04 March 2013

Tonight's Episode: Charleston Wine + Food Culinary Village, a study in day drinking

I was lucky enough to score a media pass to this years Grand Tasting Tent ($100 per person). Sadly I had a conflict. So, In my place I sent the talented writer of The Foodess Files. What follows are her adventures. I apologize in advance for all those injured in the writing of this post. 

To be greeted by a lamb making slow, drippy revolutions over a pile of coals, is to know that this day will be very very good. 

The Charleston Wine and Food Festival this past weekend in Marion Square was in fact a series of very very good days, strung together and served up by the most talented and buzz-generating chefs from around the country. Charleston’s own keepers of cuisine convened along with food writers, editors, chefs, foragers, distillers, and vintners from cities with extremely legitimate food cred. 

The CW+FF is a whirlwind of events, and ideally, one could experience each and every one. Cooking demonstrations, films honoring America’s classic tastemakers, bites and sips from restaurants and vendors, and hosted paired dinners made this weekend in Charleston one of the greats. 

I was fortunate enough to have access to the Culinary Village on Saturday, where I was greeted by the Border Springs lamb you met in the first sentence. Charleston hero Sean Brock works with Border Springs Farm regularly, and as I downed a tiny cup of lamb ceviche with peanuts and Peruvian corn, it was immediately clear why. In all honesty, I would probably never order lamb ceviche off a menu. I would assume it was a misprint, and go right on scanning. 

And I would be missing out. The smooth and silky texture of the lamb, while unexpected, made for a hearty, very clean-tasting ceviche. The crunch of the peanuts added textural familiarity, and a bit of clam juice gave it the salinity it needed. I’m not saying you could do this with any lamb, but it is an effectively original way to showcase such a pure product.

The Grand Tasting Tents, sponsored by JetBlue and Piggly Wiggly, were next. 
At 11:04 a.m. I entered the tent, and landed in the greatest location a person can hope for at that hour: The Bloody Mary Corner. No less than three brands of bloody mary mixes for the trying, and I did not shirk this duty. My favorite of the triumvirate was Fat & Juicy, and a single portion laid the ugly groundwork for me to crave bloody marys all day long. Vegetal and ripe-tasting, I found this one to be the freshest tasting, and with the most peppery kick. In the interest of full disclosure, I want one right now.

Full of tomato and vodka, I knew I needed to add some food into the mix, and soon. Coconut cake counts as food. It definitely counts.

Lined up in little boats, wearing swirls of frosting, the coconut cake from Sugaree’s bakery in New Albany, Mississippi was rich, on the right side of sweet, soft and tender, and quite frankly, everything. 

Everyone knows that coconut cake should be followed by an oyster shooter.

So I had my first oyster shooter. I had heard about the oysters from St. Jude Farms from someone who spoke rapturously about them. This is a city in which people know what farm their favorite oyster comes from, and sometimes shake the hand that harvests them. Charleston City Paper finally supplied me with a shimmering St. Jude oyster, plunked into the bottom of a shot glass, cocktail sauce spooned on top, and then sloshed with a clear cold layer of vodka. One-and-a-half swallows later, I decreed oyster shooters to be my favorite thing in all the land, and teetered over to a chorus line of beef cheeks bourguignon from The Library restaurant at Vendue Inn. They were a perfect meaty bite, served with soft diced root vegetables, and a slick of sauce that made you wish your fork was a spoon, or straw.

I decreed braised cheeks of any kind to be my favorite thing in all the land, and hopped on over to the other tent. 

Of all the things that Charleston grows and harvests, specialty food entrepreneurs might be the most inspiring crop. From Brooks Reitz making Jack Rudy Tonic in his kitchen, and packing up shipments in his living room, to Callie of Callie’s Charleston Biscuits managing great drifts of flour and blocks of butter her very self, this is a made-by-hand town. I personally adored the texture of these fluffy biscuits, a bit on the drier side. All the better for soaking up whatever sauce situation comes their way.

A swing by the Heirloom Book Company rewarded me with the infamous and gentlemanly Lee Brothers, and with a few sweet samples made from the lowcountry cuisine Charleston Receipts cookbook. As a romantic when it comes to book stores, I think we are all fortunate to have an Heirloom Book Company to visit, and I miss the days when stores like theirs were not quite so rare.

The Southern Foodways Alliance tent filled a multi-media niche, and from the documentary shown about legendary Nashville establishment Prince’s Hot Chicken, many sterling quotes could be extracted. My favorite: “This chicken is PERSONAL.” The matriarch of thousands upon thousands of near-prohibitively spicy chicken orders, Ms. Price-Jeffries, was speaking of the fact that human hands touched each piece, and the difference that made to her patrons. Again, this town appreciates a by-hand venture like no other place quite can.

On a personal note, I did get to meet John T. Edge, the courageous bespectacled leader of the Southern Foodways Alliance.  He has written some of my very favorite sentences, and a cookbook of recipes derived from food trucks. So when I die, I have left him everything. The whole Frances empire. Which consists of a Juan’s Flying Burrito t-shirt, and a crème brulee torch. 

No fighting over my estate is anticipated.

I decreed John T. Edge to be my favorite thing in all the land, and went to finish off the day with some peach moonshine from Firefly Moonshine, and a gin and tonic made with Cardinal Gin. Cardinal Gin is small-batch, and made in North Carolina by these here brothers, and is the first gin I have ever liked. I don’t particularly like drinking a Christmas tree, which is what most gin tastes like to me. Not this one. Clear and crisp, and not overwhelmingly junipered, they have worked hard to make the best-tasting gin that they can, and I can’t thank them enough.

And as for moonshine, yes it was delicious. And yes, it was my first moonshine. And yes, this picture is blurry. Because at that exact moment, so was my vision. 

The Charleston Wine and Food Festival succeeds in putting a tent around a food culture that is a constant celebration anyway. I have had some of the best dishes and meals of my life here, and in Charleston there is never an excuse or ticket required to have a perfect oyster, or a dozen of them; or the Wagyu beef you will describe consistently and irritatingly, as being “like butta.”

A lovely bonus to the tent city housing all of this activity, is that throughout the day you never quite forget where you are-as the city’s architectural touchstones neatly overtop even the tent peaks. An ever-present visual reference of stone and steeple.

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