Visitors in Charleston, S.C., can choose from a number of walking tours meandering through alleyways and cobblestone streets focused on the city's fascinating history, elegant architecture and lovely gardens. At night, the strolls turn to spooky ghost and pirate stories.
But for "foodies" on vacation looking to learn more about Lowcountry cooking, popular culinary themed tours are an informative and fun way to walk, talk and taste your way all over town.
The Chef's Kitchen Tour stops at some of the city's finest restaurants, including Magnolia's, Blossom, Tristan and Cypress - home to 2012 James Beard Award-nominated chef Craig Diehl. This Friday morning tour takes guests behind the scenes to chat with the chefs, learn a few lessons on Lowcountry cuisine and sample some of the most popular menu items. With so many great places to dine in Charleston, the tour can help you decide where to make dinner reservations and what to order as you see what chefs are putting on the menu.
A highlight of my visit to Charleston included dinner with friends at Husk, home to James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock. We knew this was an epicenter for Southern cuisine making food news nationwide when we ran into Napa Valley chef Michael Chiarello and his wife on their way to the bar. Brock's menu at Husk reads like a map of South Carolina, listing locations and names of local purveyors, farmers and fishermen such as my dinner choice: red grouper from Mark Mahefka, Geechie boy eggplant, wood-fired South Carolina peaches and chanterelles.
Another tour, the Savor the Flavors of Charleston Tour led by a native Charlestonian every morning except Sunday, includes multiple eateries and food shops. A glass of sweet tea and a sample of creamy stone-ground grits were a treat on our first stop at the tiny Dixie Supply Bakery & Cafe on State Street not far from the historic City Market. The tea was a superbly perfect brew from the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island sweetened just slightly and poured over ice. I've always recommended unsweetened tea to cut the calories, but now I'm convinced that adding just a little sugar helps cut the tannins and makes the drink even more refreshing. I also learned about the "I can really taste the corn" delicious quality of Adluh stone-ground grits used in recipes at Dixie Supply from breakfast sides to shrimp and grits served for lunch.
Charleston's long history as an important maritime port meant that spices made their way here from around the world long before other American cities. You can walk back in time and smell the aromas brought here hundreds of years ago by entering the Spice & Tea Exchange. Spice blends, fragrant teas and flavored sugars including sweet onion sugar (tastes like caramelized onions) line the walls of this busy little shop where avid cooks can buy tiny packets or a pound.
More foodie finds are at the Charleston City Market with artisanal vendors selling crunchy freeze-dried okra pods to snack on as the tour continues. The last stop is a sweet one where we savor praline candies, a sought-after Southern confection made with plump pecans, sugar, butter and cream.
There are many recipes for pralines and opinions on how to pronounce the word. The best place to start your research is Charleston Cooks, a culinary store with a great selection of cookbooks on Southern cuisine. And since it's a few blocks away, you add a little more fitness to your food tour of Charleston.
Carolyn O'Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of "The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!" Email her at email@example.com.