Single Malt Whisky Comes from Scotland—or Does It?

Lodging near Orange, VA

Copper Fox Distillery, only about 45 minutes from Holladay House Bed and Breakfast in Orange, VA

Be prepared, dear readers, for this is my “coming out” day.

 I’m a whisky man.

 There– I said it. Out loud and in the heart of genteel Virginia Wine Country.  This may come as a shock to Virginia Wine enthusiasts who have come to know our Bed and Breakfast in Orange, VA as a place that exclusively serves fine Virginia Wine from local wineries, such as Barboursville, Keswick, Old House, Prince Michel, Gray Ghost, and quite a few others.  We’ve held Virginia wine tasting events, hosted receptions with Virginia wine, offered tours to Virginia wineries, tasted hundreds of Virginia wines ourselves, and generally do all we can to promote Virginia Wine, especially those crafted on the Journey Through Hallowed Ground and the Monticello Wine Trail.

 But I prefer whisky. I’m sorry, I just do. Don’t hate me because I like spirits.

Copper Fox Distillery, 45 minutes from Orange, VA

Barrel of Virginia whisky at Copper Fox Distillery, only about 45 minutes from our Bed and Breakfast!

 In my formative years of alcohol consumption, a man of dubious character said to me: “If you’re going to drink, drink like a man.”  He then handed me a bottle of George Dickel No. 12, suggesting that it was a finer beverage than Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7.  I wouldn’t have known the difference at the time, so I took him at his word.  The first sip went down like a razor blade, but after that my taste for alcohol was a whisky taste—George Dickel No. 12 in particular.  Then, I made it my mission to educate my college roommate—God rest his soul—in the same tradition. He did me proud. I’ve tried to uphold that tradition ever since.

 George Dickle no. 12 is certainly a fine beverage, and nary a disparaging word will be said about it in my written musings. Bourbon is still my drink of choice, preferably from Tennessee or Kentucky. Perhaps that’s my Tennessee mountain roots sprouting from within, I’m not sure (hmm…the thought just occurred to me that most folks probably do not know the difference between bourbon, whisky, or scotch—I guess that’s an excellent subject for a future blog). But, the subject for today is not Tennessee bourbon—it’s Virginia Single Malt Whisky.

 We make every effort to serve local Virginia products any chance we can, and whisky has a long history here in Virginia.  In fact, one of George Washington’s primary sources of income was whisky, which he produced at Mount Vernon (this casts the 1790 Whisky Rebellion in a whole new light).  The generous researchers at Washington’s venerable home have been kind enough to rekindle Washington’s passion for spirits, and they now sell Washington’s whisky.  Bless their little hearts.

 Washington’s whisky used three grains: corn, rye, and barley. It was not a single malt.  Traditional Scottish-style single malt whisky from Virginia has been hard to come by, even today. Until now.

Visit our bed and breakfast in Orange, VA!

The official greeter at Copper Fox

A few weeks ago, I had the extreme pleasure oftaking a tour of a nearby Virginia distillery called the Copper Fox Distillery, where the Wasmund family has been making fine Scottish-style single malt whisky since January 2000.  Single malt whisky is traditionally produced in Scotland. Like my own taste, America’s taste for whisky spirits tends to lean more towards bourbon.  So,  Copper Fox’s production of single malt whisky in the heart of Virginia wine country is kinda special.

The Copper Fox Distillery is nestled in a charming community at the base of the Blue Ridge mountains, not far from Gray Ghost winery, and about 45 minutes away from our Virginia Bed and Breakfast.  The distillery itself is an old building that was once part of an apple-packing and cider production facility. As soon as we arrived, we were greeted by a kind-hearted old soul, the distillery’s friendly yellow Labrador retriever whose name now escapes me. The tour was fascinating, and the wholesome smell of smoked barley was warm and inviting.

 

Visit our Bed and Breakfast in Orange, VA!

Wood stove used to heat the malt kiln, adding fruitwood flavors to the process.

The folks at Copper Fox perform all tasks by hand themselves, including the bottling and wax-sealing. Our guide, Sean McCaskey, showed us how they malt the barley, turn it on the floor with rakes, and then dry it in the kiln. The kiln uses a woodstove for heat, and the smoke from applewood, cherrywood, and oakwood adds some special flavor to the barley.  They hastily avoided detailed discussions of the distillation process (so as not to reveal their secrets!), and then took us to their barrel racks where they showed us the used barrels in which their whisky ages (by contrast, bourbon must be made in new oak barrels, or it can’t be called bourbon). An important feature of Copper Fox whisky is that they add toasted applewood, cherrywood and oak chips to the batch while it ages, to give it a special flavor.  This is particularly appropriate considering they are located in Virginia’s apple country!

Visit our bed and breakfast in Orange, VA!

