Most of us have split personalities when it comes to travel, forever trying to reconcile our need to relax with a little (or a lot) of adventure on the side. Learning how to switch off comes with practice, it's finding destinations you hope will spark new trains of thought once you return home that's by far the harder side of the equation. It certainly doesn’t help that we usually travel as we live, burdened with stereotypes. I was born in the South, but rarely travel there ~ what's up with that? From what I've been hearing for a few years now, some of our greatest new chefs are "down there," working in some of the most dynamic food sheds left in the country. It was time to explore...
Blackberry Farm is one of the most beautifully engaging resort properties in America, 4,200 acres of rolling green Appalachia that sits at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains ~ and yes, smoke they do, natural plumes of fog that rise from the tree lines in the morning or after rain, a reaction to warm humid air that drifts in from the Gulf of Mexico. You can swim, ride, fish, hike and spa yourself silly at Blackberry, negotiating the extraordinarily well-tended property by day or night anywhere your legs (or the golf carts they provide) will take you.
But while cruzing around this gentile Southern estate with heirloom breeds of Friesian sheep, horses, alpaca, ducks, chickens and pigs, all cavorting happily behind hundreds of miles of undulating white split rail fences definitely channels your inner Oprah (if you were not, as I was not, to the manor born), what brought us to Walland was the chance to meet John Coykendall, the master gardener who inspires the extensive seed to table dining program. The Beall Family has owned Blackberry for three decades and in that time have made a respect for the land the heartbeat of their enterprise. Rightly proud of the fact they forage and farm with an appreciation for sustainability that goes back to the Cherokee and the founding Appalachians, what I found equally remarkable was the degree to which they allow their farmers to expand the genetic diversity of the region, a passion John shares with Jeff Ross, their engaging garden manager. Blackberry actively encourages guests to access all aspects of food production at the resort, which has grown to include impressive vegetable gardens, fruit, grain and nut orchards, a bakery, butchery, creamery, and 8,000-square-foot wine cellar.
A stay at Blackberry begins with a groaning board Southern-style breakfast (I can take or leave grits, but the estate’s sausages and wildflower honey are to die for), an elegant boxed lunch you are encouraged to disappear into the landscape with, and a Michelin Star dinner served in an 18th century Amish bank barn you are chauffeured to and from each night. Or, as we chose, allowed to make your own way on the aforementioned golf carts. Getting back to our cottage after an evening of outstanding food and (possibly too much) drink proved to be highly entertaining. On our last night no sooner had we parked on a rise overlooking the Great Smokys lumbering in the dark when the fields suddenly began to blink on and off in a luminous sea of fireflies. Though we had departed the barn long after a scheduled bonfire party had dispersed, everything had been left for us: wood to feed the fire and all the fixings for s’mores in jars tucked in a stone wall. If Martha Stewart had jumped out of the bushes at this point and asked if the marshmallow toasting sticks were whittled to our satisfaction I would have been delighted, but not surprised.
Coykendall, when we met him, was exceedingly gracious, a rich man’s Wendell Berry, and I mean that as a compliment. Subsidizing this level of food production for so few people is a significant ongoing investment. That he and Jeff polish the apple of a Relais and Chateaux lifestyle in a way that is also politically relevant is a testament to the sincerity of the Blackberry’s mission ~ and Barndiva's for that matter ~ namely to increase our guest’s understanding of the relationship that exists between the land and its food. It’s hard to get this right without having the whole dining experience turn into a polemic. Yet everywhere we ate on this trip, starting with Chef Joseph Lenn here at Blackberry, we found commitment to local mindful sourcing as a matter of course. John and Jeff constantly consider what a definition of food justice might be that would allow the riches of a farm like Blackberry’s to be the norm. While the farm program they’ve put together is a living work of art, they don’t view it as a museum of food but a depository of a collective history with a proud, hard scrapple past. The growth of the resort has also been a boon to the local economy, and the importance of that is lost on neither man.
We had come bearing gifts ~ Petaluma Gold Rush beans and Burbank Barley (as in Luther), a thank you from Lukka and Daniel for seeds John had given them last year ~ a variety of Appalachian mountain beans including the coveted Reverend Taylor Butter Beans which date from the 1800’s, and we are now growing for Barndiva. Blackberry prides itself on what it calls ‘foothills cuisine’ ~ but our conversations with both men provided a fascinating overview of the differences and convergences of the Southern food sheds surrounding the farm leading all the way down to the sea ~ a preview of what we could expect in Charleston, where we were headed next to explore what is reputedly one of the best fish sheds in the country.
Taking the Time to Thank Dad for All the Love
When we asked the dads who work here what their entrée of choice would be for Father's Day (if they didn't have to work!) the answer came up red, as in a prime cuts of beef. In part, we suspect, this is because that's what they too often get stuck grilling at home. Whatever the reason, while we fully intend to make all your vegetarian, vegan and pescatarian dads incredibly happy on June 16th, brunch in the gardens this year will include a special entrée of petit filet with lobster hash and sunny-side up Early Bird eggs; while for dinner we will have prime ribeye with roasted asparagus, béarnaise and an artichoke tomato tart. Special wine pairings and cocktails TBA.
As Father's Day seems to be ramping up a lot like Mother's Day this year (about time, too) call the barn for reservations even if our link on the website says we are fully booked, and we'll try to make it work. These are the holidays we love sharing with you.
All text and photos Jil Hales