I have been blessed with some rather intoxicating travel opportunities in the last few years and now that I take a moment to consider them as a whole, I see that few were of my own making and that I live in a mode of perpetual gratitude for my luck in family and good taste in friends. My mother turned 70 years old last week, which is surprising enough…because she doesn’t seem 70 and because having a 70 year old mother says more than I want to hear about the stunning vortex that is adulthood where years fly by you as though the universe is pitching 100 mph fast balls to see how many of the years you will hit out of the park, how many will be nice safe ground balls, and how many you will swing hard on and miss.
In this analogy, the celebration of this maternal milestone counts as a grand slam. We don’t typically do family vacations as we are all running in so many interesting directions…we all fend for ourselves and briefly gather when we can for laughs and that refueling that you only get from being with your very own people. But for this, she gathered us all up and took us to Tennessee so that we could be together, kids running free and fast, adults engaging in utter gluttony and comfort at one of her favorite spots on the planet, Blackberry Farm.
If I went through the litany of rarefied opportunities, if I catalogued the niceties, I would surely lose you as you mutter under your breath, “Must be nice!” and go away from me forever. But as a woman who thinks in flavors and aromas, and is obsessive about the color schemes in heirloom tomatoes, I felt I had to share a little of it.
When we arrived, it became apparent that the level of service at this farm was beyond the typical. And as we tried to adjust our eyes to the brilliant green that is this valley at the foot of the Smoky Mountains, we started to recognize that nothing whatsoever was lacking or was below extraordinary. Yet at the same moment, nothing was too precious, or cloying, or pretentious. Sitting at a picnic table with my family, wild flowers in a vase, the menu was delicious to read. The children ran, arms flailing, legs pedaling to get to the huge well-engineered rope swing that was fastened impossibly high in a perfect tree at the base of the hill. My first taste of Blackberry Farm was the visual comfort of seeing all of these people I love, smiling and excited, and a bowl of summer vegetable “capellini” served in a cheese broth.
[The kitchen in constant motion at The Barn, kudos to Executive Chef Joseph Lenn and all of his colleagues.]
The accommodations were outstanding. Comfortable. Lovely. Enough said.
Here’s a brilliant bit…Camp Blackberry. At almost every hour of the day, the children can choose to go to “camp” where energetic college students (as opposed to cranky beleaguered August mothers) whisk a pile of kids off in a golf cart to visit farm animals, look at the gardens, swim, enjoy arts & crafts, hike, canoe, ride horseback or whatever else the day calls for. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Then, after a little visit with their boring parents, the children can return to Camp Blackberry for “dinner and a movie” so that the adults can retire to The Culinary Barn. Ah!
Camp for adults consists of loafing on the porch with a book, walking, visiting piglets and puppies, strolling through the gardens, spa related goodness, and culinary demonstrations and tours.
When one cooks as often as I, the idea of watching a chef demo can have the appeal of getting to watch someone fold laundry. I probably would not have signed up if my meddling (read “smarter than I”) mother hadn’t signed me up without even asking me. I had no idea what a rare opportunity she had chosen for me. The weather was beautiful and beckoned all other guests outdoors, so I was the only person signed up, though my sister in law Amy joined in, thankfully. Here, only one person signing up doesn’t mean they cancel the event; rather, it means you get a chef all to yourself and you sit in the magnificent barn in the Gambrel Kitchen as a chef prepares a three course meal (at lunch) for you and you alone. On the first day, butcher and chef David Rule met us at the door and guided us to the Gambrel Bar where two place settings were arranged and all ingredients were staged. Mind you, we had just finished a decadent breakfast an hour prior, and were scheduled to join our family for lunch in two hours. But there are some meals you simply do not pass up. David started by getting fingerling potatoes, grown 100 yards from the door, ready to roast. Using little more than lovely Georgia Olive Oil, salt and a massive handful of fresh herbs such as chives and thyme, he had them on their way to the oven. While discussing the next steps he showed us all of the herbs he had taken from the garden, including several types of basil and the blooms from fennel. If you have never crushed a fennel blossom in your fingertips and smelled it, you will be charmed by the aroma. The taste is, while clearly fennel-like, far more nuanced and floral. Very neat introduction. New to me. [Rule’s creations: Salad of tomatoes, brebis cheese, basil and sherry vinegar; steak au poivre with roasted fingerling potatoes and lambsquarter; crushed shortbread with blackberry sorbet and roasted peanuts.]
With an obvious pride in the Tennessee tomatoes grown nearby, paint for his brush, if you will, he plated a sliced tomato salad that was as striking in simple beauty as it was in flavor. House-made soft sheeps’ cheese called “brebis” and simple touches of herbs and salt and house-made vinegar gilded the lily, so to speak.
