By Doc Lawrence -
BALSAM, NC- Carl White, the gifted host of the hit television series “Life in the Carolinas” has a nose for good programs like a trained hound for truffles. He uncovers cultural treasures in North and South Carolina that elude most of us who write about destinations for a living. The ebullient Mr. White specializes in fashioning entertaining television productions and when his creative light turns on, he acts. Thus, a group of diverse guests gathered at a majestic old inn deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to sing, dance, tell nostalgic stories, eat traditional mountain food and enjoy fine wines. All recorded under bright lights by omnipresent cameras.
Effortlessly executing the responsibilities as the Balsam Mountain Inn’s maître d’hôtel, Merrily Teasley greeted guests, welcoming everyone into her very impressive architectural wonder reminiscent of the Saratoga Inn in Saratoga Springs, NY. The ever-vivacious Merrily served as our hostess and principal storyteller. “We love to entertain,” she told me, “and the dining experience is what sets us apart.” The holiday dinner, videoed by Carl White’s production crew for a late December television audience, consisted of dishes like sweet potato ladyfingers, broiled root vegetables, salad with local greens and roasts turkey and cured ham sourced from nearby farms.
Chef Phillip Paige, who prepared the full course meal, came to our table to carve and serve. This personal touch added holiday sparkle and will thrill viewers.
Dinner guests have an elevated wine experience at Balsam Mountain Inn. Merrily maintains a cellar the equal of many top big city restaurants and luxury hotels. From Champagne (Louis Roederer Cristal) to a 2005 Opus plus a rare 2001 Tomassi CA’ Florian Amarone, the choices are extensive and elegant. During dinner, the staff, almost unnoticed, continued pouring deep garnet Pinot Noir into crystal stemware. With balanced fruit, acidity and subtle tannins, the wine accomplished its historical mission by enhancing each dish.
David Holt, the four-time Grammy Award winner and host of public radio’s heralded “Riverwalk Jazz” joined in the festivities, playing and singing before dinner. During the meal, he shared memories of his friend, the great Doc Watson, an American music legend who died earlier this year. Holt’s anecdotes honored the folklore and storytelling traditions of the Appalachians and seasoned the dining experience with authenticity.
Seated at the table was the accomplished actress and singer Liz Baechel who, with guests gathered around before dinner,
established the tone for the gathering with her moving rendition of “Ava Maria.” .One of the dishes, sweet potato ladyfingers, was from a recipe by cookbook author Lisa Shively previously prepared for a food exhibition in Paris where she served as an emissary for Southern food. Did hungry Parisians salute with a chorus of c’est magnifique? “They loved my sweet potatoes,” Lisa responded.
The Balsam Mountain Inn opened in 1908 for summertime guests, almost all arriving by rail. With its 100-foot porches, spectacular views and abundant cuisine, the inn soon came to be known as the “Grand Old Lady.” Merrily Teasley said she spotted it “by chance.” A friend drove her through the mountains on a bright moonlit night, and “the inn glimmered like a ghost through the trees on the ridge above. It was love at first sight.”
Merrily bought the structure in 1990 restored it according to US Department of the Interior guidelines, qualifying it for the National Register of Historic Places. It is one of the few inns of such grandeur remaining in North Carolina.
Perhaps Balsam Mountain Inn, which eschews short cuts and maintains a professional kitchen staff, will soon become the epicenter of haute cuisine in the Blue Ridge Mountains. “I believe in hearty, carefully prepared food using the freshest possible ingredients,” Merrily revealed during dinner. “We’re always on the lookout for local providers, and our current suppliers provide organic vegetables, fresh trout, fair trade roasted coffee from Tribal Grounds Coffee Roaster in nearby Cherokee and hydroponic vegetables.”
By design, there are no televisions or radios. For those who yearn for spiritual renewal, the rocking chairs on the porch, the nearby walking trails, the fireplaces and dining rooms offer a path to a higher life. Walk to the top of the mountain, according to Merrily Teasley, “and you can almost touch heaven.”