By Elizabeth Keyser
I was wrong. I knew nothing about the South. Had never been there. But, still, I had a Northeasterner’s unfounded sense of superiority. My road trip from Washington, D.C. to Savannah, GA, changed all that. I’m now the New South’s biggest fan.
The trip my husband and I took opened our minds and taste buds to the gustatory pleasures of the south. I’m not just talking barbecue and butter beans. Chapel Hill, NC, Asheville, NC, and Charleston, SC are great food cities, seasoned with new, traditional and international flavors. And their local food movement is strong.
Chapel Hill, NC, was our first stop. As everyone I met there told me, the food scene is thriving. A population of well-educated, well-traveled people who are into food keeps farmers markets, food shops and restaurants thriving. We stayed at the boutique Franklin Hotel, in the heart of Chapel Hill, within walking distance to restaurants and the beautiful campus of the University of North Carolina. Once in our hotel room we were pleased to see that at the Franklin, “boutique” doesn’t mean tiny; the rooms are large, and decorated in tones of sea-mist blue, celadon, champagne and chocolate. Just the thing for people always thinking about food.
Our first foodie adventure was at 3Cups, a very cool wine, coffee and tea retailer. They source the best from small farms all over the world. Their coffee beans are medium roasted by Counter Culture. (You can mail order coffee from 3Cups; they ship anywhere in the U.S.) 3Cup’s selection of full-leaf teas lets the natural flavors sing. They also sell chocolate. The owners choose wines that taste good and are produced ethically, estate-farmed, farmer-owned, organically or sustainably farmed.
3Cups also has a café. There, we tried the daily wine flight, paired with local cheeses. The day’s selection was “Oyster Wines,” hand-harvested Muscadet from Domaine de la Pépière; organic Bründlmayer Grüner Veltliner (our favorite of the three), and a mineral, terroir-expressive Eric Chevalier Chardonnay. The cheese plate featured Chapel Hill Creamery’s Carolina Moon, Goat Lady Dairy’s Crotin, and Sweet Grass Dairy (of Georgia)’s Thomasville Tomme. I left 3Cups wishing fervently that there was a place like it in Fairfield County, CT.
When we travel, my husband and I have different approaches. We’ve learned to make them work together. I tend to be more of the advance researcher and planner, while he prefers to discover and let things happen. So I held back from making plans for dinner. Instead, we walked up and down Franklin Street, reading menus, looking in windows and searching for the appropriate vibe. One of the most appealing menus was at Lantern, where chef/owner Andrea Reusing creates contemporary Asian dishes using seasonal and local ingredients. But it was closed for a private party. So, we choose a casual and inexpensive Vietnamese restaurant. The place was full of young people, the staff was friendly, and the food was good. It was the right choice for the moment, especially since we had a big lunch planned the next day.
After dinner we walked down the street to the brew pub Top of the Hill, where we sat at the bar looking at great copper vats of beer. Of course, we had to try the 8-beer sampler. Our favorite was the hoppy Rams Head IPA, and we also particularly liked the tobacco and chocolate flavors of the Lewis Black Imperial Stout. The Kenan Lager was smooth, with a hint of straw, and the Old Well White was sweet and clove-scented. Our least favorite was the Blue Ridge Blueberry Wheat.
The next morning we headed out to Cary, a suburb of Chapel Hill, to visit the bakery La Farm and meet Lionel Vatinet, a major dude in the artisan bread revolution. It was a mid-week morning, but La Farm, which recently expanded to include a sit-down café, was full. Over a cup of Counter Culture coffee and a quiche with a nice crisp crust, Lionel talked about his philosophy of sharing his knowledge.
A native of Lyon, France, Vatinet began apprenticing at age 17 in the Compaignons du Devoir. Seven years later he earned the title of Maitre Boulanger (Master Baker). In the United States, he consulted for La Brea, Acme and Zabar’s, and coached the American Baking Team in the World Cup 1999 to win their first gold cup ever.
Fermentation, he told us, “Is the essence of baking bread.”
