A rich tradition — and plenty of rich food — are on the table at an annual Piedmont holiday feast
By Kit Johnston
Photos by Adam Goings
of Stephen Bathon’s annual holiday game dinner came on bitter cold as a bloody sun descended. Fellow hunters, wives, and other lovers of wild meat hurried into Stephen and his wife Gayle’s Linden House on the edge of Warrenton’s historic district seeking the parlor place fires set just for them. Then, as they well knew to do, they headed back to the spacious kitchen for their first heady scents of a feast in the making.
Perched on a kitchen stool, I watched Chef Vladimir Jelenic place slender slices of smoked pheasant on lettuce leaves, topping each off with a colorful medley of julienned vegetables, kimchi (which he learned to make from a colleague during his 40 years as chef at Washington’s Omni Shoreham hotel), and a Thai-inspired vinaigrette, thickened with hoisin sauce to make for better finger food. Seeing my hunger, Chef Vlad offered a pre-dinner taste, a complexity of flavors and textures that served only to enhance, not mask, the smoked bird.
To my right, John Heckler skillfully prepped his own hunted contribution — deep ruby-colored breasts of Eastern Shore duck for Stephen’s Duck El Recon recipe from Argentina. As I watched, John asked why I was here. “To party down,” I quipped. “You have come to the right place,” he replied, handing me a first glass of beautifully decanted California cabernet sauvignon.
Chef Vlad moved to check the progress of two legs of venison roasting under fragrant cover of sweet and savory herb-infused salted bread pastry. Born in the former Yugoslavia to a family of hunters and chefs, Chef Vlad has been an avid fisherman and hunter all his life. These days he warns his wife when he is headed home with a fresh kill, for the lovely Tara “cannot stand the blood.” Their 8-year-old daughter does not mind it, and the 12-year-old does, yet both will eagerly go with him to a local lake for days of leisurely fishing and nights spent gigging frogs.
It is time for the appetizers. I find a spot by a fireplace next to John’s wife, Kim, just as the venison carpaccio is set before us, as well as the smoked goose and horseradish sauce. Kim likes the way the arugula works with the carpaccio, and I agree, but we both fall in love with Dave Meadows’ smoked goose, reputedly marinated in Grand Marnier for many hours. The sear, smoke, and residual orange liqueur sweet of the goose is perfectly set off by the bite of the horseradish. As we happily munch another (off-menu) Bathon treat of breaded and fried venison on a stick, we talk about great game sauces we have known, including Chatellier’s Rare Game Sauce (http://wildgamesauce.com). John joins us and asks if I’ve seen the pool house, for it is filled with Steve’s game trophies.
“All my friends think Steve is full of … well … until they see that,” for it attests to Bathon’s some 50 years of successful hunting and cooking wild game, including large dinners such as this.
Kim thought back to when John first described to her his own passion for hunting. “Do you remember what it feels like to be a six-year-old child on Christmas morning?” he had said. “Well, hunting means even more to me than that.” While “we women may not have that passion, we are fascinated by it,” Kim admitted. “Imagine being even more excited than a six-year-old on Christmas Day!” I couldn’t.
Now it was time for the main event. Gayle ushered some 25 guests into the dining room where game dishes and side vegetables awaited, arranged buffet style—a literal groaning board.
“Please feel free to sit anywhere,” she invited, so some filled their plates and returned to the fires, while others plunked down on the stairs or headed back to the kitchen.
Ellen Emerson, who with her husband Lou, owns Fauquier Now, a news website, showed how she could cut the tender venison roast with only a small fork in hand. “Which is the point,” Chef Vlad noted happily.
There were also tiny new potatoes roasted in salt and olive oil, tiny semi-caramelized carrots studded with pecans, and the most delicately browned brussel sprouts dotted with bacon. Bathon’s elk meatballs with blue cheese, which I had tasted cold, were now available warm with a most perfect and simple cream sauce.
Later, a small group braved the cold outside, where hunters naturally long to be, partaking of fine cognac and mild cigars. All was quiet for awhile, then someone sighed contentedly and concluded that “it is time third generations learn this stuff.” Amen!
Horseradish cream sauce
2 heads of garlic
2 cups of heavy cream
¼ teaspoon of salt
¼ cup of prepared horseradish
¼ teaspoon of pepper (preferably white)
Preheat oven to 350° F. Slice off the top end off of each head of garlic. Drizzle them with olive oil and wrap them in aluminum foil. Bake for 50 minutes.
Simmer the cream while the garlic roasts. It should reduce by half. Once the garlic is cooked and cooled enough to handle, squeeze the garlic into a bowl separating it from the skins. Add the reduced cream, salt, horseradish and pepper to the garlic and blend well. Refrigerate overnight.