Dry aged beef, coated generously in black pepper, from fine dust to grains, was seared and joined the potatoes to finish in the oven as Amy and I made a lot of happy eating noises and asked our chef about his life and how he landed at Blackberry Farm, and about his pretty wife and what his grandma used to cook, and coaxed out a touching but sad story about his very favorite chef’s knife given to him by his love, but lost in the massive fire that leveled the place where he cooked before becoming the butcher at Blackberry Farm. He showed us a photo of the remains of the knife, a bent piece of steel, that he dug for under the location of his former desk, in his former office. I found it rather romantic, under the circumstances. But here he is now, taking apart lambs, and heritage pigs, and dry aging beef…making the breakfast sausage that my mother raves about, creating cured specialties, and generally putting up with chatty women like Amy and me.
The main dish was the pile of salty and herb crusted fingerling potatoes, topped with slices of steak au poivre, which was in turn topped with lambsquarter, a tasty green of a texture somewhere between spinach and kale but with a more interesting flavor than either. Again, a first for me. And again, a green that people step on and over every day, or pull from the cracks in the sidewalk, utterly unaware of its usefulness on the plate. Chef Rule also created a lovely sauce with veal stock and whole grain mustard that tied the dish together. I don’t rank meals, really, but as a meat and potatoes girl, this was one of the finest meals with which I’ve ever beef gifted. I cleaned the plate joyfully and also devoured our dessert, which was a crumbled shortbread topped with blackberry sorbet and salty roasted peanuts, Rule’s homage to his beloved peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. You know a man is serious about his PB&J when he admits to keeping his very own jar of blackberry jam and has been known to mark the jar to ensure that no one has been pilfering the goods.
For the next day’s “class” or shall we call it the second “personal chef feast” I met with Jeff Ross, the garden manager. Again, these folks all are connected to the kitchen and all have serious cooking credentials regardless of the title on their card. Jeff steers the garden which is an absolute wonder in its breadth and depth and beauty, but he also cooks up a storm. Beginning with the end, he hustled to get a peach granita into the freezer to be done just in time. He used a simple shallow baking pan which was already chilled, poured the sweetened peach puree in a thin layer and popped it back in the freezer. It was such a thin layer that it easily froze in that short time.
Meanwhile, he built one of the more extraordinary salads I’ve ever been served. On a plate drizzled with tomato jam, he arranged a little mound of pickled cucumbers and red onions, a little mound of roughly cut heirloom tomatoes of all colors, and grilled watermelon cubes. This was topped with flash fried young okra that was seasoned with cayenne and lime juice. I could actually talk about this salad for pages, and regale you with the touches such as squash blossom and young red bud leaves and blooms used for garnish (taste like peas). Each component alone was worthy of the plate. Together it was a veritable symphony. This is not something I often say of salads. The watermelon itself was handled so beautifully. It had been draped with herbs hours before and sealed in a vacuum bag which had the effect of pulling all of the excess air and liquid out of the fruit, leaving a brick of watermelon so dense and ruby red that I mistook it for tuna. It was quite special. The entrée was trout with crispy skin on a bed of rice grits, and the dessert was the aforementioned granita served with blueberry clafoutis. And it was incredibly fun. I got to ask a million questions and veer hopelessly off topic and talk about history and culture and their intersections with food and both of these gentlemen were game. They were also kind, utterly competent, and charming. These demos were a highlight of my visit.
This is a mere sampling of the delights of the days I was at Blackberry Farm.
We ate so many wonderful meals it is hard to do them justice. I will say that one thing that sticks with me is the absolutely spot on and creative use of eggs as dinner courses. I had a fried egg with greens as a second course with crispy edges and a creamy liquid center that was simply perfect. It was, however, outdone by an egg course the following evening that was a creamy slow cooked egg in a tiny puddle of beurre blanc with crisp shoestring potatoes and smoked trout on top. It stands out as one of the more perfectly executed small dishes of my happy life. Lovely.
The grounds were impeccable, but one was left to wonder when the work was done because it was never observed by a guest, it seemed. There was always someone offering to help in some way. No request was unanswered, including the beautiful birthday cake which the pastry team created for my mother. I spent a lot of time driving around in my little golf cart trying to pick my jaw up off the ground. Blackberry Farm doesn’t need publicity or acknowledgement from a mere mortal such as I, the grateful guest of a full ticket paying regular. They don’t know me from Adam’s house cat. So, my sense of wonder at the place is genuine. Tennessee is lovely. And as usual with travel, it is the people…the staff, the chefs, the dishwashers, the invisible housekeepers, the beekeepers, the gardeners…the people…that make Blackberry Farm what it is. That is not to say it isn’t physically one of the most stunning properties I’ve seen. But the service, visible and invisible, was as well. And there is an obvious ethos of celebrating the color and texture that is the Smoky Mountains.
I truly hope I can return there one day.
Happy Birthday, mom. Thank you Bob. I love you both.