From luscious country ham and Chesapeake Bay blue crab to oysters like no other, Virginia is a food-lovers’ paradise
By Dave Bodle
When it comes to U.S. history, it’s hard to top the state of Virginia. There’s a reason after all it’s known as “the birthplace of a nation.” But this southeastern state is much more than its historical landmarks. Virginia’s food scene is equally noteworthy with everything from Southern-style fare — think country ham, barbecue and homemade biscuits — to a seafood bonanza courtesy of its location on the Eastern Seaboard. Then there are the many celebrated wineries and breweries that add their own unique spirit (literally!) to this iconic state from deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Atlantic Coast. Here, we spotlight 7 delicious ways to explore Virginia’s culinary scene with options as varied as the state itself.
Experiencing Fields of Gold Farm Trail in Virginia
The Central Shenandoah Valley, once known as the breadbasket of the Confederacy, has deep agricultural roots. No matter if you’re visiting for a week or a just a day, your trip should include stops on the Fields of Gold Farm Trail. What began in 2010 as a way to promote the Shenandoah Valley’s agritourism sites and activities, the Fields of Gold Farm Trail now includes more than 230 locations on the trail as it winds through eight counties and their communities. There is fruit to be picked, tours of working farms to experience, trout fishing to be done and countless farm festivals. Additionally, there are a number of restaurants specializing in locally sourced food as well as on-farm lodging should the need arise. Don’t forget to save time for visits to the many farms stands you’ll encounter on the trail.
Enjoying some Oysters on the Virginia Oyster Trail
Oysters are a big deal in Virginia. So much so that in early 2011 a group of eight oyster lovers gathered 18 times to taste the beloved bivalves from Virginia’s different waters. Their results identified eight regions, each with slightly different levels of saltiness and sweetness. (Insider tip: To best taste each flavor, chew your oyster a few times.) The Virginia Oyster Trail, situated in the area surrounding the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the country, offers visitors a taste of each at restaurants, seafood companies, oyster farms and tours. Notable stops include Rappahannock Oyster Company, the Virginia Oyster Academy at Tides Inn and Dog & Oyster Vineyard, the latter combining two of the most beloved terroir- and merroir-centric products, wine and oysters.
Great Food on the Virginia BBQ Trail
With cooking methods that date back to the earliest settlers, Virginia barbecue is an historic food culture like no other. Smoked meats are still prepared with traditional open-fire cooking methods, continuing in the style of cooking that has endured for hundreds of years. From Appalachia to the Coastal Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley to Southern Virginia there are hundreds of barbecue restaurants and a festival almost every weekend in Virginia’s 10 regions. In its simplest terms, the Virginia BBQ Trail connects pitmasters whose passion is making barbecue with barbecue lovers and includes more than 250 listings. Looking for a tasty souvenir? Virginia is well known for its four signature barbecue sauces: Southside (slightly tangy with a vinegar/tomato base), Central (slightly sweet and zesty from the sweet spices in it), Shenandoah Valley (herbaceous with a vinegar base) and Northern (sweet tomato base.
The Salty Southern Route in Virginia
Head to the southeast region of Virginia and you’ll be rewarded with some of the best salt-cured ham, pork products and peanuts in the U.S. The Salty Southern Route allows you to experience these culturally significant products first-hand. In Smithfield, you’ll find Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer and creator of the legendary Smithfield Ham. Only ham from peanut-fed pigs that are cured and smoked within the city limits can be labeled genuine Smithfield hams. In nearby Suffolk is the world headquarters of Planter’s Peanuts and the birthplace of the dapper Mr. Peanut. In the surrounding areas, you’ll discover a number of other peanut-focused places, such as the Virginia Peanut Company Gourmet Market, Plantation Peanuts and Wakefield Peanut Company. Additionally, there are dozens of restaurants in which to experience a true taste of the region.
Enjoy the Virginia Farmers Market Lovers Trail
As any food lover knows, one of the best ways to experience the true, of-the-moment flavors of a place is by visiting farmers markets. The Virginia Farmers Market Lovers Trail, a collaboration between the Virginia Farmers Market Association, Virginia Tourism Corporation and Virginia State University, lets you eat like a local, whether it’s Hanover tomatoes, Virginia peanuts or apples from the Shenandoah Valley. Added to the tasty experience is the opportunity to meet with the farmers, chefs, bakers, cheese makers and more who unite at the markets to provide the best in handcrafted and locally grown products.
Experience Great Beer on the Brew Ridge Trail in Virginia
Virginia’s original beer trail, the Brew Ridge Trail is a self-guided tour that features some of the nation’s best craft breweries and cideries with plenty of awards to prove it. Combine that with the stunning sights and sounds of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains and it’s truly an experience not to be missed. For first-time visitors as well as long-time locals, the trail offers a range of activities and entertainment, from foods trucks and live music to special events. In Nelson County, be sure to visit Blue Mountain Brewery, Devils Backbone Brewing Company and Blue Mountain Barrel House. Newest on the scene breweries include Brewing Tree Bear Company and Wild Man Dan’s Beer Centric Brewery in Lovingston and Afton, respectively. Hard-cider lovers will appreciate the current American cider revival in Virginia, with many styles of the beloved beverage available at places such as Bryant’s Cider and Bold Rock Hard Cider.
Savoring the Virginia Wine Trails
With nearly 300 wineries and dozens of scenic wine trails Virginia truly is a wine destination. Conveniently, if you plan a stop along any of the food trails, you’ll inevitably find a wine trail stop overlapping. Even the Brew Ridge Trail runs past wineries on the Nelson 151 and the Monticello Wine Trails. Live music and festivals are important parts of Virginia’s wine culture and there are multiple events almost every weekend. For oenophiles, planning a multi-day Virginia visit would allow tastings of varietals ranging from albarino to viognier.
These are only a small number of great places to eat in Virginia. This beautiful state still has so much more to offer travelers, so if you’d like to learn more just Subscribe to Leisure Group Travel magazine for FREE and get even more travel ideas for Virginia and beyond.