By Meghan Scalea
Route 15 is where it’s at for great local food in and around Orange and Culpeper. Plan a short road trip wisely and enjoy the best of what the area has to offer. Pack a cooler and stock up on some local products to enjoy at home.
Consider starting at Real Food in downtown Orange since lunch is currently the only meal served on premise during the week. Producing a weekly lunch menu focused on locally sourced food is a challenging feat, yet it is exactly what owners Paul and Sarah Diegl have been committed to doing since 2008.
Each Wednesday, Paul and Sarah stand in front of the lunch counter and contemplate what to do for the next week’s menu. The couple communicates with their farmer friends in order to understand what is available from local farms. Some farmers even drop by the restaurant unannounced to show off their latest harvest; this helps the Diegls stay right on-season as they chase new flavors each week.
At least part of each menu item always contains ingredients that are local. 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?’” It is so helpful to live where our food comes from.”
Real Food is currently open for lunch only from Monday through Friday. Saturdays are reserved for catering, so if a weekday visit is out, throw a party and have the best of what’s local brought to you.
As with all good meals, once one ends at Real Food, it’s time to start planning the next. For quintessential meal planning, head north on Route 15 for roughly 22 miles to Croftburn Market in Culpeper. Andrew Campbell and his team can help even the most inexperienced cooks choose the perfect meat for an elegant dinner or casual cookout. His butcher shop features local meats and complementary food items like cheese, produce, and wine so that customers can leave with a complete picnic basket.
Inside the store, 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.”
The bulk of his business is pork, poultry, and beef, although they also sell rabbit, goat, and other novelties.
“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. 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 aren’t fed with additives and are as natural as possible, which means it’s not fed and finished in the normal commercial way.”
Dozens 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.
Campbell says 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. It’s tough to leave the store without feeling inspired to make something delicious.
Once your car is piled high with local meats, cheeses, and wines, head back down south on Route 15 to Vintage Restaurant at the Inn at Willow Grove for some palette pampering. Savor a pre-dinner cocktail outside at the firepit or on a rocking chair overlooking rolling pastures while executive chef, Scott Myers, heats up the kitchen.
When Myers took the helm at Vintage 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.
Myers has direct relationships with local farmers and attends any kind of farm expo he can find. He 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 dishes.
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 not even all about getting product. It’s about getting to see what [the farmers] are doing, 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 give 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.”
No doubt Campbell and the Diegls would agree — local food just tastes better.