The Piedmont Virginian's Blog

Serving and Celebrating America's Historic Heart

Category: Gardening (page 1 of 17)

Chef of Nature Serves Virginia’s Finest

by Meghan Scalea

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photo by Kellis Photography

When executive chef, Scott Myers, took the helm at Vintage Restaurant on the ground floor of the Inn at Willow Grove last summer, he wasted no time diving into the local farming community – and the fields surrounding the Inn – to learn how to source his menu. Having cooked in restaurants in New England and Montana, he’s used to starting over in new communities and treating the land and its local culture like he would a crash course in anthropology.

The restaurant is a fine dining destination for guests of the Inn as well as the community. As menu curator, Myers was challenged to produce options that would appeal to the the local Orange/Culpeper patrons but also be forward enough to attract foodies on weekend getaways from DC and New York.

“You want to be that definition place where you can put out really cool stuff,” Myers says. “You can still keep a really basic dish but use all Virginia ingredients so it’s got its own little thing going on. We did a play on ham and biscuits once, and everything was local, and it was fun.”

restaurantHam and biscuits sounds like a southern recipe, but Myers has learned by observing the local food scene and his guests that the central Virginia palate is not strictly southern. In his opinion, there is a southern country flair, but the food isn’t heavy southern cuisine. He learned this by meeting the local people, going out to restaurants – both good and bad ones. “What is it these people eat?” he asked himself. “What do they like? It’s mainly seeing and learning their culture as best you can. It’s great to immerse yourself in it.”

Myers first immersed himself in the local farm scene through the now defunct Fresh Link, a farm aggregator business that sourced seasonal foods from farmers to chefs across Virginia. When that business closed, he developed direct relationships with those farmers he’d sourced from and started attending any kind of farm expo he could find. He prefers these casual interactions with producers where they can learn from each other.

web chef's tableHe is a man of nature who bow hunts for venison and raises meat birds, guinea hens and hogs for his own use. He is known for taking his staff out on the Inn’s grounds to forage for local watercress, morels, mulberries, raspberries, wild strawberries and greens. And the Inn just put in a kitchen garden with raised beds and fresh herbs that Myers frequently pinches off to add to a dish.

Despite nature’s bounty that seems abundant out the kitchen door step, Myers spends a good deal of his free time picking up food orders from his local suppliers. It’s a task that often cuts into his personal time, but it’s also what he considers one of the best parts of running a locally sourced kitchen. “It’s not even about getting product. It’s about getting to see what [the farmers] are doing and them getting to see what you’re doing, meeting their families, having dinner with them. It’s the best part of it.”

That connection to the local fields is what Myers hopes his guests take away after a dining experience. “The greatest compliment someone could me is probably just that we take the time to go source it and find it, that they can see the difference in it as opposed to commodity stuff.”

He acknowledges that more and more people are interested in knowing where their food comes from and wanting to talk about it. Some of his farmer partners send customers to Vintage to taste their food prepared, and Myers reciprocates by encouraging his guests to go visit the producers, like Moving Meadows Farm where he gets his chicken, turkey and goat.

One recent, unexpected star menu item is the Virginia tofu, produced by Twin Oaks in Louisa. At the time of this interview, the tofu was marinated in a spicy coconut broth and served with shaved daikon and bean sprouts. “I groove on it a lot. It’s the perfect texture on the grill. I’ll save the scraps while I’m making it and come back to it.”

Featuring a Virginia tofu on the menu is not something diners will find just anywhere and sends a strong message about Myers’ curiosity for local foods and commitment to sourcing locally whenever possible. Cooking with local, seasonal ingredients is the only way for him, and he’s enjoying seeing the central Virginia community starting to prefer it, too.

When asked, he struggles to name his favorite Virginia foods to cook with. Wild edibles are nice in the spring, he says. Tomatoes are great, and the peaches and fruits are fantastic. Corn is great. Lately the cheeses have really been starting to take off. And the hogs – oh man, the hogs, he says as he leans back in his chair and licks his lips. There are too many to pick just one thing.

We can’t help but agree.

“Real Food” is Real Good: locally sourced lunch restaurant in Culpeper

By Meghan Scalea

Producing a weekly lunch menu focused on locally sourced food is a challenging feat, yet it is exactly what Paul and Sarah Diegl, owners of Real Food in Orange, have been committed to doing every Wednesday since 2008. Their journey to simple, seasonal food started, as all good food journeys do, with degrees in philosophy and psychology and a resume of greasy spoons in Charlottesville.

IMG_0757The husband and wife team spent 15 years working in restaurants and inns, teaching themselves about food and restaurant management. When Paul left the Inn at Meander Plantation near Orange to become a personal chef, the couple got their first taste of the community’s appetite for seasonal, locally sourced meals.

“All of a sudden, people were really wanting him to cater their dinner parties,” says Sarah. “He was working out of the back of the Subaru. It was limited the number of people we could serve.

We started looking for a physical location so we could have refrigerators.”

