"Grain is put on this earth with the natural ability to become leavened bread," says Jennifer Lapidus, owner of the Natural Bridge Bakery in Marshall. Lapidus should know -- she makes bread using only grain, some purified water and a pinch of salt. Though she'll sometimes add a few walnuts, raisins or sesame seeds, Lapidus stays away from some of the ingredients most bakers use, such as oil, sugar and commercial yeast.
The type of bread Lapidus makes is called desem (pronounced "day-zum"), a European-style, naturally leavened bread introduced to the U.S. by a Belgian doctor who believed it has superior nutritional value.
While most breads rely on commercial bakers' yeast -- the organism saccharomyces oryzae, made from one variety of yeast grown in a laboratory -- to make them rise, desem bread uses only the microorganisms that naturally occur within the grain itself. A desem culture is developed -- from wheat berry, rye, spelt or kamut grains -- and then carefully tended and fed until it is ripe enough to use. The whole process takes at least a month.
According to Lapidus, such natural leavenings involve predigestion -- a process that breaks down foods that are difficult for the body to assimilate. Nutrients that would not be accessible to us in yeasted bread, says Lapidus, such as B vitamins and the minerals contained within wheat bran, thus become available for absorption.
"We lost digestibility of ... bread with the technological addition of yeast," she explains. "I believe bread was really meant to be leavened. The [growing] number of people who can't eat bread makes me feel something is wrong here."
"While the health aspect is important," adds Lapidus, "[this bread] is not just an alternative. It's also really good."
These unusual loaves are two days in the making. On the first day Lapidus rises early, extends her cultures, and then spends the rest of the morning hand-milling the grain she'll need, using a specially designed stone burr grist mill. The granite stones keep the flour at a lower temperature than the metal rollers used in typical commercial mills -- thus preserving more of the nutrients in the grain.
After measuring out flour and salt, Lapidus is free until early evening, when she returns to set a wood fire in her 6-foot-deep, 14-foot-wide brick oven. The fire will burn down overnight, leaving the oven at the right temperature for baking the next morning. Lapidus believes that the radiant heat of a wood-fired oven works better with naturally leavened bread. In the meantime, she hand-mixes her bread dough, which can take anywhere from 45 minutes to two-and-a-half hours, depending on how many loaves she's baking.
The next day, Lapidus rises as early as 3 a.m. to form the dough into loaves. It takes two hours for the first batch of loaves to rise in cloth-lined baskets before being loaded into the oven. The first batch bakes in about 35 minutes; each subsequent batch takes a little longer, as the oven cools down.
The actual baking is more art than science, she explains. A wide range of factors -- including the type of firewood, the precise oven temperature, and even the humidity -- can affect the final outcome.
Even after the bread is done, there's still the packaging, pricing, delivery and shelving to contend with. Lapidus used to do all these tasks herself; now she has a contract worker to help her get her bread to her distributors, which include the French Broad Food Coop, Earth Fare and the Salt and Grain Society. Six months a year, Lapidus also sells her bread at the Saturday-morning tailgate market on Biltmore Avenue.
Lapidus was a history major at the University of Georgia when she discovered that baking bread helped her focus her thoughts while working on her many writing assignments. She baked so much that friends and acquaintances soon found themselves gifted with the excess loaves. She remembers one friend telling her, "If you sold this, I'd buy it."
After graduation, Lapidus apprenticed with Summer Corn Foods in Fayetteville, Ark., and then with master oven-builder and designer Alan Scott in California. She opened the original Natural Bridge -- named after the road she lived on at the time -- in Tennessee. After three-and-a-half years there, Lapidus moved to WNC nearly three years ago. Besides the good memories she had of having attended Burnsville's Camp Celo as an 8-year-old, Lapidus had friends here and thought it would be a good place to raise her daughter.
Like the bread she bakes, Lapidus' plans for the future are simple. She'd like to increase her output from the 200-300 loaves she now bakes each week to about 500. "I don't want to be producing thousands of loaves -- that's not my goal," she explains.
For more information, call Lapidus at Natural Bridge Bakery (649-9511).
Film stars make appearance at Everything Fishy
If you'd like to meet Hannibal, Clarice or Mason from the recently released movie Hannibal, then make your way over to Everything Fishy -- a retail store specializing in aquatic animals that has installed and maintained aquariums all over WNC for the past 23 years. No, we're not talking about the characters played by Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore and Gary Oldman, but about three of the eels who also make an appearance in the movie, part of which was filmed in Asheville last August.
The eels -- salt-water yellow head morays from Indonesia -- play the pets of Hannibal's only surviving victim, Mason Vergen. Athough paralyzed, Vergen (played by Oldman) rules a vast financial empire and is obsessed with revenge against Hannibal (played by Hopkins).
