Monday, July 19, 2010

Virginia is for food lovers

There are many things that might draw visitors toward western Virginia's food culture. I know I've mentioned Joel Salatin's famous operation (though my timing didn't align with any of the regular public tours of the famous pasture-raised meat farm in Swoope). I've written already about the amazing market development work that Appalachian Sustainable Development has been doing with farmers around Abingdon. I believe I've mentioned that Meadowview is something of a mecca for literary locavores due to Barbara Kingsolver's residence there. (Heck, the possibility of breathing some of the same air molecules as one of my all-time favorite authors would've been enough to draw me to the area.) I'd heard of the nonfiction account of her family's year of eating locally *before* the book was on Oprah, thank you, but it was only more recently that I learned of the dining establishment her husband helped start up in town. I am happy to report that while I didn't run into Ms. Kingsolver or her husband, co-author Steven Hopp, I did have a chance to experience one of their great gustatory legacies in the area. Twice.

My first night in town, Richard and Kathy treated me to dinner at The Harvest Table. As we nursed our beers on the patio and awaited our dinner plates at the almost exclusively locally sourced restaurant, I pored over the back of the menu. A number of farm names were printed with short descriptions and a listing of the ingredients contributed by each. Some of these very same farmers sold their wares at the market I'd been to earlier that day in Abingdon. I'd even met some of them! Talk about "know your farmer, know your food." I imagine I'm not the first tourist (or local) to seek out specific farms directly for ingredients after enjoying them as part of a meal here. It wasn't just one or two items on the menu, it was the whole thing. The restaurant, linked to the Meadowview Farmers' Guild, meant to show direct links between food, farmers, and eaters. They're playing my song.

The meal was darn good and I would have lingered much longer, but since it was the last shift before the place would close for the holiday weekend I didn't have much of an opportunity to badger... I mean chat with... the chef. While friendly enough, the staffmembers were clearly ready for the 4th of July weekend and ushered us out with a complimentary slice of chocolate cake and bottle of white wine. But my curiosity was far from sated.

Conveniently, the restaurant was open once again the following Tuesday afternoon, so of course Mike and I stopped in for lunch before heading out of town. (Yes, this was pure altruism on my part. I mean, it would be unfair for Mike not to experience food this good after he'd traveled all the way from DC for the weekend.) This time we sat at the bar overlooking the kitchen. As fate would have it, Chef Philip happened to overhear the two of us discussing the difference between heavy cream and whipping cream and struck up a conversation. Over the course of the next hour or so, Philip shared his views on the importance of direct relationships with farmers, a reconnection with seasonal eating, and the challenges of both. He openly admitted that the coffee and lemons and olive oil couldn't be locally sourced -- hey, I'm no purist, either, with these items -- but insisted that ingredients be purchased from local producers as much as possible. Sometimes working with smaller growers presents unique challenges when one is trying to supply a restaurant doing decent business, I learned. One has to be flexible. "I mean, some of these are older generation farmers," Philip shrugged. "They don't have computerized invoices, they don't know the exact number of blackberries in a pint. They grow the food -- good food -- and I do my best to make it work." And boy does he. I'm telling you, the lamb burrito was stellar, and the berry cobbler we gobbled for dessert nearly brought tears to my eyes. (That one's for you, dad.) Actually, I felt a bit sheepish leaving a cookmark with Philip -- I think he may have outdone my perfect tart crust. I'll have to try that berry cobbler again some day. You know, just to be sure.

Too soon, it seemed, Mike and I had to hit the road for Charlottesville -- he had kindly offered to give Ollie and me a lift on his way back toward DC -- but we left The Harvest Table with full bellies and happy hearts, knowing that our food dollars were supporting sustainability-minded farmers and a restaurant that helps to celebrate their everchanging seasonal bounty. Come to think of it, I think this state's tourism department is going to have to modify its tagline: Virginia is for *sustainable food* lovers.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

1 comment:

  1. Hey, the sign is NOT a souvenir...I know that look...


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