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Meet Your Neighbor: Tara Jensen Talks Flour Power

Meet Your Neighbor: Tara Jensen Talks Flour Power

Written by Bill Kent | Photos by Gracie Withers

Over the next few weeks, Hamilton-based baker Tara Jensen will do a baking pop-up at the Hamilton Mercantile and a baking workshop at the Ballenger Farm. Jensen, Southern Living’s 2021 Cook of the Year, will also deliver the manuscript of her third cookbook, “Pizza Practice.” (Her second, “Flour Power,” made several 2022 best cookbook lists, including the Washington Post’s.)

Why pizza?

“I’ve read 45 books about pizza and they were all written by men,” she says over coffee at Doppio Bunny, a Purcellville coffee shop where she likes to do her writing.

That, and, when she went to Italy to learn the art, “I saw women making pizza with one hand and holding a baby on their hips with the other. It was very inspirational.”

Add to that the fact that she genuinely loves pizza, spending two days making the dough from freshly ground small-batch grains and dressing the pie with “yard sauce” — olive oil with freshly chopped herbs and spices — fresh mozzarella, and edible flowers.

One more reason: In her first cookbook, “A Baker’s Year,” Jensen wrote about Sunday night pizza parties at her bakery high up in the North Carolina mountains. Among the guests invited by a mutual friend was Marley Green, a civil engineer whose pickup truck broke down in her driveway.

“I was suspicious at first,” Jensen recalls. “I said to myself, ‘I can’t date this guy if he doesn’t take care of his truck.’” She found out soon enough that he did take care of his truck and the breakdown was not his fault. They have been married for six years now and have a 3-year-old daughter, Violet. After a sojourn in Wise County, Virginia, where Green was finishing a planning assignment and Jensen did online baking workshops, they and their two dogs moved to a Hamilton farm that has been in Green’s family for three generations.

Some other plans are on hold, including a trip to the Loire Valley to learn French baking techniques and the speech Jensen was to give at the annual Mid-Atlantic Grain Fair and Conference in Washington, D.C., because Jensen is about to give birth to twins.

“We haven’t picked the names yet. We named Violet after a flower, so we’re thinking of flowers.”

Jensen is also thinking about a place for a storefront in Hunt Country. Having worked in and owned bakeries for most of her life, she is not sure exactly where or when it will open, but, during quiet moments, she sees herself and her children inhabiting an upstairs room above the bakery, where she writes as her children play. Downstairs will be her portable grain mill and wood-burning oven.

Of Hamilton she says, “It’s been incredible.” She continues, “I’ve found my place to be. This is home.”

Jensen was born and educated in Maine. Aspiring to a career in the arts, she earned a degree in human ecology from the Bar Harbor’s College of the Atlantic and worked part-time at a local bakery. Her interest in art and baking converged to the point that she saw them as nearly identical pursuits. She worked her way through a handful of bakeries on both the East and West Coasts, eventually starting her own bakery, Smoke Signals, near Asheville in Marshall, North Carolina, where her work attracted the attention of food and travel writers.

Though Jensen’s writing can verge on the mystical — “As we make bread, we make ourselves,” she says in “A Baker’s Year” — she supports her methods with a factual, scientific understanding of why her techniques work so well.

Part of this is due to a web presence that began with a YouTube channel with online demos and workshops and now includes a website and Instagram page with well over 110,000 visitors. 

Glance at some of the food pictures and the first thing you notice is how good it looks. Jensen does not use a food cosmetologist. What you see on her web pages is what comes out of the oven.

Long before home baking became such a do-it-yourself pandemic relief that grocery stores ran out of flour and yeast, Tara Jensen was getting phone calls at all hours, not just from the United States, but throughout the English-speaking world, from amateur bakers begging for advice. The subject of articles as well as a recipe contributor to Bon Appétit, Southern Living, and the Washington Post, Jensen was dubbed by one food critic “the sourdough whisperer.” 

She gets about 80 students at a time in her online baking classes. Her weekend workshops at Ballenger Farm get about eight students who, according to Ballenger Manager Elizabeth Andrews, tend to come from everywhere but Hunt Country.

“It’s amazing to me that we have the real deal living right in our own backyard and people don’t know it,” Andrews says. “We get people from New York, California, and Europe who come only to take Tara’s workshops.”

Andrews acknowledges that the word is getting out. “When Tara does a pop-up at the [Hamilton] Mercantile, you can’t find a parking space. When I can’t get there, she saves things for me.”

A favorite goodie for Andrews? “I get the biggest surprises from things that you would normally take for granted, like pita bread. I’ve had pita millions of times. But when Tara makes it, you feel like you’re tasting it for the first time. You taste it, and it’s like, now you know what it’s supposed to be.”

In the words of Washington Post food writer Becky Krystal, “for the bread baker or wannabe in your life, I can’t imagine a better teacher.”

For Eleanor Marshall, a professional baker based in the New Gorge region of West Virginia, Jensen is different from other bakers and do-it-yourself foodie explainers.

“She offers a depth of information for true understanding, rather than just a cut and dried recipe to follow. She even includes diagrams of each part of a grain berry.” Marshall continues, “You can tell that Tara has a background as an artist, because her baked goods are so beautiful.”

Marshall did not find Jensen on the internet. She was given Jensen’s “Flour Power” cookbook by a professional chef. She eventually took a weekend workshop with Jensen at Ballenger Farm. 

“We made a sourdough sandwich loaf and a marbled deli rye. There was a crazy windstorm and all the power went out the night before we needed to bake! We scrambled to find candles. The power still hadn’t come back by the morning, but since Tara brought her own wood-burning oven, we could bake with a wood fire and make beautiful loaves. It really felt good to be self-sufficient in that small way.”

Lynne Anderson, an amateur baker from Waterford, now sells croissants at Waterford’s Corner Store after taking Jensen’s croissant workshop.

“Tara does a great job of explaining things in an understandable, relatable way,” Anderson says. “And she makes you feel comfortable asking questions, even if the questions are really basic. She’s also great at troubleshooting where things can go wrong, which is hugely helpful for beginning bakers, because there’s a lot that can go wrong.”

Jensen considers herself to be a teacher as much as a baker or an author. For her, baking is part of a larger spiritual process in which the result — be it a cake, loaf, pie, cookie, or a workshop — is a culmination of what has gone on before, from the wood obtained for heating the oven to the use of locally grown and milled flours, with water and unprocessed ingredients free from pesticides, preservatives, or additives. She advocates for growing grains that can thrive in a local climate (she has a few acres waving in the breeze on her Hamilton farmstead), personally harvesting them (she cuts the stalks down with a scythe), milling them in small batches, and creating a rising culture by exposing the wet dough to the air around you. 

This said, Jensen also realizes that many lack the land or the inclination to grow their own grains, and is happy to recommend local flour from Deep Roots Milling in Roseland, or Foggy Mountain Milling in Chantilly.

Or you can go to a supermarket and bring home a sack of flour (Jensen’s videos and recipes are on the King Arthur Flour website) and a packet of yeast. “We all begin with something and we go on from there. I tell my students time is the biggest ingredient in baking,” Jensen says. “We are the unpredictable element. Time helps us get to know ourselves and appreciate what’s happening to us.” ML

Published in the August 2023 issue of Middleburg Life.

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