But though the eels ended up on the silver screen, it was Everything Fishy owner Steve Shrader and manager Marc Montell who worked hard behind the scenes to make the magic happen.
Hired to set up and maintain an aquarium for the eels on set -- in the Tapestry Room at Biltmore Estate -- Shrader and Montell took turns spending 16-hour days working with the production while continuing to run their Asheville business.
The two-week experience wasn't always easy, admits Shrader. There were the technical demands of quickly setting up (and then maintaining) the delicate ecosystem the sensitive eels require, not to mention the challenge of getting these shy aquatic animals to perform for the camera. On top of this, the two men had to deal with countless schedule changes and, adds Shrader, "the film industry's attitude of time is money."
But despite the headaches, Shrader says the experience was well worth it. "The degree of focus everyone had [on set] was phenomenal. I was amazed [and] impressed with just how everyone seemed to bond with each other, including the actors. We were all sharing this world beneath this bubble for a certain amount of time."
He adds: "Despite all the pressure, problems and sheer hard work -- with all the intensity -- it was an incredible experience for me to be as close as I am to you to Anthony Hopkins and Gary Oldman [during] a particular intense scene in this movie. You couldn't put a price on something like that."
Everything Fishy is located at Haw Creek Center (611 Tunnel Road) and can be reached at 299-1990.
Pine Crest Inn receives double honors
It's a rare event for both a hotel and its on-premises restaurant to be awarded AAA's Four Diamond rating, denoting superior customer service and facilities. In fact, Tryon's historic Pine Crest Inn was one of only five such establishments to receive that honor in North Carolina this year.
"AAA's requirements for a Four Diamond rating are rigorous, and those that win it are among the best hotels and restaurants in the world," said David E. Parsons, president of AAA Carolinas. "Only 5 percent of the more than 35,000 annual inspections conducted nationally result in a Four Diamond rating."
"Nearly flawless service and clearly superb food makes this restaurant a must-dine experience," raves the AAA TourBook about the Pine Crest Inn's restaurant.
The Inn's new owners, Debby and Barney DuBois, give the credit to the staff for making both the inn and restaurant among the nation's finest.
"We knew we were inheriting an outstanding facility," says Barney DuBois. "But it is a proud moment to be able to hang the Four Diamond awards on our wall."
Another WNC establishment was also among the double Four Diamond winners this year: Asheville's Richmond Hill Inn.
For more information, call the Pine Crest Inn at (828) 859-9135 or the AAA at (828) 697-88778.
Contractors, architects and homeowners who want to use earth-friendly materials and methods in their buildings will soon have a resource to help them proceed. The newly formed Western North Carolina Green Building Council is developing a Green Building Directory listing local and regional businesses that manufacture, sell, design or build using environmentally friendly materials or practices.
The directory, explains local builder Boone Guyton (a member of the Council's Executive Committee), "will have some informational content as well on the different aspects of 'green' building ... explaining the different products and practices so that people can learn more about it."
"Green" buildings tend to be made out of low-toxic, renewable, recycled or natural building materials. They're energy- and resource-efficient, which lowers operating costs and helps conserve water. During construction, "green" builders take steps to keep waste and energy use to a minimum. The air quality inside a "green" structure is good, and the impact on the site's existing ecosystem -- including trees, plants, animals, air and water -- is minimized.
The council is now compiling listings for the free directory, due out this fall. Initially it will be distributed in Buncombe and five surrounding counties, says Guyton, but the council hopes eventually to make it more widely available.
The Green Building Council was started by Guyton and environmental designer Cindy Meehan-Patton, who's also a consultant and product supplier. The two share a passion for environmentally sound building practices. Explains Guyton, "We got together, talked about it, and then we contacted people we know who we thought would be interested -- and it just got going from there." Council members include architects, builders, product distributors and the Land-of-Sky Regional Council.
The directory is the Green Building Council's main focus right now, but Guyton says they're already thinking about such future projects as educational seminars, tours of local "green"-built homes and a certification system for "green" builders.
Guyton's own interest in "green" building, he says, "started before I was a builder, when I was building my own home. I tried to do a low-impact house [and] use a lot of recycled material."
Unfortunately, Guyton says, he finds that it's not always easy to incorporate these same practices into the buildings he constructs for clients. "If people don't know about [an environmentally friendly product or service], they don't want it. You've got to know about it first."
"Part of the incentive for the directory is the educational aspect," he explains. "It will make it more accessible -- and easier to do. Right now, in order to find "green" building products, it's quite a research process. You have to really search around. What we're hoping is [that] by making it easier to find products, it will increase the demand for them, which will make it even easier and cheaper."
For his part, says Guyton, "It would feel a lot better to be building houses that were more environmentally sensitive."
To be listed in the directory or to join the council, call Meehan-Patton at 251-5888.