By Carolyn Schweitz
At first glance, Walnut Schoolhouse does not look like much. It’s a simple building with one main room. The exterior is painted white and black and many smaller roofed structures scatter around it, covering the ovens. But as the smoke of the baking ovens rises into the air with the sweet smell of baking bread, it becomes apparent that Walnut Schoolhouse is more than what meets the eye.
Located in Marshall, the Walnut Schoolhouse was a dream project for owner Brennan Johnson. “I vastly enjoyed being surrounded by food, but was also unsatisfied by feeling disconnected from my broader interests in art, literature and academia,” says Johnson. “I certainly did not want to work in restaurants forever, but also wanted to be working hands-on with food as much as possible.” He befriended Tara Jensen, the previous owner of Walnut Schoolhouse, and prepared to take over the space when she was ready to leave it.
Although working in a one-room schoolhouse can be difficult sometimes, Johnson is using what existed before he came into the space. “The smaller space provides an intimate and energizing setting for people to come up here and learn to bake,” he says. The room is perfect for Johnson’s various workshops on bread making, while the outdoor ovens provide bakers with a breath of fresh air and a glimpse of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.
Workshops at Walnut Schoolhouse began at the end of May. Ashley Cort, formerly the head baker at OWL Bakery, taught the opening workshop on laminated doughs, mainly croissants and puff pastry.
Johnson teaches classes on making basic sourdough throughout the year, but will teach a special workshop on Scandinavian baking—Pass the Butter!—on Saturday and Sunday, June 22–23. Johnson and OWL co-owner, Maia Surdam, will teach a food history seminar called Baking the Past, focused on exploring family history and learning old family recipes August 2–4. And in late September, Johnson; Dave Bauer, owner of Farm & Sparrow; and Josh Bellamy, owner of Boulted Bread, will teach a special workshop called Applications of Corn in Baking.
The workshops are open to people of all skill levels. “Come as you are,” says Johnson, “whether that means you’ve never made a loaf of bread before or are an experienced baker looking to learn new ideas and techniques.” Additional workshops, further details and workshop prices may be found on Walnut Schoolhouse’s website.
For those more interested in eating bread than in making it, Johnson’s bread is available in a few places. In Madison County, Johnson bakes for Madison Natural Foods and Laurel River Store every Friday morning. In the Asheville area, Johnson visits the North Asheville Tailgate Market every other week and is at the River Arts District Market about twice a month. At all locations, consumers can expect wheat and rye breads as well as a few wood-fired pastries.
Johnson hopes for Walnut Schoolhouse to become an interdisciplinary space moving forward. He wants people to be able to access baking, of course, but also local ecology and history. As he continues to shape the schoolhouse and workshops, he is hungry for deeper connection and a richer experience of the world around him.
For more information, visit WalnutSchoolhouse.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or find him on Instagram @walnut_schoolhouse. Walnut Schoolhouse is located at 590 Barnard Road, Marshall. Hours vary.