An intrepid traveller eats, hikes and fly fishes
his way around North America’s most outstanding foodie getaway, Blackberry Farm
Andy Chabot was about as honest, good-natured and likeable a guy as you could imagine. With dark blonde hair and a vaguely portly figure, he looked all of about 25 and spoke with a warm Southern accent that suggested a career as a farmhand or a car salesman. But in a split-second in a barn in eastern Tennessee, Andy did what no man has ever managed to do before: he won my heart. And this he did with a simple plate of bison and grits.
Now, Tennessee is not a state known for its food — or its chefs or sommeliers, for that matter. I’ve eaten out in Nashville and Memphis, and the restaurants in those cities are mediocre at best. The sylvan foothills of eastern Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains themselves are better known for being the birthplace of Dolly Parton than for white tablecloths. But Blackberry Farm resides on a different planet entirely. Opened in the late 1970s as a six-room, family-run country inn, this Relais &
Châteaux property has since been groomed into a consummate culinary sanctuary and one of the world’s most sought-after epicurean resorts.
To start with, the grounds are astoundingly beautiful. Blackberry Farm presides over 4,200 acres of pristinely manicured backcountry, holding wheatgrass green meadows, lilting trout streams and long white picket fences. At night you can hear wild coyotes on the hunt for flocks of sheep (though a resident patrolling llama ensures they never meet). The ethos here deftly navigates the fine line between down-home, get-your-hands-dirty ruggedness and over-the-top luxury — the aesthetic of tractors, denim overalls and cowboy spurs melded with that of Lexuses, deferential butlers and Aveda-scented, jacuzzi baths. It’s the sort of place where you are addressed by name the moment you walk into the door. By people you’ve never met before.
My partner Kelly and I checked in to one of the secluded Singing Brook cottages, large rustic-chic suites that are configured as side-by-side duplexes so you don’t glimpse your neighbours from the windows — just the dogwoods blooming outside. As we entered, bluegrass music was lilting softly out of a Bose stereo. Half a cord of perfectly chopped cedar wood was set just next to the fireplace, a box of matches placed on top. Packs of thick salty pretzels and cold cans of olde-style ginger soda were stocked in a small pantry. And then there was the enormous feather bed, a king-sized cloud of powdery down that could send anyone off to slumber in seconds.
While you could easily spend all your time at Blackberry Farm hidden away in your cottage doing absolutely nothing — we successfully managed as much for most of our first day — it is the leather-bound bible of outdoor activities that get you up close to this magical landscape. Kelly and I pulled ourselves together for a spot of fly fishing out on nearby Hesse Creek, waters that have been fished in by both Jane Fonda and Jane Seymour. We each donned a pair of fetching waist-high waders before receiving a crash course from Chad, our Orvis-endorsed guide, in how to land the lime-green, nylon line onto the water. Mastering the ragne of angling requires no small amount of patience: low-hanging trees requires a light side cast; a swift overhead flick is needed for distance. Having little facility in the great outdoors, I remained resistant at first. And yet, some 15 seconds after throwing my very first line into the water, I landed a half-metre long rainbow trout. “There’s just something about a river,” Chad mused as he helped me net (and then release) my catch, before moving on to instruct Kelly in the ways of the water. For the two of us, wading and waiting among the slow-moving creek was the most cathartic of experiences.
Fishing, cycling, kayaking, hiking, yoga, horseback riding — these might be run-of-the-mill outdoor pursuits anywhere else. But set in one of America’s most stunning wilderness spaces, they are bewitching experiences. Blackberry Farm offers other diversions you’d never even think to ask for, such as air balloon rides, clay-pigeon shooting, stargazing with a professional astronomer and exploring the mountain backroads on a Harley-Davidson. They even host afternoon sessions with guest chefs and vintners, organise cooking courses for kids and occasionally put on shows with big-name music artists.
But what really sets Blackberry Farm apart from anywhere else is what happens in its kitchens. Meals at the back-to-basics restaurant are less collections of dishes than they are lessons in the historical development of American cuisine, thanks to a significant part of the land being set aside for farming. Cheeses, vegetables, eggs, ciders and wild-flower honeys are produced just a few metres from where you consume them — some 90 per cent of everything served at Blackberry Farm is grown on the premises. Dining here is about as farm to table as you can get.
To learn a bit about the Farm’s food philosophy, I spent an afternoon with Dustin Busby, a Charleston boy who has done stints at French Laundry, The Fat Duck and Le Manoir and now holds the vaunted title of Preservationist of The Larder of Blackberry Farm. Dustin showed me around the on-site creamery, dairy, honeyhouse, salumaria (smokehouse) and endangered heirloom and native flower gardens. A rare collection of one hundred people dedicated to culturally-conscious food production ensures a steady flow of deliciously fresh produce all year round. There is a woman employed full-time to make jam. There is a forager and a butcher. There is a cheesemaker who presides over a herd of sheep who provide milk. There are four sommeliers. There is a large family of truffle dogs, trained from birth to hunt for the truffles Dustin helped plant five years ago deep underground.
And any of these hundred of so culturally-conscious foodies offer talks and classes on their trade at various points during the week. Which means that you might learn anything from how to harvest shiitake mushrooms to how to preserve onion jam to how to prepare truffled quail eggs. This being a boutique hotel, of course, there is also a large pool and restorative spa — or you could always just be lazy and eat.
“Alexis will pick you up at seven,” the concierge informed us one afternoon as we were playing a game of billiards in the leather-clad, antique tome-lined study. Several hours later, a Lexus met us at our front door, settling an afternoon’s domestic accusation that I’d spent the day flirting with some southern belle named Alexis instead of exploring the larder. The Farm’s fleet of black hybrid Lexus SUVs ferries guests around from airport to cottage to restaurant.
The restaurant, known as The Barn, is built into a gargantuan 1800s-era Amish bank barn that was found and disassembled a few hundred miles away, then rebuilt plank by oak plank on a small knoll near the cottages.
Centred around an open kitchen, The Barn specialises in what the chefs have termed “foothills cuisine” — very seasonal, more nouvelle than traditional Southern, neither ornate nor minimalist and
only a teensy bit haute, the food at once tastes something out of this world and holds true to its earthly roots. My scrumptious, spot-on grilled lamb came served with golden rice, boiled peanuts, mint pesto and radishes, and was one of the five best preparations of meat I’ve ever eaten. And for dessert? Kelly and I shared the honey fromage blanc cheesecake, which arrived with cornmeal shortbread, sourwood honey and honey-poached pears. Yum.
And then there was Andy Chabot’s sumac-dusted grilled bison and local grits, which came served with ramps and sorghum. Nothing could have screamed rustic Americana cooking more loudly, and I doubt I’ve had a better meal since.
Chad the fly fisherman was right. There is just something about a river. But there’s also something about spending a mere 36 hours somewhere and still talking feverishly months later about your wine, your dinner, your bed and the fish you let get away.
- Delta (www.delta.com) fly from Dubai to Knoxville, with prices starting from AED 4060, plus AED 2350 in taxes. 7-day car hire from Knoxville airport with Holiday Autos (www.holidayautos.ae; +971 4 3433 505) is from AED 727 for an economy sized car.
Text & photos by Roger Norum