glories.

Airlie House Executive Chef Jeff Witte at the entrance to the kitchen gardens. Photo by Joran Wright.
Airlie House Executive Chef Jeff Witte at the entrance to the kitchen gardens. Photo by Jordan Wright.

As the summer sun climbed high overhead I met with Airlie’s Executive Chef Jeff Witte, a Los Angeles native and graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, who guided me through the sustainable gardens, a passive solar hoop house and raised beds bursting at the seams with herbs, vegetables and flowers. Bee hives, the wellspring of Airlie’s honey, dot one side of the fenced-in plots, while climbing hops twine around poles in the biergarten.

The Center’s kitchen benefits from 4,500 pounds of organic produce each year, some of which is shared with community food banks. “We source from over 30 local farms for our meats, cheeses and fruits, buying everything as locally as we can. We’re totally committed to our relationships with the community’s farmers,” explains Witte whose upscale regional cuisine strikes an elegant chord with diners.

A trio of palate cleansers – Alaskan halibut with Airlie garden vegetables – Garden figs with goat cheese ice cream, shortbread cookies and caramel sauce. Photo by Jordan Wright.
A trio of palate cleansers – Alaskan halibut with Airlie garden vegetables – Garden figs with goat cheese ice cream, shortbread cookies and caramel sauce. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Kae Yowell, Head Gardener for the Local Food Project at Airlie, who grew up on a dairy farm where her grandparents grew and canned their own vegetables, enjoys teaching others about the pleasures of the garden. “Throughout the year we have a series of lectures on gardening, seed saving and beekeeping. We just had one on making fruit jams and jellies from our strawberry patch.

The summer garden at Airlie – Flowers grow side by side with herbs and vegetables at the Local Food Project. Photo by Jordan Wright.
The summer garden at Airlie – Flowers grow side by side with herbs and vegetables at the Local Food Project. Photo by Jordan Wright.

This weekend guests can join in the annual Butterfly Count and by the looks of it there will be plenty of monarchs and swallowtails flitting about the gardens and the surrounding wildflower meadows. For more information on Airlie Center and its weekend packages with tickets to Castleton visit www.Airlie.com.

Butterfly weed in the meadows of Airlie. Photo by Jordan Wright.
Butterfly weed in the meadows of Airlie. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Castleton

The fields of Castleton . Photo by Jordan Wright.
The fields of Castleton. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Entering its fifth anniversary season with Maestro Lorin Maazel, Castleton’s founder and world-renowned former conductor of the New York Philharmonic and guest conductor of many of Europe’s finest orchestras, the festival plays host to international opera and musician superstars, as well as up and coming orchestral virtuoso artists. Situated on a 550-acre farm the Theatre House and its concert venue feature weekend programs of classical music concerts played by a full orchestra, chamber music performances, cabarets, and operas by composers from Puccini to Verdi to Andrew Lloyd Webber.

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Maazel’s wife, Dietlinde Turban Maazel, is the festival’s co-founder and Associate Artistic Director. As a stage and screen actress she is singularly qualified to train the young artists that come from around the world to Castleton’s doors for the summer Artists Training Seminars and workshops in the performing arts. Another famous faculty member is American mezzo-soprano, Denyce Graves, veteran of the Metropolitan Opera and native Washingtonian.

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Last Saturday the Castleton Festival staged a spectacular performance of Puccini’s “The Girl of the Golden West” and organizers had put an exclamation point on the theme with a cowboy galloping around the hills on a black and white Paint and a Conestoga wagon pulled by two perfectly matched draft horses at the entrance to the concert hall. It was a glamorous night for attendees and benefactors who basked in the glow of a glittering opening night. For tickets and information on the Festival’s upcoming performances through July 28th visit www.castletonfestival.org

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OTELLO this weekend

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Jordan Wright
Jordan Wright is an accomplished writer on food, spirits, travel, and theatre. Her clients include the tony Georgetowner and hip sister publication the Downtowner, the Washington Examiner and San Francisco Examiner, as well as LocalKicks.com, DC Metro Magazine, Washington Life Magazine, Washingtonian Magazine, MDTheatreGuide.com, The Alexandria Times, Hartkeisonline.com, and now DCMetroTheaterArts. Her articles feature restaurant openings, food and wine events, food-oriented film reviews, farmer’s markets, food trends, restaurant reviews, food memories, new food products, hotels, spas, resorts and interviews with the country’s leading chefs – from Jose Andres and Top Chef’s Carla Hall, to CakeLove’s Warren Brown and Top Chef’s Spike Mendelsohn. She has also interviewed famed chef and TV star, Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert, cookbook author Joan Nathan, and director Robert Kenner for an in-depth article about his film Food, Inc. Photographs by Wright accompany many of her articles and NBCNews.com has picked up and used several of her stories. Jordan Wright hails from three generations of show business. Her grandmother, Betty Morton, was a Ziegfield Follies girl; her step-grandmother Corinne Griffith, a noted author and silent screen star wrote Hail to the Redskins; her father, Georgie Price, an entertainer and founder of The Lamb’s Club in New York, as well as a CBS radio show host, songwriter and vaudevillian; her sister, Penny Larsen Vine, a theatre critic both on radio and in print for Variety, a former longtime member of the Outer Critics Circle, and a lead performer in countless national touring companies; one brother, Peter Price, appeared in leading roles in over 16 major motion pictures for MGM; while her other brother, Marshall Price performed at Carnegie Hall. Niece, Stephanie Vine, was the final Annie in the original production of Annie on Broadway, and niece, Liz Larsen, has received two Tony nominations and a Helen Hayes award for lead actress in Sunday in the Park with George. Wright sang with Columbia Records in New York and Barclay Records in France. In the sports world her grandfather was the original owner and founder of the Washington Redskins football team. Wright has traveled throughout four continents and currently resides in Old Town Alexandria.