William Styron, a native of Newport News and author of The Confessions of Nat Turner, a novel based on Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion, once said that the French consider strong, smoke-cured Virginia hams to be America's only gourmet contribution to the world's cuisine. We Virginians love our ham baked by itself, boiled with fresh vegetables, or stuffed into piping hot biscuits.

We are not as famous as Texas for our barbecue, but we know how to slow-cook the shoulders of those pigs whose rumps end up as hams. While most of our barbecue joints soak the results in tomato-tinged sauce, the best are smart enough to put the red stuff on the side, thus leaving the pork to be enjoyed in all its smoky glory.

We are also crazy about rockfish (which you know as sea bass) and blue crabs, especially in their soft-shell stage, from the Chesapeake Bay. Our rivers give us bone-filled shad and rainbow trout. Our farms produce a plethora of vegetables during the summer (I've never tasted sweeter Silver Queen corn), and our Shenandoah orchards are famous for autumn apples.

And let's not forget the peanut, one of Virginia's major crops. Where else will you partake of peanut soup?

Chefs all over Virginia turn our fresh produce into exciting variations of traditional southern fare, but when we talk of down-home-style Virginia cooking, we mean what you Yankees call "comfort food." Every small town and most big cities have at least one inexpensive, family-style restaurant serving simple fare such as southern fried chicken, grilled pork chops, and ham accompanied by fresh vegetables, often boiled with smoky seasoning meat.

In other words, dining at a local restaurant in Virginia can be a real challenge for those on low-fat diets!

The Best Virginia-style Chow

You can dine on all types of cuisine in Virginia, but we still use recipes handed down since Colonial times -- ancient dishes such as peanut soup and Sally Lunn bread -- or ham biscuits and other such present-day Ole Virginny goodies. The best places to sample Virginia's own cuisine are:

  • Gadsby's Tavern, 138 N. Royal St., Alexandria (tel. 703/548-1288).
  • The Beverly Restaurant, 12 E. Beverly St., Staunton (tel. 540/886-4317).
  • Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant and Bakery, 74 Rowe Rd., Staunton (tel. 540/886-1833).
  • Roanoker Restaurant, 2522 Colonial Ave., Roanoke (tel. 540/344-7746).
  • Eley's Barbecue, 3221 N. Washington St., Petersburg (tel. 804/732-5861).
  • Colonial Williamsburg Taverns, Williamsburg (tel. 800/447-8679 or 757/229-2141).
  • Old Chickahominy House, 1211 Jamestown Rd., Williamsburg (tel. 757/229-4689).

Virginia's Vinos

When Thomas Jefferson returned home to Charlottesville in 1789 after 5 years in Paris as minister to France, he brought with him a keen appreciation for fine wine. Virginians had been growing indigenous grapes and making lousy local wine since 1607, when the Jamestown colony ordered each household to cultivate 10 grapevines. Mr. Jefferson believed that European grapes could be grown here, and he tried seven times without success to establish a vineyard winery near his home in Charlottesville.

Too bad he can't come back to life today, for Jefferson would find his beloved Virginia dotted with more than 140 vineyards. Indeed, official state policy is to encourage the growing of grapes and the production of wine. (It strikes me as ironic that the home state of tee-totaling Baptist preachers Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell is switching from tobacco to alcohol!)

Wineries have sprouted up like weeds all over Virginia, with the oldest and still best in the rolling hills of the Hunt Country in Northern Virginia and near Charlottesville.

Many of them are small mom-and-pop operations (if this were beer, we would call them microbreweries), but together they rank Virginia with California, Washington, Oregon, and New York as the nation's top wine-producing states.

The climate here is too varied to produce consistently good grapes. One summer may be hot and dry, the next warm and damp. That's not to say you won't run across a good local vintage from an exceptional year, but the state usually doesn't grow the quality of grapes found in sunnier France, Italy, and California. Moderately good wines at moderate prices best describes Virginia's vinos.

Chardonnay is the most widely grown grape here, but many experts say viognier is perhaps the best suited white grape for Virginia. You'll also find Riesling in good quantity. Among the reds, cabernet sauvignon is the most widely planted grape.

Many gourmet groceries and wine and cheese shops sell Virginia wines, and occasionally you'll find them in supermarket beer-and-wine sections. Because the small vineyards don't produce enough quantity to satisfy wine distributors, from whom licensed grocers and restaurateurs are required by state law to purchase wine (that's correct: They cannot buy directly from the wineries), local vintages appear on surprisingly few restaurant lists.

Accordingly, the best places to sample them are by visiting the wineries which have tasting rooms. I mention some of the better ones in the destination chapters in this book.

The Virginia Wine Marketing Office, 1001 E. Broad St., Ste. 140, Richmond, VA 23219 (tel. 804/344-8200; www.virginiawine.org), posts "Wine Trails" (marked by wine-logo road signs) for each region in the state and publishes an annual, roadmap-size "Virginia Winery Guide," which describes each winery and plots its location. (Copies also are available from the Virginia Tourism Corporation.) You can download winery guides by regions and get a schedule of wine festivals on the Wine Marketing Office's website.

Walker Elliott Rowe's Wandering through Virginia's Vineyards (Apprentice House, 2005) is a very good review of who's growing what and why. To buy a copy, contact Apprentice House in Baltimore, Maryland, at tel. 410/617-5265 or www.apprenticehouse.com.

Virginia Wine Lover magazine (www.virginiawinelover.com) is a good source of news.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.