For four days I lived someone else’s life.
I drove along country lanes connecting horse farms and wineries and estates, and ate multi-course breakfasts, lunches and dinners cooked by celebrated chefs often working just a few feet away from where I dined.
I stayed at resorts and in manor houses with gorgeous grounds, beautiful bedding, luxurious bathrooms and exquisite art.
And I sampled wine (and a little beer) at some of the top wineries in the country today.
I was on a trip where folks in the tourism industry showcased for journalists the beauty and bounty of Virginia’s Wine Country, an area that snakes northward roughly from Charlottesville to just west of D.C. In addition to enjoying every moment of being wined and dined, I learned an awful lot. (To read the story I wrote for The Local Palate click here: Virginia Wine Country.)
For one, I discovered what a stunning and fascinating place this area of Virginia is. It’s a pocket that’s been a playground of the rich for centuries. I highly recommend making a visit.
Go for the day and hike in the Shenandoah National Park, then stop at a tasting room or two on your way home (Barboursville Vineyards is worth a look even if you don’t drink any wine). Search for antiques or specialty gifts at the many one-of-a-kind stores in the towns of Middleburg, Washington and Flint Hill. See a first-class musical performance at the hidden gem of Castleton theater. Reserve a horseback ride (at the Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg). Make reservations for a special occasion dinner (try the Houndstooth in Huntley). Or splurge and spend the weekend relaxing, dining and living it up (try the Inn at Willow Grove in Orange or The Inn at Little Washington to go truly upscale). Trust me, you’ll be talking about all you saw and did for a long time to come.
Mostly, though, I got to taste first-rate chefs putting their palate-pleasing best on display. It was eye-opening to experience so much fine dining in so short a time.
First, a list of where I ate: Harrimans at Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg; The Inn at Little Washington in Washington; Houndstooth, the restaurant at Glen Gordon Manor in Huntly; Griffin Tavern in Flint Hill; the Foster Harris House in Washington and Vintage Restaurant at the Inn at Willow Grove in Orange.
Next, my takeaways:
Local, seasonal food is everywhere. It was spring so I ate ramps and watercress and morels — even chickweed — foraged from the nearby mountains; asparagus and microgreens delivered to the chefs from local farms; locally sourced lamb and eggs; herbs and edible flowers harvested from the restaurants’ own culinary gardens. Yes, that meant that many of the ingredients on my plates were the same meal after meal. But each chef stirred up something unique from them, so the offerings never seemed tired. Just amazingly fresh, interestingly prepared and beautifully plated. I drove home feeling more sure than ever that the finest dishes in the best restaurants must begin with what chefs can find right outside their doors.
Charcuterie is hot. The word is French for “cooked meat” and historically refers to the preparation of any meat. But these days it has become shorthand for a charcuterie board or a canvas for displaying all kinds of interesting cuts and cures of, especially pork. Think sorpressa or rillettes, pate and roulade. Its resurgence has followed the uptick in interest in local meat and in perfecting the art of curing. With its emphasis on pork, it’s not surprising to see Virginia on the forefront of the trend. One day on my trip, I was served three charcuterie boards in six hours. It got me thinking that this perfect for lunch, snack or app dish must be on fire these days.
Duck is the new pork. Speaking of those charcuterie boards, cured duck found its way onto the tray along with the pork and pansies and pickles at Vintage. Roast duck breast was the main course that night (with a puree of quince and pear). I found all the duck I ate on the trip to be flavorful and tender, a nice, new protein to explore.
Don’t forget the ice cream/gelato. As the exclamation point on my dinner at Harrimans, I was served a delicious dab of Oolong-tea inspired ice cream. The pastry chef there, Jason Reaves, is something of an ice cream master, having won a King of Cones Food Network show. For dessert at the Foster Harris House, the chef stirred up a delicious mint-chocolate gelato with fresh mint from his yard. I am typically not a huge ice cream fan. But these two scoops were so flavorful and surprising. If artisanal ice cream is a dessert trend these days, count me in.
Is it food? On the other side of the spectrum from uber-local, house-cured and artisanal are the items that are highly-manipulated by chefs, and I tried some of those too. At Harrimans, I was served burnt honey nuggets and a tortilla-like chip made from green tea. Chef Scott Meyers at Vintage sprinkled truffle powder on our charcuterie board and foie gras powder on the duck breasts. Personally, I like my food as little processed as possible but the science of food is always being explored, sometimes to delicious results.
Virginia wine is big. Yes, it’s still an upstart compared with California or, you know, France. But Virginia is no longer a viticulture virgin these days. It is the fifth-highest wine producing state, with more than 230 wineries growing grapes of all kinds and producing wines of all varieties. I am not an oenophile, but I can tell you that the Virginia wine I drank this weekend, from Riesling to Cabernet Sauvignon was excellent and promising. Two favorites from folks who know more about wine than I: Early Mountain Vineyards Rose, Linden Vineyards Petite Manseng and Barboursville Vineyards‘ award-winning blend of four red grape varieties, Octagon.
Don’t forget the nano breweries. I also made a quick stop at a great nano-brewery: Hopkins Ordinary Ale Works in Sperryville. Their small-batches are brewed in the basement of Hopkins Ordinary Bed & Breakfast + Ale Works, using Virginia-grown barley that is locally malted. In addition, many of their flavorings come from nearby farms. Owners Sherri Fickel and Kevin Kraditor poured me a flight and darned if I didn’t like every single beer I tried. Their spring special, Saison du Printemps was exceptional: fruity, light, smooth.
Now it’s your turn. Ever visited Virginia Wine Country? Stayed in these places or eaten at these restaurants? What was your experience? What were your favorites? I’d love to hear what you’ve learned too.