Virginia farm dinners are gaining popularity across the Commonwealth, see more below about several of these field to feast meals.
Ayrshire Farm Heritage Breed & Wine Dinner, Upperville
In mid-October, Ayshire Farm celebrates the harvest season with a dinner pairing its fabulously unique endangered breeds livestock and organic produce with some of the commonwealth’s best wines. As Virginia’s first farm to have its meats certified both organic and humane, Ayshire has been on the cutting edge of the farm-to-fork movement since its founding in 1996.
According to owner Sandy Lerner, the meal is commemorative of the farm’s history and the state’s now-thriving seasonal, local-sourced, sustainable, slow-foods culture.
“When I started this, most people thought I was from another planet,” she says with a laugh. However, 21 years into the game, Lerner’s operation is heralded by foodies and farmers around the country as a template of sustainability. In its effort to preserve various rare breeds, the farm features Scottish Highland cattle, Ancient White Park cattle, Gloucestershire Old Spot hogs, and several endangered breeds of free-range ducks, turkeys and chickens. Meanwhile, Ayshire produces more than 125,000 pounds of beef annually, along with 45,000 pounds of pork and 62,000 pounds of poultry.
Last year’s farm dinner featured four delectable courses prepared by executive chef Lawrence Kocurek, who helms Ayshire’s sister restaurant, the Hunter’s Head Tavern. Honing his skills with Michelin-caliber icons like Tien Ho, Roy Yamaguchi, and Pierre Schutz, Kocurek says he was lured to Virginia by Ayshire’s promise of heirloom produce and some of the rarest, most sustainably raised livestock in the world.
“I was aching for the farm-and-country lifestyle,” says Kocurek. “A pig or a cow that you’ve raised this way tastes incredibly different. When I got the offer to work with Ayshire, my wife and I said, ‘Virginia, here we come!’”
Dinner-goers are treated to an outdoor meal at the 800-acre farm’s historic 42-room Edwardian manor. Seating is limited. $125 per person. AyrshireFarm.com
The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm, Lovettsville
After purchasing Patowmack Farm in 1986, Beverly Morton Billand had what was, at that time, an incredibly novel idea: To open a restaurant on-site. Located in the northwest corner of the state near the border of West Virginia and Maryland, with its pristine hilltop views of the Potomac River and Heaters Island Wildlife Management Area, the property was aesthetically dazzling.
Meanwhile, Billand’s emphasis on organic methods made for premium, readily available ingredients.“We were already growing and maintaining our land with respect to sustainable environmental practices,” she says. Considering ways to help foster a local, economically viable foods community based around those principles, a restaurant seemed like the next step. “When we opened in 1997, we became one of the first farm restaurants in the U.S.”
Today, The Restaurant graces a hillside overlooking miles of river and forests. A quaint brick path leads to the dining room—a glass conservatory reminiscent of an upscale greenhouse—an open-air tent for summer meals, and a gazebo. Thursday through Saturday nights, executive chef Tarver King crafts pre-fixe tasting menus from seasonal ingredients that have been foraged, sourced on site, or provided from other area farms. This year was a big one for King, who was named both a 2017 James Beard Foundation Best Chef in America semi-finalist and the Resident Association of Metropolitan Washington Chef of the Year.
Pre-fixe, $105. Wine pairing, $50. PatowmackFarm.com
Dinner in the Field, Richmond
In 2013, chefs Gregorio Spinzo and Paige Healy met in southern Italy. Healy, then a fixture at Richmond’s The Boathouse, was enrolled in a three-month program for master chefs at the Italian Culinary Institute. Spinzo was a native.
“I couldn’t speak much Italian and Gregorio couldn’t speak much English, but we were both food lovers, and that quickly became our language,” says Healy. “We formed a strong connection in the kitchen, learning from each other, one dish at a time.”
In fact, the connection was so powerful that, when Healy’s official studies ended, she decided to extend her stay. In addition to dating Spinzo, she wanted to learn more about how meals were cooked and enjoyed in traditional Italian households. With his eight siblings, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends all eating together at the same table, Spinzo’s family home was the perfect classroom.
“We’d create these large family meals from food grown right outside Gregorio’s doorstep,” says Healy. There might be eggs from cousin's chickens, milk from auntie’s cow, fish caught by grandpa, orange juice from the family orchard, vegetables from sister's garden, and so on. “We’d eat together at a big table outside, drinking wine, sharing stories from the day.”
Ultimately, the dinners inspired the newly married couple to return to Richmond in 2014,where they launched a company specializing in recreating the experience. “Dinner in the Field events are focused on cooking from the ground up,” says Healy. “We start with local, seasonally specific ingredients. Then we find a beautiful location,” typically on a local farm. “Finally, we create a menu that brings it all together.”
