If you had an opportunity to attend an event catered by Woodlea Gardens during the past 25 years, you assuredly had a memorable meal and might have crossed paths with the charming force of nature behind the beloved catering company. Since her retirement last year, she has focused on cooking for family and friends—and now, hosting events and bed and breakfast guests at her charming north Marion County estate.
Martha Jane Davis is the picture of the kind of innately elegant Southern woman that one rarely encounters in the modern world—exquisitely well-mannered, thoroughly accessible and utterly gracious. She has an effortless way of making the ordinary seem extraordinarily special and adds a touch of true Southern hospitality to everything she serves.
Her most cherished recipes were handed down to her from her mother. That’s also where she acquired her passion for growing beautiful flowers and plants.
“Mother was a huge gardener,” Davis recalls.
She thought she might follow in her mother’s footsteps during the period of transition after the family lost her father, Sen. L.K. Edwards, at age 72 in 1989. Davis and her husband Doug moved in with her mother, sharing Davis’ charming childhood home, Woodlea Gardens, surrounded by cherished family heirlooms and her mother’s beautifully cultivated gardens.
“I was trying to think, Well, what am I going to do the rest of my life? I loved gardening.” Davis offers. “So, I thought I was going to grow cut flowers. And I started on that.”
The lush ferns, ornamental grasses and extensive shrubbery that decorate the grounds of the expansive 116-year-old estate attest to Davis’ green thumb, but she also has a talent for the delicate art of flower arranging. She began supplying fresh floral centerpieces and wedding flowers for the nearby Ocala Jockey Club and was soon hired full time to help with catering, which she enjoyed. But the hours were long and Davis went back to her own small business, creating gorgeous flower arrangements for weddings. Then a couple of friends asked her to cater an event.
“I did it. So that was it,” she explains. “And pretty soon catering definitely became the primary thing. Everybody had to have food at a wedding and you didn’t really have to have a whole bunch of flowers.”
She named her business after her family home and Woodlea Gardens became synonymous with Southern hospitality and charm. The dishes Davis enjoyed preparing became customer favorites. Chicken Marjorie, the chicken and pasta casserole her mother used to prepare for ladies’ luncheons, was enjoyed by another generation of women sharing the comfort dish at bridge club gatherings and charity board meetings.
She never thought of herself as a baker, but over time Davis found she enjoyed baking the pound cakes her mother “made all the time.” She developed three specialty flavors: vanilla, bourbon pecan and almond amaretto. It takes more than an hour to prepare one of her delectable Bundt cakes, from the deliberate process of mixing in each egg one at a time to pouring the glaze on top while the cake is still warm from the oven.
Sweet treats like pound cake and her mother’s apricot tea bread are among the thoughtful touches Davis offers to Airbnb guests who are seeking a trip back to a more genteel time—for although Davis offers some thoughtful modern conveniences—Woodlea Gardens provides a historic home experience and a respite from the bustling world beyond its doors. Guests have a choice of staying in the elegant Mathews Suite, with its canopy bed and antique chandelier, or the spacious Kirkland Suite, with its large wooden armoire and adorable en suite bath with a vintage blue soaking tub. They also have access to the parlor, with its floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the grounds, and cozy living room with French doors that open to the backyard. They can enjoy one of her homemade quiches or a grits and egg casserole in the stately breakfast room, at their leisure, and relax with morning coffee and evening wine among the venerable live oaks surrounding the terrace or under the covered breezeway. These spaces also are available for private event rentals, which Davis says appeal to those “who want that old Southern look.” The events are often catered by Chef Patti Moring, who purchased Woodlea Gardens Catering upon Davis’ retirement and renamed it La Casella Catering.
“It’s been good for events,” Davis says of the property, adding that “everybody in the family and friends married here.”
She has hosted small groups on the terrace and large weddings of 300 people in a big tent on the lawn. Whether it’s that most special of days or a curated corporate event, Davis offers a thoroughly gracious experience in a one-of-a-kind setting.
For more information about event rentals at Woodlea Gardens, call (352) 572-9648.
Bourbon Pecan Pound Cake
- 6 large eggs
- 3 sticks quality butter
- 3 cups pure cane sugar
- 3 cups cake flour
- 1 cup quality sour cream
- 3/4 cup pecan pieces
- 1/4 cup bourbon (Martha Jane uses Jim Beam)
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Pinch of baking soda
› Allow all ingredients to come to the same room temperature. › Preheat oven to 325 degrees. › Prepare ingredients and measure carefully. › Sift the flour once before measuring. › Add salt and soda and sift once more. › Cream the butter on medium/high speed until light and fluffy (2-3 minutes), frequently scraping sides and bottom of bowl with rubber spatula. › Gradually add the sugar and continue beating another 2 to 3 minutes, scraping down sides and bottom. › Lower mixer speed a notch. › Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each, until fully incorporated. › Lower mixer speed to low. › Mix bourbon into sour cream. › Add flour and sour cream alternately, beginning and ending with flour. › Add vanilla. › Raise speed to medium and beat until batter is well blended. › Grease and flour a Bundt or tube pan (Martha Jane prefers cake pan spray with flour added.) › Sprinkle pecan pieces into cake pan then pour in batter. › Bake around 45-50 minutes or until a tester stick comes out clean—be careful not to overbake. › Optionally, while cake is still warm, pour over a thin glaze made from confectioners’ sugar and water.