Malting Virginia-grown barley on site

Virginia law prohibits an on-site tasting (although you can get a nosing sample) but we did buy two bottles to savor in the privacy of our bed and breakfast in Orange, VA. Savor them, we did!  We purchased a bottle of the Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky and a bottle of the Copper Fox Rye Whisky. The Rye Whisky is  2/3 rye and 1/3 malted barley, while the single malt is obviously 100% hand-malted barley. The Single Malt came from Batch 46 (the latest batch), and the rye whisky was freshly bottled on 28 October 2010.

At  96 proof, the single malt has a bold flavor, but not obtrusive one. Whereas most whiskys of a similar proof I have tried are nothing but “burn,” Wasmund’s had rich, complex, and identifiable flavors that make it pleasant to drink.  My theory is that this comes from the fruitwood chips used during the aging process. Undoubtedly, the bold, pleasing auburn color comes from this as well. This single malt whisky has some excellent characteristics worthy of recommendation.

Visit our Virginia Bed and Breakfast

Wax for sealing the bottles, melted and carefully applied by hand.

The Rye Whisky is similarly strong (90 proof), but  is slightly lighter and more amber than the single malt. Although it has some bite up front, the finish has some definite earthy flavors. The rye has  discernable toasted grain flavors, whereas the Single Malt had more of a charcoal/wood characteristic.

Lodging near Orange, VA

Products at the Copper Fox Distillery store

Certainly, one would not mistake these excellent Virginia whiskys for Appalachian-style bourbons. They have their own unique taste, and both would pair excellently with a Virginia-style barbecue, chocolate mousse, or even a pot of home-cooked beans (I know the latter is true because I just had that for lunch—black beans and lentils slow-simmered in a cast iron pot  with a country hambone, salt, and pepper—simple, wholesome, and delicious).

Holladay House Bed and Breakfast innkeeper

The Innkeeper tasting the only 100% local Virginia Single Malt Whisky

The next time you visit our historic bed and breakfast in Orange, VA, be sure to ask for directions to the Copper Fox Distillery. Even if you are not a self-proclaimed whisky drinker like I am, a discerning palate will appreciate the complexities of this fine local spirit. We also have it available to our guests for a winter evening toast by the fire!

Of course, there are a number of other Virginia whiskys one should try, and even a legal moonshine produced right here in Culpeper, Virginia. In the future, I’ll write more about each and every one of them.

Now, I think I’ll have a drink!

Holladay Memories

I have a lot to write about, so I don’t know where to begin!  As 2010 winds down, I’m looking back at some of the extraordinary things that have happened at the Holladay House– receptions, events, 1500 costumed kids filling Main Street for Halloween, the Christmas  parade, wine festivals….  What should I write about next?

With the Civil War Sesquicentennial (I’ll let you google that–it took me a little while to pronounce it correctly, too, and I was an English major!) kicking off in grand style next year, I’ll continue on an historic theme: our historic inn!

Many of you may recall that late last year we hosted a Memories Reception.  The idea was to invite as

Lodging in Orange, Virginia

Doctor Lewis Holladay's medical instruments on display at the Holladay House in 2009. Dr. Holladay practiced medicine from 1896 to 1946.

 many long-time local residents as we could to help us learn about and record the storied history of our historic bed and breakfast in Orange, VA. The food was fantastic (prepared by our friend and frequent chef, Paul Diegl), and the Virginia Wine  flowed like…well… like wine! But, the real joy was hearing local residents recount their tales of daring-do in the Town of Orange, and specifically the Holladay House. It was an historian’s delight. We even displayed much of Dr. Holladay’s antique medical and surgical equipment, some of which was over 100 years old! I’ll write more about the specific oral histories later, and will just say that our primary goal was to collect as much info as we could, and then invite everyone back a year later to hear about what we had collected.

Holladay House Bed and Breakfast in Orange, VA

One of the oldest known photographs (ca. 1895) of Orange, Virginia includes the Holladay House (then called the Chapman House)! Our historic inn is the first house on the left.

And, that’s what we did!  For the encore event, we unveiled an improvement we completed in the main hall. Largely due to our efforts the previous year, we were able to collect several Holladay Family photographs, an 1895 photo of the house, newspaper clippings, personal papers, World War II selective service awards signed by Franklin Roosevelt, and some other items, which we framed and hung in the main hall. During this project, we repaired a section of the old wall, and even uncovered historic wall paper that dates to sometime in the early 1900s.

In addition, noted architectural historian Ann Miller gave an enjoyable presentation on how to use architectural features to date an old house, specifically using elements of the Holladay House as her examples.

Lodging in Orange, Virginia

Louise Holladay, ca. 1905. We found this photo tucked in an antique chest here at the Holladay House.

