In the mountains of North Carolina lies a unique temple of wood-fired baking. Run by Tara Jensen, it's a place where every expression of flour is brought to life in a wood-fired oven. This unique production and learning space is called Smoke Signals Bakery.
In our Spring issue of Sift, we sent native North Carolinian and award-winning writer Sheri Castle to Smoke Signals Baking to visit with Tara. Here is her story:
Early on the morning of a bake, Tara Jensen crafts a fire inside her enormous wood-fired oven, stacking and cross-hatching sticks of kindling as though she is building with Lincoln Logs. When they ignite she stokes her fire with lengths of tree skins, long shards of bark shaved from round trees to make square lumber. She gets stacks of skins from a local sawmill and furniture builder. She admires the heat they produce and appreciates that she's using a natural fuel that is too often discarded.
Throughout the day, Tara intuitively feeds the flames and rakes the coals to calibrate the heat. The brick oven, built by the legendary mason and blacksmith Alan Scott in 1998, has multiple thermometers, but she uses those numbers to corroborate what she's learned from standing at the hearth day after day, fire after fire.
She always steps into the yard to check the color of the smoke and ripple of heat rising from the chimney, reading her smoke signals. Yes, Tara Jensen is an expert baker, but she's also a fire keeper and artist.
The winding road in Marshall, NC, that leads to Tara's wood-fired oven twists so tight that a GPS unit thinks the car is making left and right turns. Upon arrival, pilgrims pull up into the yard and make their way up a slight hill to the door of her bakery, which sits next to her house.
Inside, the two-room bakery is sparse, but not missing a thing, with each object having a specific purpose in her baking process. The room smells sweet and clean, with the ever-present aroma of freshly baked bread.
The back wall is covered with an enormous blackboard on which she used colored chalk to draw and diagram the flow and rationale of a baker's day, which follows the life cycle of a bread loaf, from milling the flour to feeding the starter to pulling the loaves from the oven. The information is both instructive and eye-catching, like a lab report with artful illustrations.
Next to the blackboard is the door to her side yard, where the oven reigns. Next to the oven are a rustic and sturdy workbench and sitting benches made from lengths of wood planks. There's a rocker near the oven door, just right for sitting in the warmth, sipping tea, and chatting with fellow bakers who are contemplating bread.
Much of the rest of Tara's bakery is adorned with her hand-tooled paper-cut stencils that are pinned to the wall and taped to the door of her walk-in. She uses the stencils to decorate the tops of pan loaves with flour as they go into the oven. No two stencils are alike, but there is a similarity among the designs that conveys her artistic proclivities.
She favors bold slashes, geometric patterns, and repetition of images. She carves the same images into the ink stamps that she uses on her packaging, such as boxes, bags, and tags.
Similar motifs appear in the tops of the boules that she slashes with her lame. Quick flicks of the blade score the skin of each loaf, creating crisp and deeply browned "ears" that seem to perk up in the oven.
Tara also applies her sensibility to the top crusts of her famous pies. She uses pastry shapes to decorate each pie as one might assemble a collage.
Even her delicious, chewy, beautifully blistered hand-shaped pizza crusts are expressions of form and function. They hold up to scrutiny, and they hold up in the oven.
Each of Tara's creations confirms that she was an artist before she was a baker, and that now she is simultaneously both. Moreover, she believes that each of us can be bakers and artists as well.
Throughout the day, during one of her wildly popular hands-on baking classes, Tara shares her insights into her expression of the artist's way. One of her tenets is that creativity requires discipline and practice. Yes, one can have bursts of creativity or flashes of genius, but that's like awaiting lightning bolts to illuminate our path. It's little wonder that she labels the cover sheet of our lesson plan "Bread & The Creative Practice."
In addition to formulas, weights, and classic techniques for refreshing her perfect sourdough starter (which she shares with her students, just as another baker shared it with her many years ago) and making dough, the packet contains the rules that she follows in her daily practice of baking bread. She closes the packet with these words:
Honor the practice. I choose to work with naturally leavened bread and bake with fire because they are dynamic, living forces. I personally get a kick out of trying to orchestrate wild elements. It is always a dance and sometimes the weather, or the quality of the flour, or the temperamental walk-in, take the lead. When I value the entire process of how a loaf of bread, or pizza, or pie comes into being, I am never disappointed if the final stages don't turn out how I imagined. When we decide to bake bread we are taking a creative risk, and there is a difference in taking a risk because we are invested in a specific outcome and taking a risk because we want to feel the thrill of the unknown. Focusing on the process puts you in a position of not controlling the elements, but recognizing you are one among them.