Down south: how to do the Charleston
In a country where heritage is often measured in decades, the Carolinas are steeped in traditions that stretch back past the Civil War, with the town of Charleston a crucible of living history
The fort where the Civil War ignited can be glimpsed from across the harbour, its cannon still in place, while the peninsula’s oldest alleys are dappled with 400-year-old oak trees and paved with cobblestones from the ballast of colonial ships.
If you were to cover up the road signs snaking through the South of Broad neighbourhood, its back streets look as they did in the 18th century: a bloom of antebellum mansions shaded by piazzas and church steeples; stucco exteriors coated in sandy and copper hues; side porches swamped with palm trees and arched doorways fronted by wrought-iron gates and faux gas lamps. An alteration as simple as painting your shutters must be approved by the strictest board of architectural review in the United States.
Charleston has absorbed a wealth of history, from plundering pirates to racial segregation, and one way of uncovering that past is to amble downtown on a carriage tour. Palmetto Carriage Works, the oldest operator in Charleston, has used the same well-read guides and well-loved mules for years. For a broader vantage point, tall ship Schooner Pride glides beyond the harbour on two-hour sunset cruises on which passengers can raise and trim the sails on a course dictated by the elements.
After slipping between the paths of ocean liners gliding in and out of Charleston, you’re likely to drift towards neighbouring beach towns such as the eclectic coastal community of Folly Beach and the tranquil Sullivan’s Island (once home to Edgar Allen Poe), where stately homes in pastel colours dot the shoreline.
The “open-arm” staircases winding up to such residences symbolise the city’s foremost charm: its southern hospitality. Nonchalant courtesy and disarming humour delivered in a languorous drawl have regularly seen Charleston named as the friendliest city in the US. But the real attraction of the Lowcountry – the coastal region of southeast South Carolina – arguably lies in its traditional down-home cooking.
It’s said you can navigate the southern states with a map of barbecue styles, all of which are hotly contested, from preparation methods to sauce selection. Though it divides the eastern and western halves of North Carolina and bottoms out into three regional techniques in South Carolina, the consistent value is that pork is paramount. Bacon is treated as a vegetable in these parts, often finding its way into crumbly clouds of cornbread and pats of salted butter. Even wedding receptions and political rallies can be permeated with the smoky-sweet scent of a “pig-pickin’ party” where the slow barbecuing of a hog yields tender strips glistening with fat.
Thankfully there is more to the Lowcountry than pulling pork apart. This is a place where the soft-shelled flesh of the Atlantic blue crab is creamed into a bisque-like she-crab soup with a sprinkle of sherry; where the quintessential breakfast is grits with shrimp fried in bacon grease, and where pimento cheese, “the caviar of the South”, is a chunky relish scooped, spread and slathered over almost anything.
To call the portions hearty would be an understatement, so it’s best to approach certain dishes with caution. A hash brown can be the size of two fists, French toast a towering dessert of brioche dressed in cream and berries, while “biscuits and gravy” means golden-crusted scones drenched in a thick sausage sauce.
These signature dishes have latterly evolved into the kind of refined cuisine that has made Charleston a gourmet hot spot. Virginia’s On King specialises in upscale interpretations of traditional southern fare while preserving the owner’s faith in old-school hospitality. Magnolias, a restaurant which helped spark Charleston’s gastronomic resurgence when it opened in 1990, continues to concoct dishes from the sort of culinary imagination that produces peach fritter poppers moistened with cinnamon cream cheese.