It was a cool, rainy morning when I made my way to the tiny community of Walnut, just outside of Marshall, to meet with Tara Jensen, owner of Smoke Signals Bakery. I have long been a follower of Tara’s on social media but never imagined her bakery to be tucked away in such a beautiful little cove in Madison county. I was greeted at the door with a smile and a warm piece of apple pie, so I knew right away we were going to get along fabulously.
Let me start off by saying, this pie is delicious.
Thanks, the apples are still kind of green. I was brought up in the kitchen beside my mom, so I got to learn the domestic stuff. She is an excellent baker and she’s always baking cakes. But she’s very precise and we’re two very different kinds of women. When she watches me bake, she’s like “Oh my god, you’re not measuring anything.” And whenever I make a pie for my parents, it ends up being terrible and it’s hilarious because she says, “you should’ve measured…” There is a confidence behind what you’re doing where you just throw things in there. But inevitably when I bake for my parents it’s very humbling, they are the ultimate critics.
My dad loves baked goods and so I always use him as a sounding board. But a lot of times he’s much too lenient. He’ll eat anything.
I am personally that way. If I didn’t make it, it is excellent.
Pie is a little more forgiving if you just throw things in. Cakes and cookies and some of the more difficult pastries and bread can be really exact, where everything just falls apart if you don’t measure. Pie filling is kind of a free for all.
Yes, it’s like the soup of the pastry world. Just put it all in there and keep your fingers crossed.
Where are you from originally?
I grew up in Maine. I went to college in Maine and then I moved to Vermont the day I graduated college. I ended up doing a baking trek around the country in my twenties. I moved to Asheville in 2005, but that was just a pit stop on my baking tour, then I came back here in 2010 and I’ve been here since then. Or maybe it was actually 2008, I’m horrible with dates.
How did you get started in the baking business?
I started baking in college. I went into this little bakery, the Morning Glory Bakery in Bar Harbor, Maine and there were all these awesome women, covered in tattoos listening to Patti Smith and I just thought, “I want to hang out here. I just have to be a part of this and I don’t care what happens.” So I started off as a counter girl there, then graduated to doing stuff in the back.
It is so peaceful out here.
I feel very lucky everyday for sure. I feel very much in the steward role, because I’m one of many bakers who have been in this space and I’m sure there will be others after me, but this is my incarnation. I feel very fortunate to be here for sure. Originally this land was purchased by Jen Lapidus in the late 1990s. She lived in the house and worked here as Natural Bridge Bakery. Now she runs Carolina Ground Flour Mill. She had trained with Alan Scott, so he came and built the oven. This was her original oven. When she was getting ready to pass the torch, she called Alan and said, “Do you know anyone who would be interested in coming here?” Dave Bauer (of Farm and Sparrow Bakery) happened to be by his side, so Dave came down here thinking he would try it out for 6 months. Now he obviously has Farm and Sparrow in a permanent location, he also has All Souls Pizza and other new projects in the works.
Prior to starting Smoke Signals, I worked at Farm and Sparrow bakery when they occupied this building. I got in contact with Dave from Vermont. I was doing production baking, high volume baking and I was looking for a little bit more intimate setting. So I moved to Asheville and I would drive here from Asheville everyday to bake. Baking for Dave at Farm and Sparrow was my first experience with the wood fired oven. I did the pastry and some of the bread production there and I was there for about 3 and a half years. That was sort of my last stop, but it was also the most important stop in terms of realizing that baking could be a way of life and not just a job. I’ve always loved working in bakeries, but they were high volume production level. When I came down here and it was more of a science experiment or an art project, we were organizing our lives around the bakery. It was a very different, craft level, slower approach than I was used to and I thought, this is really good and I haven’t seen this anywhere else.
Everytime you share a picture of the fire going, it raises my temperature.
It gets hot in the summer, but in the winter it’s really cozy. Every time you fire the oven it’s different. There is such a different range of feelings. It’s definitely a living tool. Even though it’s very old it’s still very much alive.
So what made you decide to start your own bakery business?
I always paralleled my day life as a baker, with an art career at night. I had varying levels of success with both things, but when I turned 30 I had a life question mark, the way a lot of people do, and I thought I’m going to go with baking, because that’s practical. It’s the trade I’ve learned and I realized there was only so much I could learn from others before I internalized it and had to do it for myself. When Farm and Sparrow moved to Candler, this was just empty. It was like somebody was baking and just left one day. So I came back a couple of years later and with the help of Jen, I took it over and have been here since.
You do a lot of workshops, pizza, bread, pies…what made you decide to start doing that?
I started doing the workshops at the end of September last year. I really wanted to share this space. Alan Scott, who built the oven, was very influential in the world of wood fired baking. Part of his philosophy around the oven was that it wasn’t just to make money for a baker, but it was a tool that was supposed to bring the community together. You can go to a bakery and purchase things, but rarely can you go to a bakery and bake. I wanted to open up the door to allow other people that experience. I wanted to expose what it’s like being a baker for the day. If you’ve learned something and you can turn around and reach your hand out and teach someone that it’s so crucial.If we’re eating great pie along the way, that’s even better!
I was looking at your workshops this morning and I really want to come to the Apple Pie workshop in October. Is this the pie recipe you’re going to make?
I started off with Apple Pie. I thought, I want to teach a workshop. I love pastry, I love pie crust, this will be really manageable. Then I went down the wormhole of pie crust recipes and apples, as I was putting the materials together. I thought this is the most simple slash complex thing I’ve tried to do – this Apple Pie. I love sourcing Apples from different orchards – So it’s fun as the season goes on, with the different apples. We usually have 5 or 6 different kinds and we’ll talk about the different flavors and we get to eat them and really get to know the apples. That’s kind of one of the magical parts.
It’s a quintessential fall pie. I think everybody loves an apple pie.
There’s just something really nice about it. You can’t put your finger on it. There’s a Danish word that I learned recently, “hygge” – it is the feeling of warmth and camaraderie. It’s like eating something delicious with friends in candlelight. That feeling to me is so important to me, especially as we take this turn from summer into fall. Winter is stressful for a lot of people here in the mountains, so to have those glowing moments of friendship and food to keep you going are really important.
So what’s your favorite pie then? Apple?
There are so many choices. I think sweet potato pie is my favorite.
I love sweet potatoes! I always say I would eat them every single day.
Yes, they are the best. I roast them in the oven until the skins get kind of black and smoky and I’ll leave a little log in the back, so the smoke kind of penetrates the flesh of the sweet potato and they get really caramelized…just so many delicious sugars already present in the sweet potato. It’s also a very forgiving filling. I have a soft spot for sweet potatoes. Isn’t it the state vegetable? And now I’m thinking, too – I grew up in Maine, where potatoes are the big thing and now I’m here and I like the sweet potato. It might just be I like the ground tubers.
BUTTER! Maybe because that’s what I’ve learned and what I’m comfortable with. Also for teaching, I find it to be accessible. I think we have access to some really flavorful, great butter. So flavor versus flakiness. But I always encourage people to figure out what works for them and what they like.
So, I’ve not seen you at the tailgate market this year. Is there somewhere else to buy your bread?
I may go back to market in the fall season. It’s undecided at this point.
You can get the bread every Wednesday here in Madison County – Laurel River Store, Bluff Mountain Outfitters and Madison Natural Foods. I am there by noon and it tends to go that day.
To see what Tara is up to and a list of current workshops, visit Smoke Signals Baking.