Monthly Archive for August, 2010

A Hot Air Balloon is the best way to see the Piedmont!

 What makes the Virginia Piedmont Special?

Over 1000 feet above our Virginia Bed and Breakfast Inn

Beautiful sunrise over misty Piedmont hills

If you ask anyone who has been to Orange, VA what they thought about it, probably one of the first things they’ll say is  “It’s so beautiful!”   Indeed it is, which is one of the many reasons why Sharon and I moved here and bought our historic bed and breakfast inn! Let me explain to you why this is.

First, I shall amaze and enlighten you with  a quick and easy geography lesson. Virginia is essentially one giant watershed–that is, the water from the mountains to the west drains through Virginia to the Chesapeake Bay, and eventually into the Atlantic. This watershed is actually quite diverse and includes several topographical zones.  In the East, we have the Tidewater, so named because the rivers flowing from West to East are close enough to the coast, and low enough in elevation, to rise and fall with the Atlantic tides.  The Tidewater is characterized by low wetlands and predominately sandy soil. The eastern broder of the Tidewater is the Chesapeake Bay, and the western border is a geological feature called the Fall Line. The Fall line runs north to south, roughly along the route of I-95.  The Fall Line marks the farthest point inland where the rivers are no longer tidal, and where they historically were no longer navigable by large vessels.  Hence, this is the reason why so many Virginia towns and cities were established along this North-South Corridor (Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Alexandria, just to name a few).

West of the Fall Line is the Virginia Piedmont. The Piedmont is the quintissential Virginia landscape, filled with babbling creeks, streams and rivers flowing gently on their perpetual journey to the Chesapeake Bay. The Piedmont is best characterized by gently rolling hills, historic  pastoral landscapes, large forested areas, beautiful sprawling farms, and plenty of wildlife.  Historically, travellers and commentators have called the Virginia Piedmont “Virginia Horse Country” or “Virginia Hunt Country” because of the historical predominance of these activities here.  More recently, the moniker Virginia Wine Country has increased in usage due to the immense number of Virginia wineries and vineyards dotting the landscape.  Naturally, large expanses of vineyards lend themsevles to scenic views and romantic ideas. It is in this iconic Piedmont zone that one can find Orange, VA, and the Holladay House Bed and Breakfast.

Flight above Orange, Virginia. Our inn is in Orange, VA, which is off to the left.

Our inn is in Orange, Va, beyond this photo to the left

Continuing to the  West, the Virginia Piedmont terminates at the Blue Ridge Mountain range, one of the most scenic and picturesque natural landscapes in America. The Appalachian trail meanders through these mountains, as well as the Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive,  and numerous Wildlife Areas and State and National Parks.

The Blue Ridge Mountains then descend into the famed Shenandoah Valley, which is bordered on its west side by the Allegheny Mountains, which, like the Blue Ridge, are also part of the Appalachian Mountain chain.

The Peacefulness of . . . Hot air?

So, why the geography lesson?  Because when one understands what makes the Piedmont region unique, one will understand why I was so excited to launch a hot-air balloon five minutes from our Bed and Breakfast Inn! If you continue to read my regular blog posts, you will begin to discover why the Virginia Piedmont is a vital component of America’s history and economy. In modern times, the region still appears much like is did almost 2 centuries ago, and you cannot help but sense the essence of history when you meander across this region.  From a hot-air ballon, this sense of history, place, and natural romance comes to you with stunning clarity!

View of our balloon from the ground, taken outside Gordonsville, VA

The chase crew spotted us near Gordonsville, VA!

The rolling hills, immaculate horse farms, roaming sheep and goats, meandering rivers, historic sites, and low forested mountains are breathtaking from 1800 feet. We launched early in the morning, just after sunrise, and the mist was still nestled among the shallow valleys, with the early sun reflecting brilliantly off the moisture in the air.  The views were breathtaking. One of the most unexpected characteristics of a balloon ride is the quiet stillness one feels when floating in the air currents.  High above the human-induced bustle below, the world is peaceful and still. You have little sensation of movement, because when you are moving at the same speed as the air currents, you feel no breeze.  You are free to reflect upon the beauty of the natural world, and the stirring consequences of the history that happened on this landscape. Truly, the Virginia Piedmont is a special place, and we strongly encourage anyone to view it from the vantage point of a comfortable basket gently sailing in the air currents above.

If you wish to book a balloon ride, contact us directly, or contact Mandy at Monticello Country Ballooning. She is an expert balloonist, and a great gal!

