Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 25, 2021

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Carolina on my mind

You may not have heard of Asheville, but this charming city is winning over foodies and nature lovers

Take the high road — please. The Blue Ridge Parkway meanders leisurely among the highest peaks of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the East. It’s not a road you rush along; it’s a destination to savour for it’s own sake. Stop often to sniff the pure air, to gorge on the beauty of the forests. And in the centre of it all, take a short drive down the hill to Asheville, North Carolina, one of a handful of towns that celebrate the very best of the US. Sowing the seeds

The Blue Mountain scenery, the temperate climate, wonderful local food, shops you’ll find nowhere else, art to please the soul, brew pubs and wine tastings, golf, tennis, hiking, biking and horseback riding — these are all very fine reasons to come to Asheville. Here’s another: The Bent Creek Institute (tel: 828-665-2492; located at the North Carolina Arboretum, on the slopes of the mountains just west of Asheville is dedicated to the discovery and promotion of local medicinal plants.

Begun in 2006 with funding from the state university system among others, the non-profit Bent Creek is headed by co-founder Greg Cumberford. He describes the Institute’s work in natural biotechnology “as the use of sophisticated scientific tools to propagate cultivars and authenticate plants imported from abroad.”

At the heart of the Institute is the Germplasma Repository, a seed bank. Scientists at the Institute’s lab have collected more than 1500 species from the arboretum and the surrounding Pisgah National Forest. Indigenous plant medicines have a long folk history here including the familiar like ginseng and echinacea, and the less well-known such as lady slipper roots used to alleviate insomnia and black cohosh, a member of the buttercup family, used to treat hot flashes in menopausal women. Local farmers are encouraged to cultivate promising finds. The goal is to catalogue, cultivate, harvest, process and market plant-based medicine to a wide audience in the orth America and Europe.

The science is interesting but leave a few hours for a stroll through the beautifully groomed arboretum. The azaleas are at their peak in April and May and you’ll want to take in the bonsai exhibit at any season. The spacious gardens are a sensuous pleasure and a fine introduction to the southern Appalachians. Make it your first stop on the way in from the airport.

The house of Vanderbilt

What would you call a man who invested half his $10-million inheritance in a house? A prudent investor, if that man was George Washington Vanderbilt III. The palatial home he built on 50,500 hectares in the mountains of Western North Carolina is estimated to be worth as much as $2 billion today.

To reduce Biltmore House (tel: 800-411-3812; to a matter of mere money is to do a disservice to George Vanderbilt and to his home. The 250-room mansion, patterned on the châteaux of the French renaissance, is the largest and possibly the finest residence in the US. The statistics are impressive: 33 bedrooms, 43 baths, 65 fireplaces and so on. But they belie the sheer beauty of the place.

Much of the huge acreage was donated, in 1913, to form the nucleus of the magnificent Pisgah National Forest. Today the estate rambles over 3235 hectares of park and farmland originally laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed New York’s Central Park and Montreal’s Mont Royal. In another Canadian connection, in 1890, the year the building was completed, Chauncey Beadle, an Ontario Agricultural College graduate, was hired to head the nursery. He served for 60 years to see Olmsted’s vision in full flower.

George and his wife, Edith Stuyvesant Dresser also from a wealthy New York family, whom he met and married in Paris in 1898 lived a very happy life at Biltmore House. Their only daughter, Cornelia, was born there in 1900. Even today, despite its size and the enormous staff needed to run it, the home retains the feeling of a place that was loved and lived in. George put a huge value on family life and, by all reports, the couple were devoted to each other. He died suddenly in 1914 after an emergency appendectomy and Edith took over the running of the estate.

Sleeping at the Biltmore

The Biltmore property is still in the Vanderbilt family. Today it’s runs by George and Edith’s great grandson William Cecil. While retaining the sense of an immense private estate with deer park, farmland, lakes and forest, he’s brought it into the 21st century by opening it to a much larger public.

In the past decade, new buildings and attractions have been added, most significantly, the 160-room luxury hotel, the Inn on Biltmore Estate (tel: 866-336-1245; Many of the well-appointed rooms with their elaborate window treatments look out across broad fields to distant views of the Blue Mountains.

Located on the property five kilometre from the house, the Inn provides guests with kilometres of running, hiking and biking trails, horse-riding, and an exquisite spa. The Dining Room offers meals prepared under the watchful eye of chef Richard Boyer, a 2010 Iron Chef competitor. The menu uses local ingredients where possible. The buffet breakfast is not to be missed.

Pampered guests enjoy a sense of being above the world in a special place reserved for the deserving. Rates begin at about US$180 a night for a double room.

