Attractions: Staunton River State Park Star Party.

The Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxies. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxies. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

We recently learned of an unusual designation for Staunton River State Park, which is just 30 miles down the road from us near the town of Scottsburg.  The park was just named an “International Dark Sky Park” by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), a group dedicated to minimizing the effects of light pollution on the night sky.  IDA is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization based in Tucson, Arizona that advocates the protection of the nighttime environment and dark night skies by educating policymakers and the public about night-sky conservation and promoting environmentally responsible outdoor lighting.  Staunton River State Park the first park in Virginia and the 25th in the world to receive this designation.

Going one step further, Wanderlust Magazine published a list of the thirteen best stargazing spots in Europe, the United States and Canada, and Staunton River State Park appeared first on the list (“13 of the best stargazing sites in Europe, America & Canada,” by Hannah Uttley, 19 August 2015).

Why is this important? If you live in an urban area you don’t give much thought to how light pollution obliterates the night sky, where only the brightest stars manage to assert themselves.  That makes it easy to observe the major constellations, but it is impossible to see with the naked eye such features, for example, as the Milky Way.  You need to be in one of these dark sky areas to fully appreciate the expanse of the cosmos overhead.

An IDA International Dark Sky Park (IDSP) is a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment. The land may be publicly owned, or privately owned provided that the landowner(s) consent to the right of permanent, ongoing public access to specific areas included in the IDA designation.

A View of the Milky Way from Staunton River Star Party (2014).
The Milky Way, photographed during the 2014 Staunton River Star Party.

It’s difficult to find such places on the densely settled Eastern United States, but given our remote location, this designation comes as no surprise.

This arose, in part, because the Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society (CHAOS) has since 2011 organized twice-yearly star parties in the park after finding the park on a dark sky map, and their interest in the park made park management realize they had a unique resource to protect, so park staff took steps to reduce light pollution in the park and began the process of applying for this designation. Measures such as reducing unnecessary lighting, or using light fixtures that focus down rather than out and up, help maintain visibility of the night sky. The Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative helped by installing dark sky compliant bulbs in the park. Virginia State Parks Director Craig Seaver noted that “Going forward, we intend to apply dark sky design principles at other DCR properties and to utilize lighting policies that minimally impact our visitor’s enjoyment of the night sky.”

The Fall 2015 Star Party takes place October 12 to 18.  On Saturday, October 17, the event is free and open to the public from 8 pm to 11 pm.  Visitors can mingle with amateur astronomers to learn about and view planets, stars, nebulae and galaxies.

About Staunton River State Park:

Staunton River State Park is comprised of 2,400-acres, offering woodlands, meadows and shoreline along the Dan and Staunton rivers. Cabins built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and a campground offer overnight lodging. The equestrian campground offers large campsites and horse stalls. Access to Virginia’s largest lake, Buggs Island Lake, offers freshwater fishing and boating, along with water skiing and many other aquatic activities. The park also has Olympic-sized and wading pools, picnic shelters, three playgrounds, tennis and volleyball courts, several boat launches and more than 17 miles of multi-use trails. River Traders, just outside the park entrance, rents canoes, kayaks, jon boats and pontoon boats.

Recipe: Super-easy Gazpacho.

Gazpacho

It’s impossible to count the number of variations to be found of this most simple of summertime cold soups!  We published one some time ago, an adaption of one by that great chef Alice Waters; that recipe called for using a mortar and pestle, among other things.

We have another recipe that includes adding a dollop of Mustard Ice Cream (yes, Mustard flavored ice cream) — a recipe by Patricia Welles in The Paris Cookbook (HarperCollins, 2001).  We served it once years ago and still get grief about it.  A really unusual variation we tried once was a Gazpacho Sorbet with Apple Aspic, served with a sprinkle of caramelized balsamic vinegar. Like the Mustard Ice Cream, this gets made fun of, too, but not as much as the mustard.  Regardless of what you (or your guests) might think, they are all delicious.

Not in the mood (and not having our mortar and pestle handy), we opted for this simple formulation that only calls for throwing everything in a blender (10 minutes active time, if that), then refrigerating for 4 to 6 hours.  Done!

If you like, dip the tomatoes in hot water for a minute and peel them, but that isn’t really necessary.  You could peel the cucumber, but don’t.  Just dice all of the vegetables.

Pairing wine with tomatoes calls for something with a little bit of acid to counteract the acidity of the dish.  We recommend our Annefield Vineyards Vermentino 2014.

Super-easy Gazpacho

Ingredients

  • Four ripe beefsteak tomatoes, diced
  • One hothouse cucumber, diced (1/4 inch)
  • One red bell pepper, diced (1/4 inch)
  • 1/2 red onion, diced
  • 2 cups tomato juice
  • 1/2 cup red-wine vinegar
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 dashes Sriracha or Tabasco sauce (we find the Sriracha to be “brighter” and recommend it, but Tabasco works, too).

