Labor Day has come and gone, and with the first of September comes the meteorological start of autumn.
It may still be a few weeks before trees across Virginia light up in fiery reds, brilliant oranges and stunning yellows, but change is definitely in the air. Days are a little bit shorter, nights a little bit cooler, and shadows a little bit longer.
Now is a great time to get out and explore Virginia, one bite at a time. Here are some ideas to guide you along your path.
Autumn means heartier dishes; food to warm the body and soul. Across the state there are many wonderful offerings. Here are three that showcase a trio of Virginia’s culinary calling cards: apples, oysters and Brunswick Stew.
The Apple House
4675 John Marshall Hwy., Linden
Apple Butter Donuts
At the northern entrance of Skyline Drive, in the middle of Virginia apple territory, The Apple House opened in 1963 selling ethereal rings of fried goodness.
These treats, donuts made from apple butter and adorned with a sprinkling of cinnamon, are still offered today. A location in Front Royal also offers the donuts.
Grab a dozen and enjoy the fall views along the byways here at the cusp of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Island House Restaurant and Marina
17 Atlantic Ave., Wachapreague
We don’t need it to be an “R” month to enjoy one of Virginia’s gifts to the culinary world, but there is something about oysters in the fall, when they are plump and juicy.
They are great on the half-shell, but equally awesome in a light batter and deep fried until golden brown and delicious. The generously-portioned oyster dinner comes with two sides and housemade sweet potato biscuits.
Island House is designed after a 19th century life saving station; after dinner climb spiral staircase to lookout tower for stunning views of the surrounding marshes, tranquil and still in the autumn air.
Old Chickahominy House
1211 Jamestown Rd., Williamsburg
First opened in 1955 by Melinda Cowles Barbour, this restaurant and antique store/gift shop offers many Virginia-centric dishes, including Brunswick Stew.
The stew, a richly flavored amalgamation of lima beans, corn and other vegetables with chicken and seasonings in a tomato broth base is sold with hot biscuits or crackers; or as part of Miss Melinda’s Special which also features a country ham biscuit, fruit salad, homemade pie and coffee or tea. It’s also offered to go by the pint or quart.
While in town, walk through Colonial Williamsburg under soaring trees adorned in golden leaves to get a taste of 18th century Virginia.
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Sometimes its not just the destination, but also the journey. Of course journeys are made all the better knowing there is some delicious food waiting for you at the end.
Here are some favorite places where getting there, and eating there, are rewarding anytime, including the fall.
Charles City Tavern
9220 John Tyler Memorial Hwy., Charles City
Located about halfway between Richmond and Williamsburg, Charles City Tavern is just off Route 5, also known as the John Tyler Memorial Hwy. This ribbon os asphalt follows the curves of the James River, and is a gorgeous drive any time of the year, including the fall, when the colors come alive.
Stop before or after your meal at one of the famous James River Plantations along the way for a real treat. Berkeley Plantation, where the first bourbon in America was distilled and this country’s first Thanksgiving was celebrated is just four miles away.
Located in a charming 1889 farmhouse on a 2,000-acre working farm, views of the surrounding countryside are afforded from the dining rooms and screened in porches.
At dinner try the Eastern Shore Crab Cakes with Ragout of Sweet Corn and Virginia Ham.
287 Winery Rd. SW, Floyd
Immediately off the Blue Ridge Parkway, Chateau Morrisette is widely known for the quality vintages that the winery produces.
But there is also a restaurant on-site serving up seasonal dishes and spectacular views. Opening up towards the west from the lodge-style dining room are gorgeous panoramas from the rolling hills and farmlands in the valley below to blue-hued mountains lit up in fall hues beyond.
It’s not just the incredible views once you get to Chateau Morrisette, but the ones along the way down the Blue Ridge Parkway. Take extra time to stop and snap photos.
Enjoy the Pork Tenderloin, which is infused with locally grown oregano, grilled and drizzled with roasted pepper and tomato coulis, and served with rice, fried green tomatoes and house collards. Pair it with a Cabernet Franc from the winery next door.
Hunter’s Head Tavern
9048 John S. Mosby Hwy., Upperville
Route 50, also called John S. Mosby Highway, cuts an east-west path through scenic horse country in Virginia and offers many spectacular vistas, especially heading away from the Washington D.C. area where the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains loom on the horizon.
