CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When you hear about West Virginia leading the nation in this category or that, it's often not a designation to be proud of.
This one is.
Having worked in, written about and visited many states throughout the region as part my job as a food writer and travel editor, I can tell you the Mountain State's advancement of the "farm-to-table" fresh food movement is better than most.
Other states may have more restaurants and chefs promoting the cause, but West Virginia has a more concentrated effort, a dedicated organization and true visionaries who are successfully connecting business owners, chefs and consumers to farmers and food producers.
There are farm markets, large and small, across the state. Future Farmers of America and Community Supported Agriculture programs deliver a bounty of fresh-picked produce and local meats, cheeses and more to convenient drop-off points.
The Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia hosts an entire website, www.
WVfarm2u.org, that helps consumers find West Virginia farms and farm products, markets, roadside stands, specialty foods, wineries, greenhouses, nurseries, farm-to-table restaurants and other agri-tourism destinations.
Led by director Allen Arnold, the Collaborative also increases awareness of the state's culinary heritage by hosting a variety of cooking competitions and food events around the state, including a fantastic farm dinner I attended last week on the gorgeous grounds of Swift Level Farm in Lewisburg.
In an idyllic scene straight from the pages of Southern Living, guests sipped wine while enjoying a multi-course gourmet meal of local foods prepared by some of the state's top chefs.
The highlight of the night for me came at the start of the meal with an antipasto station of grilled shrimp, marinated shitakes, assorted olives, a fava bean salad with goat milk ricotta and a colorful assortment of roasted vegetables. If was Chef Dale Hawkins' veggies that blew me away — they were so crisp, fresh and delicious that I swear I've never had better.
The grilled bok choy alone was mind-blowing.
Hawkins also served a delicious tortilla chicken soup (with chicken provided by Raleigh County FFA students) with charred corn, roasted red and jalapeno peppers and fresh herb and artisanal cheese garnishes.