James Madison’s Montpelier has some new cool stuff to do…

We are returning  to our Virginia Bed and Breakfast after a short vacation (first one we’ve taken in about two years). We are refreshed!  So, if you missed our blog last week, I’m sorry–but, even innkeepers need a sanity-preserver every now and then.

A skill that has taken me a long time to master is that of the Brain Dump.  When I go on vacation, I open the drain plug in my medulla and all overflowing data drains out of my skull in a mini-maelstrom of forgetful bliss.  Thus, upon returning to the inn, I began looking at upcoming events in our area to refresh my memory about what’s going on.  I’d be remiss if I did not pass some of the information along to our faithful readers!

President James Madison

James Madison at Montpelier, just 3 miles from our Virginia Bed and Breakfast! (photo by Jen Fariello)

James Madison’s Montpelier is hosting a number of fun things in the next few weeks.   One that really intrigues me is Weekends with the Madisons. Each weekend, two fantastic  James and Dolley Madison impersonators (or is “re-enactors” a more appropriate terms?) will greet guests at Montpelier.

According to the Montpelier Blog, “Guests may call on Mr. and Mrs. Madison in the mansion’s south wing. “Dolley Madison’s Salon” will be held on Saturdays from 11:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. Mrs. Madison, in full costume, will chat with guests about her husband’s role in crafting the Constitution. She became an expert on this subject during his retirement, when she helped James organize his papers from the Constitutional Convention.

“President James Madison” will be at home on Sundays, 12:00 Noon–5:00 p.m. and at leisure to receive visitors during the afternoon. Now, in the summer of 1810, “Mr. Madison” will be engaged in his oversight of the farm, while also attending to his duties as president while at Montpelier. He will discuss present concerns in 1810 as president, his work in drafting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, his early life, and other topics of interest and concern to his guests. Visitors are encouraged to introduce themselves and should feel free to ask him questions; he has always enjoyed entertaining guests at Montpelier.”

I have seen these talented folks before, and can attest to their knowledge and ability. Apparently, the actress who plays Dolley has a PhD in Political Philosophy, and Madison’s writings were the focus of her dissertation. So, this is no frivolous enterprise!

One thing that very few people know is that, long after the Madisons had died, Confederate soldiers used James Madison’s Montpelier estate as a Confederate camp during the Civil War.  Local Civil War re-enactors have been steadily reconstructing this camp, using authentic 19th century techniques.  On Sunday, August 15th,  Civil War reenactors from the 3rd Regiment of the Army of Northern Virginia will continue rebuilding the huts occupied by General Samuel McGowan’s South Carolinians during the winter of 1863-1864. The reenactors will use the same construction techniques as McGowan’s men.

I always enjoy “Living History” and have visited this site while re-enactors were there to interpret their activities.  The encampment is a great reminder that history persists at a location long after the most celebrated events occurred there.

Finally, as a trained archaeologist myself, I must tell you about the archaeology programs continually happening at Montpelier. Montpelier regularly schedules programs for anyone who wants to experience real field-work and labratory work alongside trained archaeolgists.  There’s nothing like finding a piece of someone’s daily life that has not been touched by human hands for a few hundred years, and these programs are a great opportunity for education and excitement. If you want to get dirty here in Orange, Virginia, let us know and we will be happy to help you make the arrangements!

Rachel Ray has no Idea What She is Talking About…

Rachel Ray Has No Idea What She’s Talking About

or

How to Cook Perfect Bacon

 Except for Rachel Ray, you generally won’t find celebrity chefs expounding on the nuances of good bacon-frying technique. In fact, many folks probably remember learning how to cook bacon about the same time they learned how to boil water. Remove the battery from the smoke detector, heat up a pan, throw on the bacon, and keep flipping it until it is cooked. How hard could it be?

As a four-year veteran innkeeper of a busy bed and breakfast in Virginia, I can tell you that the line between a perfectly cooked strip of breakfast heaven and a sun-dried leather bootstrap crusted with creosote is not as wide as one might hope. Nothing will disappoint a bed and breakfast guest faster than pork in the form of a soggy, undercooked chewing-gum strip or a charcoal briquette flattened into a shape that vaguely resembles a meat product. Perfect bacon makes a perfect breakfast.  A good innkeeper simply must know how to cook bacon. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

The Innkeeper's Grandfather, early 20th Century

The Innkeeper's Grandfather, early 20th Century

Although I do not claim to be able to go toe-to-toe with Rachel Ray in a Food Network Cage Match (if such a thing existed—and, if it did, it would make the Food Network much more interesting), I respectfully submit that on the subject of cooking bacon, she should leave the instruction to the experts. For true “baconistas,” this article will describe how to cook perfect bacon.