Below the hotel, a small “village” nestles, comprised of a winery complete with tasting rooms, the Cedric Pub which includes its own brewery, an exhibition hall, a shop with a distinct Biltmore flavour, a creamery and a petting farm.

The full estate is open to the general public to enjoy (US$45 for a day pass, US$10 more for a tour of the house). Quiet on weekdays, on a recent Sunday Biltmore House and the Antler Hill Village below entertained swarms of visitors.

New South cooking

You only need one reason to come to Asheville: the food. Their independent Restaurant Association has almost 70 members and not one of them is a cookie-cutter chain. The town is a foodie’s paradise and on one of heaven's highest hills, you’ll find the Tupelo Honey Cafe (tel: 828-255-4863;

Go for breakfast and start with the sweet-potato pancakes with peach butter and spiced pecans. Share them, these succulent tender cakes are the size of dinner plates and you want to leave room for what’s to come. You might go on to the fried chicken and biscuits in gravy. And what biscuits they are — light and airy to a fault. Diners come for these alone, spreading them with bright tupelo honey gathered from the tiny white flowers of southern white gum trees.

But wait, you’re not done yet. Your really must try the shrimp and goat-cheese grits with roasted-red-pepper sauce. Large, plump, quickly sautéed, just-pink shrimp luxuriate beneath a rich and colourful sauce. One taste and any preconceived notion you might have about grits melts in your mouth and in your mind. This is the cooking of the New South, a measure beyond any southern cooking you may have tasted previously. Have you tried the fried green tomatoes? But you must.

The crowded über-friendly café serves lunch and dinner as well breakfast on white-tablecoth-topped kitchen tables. You all come back, hear! Sample the smoked salmon-wrapped sea scallops with capers and pickled-onion aioli or lamb and multi-mushroom meat loaf with mint glaze — and don’t forget a side of honey-glazed carrots and sesame-coated asparagus. Ready for dessert? The peach cobbler with candied almonds is quite wonderful. Or would you prefer the chocolate pecan pie (and if you don't have room for desert, they'll even ship one to you.)

The food is so mouthwateringly tasty that you’ll want to sample it all. Go back for a return visit or prepare the meals yourself by ordering the lavishly illustrated Tupelo Honey Cafe cookbook by Elizabeth Sims with chef Brian Sonoskus. Sims has supped in the food capitals of the world and is never happier than when she dines on the bounty of local Blue Mountain farms and a kitchen that prides itself on “colouring outside the line.” Visit their website to order the book or the pecan pie.

More great bites

Asheville is particularly vegetarian and vegan friendly. The Plant (tel: 828-258-7500; is hardcore vegan, but you’d scarcely guess it from the flavours on the plate. The tomato-minestrone is so rich you can’t help but think that chef Jason Sellers slipped a little butter into the broth. The presentation of the signature pumpkin-seed-crusted seitan with truffled rutabaga, grilled broccolini, apple scallion and shiitake-bacon salad is worthy of the pages of Bon Appetit — and so are the flavours.

Anyone who thinks going vegan means chowing down on greens and grit is in for a revelation. The supple taste of the rutabaga blends superbly with the mild crispy-on-the-outside, tender on-the-inside seitan. The apple and shiitake lend the meal a wonderful complexity. And, afterwards, if you resist the coconut ice cream that comes in several flavours, including banana macadamia, you'll have made a grave mistake.

A few blocks from downtown, Plant is co-owned by Leslie Armstrong, Alan Berger and chef Jason Sellers (read their story at Sellers, who trained in New York, began his Asheville career at the much-awarded vegetarian restaurant Laughing Seed Cafe (tel: 828-252-3445; To see the heights to which vegetarian food can rise, watch the Travelling Vegetarian’s video review on the café's website.

For the last 10 years, the Seed has also brewed its own beer. Beer is important in Asheville, which has become the craft-brewing centre of the Southeast and was just named Beer City USA in an annual poll conducted by the Brewers Association of America. On any given day, pubs in the city and surrounds feature more than 50 local brands of bottled and draft beer.

You can enjoy one of those many beers at another increasingly popular eatery. The Asheville incarnation of the Bluewater Seafood Co. (tel: 828-253-2080; (the original is a few kilometres away in Hendersonville) is part fish market and part restaurant. The decor is modest, the seafood remarkably fresh and the prices are most reasonable. It’s now open for dinner.

Terrific as these places are, there are many, many other great places to eat in town. Feeling peckish one lunch time, I went into an art gallery and asked if they could recommend a restaurant. “They’re all good,” said the woman at the desk and, given everything I tasted, I'd say she was right.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


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