For beef, many of Virginia’s best restaurants turn to Mount Air Farm in Crozet, home to Gryffon’s Aerie beef and more. Christina Ball tours this sustainable farm and stays for a memorable meal.
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Photo by Stacey Evans
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A kitten heading for a spot at the teats of Lollipop, an enormous sow.
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Mount Air Farm, in Crozet, is 240 acres of rolling hills, pastures, woodlands and spring-fed creeks.
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Sumter Pendegrast, Jeff and Rose Crofutt and Ramona Huff.
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Young Devon calves.
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Collins Huff tends the fire pit; Ramona with Waverly Root, a Tamworth pig.
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Ramona Huff (left) with Janet and Sumter Pendegrast (C.R. Huff is in the background); a cucumber, watermelon and tomato salad.
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Katie Keller, Catherine Huff and Mila Cesaretti.
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Matthieu Finot of King Family Vineyards decants some red at an Argentine-style farm feast, or asado, where the menu includes a carapaccio of barely seared tenderloin, grilled pork sausages, two salads and assorted vegetables.
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Collins tasting the meat.
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Photography by Stacey Evans
The story of Gryffon’s Aerie, Collins and Ramona Huff’s business specializing in sustainably raised heritage breeds and artisan meats, could begin in any one of three places: a Colonial Williamsburg pasture, an asado (barbecue) pit in Argentina or a Keswick, Virginia polo field. A Williamsburg native, Collins used to parade past grazing American Milking Devon cows while playing in the fife and drum corps as a child. His familiarity with this breed came in handy several decades later, when he and his wife, Ramona, whom he met in at the Altamira Polo club in Keswick in 1994, decided to devote themselves to raising—and caring for—heritage breeds on their fledgling family farm.
For Ramona, a Toronto native with a professional past in advertising, it was all about the animals and her desire to raise them humanely, sustainably. For Collins, it was more about the meat. As avid a polo player as he is a foodie, Collins fell in love with the flavorful, grass-fed grilled meats, drizzled with garlic-herb chimichurri sauce, that he enjoyed on polo-playing (and watching) trips through Argentina. When it came time to select a breed of cattle for his own farm, he knew it had to be capable of triggering flavor epiphanies like the ones he experienced in Buenos Aires and Santa Rosa. No commercial cow—Angus, Hereford—would do.
As chance would have it, he found that faraway flavor in a heritage breed—the Milking Devon, rescued from extinction in his very hometown of Williamsburg. At a time when the worldwide population of this once-popular English breed (which landed in New England in 1623) had dwindled to fewer than 500, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation selected the Milking Devon as the pioneer breed in its Rare Breeds program.
Gentle, friendly and intelligent, these beautiful chestnut-red cows (nicknamed “Ruby Reds”) are extremely adaptable and multi-functional (milk, beef, draft). Not only can they survive, but they can also thrive in climates as distant and different as New Mexico, New England, South Africa and, of course, Virginia.
Blessed with good genes, the Milking Devon requires no grains or growth hormones: They finish and marble on an all-natural foraged diet of grass, grass and more grass, and their meat is consequently sweet, tender and incredibly consistent—not to mention incredibly healthy. As our “fast-food nation” is slowly learning, beef from ruminant, grass-fed cows is high in “good fats” (Omega 3), vitamin E and cancer-fighting CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). It’s also leaner and lower in calories than commercially raised (i.e. force-fed) beef.
Convinced by the breed and ready to plunge into their new life as farmers, Collins and Ramona purchased the nucleus of their herd—four Devons named Billy Bob, Zeb, Avalon and Abby—from Colonial Williamsburg in 1998, thus giving the Ruby Reds an economic guarantee of survival. Instantly, Ramona fell in love with her “old lady cows” and Collins with their sweet, flavorful meat.