My grandfather was a carpenter and he understood that success at one’s craft requires the proper tools and the proper technique. And, as with my grandfather’s carpentry, cooking bacon is a task best learned from the masters of previous generations.

 Equipment

Tools for cooking bacon at a Virginia Bed and Breakfast

Tools for cooking bacon at a Virginia Bed and Breakfast: cast-iron skillet, tongs, and an optional cast-iron bacon press

To reach bacon Nirvana, you will first need to acquire a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet that is large enough to allow an entire strip of bacon to lay completely flat. This is not a subject for debate. Forget the over-priced $120 non-stick waste of money you just bought at a gourmet kitchen outlet, and go to an antique store, flea market, or yard sale to find the perfect seasoned-by-decades-of-use cast-iron skillet for $40 or less. The benefits of cast-iron are too numerous to detail here. It will suffice to say that cast-iron imparts a “down-home” smoky flavor to the bacon, and allows for the application of steady and consistent heat. You will also need metal cooking tongs—the spring-loaded kind shaped like a “V,” not the scissor-type tongs you find in Target’s barbeque department. A fork just won’t do.

Optionally, you might want to buy an antique cast-iron bacon press when you buy your cast-iron pan.  A bacon press is simply a flat iron weight that you can put on top of your sizzling bacon to ensure even browning.

 Selecting the Right Bacon

Not all bacon is created equal, and one cannot achieve perfectly-cooked bacon without first selecting the right product. When shopping for bacon, look for thick slices. Take the time to actually compare slice thickness among various brands because they all say “thick-sliced” whether they actually are or not. I typically use bacon slices that are consistently 1/8 inch thick, but 5/32 inch would be better. Avoid packages that advertise flavors or characteristics such as “maple,” “smoked,” “hickory,” or similar adjectives, because these typically mean artificial flavor chemicals that really don’t taste much like real “hickory” or “maple.” In fact, you can mostly ignore the label and just focus on the meat.  Many people (including Rachel Ray) regard very lean bacon as the best quality and worthy of higher prices. This simply is not true. Extremely lean bacon tends to burn or cook unevenly because it does not have enough fat to melt in the pan and properly aide the cooking process (you can alleviate this by adding more oil to the pan, but that defeats the purpose of getting lean bacon, doesn’t it?). Extremely lean bacon also lacks the flavor and texture that the fat provides. Similarly, bacon that is nothing but fat is equally problematic because it tends to shrivel up once the fat has melted away.  The best-cooking bacon has proportional segments of both meat and fat.

 Cooking Technique

As with anything related to cookery, once the bacon is in the pan the two keys to success are time and temperature.

Here’s the executive summary: low to medium heat and plenty of time.

Here are the details: I’ve heard a number of folks comment that they like bacon but never cook it because doing so is a messy hassle. These clearly unhappy souls say that they do not like standing over a hot stove with grease popping in their faces, and clean-up is a chore. First, I will respond by saying that I personally would not let a few minor burns deter me from nurturing my spirit with a slice of home-cooked paradise. Most folks probably do not share my level of zeal on the subject, though, so I’ll address the problem by saying that proper cooking technique can minimize these difficulties.

First, having bacon for breakfast is a luxury for most people, and should be treated as such. By “luxury” I mean that it’s something you cook on the weekends after sleeping late and when you aren’t stuffing a bagel in your mouth while running to catch the Metro. Evidence of this fact is that when our bed and breakfast guests awaken to the smell of bacon cooking, they usually descend into the dining room in a hypnotic trance, lured by the soothing call of a hearty home-cooked breakfast that they actually have time to enjoy. Some of them (God help them) don’t even like bacon, but the smell of it returns them to a simpler time when life was both happier and slower.

My point?  Take it slow. 

