Williamsburg, VA  - Vacation Travel Guide

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Williamsburg Area Features

Top 5 Food Finds in Williamsburg

Williamsburg has a long-standing tradition of exceptional food. Many of the “receipts” (the colonial or old English term for a recipe) that can be found here are influenced by the land and the region’s history. Here are our top five food finds in the Historic Triangle.

1. Virginia Country Ham

When asked to think of a Virginian food, most people immediately say ham. Not just any ham, but Virginia Country Ham. Regional companies such as Edwards and Smithfield lead in country ham production, but many small independent companies also make hams employing the same methods used by generations before them. Country hams are salt-cured and aged for a few months to a year, giving them a distinctive and desired taste. Many people make the mistake of throwing away expensive country hams that they receive as gifts because they think the hams have gone bad. Country hams come with a layer of harmless mold on them, much like that found on fine cheeses. The mold will come off in the preparation process of soaking and scrubbing the ham.

A popular way to eat country ham is on a small biscuit or roll. A small thin slice is all you need and really, that’s it—maybe some mustard. Just about every native Virginian host has offered this staple menu item at one time or another. Pan-fried ham slices are also often served with red-eye gravy. After the ham has been cooked, remove it from the pan and stir in a half-cup of both water and black coffee, being careful to scrape up any tidbits left from the ham steak. Slightly reduce the coffee by simmering for about five minutes and then ladle the gravy onto the plated slice of ham and maybe some accompanying grits. Visit the Edwards Ham Shops on Richmond Road or in Surry to take some ham home with you or grab a sandwich if you just need a quick bite to eat.

2. Peanuts

Before Planters and Mr. Peanut took up residence in nearby Suffolk in the early 1900s, peanuts have been grown throughout the Commonwealth for sustenance. During the Colonial era, peanuts were used in countless recipes including soups, desserts and hors d’oeuvres. At the time of the American Civil War, the legumes were relied on for a food source and Union soldiers brought them back to the north after the fighting had concluded—spreading their popularity. Now, Virginia peanuts are readily available in stores such as Whitley’s Peanut Factory in Williamsburg, and many retailers ship them across the nation. In some of the local restaurants that specialize in Virginia foods, you may find peanut soup on the menu. This creamy and hearty recipe is served warm and is absolutely delicious.

3. Oysters

Many people may be surprised to learn that the market for oyster tourism has exploded in Virginia. The state has seven different regions on the “Oyster Trail” that contribute to high-quality oysters of different flavors and characteristics based upon the “merroir” or waters in which they are raised (similar to terroir in viniculture). People come from all over the world to experience this epicurean delight, and Williamsburg has a number of restaurants where Oysters Rockefeller, oyster po-boys, and raw or steamed oysters can be tried. Pry one open to sample this decadent crustacean!

4. Pancakes

A list of area foods has to include a long-standing Williamsburg staple—the pancake. Everyone who has lived in Williamsburg or attended William & Mary, or just visits often and knows the area, has realized that a new pancake house is a local harbinger of spring. At least it seems that way! Williamsburg is home to many pancake houses—and for good reason—they’re delicious and in high-demand! If you’re in the mood for an easier-to-eat while on-the-go breakfast food, try a donut from Dunkin’ or Duck Donuts. You can even find bacon and maple flavors for a sweet morning treat!

5. Colonial Cuisine

At many of the historic sites in and around the region, foodways programs are a fantastic way to learn about and sometimes taste authentic colonial recipes. However, to really immerse yourself in the 18th century, try visiting one of Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Taverns: Shields Tavern, Christiana Campbell’s Tavern, the King’s Arms Tavern and the recently reopened Chowning’s (pronounced Chew-ning’s) Tavern. Not only will you try some dishes that have been served to Virginians for over 200 years, but the candlelight ambiance of the reconstructed taverns will transport you into yesteryear, when food was locally grown, made from scratch and downright simpler.

A favorite dish that is sure to please is the cheesy Welsh rarebit. It’s a beer cheese sauce served on top of bread and sometimes a little Virginia ham. It’s simple but very delicious! Brunswick Stew is uniquely Virginian and another long-standing classic recipe created by an African-American cook in the Colonial era. By the mid-1800s Brunswick stew was on everyone’s dining table. It took a few hours to prepare so it was usually made in sizeable batches and served at large community gatherings. The stew features a barbeque-flavored tomato broth with locally available meats and vegetables such as butter beans, onions, and corn. Traditionally, the meats are thought to have been rabbit or squirrel, but pork and poultry are commonly used in today’s versions. Since most of the ingredients are native to the region, this is as homegrown as it gets!

Be sure to end your meal with a delicious dessert at one of the Colonial Taverns. Pecan pie, bread puddings, and spoon cakes are as good (and in demand) today as they were 200 years ago. For something really old-fashioned, try a syllabub cocktail. Cream is whipped to a meringue peak and mixed with white wine before receiving a garnish of fruit or mint. It’s quite light and refreshing!

These are just a few of the items that we recommend you try while in the Williamsburg area. Other contenders for beloved Virginia foods and beverages include crabmeat (especially she-crab soup), BBQ, corn products, and wines. As you venture around, you’ll likely be tempted by a new dish that uses local ingredients. Of course, Williamsburg also has a delightful array of ethnic restaurants to choose from. What’s your favorite area food?

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