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Open hearth at R.I. inn is more than hospitality

Email|Print| Text size + By Ellen Albanese
Globe Staff / February 5, 2006

WESTERLY, R.I. -- Ellen Madison thrust her arm into the beehive oven, placed her hand a few inches above the glowing red embers, and counted to 10.

''About 350 degrees," she said. ''Time to put in the bread pudding."

We had come to Woody Hill Bed & Breakfast for a winter hearth-cooking lesson, an experience that gives guests a chance to prepare -- and consume -- a multicourse meal cooked entirely over an open hearth.

We were surprised to learn that the rambling farmhouse on 20 acres is not of Colonial vintage. Madison built it in stages from 1972 to 1998. The last piece she added was the keeping room with its walk-in fireplace and beehive oven. ''I wanted to do hearth cooking," Madison explained, ''and I was tired of bending over." She has done an extraordinary job replicating the look of the late 1700s. The room features wide pine floorboards and 12-over-12 windows with shutters that slide across. There's a spinning wheel in one corner, and the mantel is lined with pewter dishes. Clove-studded fruit fills a bowl on a side table.

In the common living room, a television hides in a wall cabinet above the fireplace, and there's a display of old spectacles in a glass case.

The theme continues in the three guest rooms. We stayed in the family room, a sunny, L-shaped accommodation with a queen and a double bed, a desk and chair, and a comfortable sitting area. The double bed had a curtain that could be closed for privacy. Off-white walls with cranberry trim, an Oriental carpet over wide pine boards, soft gray doors with black iron latches, and quilts in traditional patterns completed the look. Old-fashioned christening dresses adorned the walls, and a collection of old wooden boxes included one containing political buttons going back to the 1950s.

There was a small television set with a video cassette player, though no tapes. Madison said later that families with children sometimes bring their own. A large closet held extra blankets, pillows, fans, and terrycloth robes.

The bathroom was small but adequate, well lighted with a large shower stall, drawers under the sink, and wooden pegs to hang things on. We missed having a hair dryer. Toiletries included soap, lotion, and toothpaste.

A comprehensive guest information booklet offered lots of suggestions for rainy days. We enjoyed leafing through ''Sunnyacres: Early 1900s Life on a Woody Hill Farm," a collection of journal entries by Eloise A. Saunders, Madison's aunt.

Breakfast, served in the keeping room, included juice, fresh fruit, apple crisp with whipped cream, French toast with bacon, and pumpkin-cranberry-pecan bread. On Sunday Madison made an impressive puff pancake with apples. At our invitation, she joined us at the table and shared stories of growing up near Woody Hill Farm and her 33 years of teaching high school English in Ledyard, Conn.

The hearth-cooking lesson is a customized experience. Madison called us a couple of days before and asked how involved we wanted to be: Did we want to build the fire, chop vegetables, or just eat? We chose the middle ground.

When we returned from exploring the area on Saturday afternoon, a pork roast was cooking on a spit in a tin reflector oven close to the fire. The smell of rosemary had already begun to fill the room.

Heat for such cooking, we saw, came in three forms: the main fire, piles of embers pulled from the main fire, and the beehive oven on the side. A long arm with chains and hooks extended over the main fire and could be pulled out into the room. The length of the chain determined how close a hanging pot would be to the source of heat.

Sharing tasks with the other guests, we prepared parsnip and potato chowder and cranberry relish over the open flames, squash pudding in a cast iron Dutch oven kept hot by shoveling embers on the lid, cornmeal biscuits on a hanging griddle, and bread pudding in the beehive oven. My husband was the keeper of the reflector oven, turning the roast a quarter-turn every 15 minutes. Madison had warned us to dress in layers, and we understood why as the heat in the room rose.

The most difficult task may have been reading the recipes by candlelight -- but we were, after all, trying to replicate an 18th-century experience.

Madison offers a few hearth cooking lessons each winter to keep her skills sharp and lure visitors to what is primarily a summertime destination. In warmer weather, guests can enjoy the inground pool or head to ocean beaches, just two miles away.

Contact Ellen Albanese at ealbanese@globe.com.

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