The second part of our imaginary meeting with Thomas Jefferson at his Monticello plantation in 1823, and experiencing the prescient significance of his botanic, socioeconomic, culinary, and of course, political convictions. Jefferson's Monticello overseer, Captain Edmund Bacon, leads us to the front of the house. at the top of the "little mountain"...
Before fully contemplating the gravity of Captain Bacon’s insight into Mr. Jefferson's unusual relationship with his slave population, we found ourselves distracted by our approach to the top of the mountain, catching our first sight of the majestic dome crowning the Monticello home, followed by the dramatic emergence of a spectacularly tall (at least 18 feet), glass doorway – as if signifying the transparency of the man and his property – between four white columns. To either side of the pathway leading to the door were two young little-leaf lindens, already stretching their lanky, darkly creased limbs to the sky, the sunlight sparkling on the green leaves, quivering in the quickening breeze.
But before passing between the lindens, Captain Bacon turned our carriage onto a graveled pathway veering to the right, through a tunnel of several dozen mulberry trees. “Mr. Jefferson calls this Mulberry Row for obvious reasons,” according to our guide, “but in order to prepare you further for your meeting with Mr. Jefferson, I wish to lead you past the house’s north pavilion which disguises a row of stables, a carriage and ice house beneath, and is connected to the schoolhouse you see at the end.
“This allée shall take us into Mr. Jefferson’s ‘Grove’ – his vision of how natural landscaping should appear. Apart from native woods, there are well over one hundred other species of trees, collected from the world over, planted on the plantation. The Grove consists primarily of Mr. Jefferson’s ‘pet’ trees, all native of America, and this is where he frequently goes to meditate, read or write.” As our guide pointed out the wild crab, chinaberry, umbrella magnolia, aspen, red cedar ("this tree, to encourage the population of Mr. Jefferson’s favorite bird, the mockingbird,” according to Captain Bacon), and other species we can no longer recall, we could not help but be enthralled by such an arboretum, which most layman would mistake for completely wild except for the high trimming of branches and glades cleared of enough undergrowth to create an airy atmosphere, and occasional stumps left to enhance the impression of “living” rooms.
Turning back towards the house, the roundabout took us past a handsome stand of sugar maples (“unfortunately,” according to Captain Bacon, “our winters have proven too mild for their saps to rise”) before reaching the pavilion on the south side of the house, where the path entered another tunnel of mulberries where we beheld a row of stone and log structures, all serving to sustain the life and independence of this mountain community.
Once past the cottage, Captain Bacon directed our attention to a level terrace of row crops, woven into its own marvelous cloth of multiple colors and textures, stretching a thousand feet along the mountaintop’s southern flank. The colorful runner was broken by numerous teepees of climbing peas and edible flowers, tall grey mounds of sharp leafed thistles we soon learned were called artichokes, and a red bricked pavilion capped with white Chinese railings, standing like a castle turret at the very center of the supporting rock wall: a breath taking sight against the vivid blues and greens of the landscape leading to Virginia’s Blue Ridge, skirting the horizon. “This,” our guide announced, “is Mr. Jefferson’s vegetable garden, although he often refers to it more descriptively as his kitchen garden, and sometimes even as his outdoor laboratory.
“But you may find the plantings just below the garden walls even more interesting,” said Captain Bacon, pointing to seventeen beautifully espaliered row of grape vines, sitting on seventeen terraces on the south facing slope. Before we could speak, Captain Bacon raised a hand to interrupt, saying, “I shall not utter a word on this matter – not so much because I know you are also seasoned grape growers, but because I know Mr. Jefferson would prefer that the subject of viticulture be addressed at his pleasure alone. This, after all, is why you are here!”
After graciously allowing us few minutes to stroll down to take a closer look at the garden – one row of staked bushes particularly caught our eyes, for they bore unidentifiable but plump, exotic looking red and yellow fruits – and then closer to the wall looking down upon Mr. Jefferson’s vineyard, Captain Bacon pulled out his timepiece, and tapping a finger to the glass, he said, “we have passed two o’clock, which means that in less than an hour you are to be called to dine with Mr. Jefferson.”
Led through the glass doors, we felt as dwarfed by this perfectly symmetrical, Roman inspired mansion as we already were by the beauty of the mountain itself. Immediately upon entering the high ceilinged front hall of Monticello – bedecked with artifacts of native Indian tribes of the west, maps of lands far (as Africa) and near (a historical map naming only eighteen states), skins of strange animals and enormous jaw bones of beasts that no longer walk the earth – we were approached by a perfectly attired Negro man of less than average height, but whose head of receding grey hair was held high by an almost impossibly erect posture: Mr. Burwell Colbert, Mr. Jefferson’s personal butler, and director of Monticello’s enslaved household staff.
Greeting us with a bow and modest smile, Mr. Colbert escorted us through a doorway to our left, where Martha Jefferson Randolph awaited us in her sitting room “office.” Mrs. Randolph, we had previously learned from Captain Bacon, was also the former First Lady during Mr. Jefferson’s two terms of presidency, since her own mother (Martha Jefferson) had passed away years before. At Monticello Mrs. Randolph retained the same position as head of the Jefferson household; while living at that time on the upper floors of Monticello (Mr. Jefferson’s chambers were alongside his study and library on the first floor) with the youngest of her eight children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren.
"Welcome," she said, seizing our attention with perceptive eyes, clearly enunciated words underscored by a strongly defined jaw. “I am afraid that you have arrived without a moment to spare, since my father is a notoriously punctual man who expects the same of all of us, no matter what the circumstance. Of course, I hold Captain Bacon responsible, but if you will follow me...”
