Baking Bread: The Artisan Bread Movement in WNC
By: Beth Browne
Bread. Who doesn’t love a crusty loaf, still warm from the oven? We use it as the base for our pizzas, in religious ceremonies and for soaking up our soup. According to archaeological evidence, humans have been making bread in one form or another for 30,000 years. Wheat was one of the first domesticated crops. Any real estate agent will tell you that if you want to sell your house, filling it with the smell of fresh-baked bread will increase your chances.
In the last hundred years, bread making has undergone transformation, from old-world hearty whole grain to pre-sliced white bread and now we’ve come full circle with the artisan bread movement. And, lucky for us here in WNC, the movement is going strong. We have more than a dozen bakeries making hand crafted loaves of delicious bread. And now, thanks to the tireless efforts of one of our artisan bakers, we even have locally milled flour.
Since 2004, area bakers have celebrated their craft and shared their loaves at the annual Asheville Bread Festival (www.ashevillebreadfestival.com). The brainchild of husband/wife team Steve Bardwell and Gail Lunsford, the festival brings bakers together to share their craft and its product with each other and with the public. In addition to the ever-popular sampling, the festival offers informative talks by some of the movers and shakers of the artisan bread world, including a representative from the artisan division of King Arthur Flour along with bread guru, Peter Reinhart of the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte. Reinhart is the author of five popular books on bread baking.
Festival organizers Steve and Gail were running their own bakery (Wake Robin Farm Breads) eight years ago when they realized that there were a lot of bakers in the area making bread by hand and they had an idea to get them together and showcase their talents. The evening of that first bread fest, the bakers gathered together for a potluck dinner at The Marketplace restaurant in Asheville. At first, everyone was nervous, after all they were in competition with each other, but as the meal progressed the participants began to realize how much they had in common and how they could support each other. “What we have here is a group of businesses that are really happy to lift each other up,” says Jennifer Lapidus, who at the time was running Natural Bridge Bakery in Marshall and marketing to the Asheville area.
Jennifer had been running a bakery for fourteen years, first in Tennessee and then in Madison County when she began to realize the potential of using better and more local ingredients. About three years ago she teamed up with the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and started The North Carolina Organic Bread Flour Project (ncobfp.blogspot.com). Just this March she opened Carolina Ground, a mill devoted to locally grown organic grains (www.carolinafarmstewards.org/carolina-ground). She says it’s wonderful because “Now we’re able to have conversations with farmers and make suggestions about varieties.” They’ve also eliminated the “middle man” to get better prices for the customers and the farmers, a win-win situation all around. Part of the impetus for opening a mill locally was the price of wheat, which had exploded and nearly put some small bakers out of business.
Along the way, Jennifer orchestrated the serendipitous acquisition of a stone mill for grinding wheat. In 1993, Jennifer apprenticed with oven builder and baker Alan Scott in California and over the years they had kept in touch. Eventually, Scott moved back to his native Australia because of a heart condition. Unable to give up his passion, he kept busy connecting farmers, bakers and millers and set about building a mill. Sadly, in 2009 he passed away and his daughter contacted Jennifer about his mill, still in its crate at the holding dock in Hobart, having never been set up. Scott had inspired Jennifer to launch her project connecting farmers in the Carolinas with bakers, so the offer to use the mill seemed perfectly bittersweet. She used grant money to have the forty-eight inch, three-ton mill shipped to Asheville. Later, she raised enough money to pay Scott’s estate back for the cost of the mill.
One of Jennifer’s customers is Cathy Cleary of West End Bakery (www.westendbakery.com) in West Asheville. Besides being a very successful baker and café owner, Cathy has been active in building community, not only in supporting the mill at Carolina Ground, but also in organizing a local food co-op (which ultimately couldn’t compete with the large natural food stores, but was a great community-builder) and also co-founding FEAST (Fresh Easy Affordable Sustainable and Tasty), a program of cooking classes focusing on children in low-income neighborhoods. The goal of FEAST is to give children skills to enable them to eat healthier food for the rest of their lives. Cathy says, “We don’t want to give people ingredients they aren’t familiar with and expect them to enjoy them. We want to give people the skills to prepare fruits and vegetables in a way that they will enjoy them. Hopefully they will seek out good food and be much more likely to eat it. And kids are the perfect group to work with on that. They are so inquisitive and ready to try new things, especially if they’ve had a hand in preparing them.”
Cathy had wanted to be a baker all her life but didn’t start her own bakery until she was in her twenties and her friend, Krista Stearns agreed to go into business with her. From the start, West End Bakery was committed to having fresh, local ingredients whenever possible. They make everything from scratch: the veggie burgers, veggie sausage and, of course, all the bread, including the bagels and other baked goods like the ever-popular cinnamon rolls. Like other area bakers, Cathy was delighted when Carolina Ground opened so she could get fresh, locally grown flours.
Besides being fresher, locally grown grains make better bread because of the naturally occurring yeasts on the surface of the grains. These interact with organisms present in the air to enhance the flavor of the resulting bread. This is one reason artisan bread is so good. “Baking bread is like making pottery,” says Gail Lunsford of Wake Robin Farm Bread, and organizer of the bread festival; “The hand of the maker is in every loaf.”
And there are so many different kinds of bread. Here in Western North Carolina, you can find everything from Russian tea bread to pizza dough and a traditional French loaf. Whole-wheat loaves are popular, not only because they are healthier, but because of the taste. Back in the nineteenth century, flour makers discovered that removing the germ of the wheat reduced spoilage and white bread became popular. But taking out the germ also takes out taste. Today’s artisan bakers have gone back to what bakers knew generations ago; that whole grain bread made with freshly milled flour tastes the best.
Jennifer Lapidus says that although the European bakers are steeped in tradition, here in the United States we don’t have generations of tradition in bread making and this can serve to free the bakers to think outside the box and make the most of the ingredients they’ve got. She says, “Here at Carolina Ground we’re not going to make white, white flour. Even though we’re sifting, we may not able to make as refined a product as people are used to or want, but instead of trying to become that other thing, why not embrace what we have and explore where we can go with the best quality product we can produce. The bakers themselves are willing to push the envelope in terms of creativity.”
Peter Reinhart, author of five books on bread making and participant in the Asheville Bread Festival, has a theory about why bread is so special. He believes it has to do with the transformations involved in the process of making bread. He points out that bread goes through twelve stages before we get to eat it. It starts out as a living organism, the wheat plant, which is then killed in the harvest and brought back to life in the form of dough. He says it’s just not as simple as picking an apple and eating it. He thinks these are some of the reasons bread has emerged as a universal symbol in all cultures and religions for transformation as well as a symbol for the presence of god in the world.
“It wasn’t an accident that bread became such a powerful symbol,” Reinhart says. “It works on so many levels.”
Beth Browne writes because she just can’t stop herself. Her two kids wish she liked cooking as much as writing. In her spare time she enjoys sailing on Pamlico Sound with her best mate, Eric, and blogging at: bbwomenswrites.blogspot.com.