That was seven years ago. Today, Real Food resides in an unassuming, signless building off Old Gordonsville Road that was formerly home to a hamburger stand, another reminder of their humble beginnings “on the line.” The Diegls took over the building intending to use it just for Paul’s catering. Those catering requests that launched his independent cooking career now make up roughly half of Real Food’s business, complemented by a steady flow of weekday lunch customers.

It was Sarah, a native of Orange, who recognized the need for a local lunch place. The only option in town was a little ice cream parlor that made deli sandwiches. When they closed shop for a long holiday weekend and never returned, the Diegls seized the opportunity to support a lunch crowd and show off the best of central Virginia agriculture.

At the time they opened their doors, very few other places were sourcing locally.

“I started to feel like food was becoming this overwhelming number of customizations,” says Sarah. “I said, let’s just do what we do in a really focused way.”

The mission of Real Food has always been to keep it simple, right down to the sparse interior of the restaurant and the minimalistic web site. This way the focus remains on the food.

IMG_1438Each Wednesday, Paul and Sarah stand in front of the lunch counter and contemplate what to do for the next week’s menu. They talk about what their local farms have available based on emails Paul gets from his farmer friends. But email can get trumped by visits from farmers who show up at Real Food’s back door with fresh produce or livestock. Last summer a grower showed up with fresh turmeric and another one with fresh ginger. The Diegls were giddy.

These impromptu visits from farmers help the Diegls stay nimble in their weekly expressions with food. But changing the menu every seven days poses a challenge in their partnerships with many local farmers, admits Sarah.

“We are a tough client for some farmers. Our needs are so different because we only need ingredients for a week at a time. Sometimes we just need a pound of chutney, which isn’t worth bothering with for a large supplier. But then we might need 40 pounds of asparagus for a week of asparagus sandwiches, which is tough for a small farmer.”

But customers love knowing they can try new foods every week. It’s a business model that keeps both the owners and the patrons coming back for more. “People will plan their week with us,” says Sarah. “They say, ‘I’ll have the salad on Monday, then I’ll come back for the sandwich on Wednesday.’”

The Diegls agree that they have built a trust with their regular customers. People who would otherwise be hesitant to try a hard-boiled egg sandwich with olives, for example, will give it a try because they’ve enjoyed other menu items and trust Paul and Sarah to only serve food that tastes great.

IMG_1370Part of the reason it tastes so good is because at least part of each menu item always contains ingredients that are local and in season. Sarah references a hail storm that occurred the night before this interview. “If one of our farmers walked in, I would ask him, ‘how did you fare in the hail storm?’ We hear that the chefs in [Washington] DC don’t understand when their orders are delayed or altered because they aren’t living among their suppliers. It is so helpful to live where our food comes from.”

Sourcing locally can be costly, and Real Food aims to make good food accessible to everyone. Recipes are often tailored to cut ingredients that put them over a certain price point, trading pine nuts for house made focaccia croutons, for example. The Diegls work to protect the integrity of the food while still keeping it budget-friendly for a casual lunch crowd.

Real Food is currently open for lunch only from Monday through Friday, despite popular demand for a Saturday option. The Diegls currently plan to keep Saturdays for catering only, so perhaps a “sick day” is the way to go to get a taste of some real food.

Meat We Know: Available at Croftburn Market

By Meghan Scalea

IMGP2166It’s no secret that over the years the American public has grown increasingly interested – even skeptical – about knowing exactly where their meat comes from. So it made sense in 2011 for a young man from a Culpeper farming family to help guide his community to meat they could feel good about eating.

Several years ago, Andrew Campbell was fresh off the slopes of Colorado’s ski resorts when he returned to his family’s Croftburn Farm with a vision to help his neighbors in their quest to eat locally raised food. He had seen people lined up at the weekly farmers markets to buy naturally raised meats and knew there had to be a way to make these products available more than once a week.

Campbell opened Croftburn Market as a retail location in 2011 to sell locally raised meats direct to customers Monday through Friday. The Market, located just off route 29 on Braggs Corner Road, was chosen for its proximity to other retail outlets and those traveling to central Virginia from Washington, DC.

“A lot of downtown Culpeper is built on people coming in to visit and in for dinner and overnight, getting away from their lives in northern Virginia just as a little close vacation. That spills over to the retail side – people coming down once a week to their vacation house, or once a month they send me an email and pick up a freezer full of stuff to be filled up for a bit,” explains Campbell.

But opening a store that sells only meat seemed too limited in an age where people are used to one-stop shopping at big box stores. He stocked the Market with cheese, wines and beers, and limited local produce – the staples that complement a meat-based menu. All the elements are there to prepare a gourmet dinner or summer picnic.

Inside, a large glass display showcases beautiful cuts of red meat and sausages, and upright freezers are packed with products from local farmers and USDA cuts. Campbell and the staff behind the counter serve as meat ambassadors, helping customers fumble through questions about how much meat to buy, which cut best suits a recipe they’ve chosen, and how to prepare it.