Leading us across the hall past one doorway and to the next, she turned, smiled and said, “it is our pleasure to offer you the Madison Room – this room named as such because July is one of those few, cruel months when former President and Mrs. James Madison are not occupying it themselves. I am sure they will not mind your borrowing it during the week's end."
We gasped as we peered into the gaily wallpapered room, brilliantly lit with natural light, even to the farthest edge of its double sized bed, ensconced within an alcove built into one of the room’s multiple walls. “To save you the trouble of counting the sides,” Mrs. Randolph said laughingly, “this is an octagonal shaped room – a design of my father’s that has successfully achieved his desired end… we say there are no dark corners in the Madison Room. While Mr. Colbert sees to your travel trunks, I beg you to freshen yourselves with the water and towels provided, and I shall return to collect you in five minutes time.”
A few minutes later, standing in the even more brilliantly sun-lit Parlor, looking westward through glass doors and over-sized windows at a rounded expanse of grass bordered by English style flowerbeds, the momentous occasion arrived when we finally met Monticello’s maker. Entering from his adjoining private chambers, and walking briskly across the room’s handsomely polished parquet floor – as timber growers, we could not help noting its flawlessly joined beech and cherry – Mr. Jefferson enthusiastically hailed us by name.
His handshake was strong without being oppressive, and his hazel-flecked grey eyes set with deepening lines, probing our own. His forehead, as formidably high in person as it is in portraiture, was paler above the brows, telling of considerable time spent under the sun protected by a brimmed hat; a circumference of permanently protruding grey hair extending just below the ears reinforcing that fact. We were also struck by not so much his famous height – towering over six feet and two inches – as by his perfectly proportioned, lean figure, and the regal angularity of his profile, belying the kindness in his voice. We were flattered to hear him say, “I have been so looking forward to your visit, as it is a rare occasion when I am able to fully indulge in my interests in wine.”
Turning his head, he said, “Ah, well done, Mr. Colbert, perfect timing as usual,” speaking to his butler standing with a silver tray bearing four cone shaped, finely etched glasses filled with a straw tinted wine, glimmering in the natural light reflecting off the room's high (20 feet, by our estimation), eggshell white walls. Handing a glass first to Mrs. Randolph and then to us, Mr. Jefferson smiled and proposed, “Let us toast to our shared devotion to the grape with this wine called Champagne.”
We had heard of this wine from France, but were surprised that these glasses were not brimming with bubbles, and so we asked about this. “What you are speaking of is mousseaux – the sparkling style of wine now being produced in Champagne,” said Mr. Jefferson. “This is Champagne nature,” pronouncing the second word as nah-tewr, “which I take to be the purest expression of the region. I am not so fond of the sparkling styles, despite their fashionable status outside of France, because for me the bubbles distract from the natural taste of Champagne grapes, and the limestone crusted vineyards in which they are grown. And besides, sparkling Champagne is never brought to a good table in France. It is the quieter, most subtle, long-lived non-mousseaux that is most esteemed by every real connoisseur.”
Our senses aroused by this marvelous, tongue prickling wine, we inquired about the reputation of the Jefferson presidency for Champagne diplomacy. “The opening of a Champagne bottle, sometimes with the flick of a saber, has always been my favorite way to cultivate friends and mark special occasions,” said the former president. “Oh, how many wigs were tilted when I first introduced this tart, truth bearing serum from France to the stuffy state dinners in Washington.
“But it has caught on well, I daresay; for since then my dear friends James Madison and James Monroe have faithfully stocked the President’s House on Pennsylvania Avenue with at least five hundred new bottles each year. You see, they have both been wise enough to retain me as their wine consultant,” he added, with mischief in his eyes. “In France, wine consultants are called sommeliers. At the age of eighty, which I reached this past April, I might very well be the oldest sommelier in recorded history.”
We marveled, not so much because of the privilege of being hosted by this towering yet self effacing figure of a man, but more by his seemingly boundless store of energy and enthusiasm, putting most of us less than half his age to shame. But Mr. Jefferson quickly changed the subject, raising his glass to say, “To new friends and old friends… to our distinguished visitors from Georgia, to Monsieur Dorsay, the producer of this exquisite Champagne, and to Monsieur Louis his trusted homme d’affaires.” We shall never forget that unusual toast, citing individuals we were never to meet, yet whose acquaintance were nonetheless met through the sharing of this penetrating wine. Was it the wine’s spirit putting forth these suggestions, or Mr. Jefferson’s eloquence? Indubitably, it was both.
“I have further good news,” the President announced. “Besides conversation pertaining to one of our shared interest, the cultivation of grape vines, we can look forward to a dinner prepared by Honoré Julien, the Presidential Chef de Cuisine during my eight years in residence on Pennsylvania Avenue. The Chef arrived only last week on a busman’s holiday, for I have asked him to share cooking recipes for some new varieties of vegetables with Mrs. Fossett, who has been in charge of our kitchen at Monticello since my retirement in 1809.
“Chef Julien has also spent quite a bit of time in our garden, experimenting with produce still unfamiliar to him, if you can imagine that. You know, we still grow over two hundred and fifty types of vegetables, and at least thirty classifications of fruit, at any given time here on the plantation. I admit that much of this is for academic reasons; but tonight, it will most definitely be gastronomic!”
While Mr. Colbert replenished our glasses, Mr. Jefferson proposed, “now, do you enjoy a hunt for treasures?”
Next: Part 3 (vinous treasures, mental travels and a first taste of Virginia Cuisine with Mother Vineyard Muscadine)