Despite the numerous lists and articles devoted to “Things To Do” in Charleston, there are few activities more relaxing, more enjoyable, more good for the soul – in other words, more lowcountry – than sitting on a front porch on a fine southern day, slowly sipping something over ice. There’s not a lot of call for thought, though there are few settings more inclined to deep reflection. You simply lean back, listen to rustling palms, and stare up – as likely as not – at a soothingly blue ceiling.
These sky-tinged porch ceilings, a staple of lowcountry design, date back hundreds of years, long before the states were united, all the way back to when Charles Towne was a British colony. The custom was brought over from West Africa by slaves and passed down from generation to generation of their descendants known as the Gullah, a people with a rich and distinct culture who inhabit the coastal plains and sea islands of Charleston and Savannah.
Today, porches the color of cornflowers can be found everywhere in the region, and their prevalence was made possible by large reserves of regional indigo; indigo that was a direct result of the efforts of one of the first successful business women in this country, Mrs. Eliza Lucas Pinckney.
“She was moved here from the West Indies by her father, and she had the brains and foresight to understand that, with this warm, humid climate, indigo would grow as well in South Carolina as it did in Antigua,” explains Angie Tunstall, co-owner of Stems & Skins. No stranger to an entrepreneurial spirit herself, Angie and her husband Matt moved here from San Francisco ten years ago after a short visit to the Holy City. As they walked the cobblestone streets, they recognized immediately the special conditions coming together to create a food & drink scene that was about to explode onto the map. Their intuitive gamble has paid off. Stems & Skins has become a darling of the hip Park Circle area in North Charleston and a regular feature among the city’s “Must Try’s”.
“It’s not about reinventing the wheel,” says Angie, “it’s about recognizing quality and great traditions, and bringing them back to share here. Which is exactly what Eliza did.” Eliza stood firm in her notion that indigo could be a southeastern crop and, in 1744 at the age of 22, she turned it into one of the region’s top exports. Almost two hundred years later, she was inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame. Her initiative and determination led to one of the largest cash crops in South Carolina history. And with an abundance of the deeply-hued indigo in the region, the long-standing Gullah tradition of painting porch ceilings a gentle, watery blue to protect from the restless, earthbound spirits known as “haints” spread through the porches of the lowcountry like wildfire.
Angie pulls out a couple of bottles to show me, saying as she does, “These traditions live on for a reason. They were established in the old country for hundreds of years and we are just catching up. Take vermouth for instance, it’s very misunderstood here.”
She’s not wrong. In the U.S. vermouths are typically only used for martinis or manhattans – perhaps a couple other cocktails get thrown into the mix, but for the most part there are one or two well vermouths that always end up playing second or third fiddle. She opened up one of the bottles and continued, “it has become a thing with us, me and my husband. We want everyone in Charleston to try vermouth, to ‘get’ it. There is no better drink for that obscure space of time before dinner, when you aren’t ready to commit to a heavy wine, or maybe you’re just tired of beer. There are no mixers required, nothing fancy at all. Just a glass full of ice and a twist of orange or grapefruit.”
Which is exactly what she gave me. It was a dry vermouth, chenin blanc-based, called Capertif. An initial cool dryness was followed immediately by strong citrus and green peppercorn. The label boasted of 30+ botanical flavorings, all adding up to a surprisingly complex sip. It turns out that vermouth varies as widely (dare I say even more so) as wine. One I tried was the refreshing counterpart to a day on the beach, while another started out with a dryness that almost left me puckering, but ended with a surprising blend of mellow flavors. The point, as Angie demonstrates by showing me their lengthy list of vermouth offerings, is that there are many to explore. Take some time to work your way through the different varieties at Stems & Skins, and once you have your favorite, pick up a bottle to keep close at hand for those golden hours when real life looks the other way and leaves you to unwind on a breezy porch somewhere in Charleston.