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When designer Stile Colwill took on the annual garden party for members and friends of Ladew Topiary Gardens, he had a lot going for him to begin with. “The Great Bowl is one of the most incredible spots in America to have a party,” he says of the centerpiece lawn, with its oval pool and enclosing walls of topiary.

As the 300-plus guests walked from the estate house, down the Terrace Garden to the Great Bowl on that glorious May evening, they were greeted with a scene worthy of a Merchant Ivory film. In the background, the yew-lined allee led up the hill to the charming “Temple of Venus” gazebo. In the Bowl itself, Colwill kept the party props elegantly simple affairs – three white tents and a scattering of small round tables. A string quartet from Baltimore-based Classical Interludes sent soft, romantic strains into the early-evening air.

Former Greenspring Hunt Club bartender George Lee and his staff worked behind two skirted open-air tables, offering everything from seltzer water to Lee’s special recipe for Southsides. When it came to the food, tradition ruled. “We chose familiar foods, the old Valley party foods,” quips Colwill.

Caterer Jane Fallon, who holds the exclusive food-services contract for Ladew, knew very well what that meant. Her tuxedoed staff passed platters of tenderloin with horseradish on bread rounds, hot crab dip on “Old Bay” rounds (a slice of French bread, lightly buttered and sprinkled with “just a fraction” of Old Bay), Smithfield ham on biscuits, and shrimp with a spicy cocktail sauce. “Normally I might serve my tenderloin with a cognac sauce,” she notes. “But this crowd likes the horseradish.” Likewise, she resisted grilling the shrimp. “They like it steamed,” says Fallon, who sent one server through the crowd with a basket to collect the tails.

Fallon also created different food themes for each tent, “to keep guests moving.” One offered a gourmet vegetarian antipasto, including raw and roasted vegetables with three pesto dipping sauces – a classic basil, and two sundried-tomato versions. The opposite tent held a bountiful spread of fresh fruit and European cheeses, some 25 in all, from the Gourmeco Imports in Sterling, Va. “The biggest hit was the white cheddar married with horseradish,” notes Fallon, whose staff displayed the foods in an eclectic collage of containers, including silver platters, glass bowls, woven baskets, even wood shipping cartons lined with dried grape leaves. “It blends the rustic and elegant aspects of the surroundings,” she says of the mix of shape and texture.

In the dessert tent, a French baker’s rack held a jewel-like display of tarts and truffles. The party’s end brought another treat for each female guest: a little tote bag filled with such gifts as a letter opener, floral note cards, and a live evergreen seedling donated by The Growing Collection landscapers.

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