Down South: The Foothills Cuisine of Blackberry Farm, in Walland, Tennessee
If I knew that Heaven would be just like Blackberry Farm, I'd pray harder.
It's that kind of place, from the white-fenced fields, bordered by hills and forest through which run streams full of trout, to the luxurious rooms and cabins, to the food, managed at various stages by a butcher, a beekeeper, two gardeners, two full-time "preservationists" making cheese, sauces, preserves, and pickles, and a team of white-jacketed cooks.
The palatial Barna turn-of-the-century barn, as the name suggests, moved from Pennsylvania and repurposed into a dining room and kitchenis the mother church of Smoky Mountain haute cuisine. Like the Ryman in Nashville, The Barn has the power to make ordinary extraordinary by sheer force of atmosphere. Not that the food at Blackberry Farm needs the help.
Blackberry Farm owner Sam Beall's new cookbook, The Foothills Cuisine of Blackberry Farm, is a window into hits paradise and a guide for cooks looking to replicate his farm-resort's balance of Appalachian terroir and cutting-edge culinary experimentation at home. Photographs from the kitchen, field, and farm illustrate recipes divided into seasonal categories like "Plantin' Time," "Hog Killin' Time," and "Restin' Time." If you can't afford a thousand-dollar-a-night stay at Blackberry Farm and aren't close enough to drive up for a meal, the recipes in Beall's book will give you a taste of the experience.
What I Learned at Blackberry Farm
I had the opportunity to visit Blackberry Farm one afternoon earlier this fall, on my way to see country-ham king Allan Benton. The hour or so that I spent with gardeners Jeff Ross and John Coykendall must have been among the most educational of my life. The men know the plants in their gardentheir histories, their flavors, their most obscure useslike a good librarian knows books, which is why the garden tour has become a popular activity for Blackberry guests.
Here's a sampling of the things I learned (all season-specific, by the wayvisit now and you'll take a completely different tour):
- Okra flowers are delicious.
- Sorghum grain can be popped like popcorn.
- Shaved sassafras root bark makes a good rub for meat.
- Sweet potato leaves are full of sugar that caramelizes in a sauté pan. Wilted, with a little salt, they taste like bacon.
- The red sumac berries that grow in clusters on the side of the Southern highway can be steeped in water to make a tart drink that, sweetened, tastes a little bit like pink lemonade.
- Wrap a burger in boiled fig leaves and stick the whole parcel on the grill to season the meat with the smoky, coconut-and-pineapple flavor of the charred leaves.
Plants have long been key to the Appalachian diet, Ross reminded me, though outsiders might associate the region with its hams and bacon. "Appalachian dishes are always something and something," he said. "Beans and cornbread. Chicken and dumplings. The reason is that meat was really dear. You'd kill one hog a year, and that would have to last you as long as it would go. Chicken was usually reserved for Sunday. They called it "preacher meat," because when the minister would come over, that's when you'd have your chicken, to prove how prosperous you were. And so meat was used very sparingly, mainly to season something. Field peas would be your protein source, and your meata little fatback, maybewould be your seasoning."
I sat down with Joseph Lenn, executive chef at The Barn, who could be a household name were he not sequestered in the mountains of East Tennessee, to talk more about Blackberry's "Foothills Cuisine."
Lenn grew up in Knoxville, just 45 minutes up the road, and worked in a grocery store there until he was in his early twenties. Working around food piqued his interest in cooking and led him to apply, with no culinary experience, to Johnson & Wales in Charleston, South Carolina. He'd go on to work with Robert Carter and Sean Brock at the Peninsula Grill in Charleston, then help Brock reopen the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, before returning to Blackberry Farm, where he'd interned as a culinary student.
"We do Southern regional cuisine, but we get playful with it. We make things that are familiar, or will taste familiar. We do a dish based on one of my favorite childhood dishes, which is chicken and dumplings. It's guinea confit with potato gnocchi, but when you close your eyes and eat it, the flavors are very familiar. We have a dish where we cook boiled peanuts like baked beans, and we'll serve that with smoked pork cheeks or pork bellies so it's like barbecue and baked beans. We do things inspired by the property here. One dish that we do occasionallyit's one of my favorite that we do, but we don't put it on the menu very oftenwas inspired by the creek that runs through the property. It's poached trout in buttermilk consommé with watercress. In the creek we have trout, and there's watercress down there, and the water is super clear. So we take buttermilk and clarified it. We get the acidity of buttermilk, but it just looks like water. So that dish is a reflection of the creek here. We take inspiration from this place and the region. That's how I would best describe our food."
Lenn's Appalachian roots inform his cooking, but his creative mind keeps it fresh. Dishes like mint julep chickenbourbon-brined chicken with mint pestoand shrimp and grits made with preserved tomatoes, hearth-roasted shrimp, and a shellfish emulsion, demonstrate how the cooks at Blackberry Farm break classic dishes down to their elements and reconstruct them.
"We think, for example, 'Parsnip, what can we do with a parsnip?' We go through all the different techniques we can use. We pick one, then go to the next ingredient and do the same thing. Thinking, 'This is a soft texture, so what can we add that's crunchy? What's acidic?'"
Once, Blackberry Farm imported fish from Hawaii. Now, most ingredients come from purveyors in the Southeast. The shift to local ingredients been great for East Tennessee farmers, who have come to rely on Blackberry Farm as a regular customer, but hard on the servers, who must pass a written test about the sources of the ingredients on the menu before they can wait on guests.
Blackberry Farm has been a famous champion of the now-legendary Allan Benton, of course, and has helped spur the careers of other local producers like the Cruze family, of Cruze Farm, who make Tennessee's best buttermilk, and Dr. Tom Michaels, the man who brought truffles to Tennessee.
"Of course, there are always going to be people who complain that only certain types of people can afford go to Blackberry Farm," said Lenn. "But some of the people who come here can help change things, and help our producers get national exposure." When Michaels's truffles first went on the menu at Blackberry, then-New York Times writer Molly O'Neill was in the dining room. The article she wrote after trying the truffles launched him onto the national stage. The primary role of the kitchen at Blackberry Farm is to feed the resort's guests, of course, but a diner leaves The Barn with something of an education in the seasonal ingredients of southern Appalachia.
As Ruth Reichl wrote, in a blurb on the back of Beall's new book, "In a perfect world, every American would have a chance to experience Blackberry Farm." Barring that, we could all learn a thing or two from the way that Beall and his team have blended cultural celebration and the luxury vacation to benefit themselves, their guests, their community, and the vanishing traditions of old Appalachia, all at the same time. And if you ever get the chance to go to Blackberry Farm, take it.
About the Author: Jed Portman is blogging his way to that cabin in East Tennessee, one six-pack of soda and barbecue platter at a time. Follow him on Twitter @jdportman.