Both Upperville, where the tavern is located, and nearby Middleburg are scenic towns, providing a good opportunity to stop and take a walk exploring antique shops and galleries.
Hunter’s Head Tavern is located in the historic 1750 Carr House, which began as a log cabin when this part of Virginia was on the western frontier of the nation. There are charming colonial features throughout.
Enjoy the Stuffed Rainbow Trout with House-Cured Bacon and Local Mushrooms; the trout is sustainably harvested seafood. The bacon and mushrooms are locally sourced; organic meats and produce come from neighboring Ayrshire Farm, which raises only Certified Humane animals.
Peaks of Otter Lodge Restaurant
85554 Blue Ridge Pkwy., Bedford
Nestled in the mountains, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, Peaks of Otter Lodge, celebrating its 50th anniversary, is a perfect place to enjoy nature, especially when the surrounding landscape comes afire with fall color.
The trip to the lodge is filled with scenic opportunities, as is the view from the lodge dining room. The space here opens up onto an expansive vista onto Abbot Lake and the rolling Blue Ridge in the background.
Blue Ridge Half Chicken, fried or roasted, and served with caramelized apples, cranberry relish, garlic mashed potatoes and housemade gravy. The fried chicken is done low and slow; it’s cooked to order and you’ll have to wait about 20 minutes but it’s essential in a perfect crispness.
On Friday nights there is a seafood buffet that includes crab legs, shrimp, clams, fish, oysters and even frog legs.
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This dish was created in 1828 in Brunswick County, according to legend, and is open to interpretation and inspiration as ingredients go. Rabbit and squirrel were once the primary components, while today chicken and pork are used. Most Brunswick stews are tomato based and augment an animal protein with lima beans, corn, potatoes, and often okra.
The result is a rich, thick, hearty stew with complex and complementary flavors ranging from savory to sweet to smoky. Make a big pot; the leftovers taste even better as the ingredients mesh and meld and become more unified. Cornbread is the quintessential accompaniment.
1 large (4–5 pound) boiler chicken
1 large onion, unpeeled and quartered
3 carrots, unpeeled and quartered
3 celery stalks, quartered
2 garlic cloves, unpeeled and crushed
1 small bunch fresh Italian parsley
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon sea salt
4–6 slices thick-cut bacon, chopped
3 pounds new potatoes, quartered
2 medium onions, chopped
3 tablespoons tomato paste
6 cups stewed or canned crushed tomatoes
2 cups prepared lima beans
2 cups corn kernels
1 tablespoon sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1⁄4 teaspoon ground red pepper
4 tablespoons butter
Make the chicken. Place the chicken in a large stockpot and cover with water. Add the onion, carrots, celery, garlic, parsley, bay leaf, peppercorns, and sea salt. Cover the pot and bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat to a slow boil and cook until the chicken is tender and the meat is falling off the bone, 45 to 90 minutes.
Remove the pot from the heat and allow to sit for 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a plate or cutting board to cool; do not discard the broth. Debone the chicken and shred or chop the meat. Strain the broth; cool, and skim off the fat.
Make the stew. Cook the bacon, stirring frequently, in a large stockpot over high heat until cooked. Add 4 cups of the reserved chicken broth to the stockpot. (If you don’t have 4 full cups, use additional chicken or vegetable stock, or water to make up the difference.) Add the potatoes and onion, and bring to a boil. Continue boiling until the potatoes begin to soften, about 10 minutes.
Stir in the tomato paste. Add the reserved chicken. Reduce to a simmer and add the tomatoes, lima beans, corn, sugar, salt, black pepper, and red pepper. Stir well and simmer, uncovered, for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Add additional broth or water if needed, but stew should be thick.
Remove the stew from the heat. Stir in the butter until it melts and serve immediately.
Yields 8-12 servings
This recipe is from my book, Dishing Up Virginia (Storey Publishing, 2013)
Patrick Evans-Hylton, a Johnson & Wales University trained chef, is a Norfolk, Va.-based food journalist, historian and educator. His work has appeared in print, television, radio and social media since 1995. Evans-Hylton calls his cookbook, Dishing Up Virginia, his love letter to the state’s foods and foodways. He blogs at PatrickEvansHylton.com.
© PEvansHylton for Virginia’s Travel Blog, 2014