Today, the Huffs’ Mount Air Farm is home to the largest herd of American Milking Devons in the world (100)—and these happy animals share the same pastures and spring water with Beef Devon cattle, Tamworth pigs and Karakul sheep. Together with their two children, C.R. (age 12) and Catherine (10), Collins and Ramona manage every detail of both the farm and the business, named Gryffon’s Aerie, from feeding and birthing the animals to building fences to delivering precious quantities of beef, pork and lamb to restaurants around the state.
My personal encounter with Gryffon’s Aerie began when Collins Huff walked through the door of Stove Restaurant in Portsmouth early last year. Looking like he just stepped off a horse instead of out of a delivery truck with his dungarees, cowboy boots and thick white mustache (the only hair on his head), Huff came to deliver a few choice cuts of grass-fed beef and Tamworth pork belly to chef Sydney Meers. It’s not often that you get to meet the purveyor and taste the product in a span of several hours (though in my dream world this would be the norm), so I put my Meers interview on pause to listen to Collins—blue-eyes ablaze—tell the tale of Gryffon’s Aerie. At the time, the Huff family (animals included) had been nudged off their original home in Gordonsville and were seeking greener pastures.
Stove is just one of 20 top-notch restaurants around the state to order regularly from Gryffon’s Aerie. From Rodney Einhorn at Terrapin in Virginia Beach to Tomas Rahal at Mas Tapas in Charlottesville, chefs who serve Gryffon’s Aerie products are committed to supporting small, agriculturally sound farms and local purveyors. “When you buy from Ramona and Collins, you get the whole family—meaning mom, dad and the kids,” Rahal says. “They love what they do and it shows, and we owe a lot to them for keeping the tradition of the working farm alive.”
Chefs also recognize quality when they taste it, and so do their customers. “Gryffon’s Aerie beef has a great, earthy flavor and texture, ages well, and when I put it on the menu it sells out in one to two days,” Meers says. “Their pork chops are crazy-big, with a touch of marbling and outer fat which grills nicely.”
Chef John Gonzales grew up with Collins in Williamsburg and incorporates Gryffon’s Aerie products into the cooking class dinners he hosts at A Chef’s Kitchen there. For Gonzales, as for his childhood friend, the primary virtue of grass-fed meat is the way it revives the tastes of the past: “Flavors and smells are deeply ingrained in our memories, and when I first tasted Collins’ ground beef, my taste buds instantly flash-backed to what beef used to taste like—we need to hold on to that!”
Todd Jurich, owner of Todd Jurich’s Bistro in Norfolk and a leader in that city’s culinary renaissance, has been buying from the Huffs since day one and served their pork at a recent James Beard House dinner in New York. “The only problem with Gryffon’s Aerie is we can’t get enough of it!” Jurich laments.
As I learned firsthand from the Huffs, when you follow the laws of nature and the practical limits of a family-run farm, supply simply cannot meet demand. The fact that there is only one hanger steak per cow and only two to three cows per month explains why the Huffs’ products play starring roles as daily specials—and quickly disappear.
THE 10-MILE MEAL
A few months after our first meeting at Stove, Collins called to let me know that both his family and the Gryffon’s Aerie herd had found a new home in Albemarle County. By July of 2008, the pigs, the cows and the sheep were happily settled into 240 acres of idyllic rolling hills, pastures, woodlands and spring-fed creeks at Mount Air Farm in Crozet. And the best part of it was that the Huffs—together with a few chef friends, a winemaker and a handful of neighbors—were planning to celebrate their new pastoral digs with a true farm feast—a sort of Albemarle County asado.
So, on a hot and hazy Friday afternoon in mid-July, I set out with my husband and daughter for a dining experience that I still remember as vividly as if it were yesterday, and whose flavors I’ve been chasing ever since. Even though we live just 20 miles from Mount Air Farm, our journey was the farthest—or least “green,” I should say.
“We’re having a 10-mile meal!” Collins yelled to us as we pulled in under an enormous oak tree in front of the family’s cottage. Across the gravel drive, a cluster of Milking Devons stared at us, chomping, the green hills rolling behind them. As he adjusted the coals in an enormous fire pit and tended to the lamb, skewered and slow-cooking, Collins explained how everything we were to eat that evening would be sourced from within a 10-mile radius of Gryffon’s Aerie—from the meat to the produce to the wine.
