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Greenville South Carolina – Four Weddings and a Feast:
The enchanting miniature princess sharing the lift with me alone,was smiling and giggling on her way to the 10th floor of the Westin Poinsett . Greenville, South Carolina is the kind of place where people smile and talk to each other, what would seem bizarrely friendly in London is just common courtesy there. She told me, beaming happily, that her father was getting married and she was the maid of honour. Of course most little girls DO like dressing up…
Mentioning the friendly little girl later to the hotel concierge, I discovered that there were actually four weddings taking place in the hotel that Saturday. Not that I could have guessed in any way – the space is large enough to accommodate everyone comfortably. None of the staff seemed overly stressed either. The concierge took time out to walk me out of the hotel, five minutes down the road across the Reedy River to Falls Park to show me a few of his favourite spots in Greenville as well as booking me in to a wonderful restaurant overlooking the river for dinner that evening.
The Westin Poinsett was built in the 1920s with a price tag of $1.5m. An opulent and striking building, the hotel lost money throughout the Great Depression and only started to make money when Mr J Mason Alexander took over as the General Manager. Famous for building the hotel on the tenets of Cleanliness, Cooking, Competence and Courtesy, Mason Alexander was also known as Mr Poinsett or, ‘The Man who Gave you Clean Money’. Every coin that went into the hotel’s cash registers had to be polished by the staff. It does feel a little as if it could be the setting for the Great Gatsby. Another period of decline, through the 1960s and 70s, meant that the hotel was foreclosed and was empty until 1997, when new owners Steve Dopp and Greg Lenox bought and renovated the building.
Now, once again though, it is a fine place to visit or stay, luxurious and comfortable with impeccable service.
I’d arrive just in time to catch the tail-end of the Farmers’ Market – a splendid affair that I learnt had been started when one farmer from up in the hills started to come into Greenville on a Saturday and set up his stall in the carpark using the back of his pick-up truck. The whole thing still has a feel of sponteneity and charm, though it’s grown large enough for the main streets of Greenville to be closed every Saturday through Spring to Fall. There’s live blue-grass music, which gets everyone from kids to pensioners stomping happily on the pavement.
And you can pick up everything from organic fruit and vegetables to preserves, honey and perhaps the most chillies I’ve ever seen in one place, from Lanherne Farm. This is still a farming community and that is never more apparent than when the market is in full swing.
Make sure you stop by the Perdeaux fruit farm stall and choose some of their perfectly ripe apples, peaches or nectarines. They have over 30 varieties of yellow peach alone, ripening from the second week in June through to the second week in September, with each variety having their own optimum harvest date.
Every stall holder at the market had their own tale – from The Green River Picklers who are using family recipes dating back over 100 years to Hurricane Creek Farms, growing organic hydroponic salad ingredients in addition to stone ground grits and cornmeal and Angus beef. The market runs from the start of May to the end of October and is well worth a visit.
Karma must have been on my side as the planned food tour had been cancelled and if I’d taken part in that, I wouldn’t have had time to browse the market or to explore Greenville by myself. Somehow I ended up at Blue Ridge Brewery, right on Main Street, trialling the local craft beer with some deep fried pickles.
And, went up to see Charleston Cooks the cookery shop and school recommended by the concierge. I just caught the end of one of the cookery lessons (always the best bit, because all the hard work has been done – all that is left is to eat) and got to try hush puppies – so named apparently because they were made from the scraps of dishes, designed to keep the hungry settlers’ dogs happy.
I went in search of the Greenville Mice on the Main though I failed rather dismally, finding just one.
There are nine in total, the first mounted on the fountain in front of the Hyatt Regency and the other eight mice along Main Street between the Hyatt and the Westin Poinsett where I stayed. Apparently part of a school project by a local high school student who wanted to do something good for the community, it’s a kind of permanent treasure hunt through the City. I searched in vain for the other eight, but must have been looking in all the wrong places.
The concierge had booked a table for me at High Cotton, with a view out over the river for sunset which meant I was more than happy to be dining alone. Watching the river bank I spotted at least three more bridal groups, this time apparently there for pre-event photography. My server told me she always worried the brides were liable to spoil their dresses – walking out across the flat stones of the river for that perfect shot was just too tempting.
Having munched my way through the Farmers’ Market, to Blue Ridge Brewery and then up to Charleston Cooks, I wasn’t really in need of a three course meal. I tried to pick simple dishes that would showcase the quality of the ingredients. High Cotton lists the farmers that supply the restaurant – all from South Carolina – on their menu. I was set on oysters and here they are served with an aubergine puree and spicy green tomato chow chow. Deliciously crisp buttermilk batter with good sized, succulent oysters and side helpings of silky aubergine and spicy tomato pickle made a good start to dinner.
The concierge had told the restaurant that I was visiting on the #tasteamerica programme and made a request for me to try some local specialities – the kitchen responded by sending a succession of really delicious if slightly overwhelming dishes for me to try. I have no regrets.
The stand-out dish for me, Country ham and biscuit, could have been a meal in its own right and I failed to eat the entire plateful. But, I did love that soft, scone like mixture contrasted with sweet and smokey ham and a sticky maple syrup (?) glaze.
My own main course order was a simple Filet Mignon with shell bean, sweet corn fricassee. It was excellent with a sweetness which comes from good grass-fed beef. Suprisingly I learnt that most fine USDA steak is grass rather that corn fed – though here in the UK we tend to thing of American beef as being the opposite.
For dessert a rustic apple pie. Totally unnecessary, but really delicious.
I understand High Cotton is going through a transition period at the moment, with a change of ownership since May 2015. The new owners are veteran restaurateurs though still a family run business. They specialise in steak so in the future there may be more of an emphasis on a traditional steakhouse menu. What I tried, I really enjoyed, though I have no idea whether the menu items were from the old era or new. I suspect that, given the location of Greenville in a large farming community, not too much will change though. And, if you do visit, ask for a table upstairs where you can look out over the river while you dine.
Despite visiting Greenville with little expectation, I ended up charmed by the community, the friendliness of local people and the stunning Reedy River and Falls Park. There’s plenty for anyone interested in food, the outdoors or heritage to do in Greenville itself, with a town centre packed with historic sites and museums, a wonderful city centre park and some excellent bars and restaurants.
One night wasn’t really enough time to see the place properly, I’d recommend visiting with a car and spending a few days travelling around the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. You could even hire a bike from Reedy Rides and cycle round the 17.5 mile swamp rabbit trail.
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Discover America on a trip to explore the culinary heritage of South Carolina and Kentucky as part of the #TasteUSA programme. You can find out more about a visit to Greenville from their Information Centre