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South Carolina: Cooking from the Old South and New

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4 March 2014 by Debbie Mayger

Over the years, South Carolina has won numerous awards for its stunning beaches, culturally rich cities, fabulous golf courses and fine hospitality - readers of Condé Nast Traveler just voted Charleston the 'No. 1 city in the United States' for the third consecutive year.

Now another dynamic is adding to the allure of this historic Southern state - food. The extraordinary mingling of French, Spanish, African and Caribbean cultures that took root here during centuries of tumultuous history left an indelible imprint on the state's cuisine. And chefs today are drawing on it all to revitalise Southern palates.

New South cuisine

Take superstar chef Sean Brock for example, whose Husk restaurant in downtown Charleston is a temple to Southern innovation, with every ingredient sourced in the South. After opening for service in 2011, it was quickly crowned 'Best New American Restaurant' by Bon Appetit magazine.

At the nearby Cocktail Club, mixologists are doing to the drinks menu what Brock has done to the food, using all local fruits, herbs, bitters and spirits to create modern classics like the Cloak & Dagger - a rum, rye whiskey, ginger syrup, beet and pineapple concoction that's as refreshing as it is intoxicating.

This celebratory blend of old and new is found right across the state. Aspen Grille offers relaxed yet sophisticated dining in Myrtle Beach, drawing once again on fresh, seasonal ingredients. Deveraux's in Greenville offers modern dining in the grounds of an old cigar factory. While the elegant Magnolias, housed in Charleston's original 1730 Custom's House, offers tried-and-true classics as well as inspired interpretations like Shellfish over Grits, with sautéed shrimp, sea scallops, lobster, creamy white grits, fried spinach and lobster butter sauce.

Magnolias, Charleston, South Carolina

Of course, to truly appreciate this New South cuisine, you need to also experience the homely excellence of the no-frills Old South. And in South Carolina it doesn't get more traditional than a good old-fashioned barbecue. The history of barbecued pork in South Carolina is as old as the settlement itself, according to Lake High Jr., President of the South Carolina Barbeque Association.

Nearly every community has its own barbecue business, with competitive cook-offs regularly held across the state, often as part of larger festivals like the Charleston Wine & Food Festival (06-09 March 2014), or the High on the Hog BBQ Festival in Beaufort (06-07 June 2014).

"If one wants to experience all four of America's styles of barbecue, there is only one state where that can be done," says High Jr. "The true barbecue aficionado cannot say that he has completed his quest without a visit to South Carolina, where the art of barbecue was invented and where it is still practised in its purest tradition and its most diverse styles."

For the uninitiated, the four types of American barbecue are defined by the sauce used in the basting of the meat and later when plating up. They are, in the order in which they developed, Vinegar and Pepper (first used by Scottish settlers on the coastal plains of the Carolinas), Mustard, Light Tomato and Heavy Tomato. 

Delicious barbecued ribs

Turning to seafood, Old South exponents should head to Bowen's Island Restaurant, a family-run Charleston favourite that's been serving some of the best roasted oysters and fresh shrimp on the eastern seaboard for nearly 70 years. Diners revel in the rickety chairs, infectious atmosphere, graffiti-covered walls, church-pew booths and spectacular sunsets.

Both surf and turf can be easily washed down at a range of bars and distilleries. The Six & Twenty Distillery in Piedmont focuses on sweet sipping whiskey made from South Carolina's upstate local wheat. The Dark Corner Distillery in the mysterious mountain region of Greenville County recently released South Carolina's first official Bourbon. And Palmetto Moonshine keeps the state's tradition of brewing moonshine alive by selling the fine spirits in traditional glass jars. 

Bottles of Moonshine

And for those with a sweet tooth? Well there's always I Love Sugar on Mrytle Beach, a candy fantasy like no other, with 30,000 gummy bears hanging from the ceiling and a 65-foot mermaid mural made entirely of candy.

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