Over the two and a half days we were in Charlottesville on our summer family road trip, we mostly just kicked back and relaxed. Even though the infinity pool at the Clifton Inn kept my daughter pretty busy, I dragged her out a couple of times to check out some of what the town – and the inn – had to offer.
I’m pretty big on trying to make our vacations educational, at least in part. Here in Charlottesville, that was easy; Monticello, home to Thomas Jefferson and his family, is a can’t-miss attraction. The extensive Visitor’s Center has a museum and café, plus a huge gift shop and film screening room. There’s even a Discovery Center and an Activities Room just for kids.
Best of all, Monticello offers a number of different types of tours, from a look at the gardens to a behind-the-scenes peek at the second and third floors of the house itself. Abby liked walking around outside the best, in part because the gardens were so different from those we see in Philadelphia; Steve was into the stories of the slaves’ roles in running the house and grounds. As for me? I’m kind of a history and government buff, so I took in all I could about Jefferson’s role in founding our country and writing the Declaration of Independence.
I could see spending an entire day at Monticello, but Abby and Steve were itching to get back to the Clifton Inn and the pool, so we took a late-morning dip – but then it was time for the cooking lesson. I convinced myself that learning to cook was educational; it is, right?
Well, the way Chef Tucker Yoder does it, it actually is. Yoder is largely self-trained, and he believes in making what he can himself; that extends to smoking his own bacon, planting his own herbs and vegetables, and, yes, making his own cheese. Today’s lesson? Making ricotta cheese from half-and-half, buttermilk, and salt, then using the ricotta to make homemade gnocchi.
A couple of things made our hour in the kitchen with Yoder more relaxed than I’d expected (I’m kind of uptight and perfectionist when I’m learning something new). First, it was just the four of us: Yoder, Steve, Abby, and me, all in our aprons and Keens (OK, Yoder in his chef’s jacket and clogs), all equally clueless about how to make cheese and fresh pasta (luckily, Yoder knew what he was doing, but the three of us sure didn’t). Yoder was really easygoing, especially giving Abby confidence that she could stir hot liquids on a hot stove and roll out “gnocchi worms,” then use a dough cutter to slice off perfect pieces (in fact, Abby’s gnocchi would look considerably better than either Steve’s or mine when all was said and done).
Yoder took his time, crouching down to pinch off herbs and give us a taste, escorting us out to his garden to see where he’d grown the peas he liked to add to pasta, tossing gnocchi in a pan to make Abby laugh. $125 for an hour’s cooking lesson? A bargain.
And after we cooked, we ate – and all of our efforts in the kitchen were rewarded. Right up at the kitchen’s counter, Yoder served us arugula salad topped with our ricotta, just-made gnocchi with peas and mint from the garden, and sweet ricotta with berries for dessert.
That night, before we went to bed, Abby looked up from her book and said, “Mommy, I never would have thought that ricotta would taste good with honey and berries. Do you think it was yummy because we made it?”
Yep. I sure do.
Many thanks to Monticello and the Clifton Inn for sponsoring our Charlottesville activities.