This week, I turn another year older and, as part of my birthday celebration, I decided to indulge my love of food, wine and travel all in one event: the Charleston Wine + Food Festival.
Unlike past years where I would either keep the festivities in New York or celebrate my birthday abroad (Ghana, London, India and Mexico), this year I decided to do something different and visit a place that's long been on my U.S. bucket list: Charleston, South Carolina.
The decision to head south came about when JetBlue launched one of their airfare sales at the same time I happened to see an article about the festival. It felt like fate — me, a self-confessed wino who loves trying different foods, coming across a food and wine festival taking place in a city I've been wanting to visit for a very long time, just as JetBlue decided to offer great deals to that city from New York. How could I pass up this opportunity? The answer: I couldn't.
So, off I went to Charleston, where I met one of my regular travel buddies, my mom. We spent three days exploring and eating our way around the Lowcountry before separating to head back to our respective cities. Though I have much to write about and plan to share more details soon, this post is all about the wine, the food and how they came together in one of Charleston's premier events.
The festival, which is held every year during the first weekend of March, is a celebration of Charleston's growing culinary scene. Chefs from the city's restaurants and beyond offer up their best dishes while thousands of attendees like myself throw our diets to the wind and eat like there's no tomorrow. The festival is also a non-profit with proceeds going towards local culinary and hospitality scholarship programs.
Before heading to the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, I went online to look at their schedule of events and quickly realized that trying to decide what to attend would be overwhelming in the best way possible. I knew I only had time for one or two events, but between the dinners and talks and tastings and everything in between, it was extremely difficult to narrow the list down. Fortunately, after doing some more browsing, I learned the heart of the festival, and where I decided to focus my efforts, was the Culinary Village, a daily event that features more than 80 vendors offering generous tastings of their wines and food.
My decision ended up being a great one — the day I attended the Culinary Village was beautiful and sunny, perfect for an afternoon of eating and drinking. My mom and I spent several hours there and tasted more things than I can remember. What I do remember is how good most of tastings were. My favorites included the chicken and waffles topped with fish roe from Chef Erik Niel of Chattanooga, Tennessee, the baklava ice cream sandwich from the Williams Sonoma booth, the braised chicken from the Croatia tourism booth and, my absolute favorite, the sausage-stuffed quail with puréed cornbread from Chef Scott Crawford of Raleigh, North Carolina. My favorite wine was from Sagaponack, New York: Wölffer Estate Chardonnay.
I also learned some key lessons after attending the Culinary Village and wanted to share my top tips for anyone who decides to attend this festival or any other similar event in the future:
1. Eat a very small meal a few hours beforehand: This may seem obvious but I overheard more than one person at the festival complaining how full they were after eating a big breakfast. If you know you're going to a food festival, don't eat a big breakfast! On the other hand, don't starve yourself because then you'll arrive at the festival so hungry you'll eat way too quickly
2. Pace yourself: There is a lot of food at these things, and what can seem really exciting can quickly become nauseating if you eat too fast or too much. Take your time. Don't rush. Take breaks. I promise it's for the best.
3. Arrive early: My mom and I went to the Culinary Village soon after it opened and stayed for most of the event. As time went on, the crowds swelled and the lines grew longer. In some cases, significantly longer. By the time we had to deal with the crowds, we had already put in several hours of tastings so we were fine to let the latecomers battle it out for a piece of chicken.
4. Don't wear heels: I know I was in Charleston, a city known for its southern charm and shopping, but it's really impractical to wear heels to an event during which you'll likely be standing most of the time. You may look cute, but will you be able to walk home?
5. Stand in separate lines: One of the things you quickly learn at food festivals is that the lines can get insanely long. To help ease the wait time, bring a buddy and tackle two lines at the same time. Then, each of you grab two samples and meet in the middle. If one person is in a particularly long line, the other may be able to stand in two shorter lines in the same period of time. It's all about the line strategy.
Though it was my first time at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, it certainly won't be my last. It was a great way to kick off birthday celebrations and an event well worth attending.
Thanks to the festival vendors for the delicious food and flowing wine. You made this wine-loving, travel-obsessed foodie a very happy birthday girl.
Have you ever been to a food and wine festival?