“Meat can be intimidating,” Campbell acknowledges. “We try to create a pretty hospitable atmosphere that isn’t pretentious, and you can ask questions without feeling silly.”

baby lambsThe bulk of his business is pork, poultry and beef, although they also sell rabbit, goat and other novelty type meats. Campbell sources from farmers within three to four surrounding counties where he knows exactly how the animals are being raised.

“We are giving people a better product than what you can find elsewhere, and that varies product to product. For example, the local beef is not certified organic, but it’s local, so it’s coming from a place X miles from here. The animals aren’t being fed antibiotics or growth hormones like you’re finding in U.S. feedlots out west. Being exclusively organic is very, very difficult, so we tend to go for products that simply aren’t fed with additives and are as natural as possible, which means it’s not fed and finished in the normal commercial way.”

IMGP2196-001.PEFDozens of varieties of sausage, for example, are cured in-house at Croftburn Market. They aren’t loaded with preservatives and cooked, which means it doesn’t keep as long as grocery store sausage, but the quality is better. Customers tell Campbell they like knowing it was made right there, and that’s what keeps them coming back.

The same goes for the local beef he sells. “You can see this wasn’t a steak cut a week ago and hit with gas so it will stay cherry red. People are interested in where things come from, and that’s why they come to see us.”

While the store sells some products from his family’s farm, Campbell also stocks products from more than half a dozen other local farms. He understands how little time farmers have to market their own products or attend farmers markets. He wants Croftburn Market to serve as a point of sale for the full-time farmers who have a great product but need help sharing it with others. His inventory is balanced to cater to a broad spectrum of customers ranging from those who only want locally raised grass-fed meats to those who simply want a great cut at an affordable price.

Some people still can’t fathom leaving the grocery store meat department behind to explore a privately owned butcher shop. Campbell advises first-time customers to come in and start small. “Buy a steak or ground beef we make fresh every morning before you commit to half a beef. I’m always encouraging people to cook different products side by side and see if you can taste the difference between our dry aged products and the wet aged beef you get at the grocery store. Part of the fun is finding something that works for your tastebuds.”

His no-pressure approach to meat education is something that sets customers at ease. “Meat is an investment, and you don’t want to mess that up. I try to be cognizant of whether someone wants to be told what to do and how to do it. Other customers want to do it their way, which is fine, too. We are here to help.”

Croftburn Market is located at 16178 Rogers Rd, Culpeper.

Growing Food and Community

By Andrea Chandler

Back in the 19th century and even into the early 20th, before mechanization made it possible for one person to harvest an entire field of corn in solitary splendor, heavy farm labor was often a social affair. The community was built at dances and potluck suppers held in conjunction with corn shucking,  making syrup from maple sap and sorghum crops,  shearing the sheep, and an assortment of other farm events that were relatively time-sensitive and needed to be done quickly. These days the tradition persists on small farms like mine, where the tiny size means mechanization isn’t an efficient option. It also offers a chance for people who possibly can’t afford to pay cash for premium heritage foods to barter their labor instead, benefiting the farmer, the livestock, and the families who come to help out.

I’m lucky to have good friends who are willing to barter their labor in this fashion. They show up to help dig over garden beds, clean the goat barn, move hay, trim hooves, harvest small livestock, and soon they’ll get to show up to help with the shearing. In return, I’m able to offer them products of the farm: meats, vegetables, fleeces, feathers, hides. They are a hard-working group of dedicated helpers, essential to my ability to be productive, but also beloved friends.

Young rabbits in the grow out pen

Young rabbits in the grow out pen


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A Generation of Sourdough Bread

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I would tell a lie if I told you I eat a lot of bread. I actually eat very little bread. However, when I have it, and when I make it, I devour it in a heartbeat. You could say that bread is my weakness when it’s available. But it must be fresh, hot out of the oven bread.

It’s only natural that my very first job was working in a little Mennonite store in Remington, Virginia. I’ve always said that my cooking and baking skills came from that stage in life rather than from my mother or grandmother. I never got many opportunities to cook “with” my mom or grandma, or maybe I simply wasn’t interested in it at the time. But as I have grown and now have a family of my own, I often think of cooking and baking with grandma now. The sad fact is that I now cook and bake for her, instead of with her. Slow down, time….you’re taking the people we love away from us much too quickly.

A few years ago a friend of my mothers sent me a sourdough starter through the mail. I was terrified that the white powdery substance would be inspected as some chemical war of terror, but it made it safely to my mailbox in just a few short days — from North Carolina to good ol’ Virginia.

Sourdough was a brand new thing to me. I loved eating sourdough, but I never understood the complex science behind it. I’m a fermenting queen now, but back then? No way.

The history of sourdough is simple. People needed an option to preserve and make something on a regular basis. Fermentation was one of the very first ways of preserving food for our ancestors. Yes, it came long before canning.

But with something so simple, I failed. I failed miserably the first time. I even had to ask for more suspicious white powdery mailed substance so that I could start all over again — and then I failed again. Eventually I gave up because I didn’t have the time for this complex science. Recently, however, I discovered it’s not science at all, but an art.

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