Directions

  1. Place all of the diced vegetables in a large bowl. Add the tomato juice, vinegar, oil, and Sriracha (or Tabasco).  Season with salt and pepper; toss.
  2. Transfer half of the mixture to a blender or food processor and pulse the machine on and off to coarsely puree the contents. Return the pureed mixture to the bowl and stir to combine.
  3. Refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours before serving.

Serves six (or four generously).

Tomatoes

The Lafayette Inn, Stanardsville, Virginia.

Ladies

Saturday we found ourselves in the little town of Stanardsville in Greene County, up the road from Charlottesville.  With a population of 476 people in the last Federal census, the place is not exactly hopping.  But it’s the county seat, which in rural areas always counts for something (steady employment), and it’s home to the Lafayette Inn, a hotel built in 1840 that features a restaurant presenting a 10-course tasting menu.  A dear friend always wanted to go, so a surprise was arranged on the pretense of picking up a table at an antique shop in the vicinity.

Early Mountain Vineyards.
Early Mountain Vineyards.

Of course they got lost but still made good time, and after a round of toasts and appetizers on the terrace, dressed and sat down for dinner.   There was no printed menu so each dish was a surprise, and wine pairings were only briefly mentioned; some were Virginia wines, others from California and elsewhere.  Early Mountain Vineyards is close by (we had stopped there on the way), and we had one of their wines.

So — craving a romantic getaway seemingly in the middle of nowhere (yet a morning’s drive away from Washington, DC, Richmond, Danville or Lynchburg in Virginia, or Raleigh, Durham, Wake Forest or Greensboro in North Carolina)?  And what a bargain — the price for the dinner includes the room.  There are only five guest rooms, so book early and bring your friends.

Shrimp & Grits Scallops with Risotto Corn Salad Bacon Wrapped Dates

Dog Days.

Beach
Chatham, Massachusetts.

Ah, summer. It’s so difficult to get motivated to do anything when the weather is like this.  We can’t even think about wine at the moment, so here are a handful impressions from a recent trip to Cape Cod and Boston.  Enjoy.

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Falmouth Raw Bar.
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Lobster Ice Cream.
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Falmouth Town Green.
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New England Aquarium, Boston.
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Fish and Chips at Falmouth Raw Bar.
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Captain Tom Lawrence House Inn.
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Feeding Time.
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Jellies.
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Downtown Boston.
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Ben and Bill’s.

A Weekend in Charm City.

Wings

Not really a weekend, but a day and a night in Baltimore to see Billy Joel in concert at the M&T Stadium.  Friends invited us, they had secured killer seats in a box in the stadium, so why not?

We arrived at lunchtime in time to join our friends at Kona Grill next to the Convention Center on the Inner Harbor.  We haven’t been to Baltimore in ages and have fond memories of the quirky neighborhoods where you could still find a corner neighborhood bar populated with burly longshoremen and teamsters, and in summer the painted screens in the windows of many of the houses in and around Fell’s Point.

Painted window screens are a unique Baltimore folk art, but sadly we didn’t see any.  No surprise there, really; Fell’s Point has turned decidedly upmarket from when we visited occasionally in the late 1980s, and with houses being modernized comes air conditioning.  Something was lost there, but we see that there are societies seeking to promote and preserve the practice, which is a good thing, but we think the authenticity of them might be lost to history.  An entry in Wikipedia notes that an estimated 100,000 painted screens once festooned houses in Baltimore, but a census in 2014 put the number at 1,000.  That’s a real pity.  Fortunately the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore maintains a permanent exhibit of examples, though we would rather see them in situ.

Kona Grill was selected for lunch because it provided a perfect vantage point to watch the parade of participants at Otakon, a convention taking place that weekend in Baltimore.  We joked that it was difficult to tell the conventioneers from the locals.  Otakon has been a feature each year in Baltimore since 1999. We don’t fully understand it, but its devotees enjoy “costume play,” or “cosplay” and dress up however they choose to create and present characters.  Its all very surreal — some dressed as pirates, we spotted one gentleman dressed as Colonel Saunders and carrying a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken; others were otherworldly creatures carrying impossibly large mallets or swords from video games, anime, movies — you pick it, they dressed it.  It might be worth the price of admission to the convention to see what goes on in there.

This surreal scene reminded us of another visit to Baltimore.  It was 1997, the 25th anniversary of Pink Flamingos (1972), John Waters’ break-out cult classic which was re-released that year with improved sound.  We attended a screening at the Charles Theatre on Charles Street, but first decamped to the Club Charles across the street to have a drink.  Things were still a bit dicey in the neighborhood and we had to be buzzed in, but imagine our surprise to see holding court at the bar but John Waters!  “The only movie I want to see right now is Anaconda,” he said (he was chatting with the bartender).  We kept a respectful distance and had a quick drink, then joined the growing line for the movie, which stretched down the block.  A few minutes later, out came Mr Waters, who put his arms akimbo, took a minute to take in the scene, and smiling approvingly, got into a late-model Buick parked in the adjoining lot and drove off.