Vatinet teaches bread baking classes to non professionals too – of all ages. Not only do his students get their hands into the dough, feel it, knead it, but he makes sure “you are covered with flour.”
He gave us a tour of the recently expanded kitchen, stopping to offer a taste of the granola an employee was bagging. Granola is not quite the right word for La Farm’s version – it is more like a crisp, caramelized nut-and seed-confection. It was addictively good.
Vatinet also has adapted his recipes to contemporary tastes. He makes two different types of baguettes, a traditional French baguette, which he calls “Robi” after the baker who helped him develop it. The “Robi” was thin and crusty, with a denser and more flavorful texture (it ferments longer) than the more contemporary baguette he makes, which is lighter in color and texture. But when I said the latter baguette was more “American,” Vatinet quickly set me straight — in France, he said, many people eat this type of baguette, and a lot of them would swear that it’s the true baguette. But even in France, he admitted, artisan bakers are returning to the traditional chewy and crusty baguette exemplified by the “Robi.”
Vatinet pulled loafs from cooling racks and piled a table high with a bread-lover’s dream, a boule, baguettes, multi-grain loaves, rye. Ever the teacher, he cut into the bread, and told us how to taste it — pick up a piece, squeeze it, smell it. Then taste. The signature loaf is the La Farm Boule – a five-pound sourdough. It’s not a high-acid, sour San Francisco sourdough. Vatinet’s sourdough is pain au levain. Wild yeast creates a mild sour flavor.
Vatinet is fussy about which stores he sells his bread to. It’s sold at the four Whole Foods in the Triangle region (one of them is in the same shopping plaza as 3Cups). His bread is featured at a restaurant close by La Farm.
That restaurant is Herons in the absolutely amazing Umstead Hotel and Spa, located on 12 acres at the entry to the SAS global headquarters. The software company’s campus is worth driving through to view the outdoor sculptures. And then there’s the mystery of 23 miles-per-hour traffic sign – if you know what that’s about, please let me know!
The hotel, which opened in January 2007, was a labor of love for Ann Goodnight, the wife of SAS’s founder Jim Goodnight. The Umstead’s design fuses art and nature in the most elegant and soothing atmosphere you can imagine, with a thousand little touches to make visitors feel that they are home rather than at a hotel. The 540-square-foot rooms are decorated in soothing blues, greens, gold and warm tones of wood in the custom-built Italian furniture.
Art by North Carolinians is featured throughout the hotel starting with a commissioned Chihuly glass sculpture in the lobby. Most of the paintings reference nature. With the spa, pool, lake, jogging trails, you’d never want to leave the Umstead. No wonder it’s a favorite place for such disparate functions as business meetings and weddings.
And then there’s the food at Herons. Executive chef Scott Crawford’s “refined New Southern” cooking has been much lauded. And no wonder. He uses local ingredients artfully. That day’s market menu lunch began with homemade crackers served with aged goat cheese, onion compote, slices of fig, and cherry sauce. My first course was smooth, rich, kombucha pumpkin soup, flavored with coriander and garnished with crème fraiche. The Lady Apple puree in the center of the bowl was a sweet surprise. This was a superb soup, and I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve cribbed it and served my own variation at dinner parties.
A refreshing highlight of lunch at Herons was seared scallops served with heirloom cantaloupe, watermelon and honeydew scattered with shiso leaves, mint and cilantro. Southern tradition went upscale in an entrée of pork loin and belly with butter beans, mustard greens and sweet potato puree. For more inspired reading, check out Crawford’s dinner menu at the Umstead’s website.
We were only 24 hours into our journey, but we knew we were on the right path. After lunch, we got back in the car drove to Asheville.
Part II — Asheville (coming soon).
Elizabeth Keyser is an award-winning freelance writer based in Fairfield, CT. Her work has been published in GQ, American Photo, The New York Times, The New York Post, Connecticut Magazine, Edible Nutmeg, the Yankee Brew News and newspapers in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Her “Tips on Eating Locally” column appears in the print and online versions of the Fairfield County Weekly. She has won eleven awards from the New England Newspaper Association, the Society of Professional Journalists Connecticut Chapter, and the Connecticut Press Club.