“For a little country store in the middle of nowhere, you have to have a niche. Ours is inside that building,” says DeeDee Darden, motioning to a rectangular pine and cinder block structure with a bright red coat of paint.
Smithfield locals going back generations know this landmark on the corner of Bowling Green and Carroll Bridge Roads, Darden’s Country Store and Smokehouse, like the backs of their hands. But it’s what’s inside the little red smokehouse that draws aficionados and foodies from far and wide.
DeeDee, her husband Tommy and his family have been curing Smithfield hams the old-fashioned way here since the early 1950s. “Like a good wine, a ham needs to age,” DeeDee told my colleague and me on a recent guided tour that included Darden’s along with a selection of other Smithfield must-stops—restaurants and shops along with historic and cultural sites.
Each year at Darden’s, they salt and dry more than 1,000 hams using a traditional process that begins in late January and peaks in time for the holidays when the hams have been aged to perfection, imbued with their signature hickory and apple wood flavor through the smoking process and allowed to develop their beautiful tell-tale rose color.
Not many people are doing hams the way they do any more, DeeDee says, and the end result of this dying art is a “thin slice of hog heaven.” The traditional method, distinctive mellow flavor and firm but silky texture of Darden hams have been featured on the Food Network and in The New York Times. And fair warning: if you want one in time for your Thanksgiving or Christmas feast, you better call now. These hogs go fast.
After ogling all the other yummy-looking comfort foods at Darden’s—from quarts of cooked collards and chicken pot pies to pimento cheese and deviled eggs—I couldn’t help leaving that day with a paper lunch sack full of ham biscuits.
The rest of our day’s adventure was spent discovering Smithfield’s history and welcoming people, as well as its here and now, which has much to offer for a weekend getaway or a day trip from anywhere in Coastal Virginia.
Smithfield is well known, of course, for its eponymous inn, built in 1752 to serve travelers along the route from Norfolk to Richmond and still a beloved overnight and dinner destination serving Southern favorites with a twist alongside more modern surf, turf and small plates.
We had a light and lovely lunch at The Restaurant at Smithfield Station, an inviting waterfront complex overlooking the scenic Pagan River that includes a hotel, luxury lodge, marina and dining. The Salmon Caesar salad was a cool, crisp but filling presentation of greens topped with a perfectly blackened salmon filet.
The restaurant serves a full lunch and dinner menu, and during our visit, the staff was busy installing outdoor heaters on the deck to keep patrons warm and enjoying fresh-air dining as long as possible this season. Smithfield Station has recently resumed its popular Sunday brunch buffet and will be offering full Thanksgiving meals both to-go and dine-in.
I recommend a visit to St. Luke’s Church & Museum, Virginia’s oldest church building and open cemetery and a monument to religious freedom in The United States. And Windsor Castle Park, the vision of former Smithfield Foods CEO Joseph Luter III, has become a popular attraction for its natural beauty, walking trails, special events and historic Manor House.
Be sure to check out Downtown Smithfield’s charming shops like the Christmas Store, Perfectly Natural Soap, Fleur De Fou, When Pigs Fly Magic Happens and The Strip Joint. Get a pick-me-up at Cure Coffee House (sister location to the original in Norfolk) or a grab a pint and bite at Wharf Hill Brewing Company.
And, of course no visit would be complete without a stop at the Isle of Wight County Museum, where you can see the world’s oldest ham and the world’s oldest peanut for yourself. This is Smithfield, after all.
Walking and even personalized driving tours of Smithfield are available through the Smithfield and Isle of Wight Convention and Visitor’s Bureau located Downtown.