  • Begin with a cold pan. Add just a little bit of oil, enough to lightly coat the entire pan. Any oil is fine, and is a matter of taste.  Regular grocery-store variety vegetable oil works fine.  In a pinch, you can even use a non-stick cooking spray, although I prefer to not do this. Also, I prefer oils that do not impart additional or foreign flavors to the meat.
  • Many chefs say that one should begin cooking the bacon in a cold pan. This is fine and will work well, but I like to warm the pan just enough so that when you add the bacon, the fat begins to liquefy within a few seconds. Do not heat the pan to the extreme sizzling point, though.  When you add bacon to the pan, it should not immediately snap and hiss and sizzle—this will cause it to shrink and curl too quickly, complicating the cooking process.
  • Gradually let the pan warm up so that the bacon starts sizzling and the fat starts melting. Manage the heat so it stays even, and do not allow the heat to exceed the minimum level required to sizzle the bacon.  Cook the bacon uncovered. Turn the bacon with your tongs regularly, but not too frequently. Give the meat a chance to start browning before you turn it.
  • Do not over-heat your pan—doing so is a kitchen disaster. If the melted bacon fat in the pan starts to pop and splatter a lot, your pan is too hot. The pan is also getting too hot if you notice smoke. Both the seasoning of the cast-iron and the bacon grease itself will start to burn if your heat is too high, and this burning will produce smoke. Light, thin smoke (in small quantities) or steam are both normal. If you start to see dark, thick smoke wafting out of the pan, reduce the heat immediately. Remember—cast-iron holds heat, so even after turning off the heat, food in the pan will continue to cook.
  • A cast-iron bacon press can help immensely, but is not required. A bacon press helps distribute heat to the top side of the bacon, while compressing the meat in the pan to cook it evenly.
  • Cook the bacon until it is a nice rich brown, but avoid allowing any part of it to blacken.  Remove the bacon from the pan and let it rest on a paper towel for a minute or so.  The grease will drain off and the bacon will become crispy. For happy taste buds, serve the bacon fresh and hot.

At our inn, I usually have to cook bacon for many people at one time.  Since I usually only use one large pan to do it, I typically cook multiple batches in succession. After each batch is finished, I leave its hot oil in the pan and just add new bacon to it.  I have found that the bacon cooks best after the pan has accumulated enough oil to just cover the top of the bacon strips. The bacon cooks more quickly, more evenly, and requires less flipping. So, if you are cooking only for yourself and don’t cook enough at one time to accumulate this amount of oil in the pan, you may want to pour your bacon grease into a metal can after each batch and store it in the freezer.  Then, the next time you want to cook bacon, you can just return the grease to the pan and start ahead of the game.

 Frying vs. baking

Frying bacon is an art, not a science, and you will probably have to do it a few times before you get really good at it. Like Rachel Ray, many chefs, innkeepers, and foodies will tell you that the best way to cook bacon is in the oven, because “that’s how they do it in the restaurants.”  Yes, I suppose you can do it that way, and, frankly, most of the few dozen innkeepers I know do it that way.  But, at our bed and breakfast in Orange, Virginia, I choose not to.  It certainly has its benefits, but most restaurateurs and innkeepers bake instead of fry because it is easier on them, not because baking makes better bacon.  Baking does provide consistent, even heat and a predictable cooking experience, and allows the fat to drain away during the cooking process. You can also do more things with it, such as sprinkle brown sugar or maple syrup on it. I am more of a purist. At our Virginia inn, we believe that bacon is an indulgence, and should have the best flavor and texture possible. In my view, the method described above is not just the best way—it’s the only way. Of course, there are plenty of folks who will have a different opinion, and that’s ok, too.

Have you stayed with us and savored our bacon?  If so, what did you think? Do you know of any other techniques or recipes we should try?

Welcome to our New Blog!

Holladay HouseWashington Post- Discussions/Live Q&A’s:The Holladay House B&B is AMAZING.  The whole place was recently renovated and the innkeepers are great-younger couple too so it doesn’t get that stuff staying-at-Grandma’s vibe that some B&Bs do.  If you’re driving to C-ville anyway, I’d highly recommend staying there and they are close to some great vineyards as well. -posted July 26, 2010

I second the Holladay House for the trip to Cville. My husband and I have stayed there 3 times over the past few years when heading to UVA for football games. The owners are extremely nice, and it is a great jumping-off point for scenery and wineries. -posted July 26, 2010

The Travel Channel: Built in the 1830s, the Holladay House is one of the oldest buildings still standing in Orange, VA. It’s a spot along Route 15 that is known as the Journey Through Hallowed Ground, a tour of important locales in American history throughout Virginia’s Piedmont region. Many of American history’s greats passed by the inn’s door on journeys through the area, including James Madison and Robert E. Lee. After stints as a store, a doctor’s office, a private schoolhouse and a private residence spanning nearly 2 centuries, the Holladay House welcomed guests to the inn starting in 1989. Choose from 6 rooms, many with gas fireplaces, cozy sitting rooms and private patios, and enjoy the Southern hospitality with a 2-course breakfast feast and homemade cookies throughout the day.