Always at his father’s side, it seems, 12-year-old C.R. stood by quietly, mesmerized by the flames and by the thought of the flavors he’d soon be tasting. “C.R.’s a real foodie,” Collins boasted as his son smiled and nodded. “He always says his favorite animal is the one on the plate!” Farm-schooled like his sister, Catherine, since birth, C.R. accompanies his dad on restaurant sales calls and also runs the farm shop on weekends to help pay for his fencing lessons.
Curious about the rest of our meal, I went inside the house to find Ramona and longtime friend chef John McMillan (“Johnny Mac”) chopping peaches, cucumbers and watermelon for the salads. “Are you ready to meet the animals?” Ramona asked. It’s hard to imagine Ramona ever sitting at a desk. Tall, tan and glowingly beautiful in her tank top, faded jeans and leather belt with a silver pig buckle, she has the look of a woman who is comfortable in her own skin, truly content with life. She can go from birthing a cow to moving a herd of cattle to writing an opinionated column for a local food publication without skipping a beat. Ramona got behind the wheel of a dusty old truck, and a few of us, including her daughter and mine, jumped in the back for a tour of the farm.
First stop: pig heaven. We entered the long and low barn through a wooden door and went from bright sunshine to cool, muddy darkness in a flash. Lollipop, an enormous sow, lay on her side in the mud as a dozen or so piglets, and a few kittens, scuffled for a spot at her teats. When sows reject their young pigs, as often happens, I’m told, Ramona and Catherine instantly adopt them and bottle-nurse them in this barn until they can fend for themselves.
Down the road a ways, we stopped in an oak grove to say hello to the herd of 100 Tamworth pigs. Like the Devon, the red-haired, rough-and-rugged Tamworth is a heritage breed with extraordinary foraging skills. At Gryffon’s Aerie, they eat plenty of nuts and grass and are fed twice daily by Ramona in winter (though she will soon plant a winter cover crop for them). As soon as they caught sight of Ramona, a bunch of hogs came running toward us. Thank goodness for the fence.
With his big husks and bear face, the boar Waverly Root (named after the food writer) was a bit intimidating to me and my city-dwelling child. Catherine jumped the fence to pet a long-snouted sow as if she were a puppy. As if to prove to Ramona that he was doing his duty, the boar gave a quick demonstration of his procreative prowess—and then it was time for us to drive off and see the steers grazing on a sunny hillside.
Never have I seen happier animals than at Mount Air, and it’s mostly thanks to Ramona. Even if she could, she wouldn’t want outside help with her four-legged flock. “I never want anyone else to decide if my animals are happy or not,” she told us with her arm wrapped around Ben, her 6-year-old pet steer, “I don’t like other people handling my cows.”
By 7, the sunlight began to fade and the neighbors arrived on foot, carrying baskets of brownies and just-picked blackberries. By 8, the buffet table was covered with platters boasting the best of the farm, the best of the moment: a carpaccio of barely seared, slightly smoky tenderloin sprinkled with shallots, capers and Parmesan; grilled pork sausages; roasted and fresh cherry tomatoes; vegetables galore and two simply delicious salads—one a blend of sliced cucumber, watermelon and cherry tomato and the other of peaches and fresh mozzarella drizzled with balsamic vinegar.
While we were out touring the farm, local chef and A Pimento Catering owner Gay Berry had prepared beef empanadas, which she had fried in pork fat over the coals until they were perfectly golden and crispy. And the wine had arrived together with the winemaker: Matthieu Finot of King Family Vineyards, just up the road.
We ate and drank and talked for hours, until the berries were long gone, the sky filled with stars and the crickets began their serenade. Wondering about the whereabouts of my daughter at this late hour, I went to search for her around back. I found her standing around the still-glowing fire pit with the other children. I had long forgotten about the lamb, but they hadn’t. All sweaty and rosy-cheeked, they were silently pulling glistening meat right off the bones and eating, as we might all do more often, in delicious silence.