We had an early dinner at Barcocina, a Mexican-inspired restaurant with breathtaking views of the Inner Harbor, then took a water taxi across the harbor to the stadium.  The concert?  Truthfully, underwhelming (we’ve heard it all before), but a great day and a night out.  Breakfast the next morning at Jimmy’s Restaurant on Broadway in Fell’s Point reminded us of old Baltimore, with the presentation of a heaping helping of pan-seared scrapple.

Kona Grill, 1 E Pratt Street, Baltimore, MD 21202 (410) 244.8994

Barcocina, 1629 Thames Street, Baltimore, MD 21231 (410) 563.8800

Jimmy’s Restaurant, 801 South Broadway, Baltimore, MD 21231 (410) 327.3273

Mallet Scimitar GrootBilly Joel

Downy Mildew is a Downer.

Downy Mildew
Downy Mildew

After a blissful few days in Cape Cod, reality came crashing back last week when we returned to the vineyard to discover that we’ve developed a mild case of downy mildew.  With downy mildew, the pathogen colonizes the underside of the leaves, causing them to wither and collapse — just when we need the leaves to ripen the fruit.

In years past we’ve been able to avoid this scourge. This year, with the relentless, almost daily rain, and an unfortunate accident made it unavoidable. You’ll recall that on June 20 we had a birthday party at Annefield and a devastating storm moved in, taking with it a number of large trees and our power supply. What we did not realize at the time, however, was that the wind took hold of the door of the tractor, flung it open and shattered the glass and bent the frame.

We only learned of this the next Monday, called our equipment service, Spaulding Equipment, which took it away and ordered a new door, which of course takes time. In the meantime, the sent us a loaner, which was all well and good, but halfway through spraying the damn thing caught fire. That isn’t going to work, and with no other tractor to be had, we had to wait.

So two weeks went by without a proper fungicide spray, and the downy mildew took hold. Finally this week with equipment again the way it should be, we’re back on a rigorous spray schedule to keep this beast at bay. Fortunately it can be controlled, but now that its in the vineyard, we must be extra-careful to keep it contained. The fruit isn’t affected now, just the leaves, but we must be careful to make sure it doesn’t infect the fruit. Not the end of the world, and véraison is just around the corner — while walking the vineyard this past weekend we spotted one cluster in the Cabernet Sauvignon that is nearly completely purple. Where has the time gone?  Clearly, time waits for no one.

Cabernet Sauvignon Berries

The Glass Onion in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Golden Watermelon Salad
Golden Watermelon Salad, The Glass Onion, Falmouth, Massachusetts

We were back in Massachusetts again last weekend, but this time for a wedding.  You would think with all this time away that we don’t have a winery to run.  That has taken on a life of its own, but anyway this was a family obligation we completed willingly and with great pleasure.

Not having quite recovered from the trip, and finding our self-imposed publication deadline looming, this week we’ll tell you about one thing we experienced and utterly enjoyed during our three days on the Cape — dinner at The Glass Onion in Falmouth.

Summers on the Cape bring to mind boat shoes, shorts, sandy feet, “lobstah” stands and seafood shacks and ice cream stores (with interminable lines after dinner).  Each town on the Cape has its own vibe and its own following, you’ll find people who go to, say, Hyannis or Dennis or Chatham or Provincetown and just stay there, in part because each town has everything you need (“putt-putt golf?”  Check.  “Inflatables store?”  Check.  “Overpriced antique store?”  Check.  Aaaand done.

It probably has more to do with what a pain it is to get around, with so many people whizzing about not very many roads, and many of them the driven sort from New York or Boston with expensive beach houses.  We saw more than one Bentley parked at the side of the road.

Then you have the locals who refer to the rest of the world as “Off Cape,” which of course implies there are only two ways to be: either the unsaid “On Cape” and everything else, which implicitly makes the Cape the center of the universe.  To them, perhaps it is — they don’t seem to stray off it much.  It does feel very much like an island wherever you are, so don’t feel compelled to make the trek to Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket to experience island life.

The frenetic traffic whizzing past falls away a distant memory when you walk into The Glass Onion, a model of quiet repose.  Sophisticated but not stuffy, clean colors  and a muted setting to highlight the best of the clientele and the food.  Service is discreet and efficient, the menu sufficiently varied to call for innumerable repeat visits, and a wine list full of interesting choices.  We selected the 2014 DeMorgenzon Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch to accompany our Golden Watermelon Salad and Grilled Sea Bass on a bed of lentils. We skipped dessert (too tight trousers gave pause), but now regret it. This place is not to be reserved for special occasions, and should be patronized early to assure a seat (reservations are only for parties of six or more) and often.  It’s a place to savor the best of Cape Cod, and it’s one of the better restaurants we’ve encountered anywhere.

The Glass Onion, 37 North Main Street, Falmouth, Massachusetts 02540 (508) 540.3730
Grilled Sea Bass