We had such a great time with this project, that we have reserved another section of the Main Hall for a similar historical exhibit. This exhibt will present materials related to the 19th century owners of this house.  The Holladay family purchased the house in 1899, but the house was already 70 years old by then, and had seen quite a bit of important American History, particularly during the Civil War. So, I suppose this post is really just to whet your appetite for fun stuff to come!  You can expect to see more stuff about the Chapman family, the long-time residents of the house who hosted a wedding reception for one of Robert E. Lee’s officers during the winter of 1864, one of the Confederacy’s darkest hours. Several famous officers, including General J.E.B. Stuart, attended!

The history of our Virginia bed and breakfast predates even the Civil War, and is one of the earliest buildings constructed in the Town of Orange. So, expect to see some discussion of what Orange was like prior to the Civil War, and the significance of the Holladay House during our republic’s formative years.

I also plan to take some photographs of some of the more instructive architecural features of our historic inn. The historic architecture in Orange, VA really is an amazing collection of all of the classic styles of 19th century American architecture, and the Holladay House plays an important role in that collection.  As one of the only brick Federal-Style houses of that era in Orange,VA the Holladay House Bed and Breakfast  is as interesting to historians as it is to our guests!

Of course, there’s more to us than history. Orange County is one of the finest sources of Virginia products in the state, so one can expect to have plentiful opportunities for fine dining, local gourmet shops, farmer’s markets, wineries, etc.  And, let’s not forget Montpelier (an archaeology workshop on ceramics is coming up in January)!

So, I have a lot to write about and am beginning in earnest!  Come back soon and see what’s next!

Walking a Mile in Their (Civil War) Shoes: The Perils of Living History

Biblical parables and shop-worn cliches aside, my feet hurt. I simply cannot imagine marching hundreds of miles with these medieval torture devices on my feet, only to be thrown into some of the most brutal combat our country has ever seen.

Civil War shoes worn by the author

Shoes of a Confederate Infantryman Worn by the Author

Ok, so I’m overstating the case. But, these shoes are not Nike Air Jordans (Yes, I’m dating myself here).  They are authentic recreations of the typical nineteenth century footwear worn by Confederate soliders on Civil War Battlefields during one of America’s darkest times. The soles are thin but hard, and they are fastened together by iron nails, as you can see in the photo.  The nails create the contact point with the ground, which makes the shoes slippery on hard, smooth surfaces (such as the ubiquitous hardwood floors of that era), as well as hard and inflexible on the bottoms of one’s feet.

After about 30 minutes of wearing them, my feet felt like I had hiked on a concrete path for 10 miles. The souls of the men that wore these on long marches and into battle had to be harder than the soles on their feet.

This, of course, is the point of Living History Civil War Re-enactment is much more than playing dress-up and fantasizing about daring adventures in the days of yore. Re-enactment is about treading where the people of the past have tread and experiencing what they experienced as best as one can with our modern sensibilities. In its purest form, Living History is about empathy and education. To an observer it may seem silly. To a participant, it is often quite serious.

I wore these shoes during a happy and light-hearted affair, but when I sat down after the fanfare was over, rubbing my sore feet while relaxing in one of our whirlpool suites, I reflected on the people that have come before. Something as simple as a shoe, and the very real pain it caused, was enough to help me appreciate the hardened force of will that must have permeated the armies of the Civil War, both Federal and Confederate. Tough men in tough times doing tough things.

This is why the work of those who would educate us about the historical mileu is so important. Mort Kunstler, for example, is a renowned artist of Civil War scenes. His work is authentic, inspiring, and evocative. He brings out the human and emotional element of some of the quieter but more poignant moments of the American Civil War.  We were honored to host this eminent artist at a reception in our historic inn, especially since the scene Mort Kunstler depicted in Unconquered Spirit occurred just two blocks from our house, which was standing at that time. In fact, only a few months after Generals Lee, Hill, and Longstreet came together in front of the courthouse in the Town of Orange (the scene from Unconquered Spirit), a number of Lee’s officers, including the famous J.E.B Stuart, attended a wedding party right in our parlor! Thus, with several folks (including Sharon and I) dressed in period-appropriate clothes, the reception took on a meaning and a flair akin to that of the Civil War wedding reception that, according to one contemporary diarist,  continued until 4 o’clock in the morning!  Town and County officials, local residents, historians, and friends celebrated Mr. Kunstler’s work with food, wine, and good cheer. The following day, Mr. Kunstler signed his prints on the historic steps of the Orange County Courthouse, which was the backdrop for his recent painting.

We would like to extend a special “thank you” to Steve Silvia of J.S. Mosby’s Antiques and Bill and Nancy Graham for providing authentic period clothing, as well as Brian Pratlow for serving as part of our honor guard and as a greeter. Our favorite local caterer, Chef Paul Diegl from Real Food provided some of the food. Also, thank you to Frank Walker, emminent local historian and Civil War tour guide, for helping to organize the event!

