Renowned chef James Beard opened his 1973 book Beard on Bread by declaring, “Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”
Ashevilleans, it seems, would agree. Each year, they gather at the annual Asheville Artisan Bread Bakers Festival, eager to admire and sample these culinary artists’ wares. This year’s festival takes place on Saturday, May 2, at A-B Tech’s Magnolia Building.
Here’s what four of Asheville’s best had to say about the art of baking bread, displaying a passion that rises even higher than their loaves.
It’s about time
Bill Tellman and his wife, Debbie, co-own Bracken Mountain Bakery in Brevard. They arrived there in the mid-’90s, drawn by the mountains. After working as a chef in California and Charlotte, Tellman wanted a quieter life, so he taught himself to bake. “Now, 20 years of kids have grown up eating peanut butter on sunflower-oat bread,” he notes.
Part of what attracts him is the simplicity of bread — the basic chemistry of yeast, water, salt and flour. “Artisanal bread bakers throughout history have used just those ingredients,” says Tellman, who’s been part of the bread festival for six of its 11 years.
For him, though, the most crucial element is time. If dough has a long, slow rising, more interesting flavors result. And yet overproofing — letting the bread rise too long — is a dough’s enemy, robbing it of elasticity until the dough resembles an athlete gone to flab. “Once you mix a dough, it’s on the loose, and it sets its own time,” he explains. For that reason, he advocates using only a small amount of yeast and refrigerating the dough to slow the rise.
Dave Workman, co-owner of Flat Rock Village Bakery, began baking in his 20s “because I liked bread a lot,” he says. Like Tellman, he’s self-taught.
Workman believes that every step in the process is important, though he stresses using quality ingredients such as freshly milled organic flour: “Stone milling eats up the grain less than roller-milled flour, helping to maintain nutrients and flavor,” he explains. Workman uses Carolina Ground flour, stone-milled in Asheville, and filtered water instead of chlorinated city water.
Great ingredients, though, are just the start. “You can have a perfect dough, but put it in the oven too early or late and you get a disappointing result,” notes Workman. Still, a rushed loaf is not a happy one: From start to finish, his take two to three days. “Good bread,” he maintains, “can’t be created overnight.”
Workman has participated in the Asheville bread festival since its inception. This year, he’ll feature his favorite loaf — a whole-wheat sourdough — alongside other loaves and pastries.
The magic touch
Joe Ritota, started working at his father’s New Jersey bakery when he was 10. Today, he co-owns Annie’s Bakery in Asheville with his wife, Annie. “I became a baker by default, with four generations of Italian bakers on my mom’s side, three on my father’s,” he explains.
Ritota agrees that great ingredients and careful timing are essential. He also emphasizes the baker’s subtle relationship with the dough. Quality, he says, depends on a baker’s ability to recognize the right feel and touch.
But temperature is also a deal breaker. “If it’s 90 degrees in the shop, the dough will ferment quicker than you want. So you have to chill it through the temperature of the other ingredients and by reducing mixing time” — because the mixing generates heat.
“Baking is an art, because it is the extension of an individual who puts his love and energy into the product and into the touch and feel. It’s like creating a painting,” says Ritota, who plans to debut a speciality bread at this year’s festival.
Making it sing
Nathan Morrison, who owns Simple Bread, works alone in a 15-by-15-foot space in his home in Woodfin with six electric ovens, selling his breads at local farmers markets. He loves the meditative process of baking and being in his shop. “Bread-making is a very practiced thing and very creative,” he says. “I’m always curious about how each loaf will look.”
Like many bakers, Morrison emphasizes quality ingredients and the importance of weighing them to get the proportions right. But he also stresses shaping, which “increases the surface tension along the top and outside of the dough. When you score [cut the dough before baking], the bread has a place to expand, and it expands more because of the way it’s been shaped.”
“Handling the dough is the trickiest part,” says Morrison, who grew up eating his mom’s homemade loaves. “A bread can be well leavened, but if it’s not shaped-well, it won’t look great.”
It won’t sound great, either. Bread, says Morrison, speaks to us through all five senses: “When you take a perfect loaf out of the oven, the crust will crackle.”
And while Morrison says he’s eager to learn from the other bakers at this year’s festival, his goal is to keep making simple bread for folks who care about what goes into their food — a pretty good description of Asheville’s talented bakers and their passionate fans.
The 11th annual Asheville Artisan Bread Bakers’ Festival will be held Saturday, May 2, in the Magnolia Building on the A-B Tech campus, from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. For more information, call 683-2902 or visit ashevillebreadfestival.com.