While the couple went on a worldwide food sabbatical in 2017, 2018 dinners and events will soon be announced via their website. DinnerInTheField.com
Pleasure House Oysters, Virginia Beach
Chesapeake Bay oyster bars were once so abundant European explorers were forced to steer around them. Subsequently, a thriving oyster trade developed. In 1887, at peak harvest, a whopping 24 million bushels—that is, nearly half the oysters consumed in the world—were sourced from the Bay. However, by the early 2000s, 150 years of unchecked pollution and overharvesting had nearly wiped them off the map.
Of course, Bay oysters have since made a monumental comeback. Located at the confluence of the Lynnhaven River and the Chesapeake Bay, Pleasure House Oysters has helped spearhead the return of one of the Bay’s most historically beloved variants, the Lynnhaven Oyster.
“The Lynnhaven is the Bay’s largest and most beautiful oyster,” says Pleasure House owner Chris Ludford. “It was coveted for centuries for its size, saltiness and gentle zing, and was, historically, a favorite of U.S. presidents and European and Russian royalty.”
Unlike other agricultural operations, Ludford says most people don’t know much about oyster farming. Hoping to offer insight into the process and share the experience of plucking, shucking and slurping the mollusks straight from the water, Ludford developed a number of unique tour and dinner experiences. Patrons can now visit the farm and take a guided boat tour of the Lynnhaven. Later, they don waders and harvest oysters from the company’s cages, which are then served with champagne and other chef-prepared dishes at a table positioned in the water.
“It’s the salty, but not too salty taste from the mix of Lynnhaven River water and saltwater from the Bay that elevates these oysters above all others,” boasts Ludford. “And there’s nothing like eating one fresh from the water. It’s truly an experience like no other.”
Chef’s tasting tour, $137.50 per person. PleasureHouseOysters.com
Alleghany Mountain Institute Urban Farm Dinner, Staunton
Each year, the not-for-profit educational organization Alleghany Mountain Institute provides up to six fellowships to applicants dedicated to mastering all aspects of a sustainable farming operation. Once accepted, fellows spend 18 months—i.e. two growing seasons—living on the institute’s 550-acre Highland County farm.
“Our fellows master the relationships between food production, natural systems, diet, and optimal human health and participate in hands-on educational programs in sustainable agriculture,” says AMI executive director Julianne McGuinness. “Afterward, we place them in jobs with partner organizations working as local food coordinators, school garden facilitators, market farm managers, food systems educators and advocates for sustainable food systems.”
One such AMI partnership is the Urban Farm at the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind. Founded in 2013 and located in downtown Staunton, the three-acre farm provides a place for students of all ages to learn, play and grow outdoors, and consists of a two-acre vegetable garden, outdoor classroom and kitchen, orchard and diverse native habitat plantings.
For the past 3 years, AMI and the VSDB have celebrated and raised funds for the partnership by hosting a community farm dinner, typically held the last week in August. In addition to veggies grown at the Urban Farm, the dinner highlights regional foods, including locally raised chicken, beef and pork, and Virginia craft ciders, wines and beer. Last year, chef Mike Lund of Staunton’s LUNdCH prepared dishes like fresh pappardelle with carrot puree, peas, Vidalia onions, foraged ramps and redbuds.
$75 per person. AlleghanyMountainInstitute.org
Harvest Table Farm & Restaurant Farm Dinner, Meadowview
By now, the story of the Harvest Table Restaurant and Farm has become legendary. After co-authoring 2007’s New York Times best-seller Animal, Vegetable, Miracle with his wife, Barbara Kingsolver, Emory & Henry College environmental science professor Steven Hopp decided to conduct an experiment. Using his share of the profits, in 2010, Hopp founded an organic vegetable farm (which has since expanded to include livestock) and opened a farm-to-table restaurant in the tiny southwest Virginia town of Meadowview.
“I wanted to start a different kind of business, based on a different kind of philosophy,” explains Hopp. “From start to finish, I would invest in the health of our community and the land, trying to maximize the number of people who benefitted from our existence.”
A decade later, the experiment has proven a radical success. Sourcing more than 90 percent of its ingredients from within a 90-mile radius, and partnering with more than 200 like-minded regional farmers and food producers, Harvest Table has come to exemplify everything a farm-to-table restaurant should hope to be.
In celebration of that history, Hopp and company began holding a 100 percent local-sourced, annual Labor Day weekend dinner on the farm. The three-course meal is prepared by Harvest Table chefs Philip Newton and Bradley Griffin. Last year’s courses included bourbon-smoked, cacao-rubbed pork tenderloin with curried applesauce; whiskey-glazed carrots; and a pawpaw chess pie for dessert. Cider pairings were provided by Foggy Ridge Cider.
$40 per person. Proceeds benefit the 4-H Center of Southwest Virginia. HarvestTableRestaurant.com