Seared Rare Beef by John B. McMillan
Season a one-and-one-half pound piece of center-cut tenderloin with coarse sea salt and cracked black pepper, and rub with olive oil. Chill the meat in the freezer for about 20 minutes. We seared over the hot coals that day, but a hot, dry cast iron skillet works great, though it really smokes (make sure your fan is on and the door is open).
Sear on all sides and return to the freezer to stop the cooking, but do not allow it to freeze.
Thinly slice and lightly pound the meat. Arrange the meat on a chilled platter.
Garnish with finely diced shallots, crushed capers, fresh parsley and grated Parmesan cheese.
Season beef with sea salt and cracked pepper, and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil before serving.
Gryffon’s Aerie Beef Empanadas by Gay BeRry of A Pimento Catering
4 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1⁄2 teaspoons salt
1⁄2 cup Gryffon’s Aerie Tamworth lard
1 1⁄4 cups cold water, or as needed
2 tablespoons Gryffon’s Aerie Tamworth lard
1 small onion, chopped
1 1⁄2 pounds Gryffon’s Aerie Devon beef, ground
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon each Hungarian sweet and
hot paprika (or 2 tablespoons Spanish smoked paprika, heat to taste)
1 tablespoon ground cumin seed
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons dried epazote or oregano
1⁄2 cup golden raisins OR
1⁄4 cup chopped green olives (such as picholines)
1-2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed orange juice (optional)
2 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and chopped
2 quarts lard for deep-frying, or as needed
In a bowl, stir together flour and salt. Cut in lard using a pastry blender, or by pinching into small pieces using your fingers, until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Use a fork to stir in water a few tablespoons at a time, until the mixture forms a ball. Pat into a ball, flatten slightly, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.
Heat the 2 tablespoons lard in a skillet over moderate heat. Add the onion and cook until softened. Crumble in the beef, and season with salt, paprika, cumin and black pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until beef is browned. Drain excess grease, and stir in the olives (or raisins) and vinegar. Refrigerate until cooled, then stir in the hard-cooked eggs.
Pinch off dough into 2-inch balls (about 2 tablespoons’ worth each). On a floured surface, roll each ball out into a thin circle, about 4 inches around. Spoon some of the meat mixture (about 1 rounded tablespoon) onto the center, then fold into half-moon shapes. Moisten edges of dough with a dab of water, and press the edges with your fingers or with the tines of a fork. Keep the empanadas in the fridge while working, till it’s time to fry.
Heat lard in a deep fryer to 365 degrees. Place a few pies at a time into the fryer (more if the fryer is large enough to hold them without crowding). Cook for about 5 to 10 minutes, turning to brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels, and serve hot.
Nilda’s Chimichurri by Collins Huff
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1⁄4 cup red wine vinegar
1⁄4 cup sherry vinegar
1 cup chopped onions (before adding to mixture, put them in colander and pour
1 quart of boiling water over the chopped onions and let drain)
4 or more teaspoons chopped garlic
10 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley
7 teaspoons oregano
1 teaspoon Italian pepper flakes
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
Mix the ingredients together, adjust seasoning to taste, and let stand for one hour before serving.
Use to baste roasted lamb or as condiment with meats or fish. It is also good as a dipping sauce for French or Italian bread.
Here is the recipe for vanilla custard sauce that we poured over just-picked blackberries.
Vanilla Custard Sauce*
1 quart half-and-half
1 split vanilla bean
12 egg yolks
1 cup of sugar
Steep the vanilla bean in the half-and-half in a heavy-bottomed non-reactive saucepan over medium heat. Bring just to a simmer and remove from the heat. While heating the cream, whisk the egg yolks and sugar for two to three minutes. Temper the egg-and-sugar mixture with the hot cream—add slowly and mix with a wooden spoon. Return the mixture to the heat.
Continue to stir until it just starts to thicken (it will coat the back of the spoon), then remove from the heat and continue to stir. Remove from pan and chill.
* This makes the best ice cream base ever!