The un-ex and I ventured up to the Appalachian mountains to see my family in Spruce Pine for a couple of days after Christmas. One son is in Florida playing in a basketball tournament and the other had a wedding to attend in Greensboro so we made the trip alone (visions of an empty nest, I imagine, running through our heads).
Spruce Pine is a town of about 2,000 people, located in Mitchell County, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. When people ask me where it is, I just usually tell them that it is in between Boone and Asheville. It is a mountain town, struggling mightily with unemployment, but well-known for its mineral and gem deposits and for the Penland School of Crafts, a community of artists. The biggest news since my last visit is that the town folks finally voted in the sale of alcohol. Although alcohol was not consumed in my household as I was growing up (well, not where anyone could actually see it, but that's another story), my dad would go on and on about Buncombe county (the closest county at the time with legal alcohol sales) receiving all the tax dollars from the good citizens of SP who were buying their alcohol over there. Made sense to me. Anyway, while in SP, I had to check it out for myself so we went down to the Ingles, the only grocery store other than the super Wal-Mart, and spent a few minutes checking out their wine selection. They carry a pretty impressive assortment of domestic and imported wine. My mom gave us a bottle of Biltmore House Christmas White. I was disappointed not to see any Chatham Hill selections in the section devoted to North Carolina wines, though.
There is a new restaurant in town that I plan to try on the next visit, Knife and Fork (www.knifeandforknc.com). I heard about it from a friend who has retired and moved to SP. We found it while driving on Lower Street. Downtown SP is divided into Upper Street and Lower Street- they do have actual names, but no one ever uses them...
Chef Nathan Allen is a Johnson & Wales trained chef. This could be a first in SP. He and his wife opened the restaurant in July 2009. The menu selections are impressive. They believe in using local products and changing the menu to reflect what is in season. Next visit for sure.
This is my elementary school, Harris Elementary, which has been turned into a hotel, Pinebridge. Beautiful with all the snow, n'est-ce pas? There is a footbridge that connects it to Lower Street, crossing the North Toe River. That is one scary bridge for a first grader to cross with her class, believe me. After walking across that bridge, I had dreams about dropping my little purse into it and losing it forever. I have since realized that I am not afraid of heights, I am terrified of edges.
This is a shop on Upper Street, based on a children's book by the same name written by Gloria Houston (www.homeoftheperfectchristmastree.org). They sell various crafts, from handmade wooden rockers (is this the Bobby Dayton I knew at Harris High School??) to lamps made from railroad spikes to pottery Christmas Tree plates and mugs, all fashioned by local artisans. According to the booklet I picked up there "The non-profit project was founded as a way to marry the rich craft tradition of the region with the skills of an able workforce to create jobs and income that could never be outsourced." A portion of every sale at the shop is used to fund a scholarship program at Mitchell High School, the only high school in the county. I found a little purple lavender cookbook "A Taste of Lavender: Culinary Delights from Mountain Farm Celo, NC" by Linda Thompson (www.mountainfarm.net). I didn't even know that lavender grows up there. What a pleasant surprise. The cookbook has about 20 recipes and even comes with a little packet of dried lavender flowers stapled onto the back page. Not everyone has their own stash, I suppose, brought back from Provence...
After leaving Spruce Pine, we drove to Asheville on the way to visit my sister-in-law and brother-in-law in Brevard. Since it was lunch time, we decided to stop in downtown Asheville and check out the options. We found Bistro 1896 (www.bistro1896.com) on Pack Square and I am so glad we did. They bill themselves as a restaurant that "offers innovative American cuisine with a decidedly chic twist." Amen. I chose what could be called a BLT sandwich. All the basics where there... bacon, lettuce and tomato. But it was way more than that... toasted sourdough bread, pesto, caramelized onions, tomatoes (looked like an heirloom), fried mozzarella cheese, three strips of thick crispy bacon, and field greens. This was the best BLT I've ever eaten, maybe the best sandwich I've ever eaten period. We chose a half bottle of Parallèle 45 2006 red Côtes du Rhône (we do have a weakness for that wine) and enjoyed every sip. (I have since found it at Harris Teeter, in my under $10 price range.)
After lunch, we headed to Brevard to spend the night. Brevard is such a cool town. It is rumored that Steve Martin is moving there and he has been sighted a few times. He plays the banjo quite well, according to my brother-in-law who went to see him perform last summer. Dinner in Brevard was at Dugan's Pub, "Irish to the Last Pint." We were told that their french fries were really good so naturally we had to see for ourselves. I had very good French onion soup (yes, in an Irish pub) and a Stella from the tap. And french fries... research is important, after all.
Now I am back home, in my own kitchen. My sister offered me her Dutch oven and I snatched it up pretty quickly and loaded it into the car. A bean and sausage soup will be my first dinner prepared in it.
It is simmering this very minute, bringing a spicy smell to my house. College-aged son has already lifted the lid once or twice, asking when it will be ready. The recipe is a work in progress, but here is what is in the pot right now:
2 19-oz cans of cannellini beans, drained
2 15.5-oz cans of light red kidney beans, drained
16 oz sausage, cut into bite-sized pieces (I used Johnsonville New Orleans Brand andouille recipe spicy smoked sausage-- we've grilled it in the past to throw in the soup and that gives it a smoky flavor)
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 tsp thyme
1 bay leaf
1 cup water
Bon appétit, Spruce Pine!
PS- Yes, BFF, one of these days I will take you there... I know, promises, promises.