Visiting Middleton Place during our week in Charleston was my lovely wife Therese’s idea. To be more specific, it was in a list of possible things to do that she emailed to me and I dutifully pasted at the end of my Microsoft Word document-itinerary. However, as I went back to that list and mined it for activities for the week, I somehow overlooked Middleton (mea culpa).
But then our Wednesday activity – a road trip to an architectural salvage company north of Charleston – fell through (I got an email from the company telling us their hours have changed, and now they are no longer open on Wednesday, boo hiss). So all of a sudden, there was a big hole in our itinerary, and Therese had reminded me about Middleton Place, so it was a natural adjustment to plug it in for our main daytime activity.
Wednesday was the last day we planned to have our rental car, and driving out to Middleton Place, on the west banks of the Ashley River, was a very smooth relaxing drive (though you will have to ask the driver Therese to confirm my impressions). We arrived in the late morning and explored some of the grounds, heading towards the main house which is now a museum of the original owner family’s belongings.
Unfortunately, there are no pictures allowed of the interior of the house. And the exterior of the house is hard to get a good picture of as well, since it is surrounded by many trees. Taking the tour was a great idea (the house tour is not included in the general admission ticket) – seeing all the beautiful paintings of family members and the furniture, some of it simply period and some actually belonging to the family, was splendid.
After the tour, we walked around the house and came out on the side where the Middelton Place Restaurant is housed, in another lovely brick building which is I believe original to the property. Therese and I were copycats, each electing to have catfish sandwiches with sweet tea (as I recall, she was extra hungry and also ordered a salad appetizer).
After our refreshing reviving lunch, which included a lovely chat with our server, we were just in time for the garden overview tour. I will cut to the chase and tell you that our docent-guide Fran was outstanding – knowledgeable, pleasant, the kind of guide who makes you feel like she you are her new friend and she is showing you her backyard.
And there is lots to see of gardens at Middleton Place – maybe not as much as Magnolia Plantation, with its camellia forests, but enough to keep you busy for an afternoon. Sadly, we did not have to rest of the afternoon to wander among Middleton Place’s gardens – we had to get back to drop off our car at Enterprise’s convenient Meeting Place office before 5.
And along the way, we wanted to make one more stop, at Seventeen South Antiques. It took a little searching to find it – Google Maps showed it being on a different corner than where it actually is. Not our sort of place was this antique store – it seemed cluttered and not in a good way. Oh well.
We dropped off the car and still had a couple of hours before the evening’s Wine & Food Festival event, the Open Night feasting in a tent in Marion Square. So we paid a visit to Circa Lighting, which had been on our list of stores to visit (nice merchandise but out of our price range). Then we went to our favorite coffee shop, Kudu, and drank coffee (well I had an almond iced chai latte) – and I was a little disheartened to discover that Kudu has changed. No longer is there a round table near the bathroom where you can have a meeting with friends, and most of the seating that there is is bar stool height (very bad for the circulation – oh I sound like an old person I know, but it’s true).
Anyway, finally it was nearly time for the Wine & Food event, and so we got in line, excited to have the festival finally beginning.
The tent was set up similar to the way the culinary village on the weekend is – tables full of samples of one and two bites size. Since the theme of the event was “rooted in Charleston,” there was a heavy lowcountry influence reverberating through the foods available – lots of riffs on shrimp with grits and that kind of thing.
And as usual, there was more food than I could ever hope to eat – I had to choose what things to go for, and what to avoid. In the latter category were, of course, dishes whose dairy component could not be avoided, and most of the desserts (more on that later).
The vast majority of the dishes, thankfully, fell into the former category – scallops and shrimps and fish salads and small bites of steak and lots of vegetable-focused samplings (nice, huh?). There was very loud music provided by JD McPherson, and Foosball tables, and a plastic full-sized tennis court in the middle of the tent where you could actually take a stab at playing tennis if you wanted (I saw the ball flying off into the crowd a couple of times, so my guess is that there was a direct relationship between the amount of alcohol imbibed (of which there was much available) and the willingness to swing a racket in the middle of a crowd of feasters.
As for my favorite dish of the night (drumroll please), it was a coconut cream-based panna cotta made by Chef Marc Collins of Circa 1886 Restaurant. The first time we came to Charleston, we had a progressive Christmas Eve dinner whose main meal was at that restaurant, where they did a fabulous job of accommodating my allergy. Well, once again the chef did wonders without dairy.
Not only was this dish dairy free, but I believe it was also gluten free. It was sort of a dessert (sweet coconut milk and passion fruit jam), but it also had many savory elements – pickled shrimp and cucumbers and cilantro oil (for example). Maybe it was an entree and a dessert? I don’t know, but it was extraordinary – the shrimp went well with both the passion fruit and the coconut, and the cucumber went well with the shrimp and (maybe) the fruit(?).
I thanked Chef Collins, who was right there, for this super imaginative and wholly dairy free concoction. When we arrive in Charleston as residents this summer, we will have to eat at his restaurant again. In the meantime, we left the event very stuffed and lit up inside by this very fun start to the festival part of our week.