For anyone who is interested, we served wine from Barboursville, a popular Virginia winery. The Cabernet Sauvignon was the clear favorite!

Upcoming Reception for Renowned Civil War Artist

The Civil War is brought to life at our Virginia Bed and Breakfast Inn

 Historical Artwork, portraying historical events, in an historic house–what a great opportunity to Experience Virginia!

Unconquered Spirit, Mort Kunstler

Unconquered Spirit, a Painting by Mort Kunstler

1859 Orange County Courthouse

The historic courthouse in Orange, Virginia as it looks today

We are excited to report a fantastic event next weekend, 17-18 September 2010.  A renowned artist of historical subjects, Mort Kunstler, will be visiting in Orange, Virginia  to unveil his latest work, Unconquered Spirit.  This poignant painting depicts a scene taking place in front of the historic 1859 Orange County Courthouse, just two blocks away from our Virginia bed and breakfast. This evocative painting depicts a scene from 1863, a few days after the Battle of Gettysburg, when General Robert E. Lee and his officers arrived in the Town of Orange to establish a defensive line and set up winter camps for his beleaguered men.

According to Mr. Kunstler, “En route to their destination near the Rapidan Line earthworks, the Confederate forces marched past the Orange County Courthouse over a period of several days. The surrounding streets were filled with the sights and sounds of thousands of men, horses, wagons and artillery pieces passing by. On the left of the picture, an artillery battery rides by with infantry troops behind them. They would eventually go into their winter camps strung out behind the Rapidan Line earthworks and prepare for what we know would be the upcoming, crucial spring campaign of 1864.” In the painting, General Lee appears composed and in command as he organizes the activities of General A.P. Hill and General James Longstreet, both of who seem to come alive off of the canvas.

Soldier of Faith by Mort Kunstler

Soldier of Faith by Mort Kunstler

Mr. Kunstler has painted other scenes in Orange, two of which took place within just a few hundred feet from our Virginia inn.  One, Solider of Faith, depicts General Lee less than one block to the south of the our historic home, riding in front of  St. Thomas Episcopal Church. The Confederates used this church as a hospital during the war, and Lee worshipped here during his winter stay in Orange. His pew is still extant.

At the time of both of these scenes, Orange residents referred to what is now the Holladay House Bed and Breakfast as the Chapman House, after the family of John Madison Chapman (great nephew of President James Madison). Historical documents confirm that Lee and his officers rode by the Chapman House (now the Holladay House)  numerous times during that winter, and a hospital steward, John Samuel Apperson, pitched his tent across the street.  In his diaries, Apperson related stories about the Chapman family. In February 1864, he described a wedding ceremony held here that J.E.B. Stuart, the famous Confederate General, attended. Apparently, a junior officer in Lee’s army had been courting Ms. Emma Chapman, John Madison Chapman’s daughter, and the couple wed a few months after the army’s arrival in Town. In fact, the scene depicted in Soldier of Faith, would have occurred around the same time as this wedding. According to Apperson, the wedding instigated a night of great merriment, for “the dance was kept up ’till about 4 o’clock in the morning.”

Saint Thomas Episcopal Church

St. Thomas Episcopal Church, depicted in Soldier of Faith, has been standing since about 1830

We are excited to host Mort Kunstler because the history of our house is so tightly connected to the scenes depicted in his artwork. Mr. Kunstler has been painting scenes from American history for almost 30 years, and his work has achieved numerous accolades.

Born in 1931, his earliest experiences were those of the closing years of the Great Depression followed by World War II. He soon exhibited an artistic talent that was subsequently developed and refined by studies at Brooklyn College, U.C.L.A., and the Pratt Institute. Over the years, Mr. Kunstler has produced book jackets, magazine covers, illustrations, posters and even the 29-cent Buffalo Soldiers postage stamp. He has become one of the most widely known and respected historical artists of our time. His interest in the Civil War, America’s defining moment, has led to the production of a series of paintings that have attracted collectors from all points of the globe.

On 17 September, we are hosting a welcoming reception for this renowed artist. We expect an excellent turnout, as Mr. Kunstler, his friends and associates, town and county leaders, and members of our community will all be in attendance! During this reception, the artist will discuss the historical context and artistic challenges of the scene that he has expertly depicted.

At 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, September 18, Mr. Kunstler will be in the foyer of the 1859 Orange County court house to meet the purchasers of prints of Unconquered Spirit and to sign those prints for them. Period music will be performed in the courtyard by the Virginia Serenaders. The Holladay House will be open to visitors. St. Thomas’ Church, with its Lee Pew, will also be open to visitors. There will be walking tours from the court house to the church from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Local shops and restaurants will be open.

Please join us for this grand event! Mort Kunstler captures the heart and soul of America in all his works, and we are thrilled to host him in our historic inn.

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?

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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.