When Steve Bardwell and his wife, Gail Lunsford, started Wake Robin Farm Breads in 1999, there were only a couple of bakeries in Asheville. Now, more than a dozen local bakeries and several local mills have transformed the city into a regional hub for small-batch, artisan bread producers. “The bakers themselves have gotten better, and the customers have gotten much more knowledgeable and know what to look for,” Bardwell says.
In its ninth year, the Asheville Artisan Bread Festival celebrates the success of the micro-industry and invites the community to learn more about the craft. “I would encourage anybody who's at all interested in good bread to come,” says Bardwell, who organizes the festival. “There's something for everybody, and it's a lot of fun.”
On Saturday, March 23, the day of baked delights kicks off with a showcase. Local bread and pretzel makers display their offerings and distribute samples. The event is free and open to the public, and anyone who purchases a loaf of bread receives a ticket to a workshop (while supplies last and space permitting).
Most of the workshop tickets have already sold. Those events include a trip to Carolina Ground flour mill and lessons from renowned bread makers, such as Lionel Vatinet (La Farm Bakery in Cary, N.C.), Craig Ponsford (Ponsford’s Place in San Rafael, Ca.), and Emily Buehler (author of Bread Science: The Chemistry and Craft of Making Bread). Space is still available for a discussion on home brick-ovens with Bob Bowles, director of Slow Food Asheville and the Asheville Wine & Food Festival.
Tickets are also available for a demonstration by Peter Reinhart, a chef instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte and the author of many books about bread making, including Crust and Crumb and The Bread Baker's Apprentice. At the bread festival, he'll demonstrate techniques from his newest book, The Joy of Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free Baking.
Bardwell says that catering to diners who avoid wheat is a significant challenge for bakers. “It's hard baking that way,” he says. “[Reinhart] has got great skill at figuring out how to do it and teaching it to other people.”
The festival has attracted plenty of big names this year, evidence that Asheville is a rising star in the artisan bread industry, Bardwell says. At the showcase, the bakers will display the breadth of their skills. “There's thousands of different kinds of bread, and a lot of them will be represented here, from very dense whole rye flour breads to fancy, rich French breads, croissants and things like that,” he says. “It runs the whole gamut of European breads, anyway.”
And if you're enticed by nothing else, come for the bread samples. “It's hard to beat free bread,” Bardwell says.
The Asheville Artisan Bread Festival begins at 10 a.m. on Saturday, March 23, in A-B Tech's Magnolia building. The showcase, which lasts until 2 p.m., is free and open to the public. Ticketed events run throughout the day, and chef Peter Reinhart's demonstration begins at 2 p.m. For more information, visit ashevillebreadfestival.com.