Saturday, January 12, 2008

Escape To Your Own Backyard

Blackberry Farm feeds mind, body, and soul with untold luxury
(Some content originally published in Cityview Magazine. Photos by Christie Chassareau)

You want to be pampered. You want 5-star accommodations; you want all of the amenities that you’re always reading about in the world’s top food, wine, and travel magazines. But…

Airfare these days is so expensive, and even if you land a flight reservation you must endure the endless indignities that accompany air travel these days. And really, for $1500 for travel alone, don’t you deserve to be treated with some respect?

What if I told you that one of the top 10 small hotels in the world was 40 minutes outside of Knoxville? What if I told you that it was consistently ranked #1 in service by the most esteemed publications in the world? And, what if I told you that you could experience, on top of the immaculate service and surroundings, a food and wine event befitting royalty?

Welcome to Blackberry Farm, the five star resort located in Walland (yes, Walland!), Tennessee. Maybe you’ve heard of it, mentioned here and there. Maybe it’s been dismissed as too expensive, too exclusive, too close to home. I am here to tell you, however, that it should be faulted for none of the above. For you can travel to a place unlike any other, for an experience of a lifetime, without having to refill your gas tank.

Yes, Blackberry Farm is for you, East Tennessean. It is, in fact, a resort that celebrates absolutely everything about this area that you might love—it just does it so much better. Are you an outdoor lover? Revel in the miles and miles of hiking trails, the fly fishing lessons, the horseback riding. Is relaxation and meditation more your pace? There is one of the only Aveda Destination Spas in the country at Blackberry, as well as yoga aside a tranquil pond and countless picturesque nooks in which to curl up with a book. Does your passion lie in the epicurean? Sign up for one of the culinary events Blackberry is quickly becoming famous for, and experience, as I did, an awakening to all of the things I never realized I adored about our fair corner of this state.

Driving through Maryville towards Walland, I am happy to see that the trip has not changed so much since I was a girl—maybe a new antique mall or two, an unfamiliar billboard here and there—but it’s the same drive through lazy foothills, grey-blue mountains looming on the horizon. The road to Blackberry Farm is an admittedly unremarkable one, dotted with horse and cow-filled pastures and modest country homes. And yet, the air changes once you come across the signature white fence…the road gets a bit more curvy, the forest dense and green even after our drought-plagued summer. Pulling up to the Oak Cottage, Blackberry’s outpost, everything familiar about East Tennessee is suddenly taken up a notch.

And that is really the crux of Blackberry Farm—it does not fight its Foothills birthright, instead it gives tribute to it in the most remarkable way. If only every person, resident or not, who has dismissed East Tennessee as pedestrian or backwards could have a stay here. It is truly the very best of our homeland, highlighting and showcasing the things that natives are lucky enough to be acquainted with already.

I am checked in before I even realize I’m here, whisked onto a cozy golf cart with a cool bottle of water and my own personal guide to the estate. He whisks me through a garden, past the Main House where the dining room and some guest accommodations are located. Suddenly, ducking through two outbuildings, we burst forth upon the crest of a hill and all I can see is mountains, a pond, and a pastoral collection of sheep seemingly there for solely the benefit of my view. I’ve been at Blackberry for less than 10 minutes, and away from home for just under an hour, and I am positively enchanted.

The guide to my cabin tolerates my endless patter of questions with an exemplary attitude, showing that no matter the job at Blackberry, everyone is more than capably trained. We dart across the main road while discussing the fact that I will be staying in one of the newest cabins built on the property, just opened in late July. We pull in to the golf-cart sized driveway where I immediately spy a cart of my own to use when traversing the thousands of acres encompassing the resort. My cabin, aptly named Speckled Sussex after a breed of chicken housed on the farm, is the embodiment of luxury, encased in a cozy “rustic” shell. Keihl’s toiletries, Frette linens, wide slabs of antiqued wood that disguise heated floors, and a fully stocked (and complementary, outside of the alcoholic offerings) pantry and fridge—I’m not exaggerating when I say I could happily while away many days in this spot. The beds are a confection of memory foam, feather beds, and luxe linens, and a flat screen television lurks behind a panel of biological prints.

But there is not time for too much relaxing, not yet, because I am not here for any average visit. No, I am attending this weekend’s “Smoky Mountain Table” event, featuring lectures from the Farm’s master gardener John Coykendall, Guest Vinter Bob Lindquist of Qupé Wines in Napa Valley, and Blackberry’s new chef, Peter Glander. I quickly freshen up and hop back in my cart to zip across the hills to the Welcome Reception listed foremost on my event itinerary.

The “reception” is honestly a relief—I am expecting some sort of forced revelry but instead I am handed a fantastic glass of champagne and left to enjoy the magnificent view from the Main House’s veranda. Not that the weekend’s attendants and hosts are anything but friendly—I am quickly greeted and made to feel at home among the diverse crowd. Before much longer we are ushered inside to kick off the dinner, where Blackberry proprietor Sam Beall welcomes all of the guests and gives us a glimpse of what is to come in the next few days. As he speaks, servers glid in like ghosts and set before us our first bite of food for the evening—Smoked North Carolina Steelhead Roe with Crème Fraîche Panna Cotta & a Fingerling Potato Chip. Hilariously, the first thing I think of is the best smoked salmon and cream cheese I can possibly imagine—and I mean that as a compliment to the highest degree. This salty bite is a mighty harbinger of the delights to come.

Along with the incredible food that night—and incredible it is, featuring such delights as Diver Scallop Tartare, Torchon of Foie Gras, Lamb Breast Confit, and Wagyu Beef Sirloin—is a selection of wines that does nothing more than make me want to learn everything about the people behind Qupé wines. Lindquist, a charming bear of a man, imparts the joy and rapture only one that truly loves his work can communicate, and his wife Luisa shows a similar passion. After this one night, people I first looked upon as strangers have already become familiar, and everyone is feeling convivial indeed.

Bright and early the next morning I head to the garden, for a tour and lecture from Master Gardener Coykendall and breakfast under the shade trees on the periphery. Coykendall quickly charms with both his knowledge and delightful personality—I am quickly realizing that no one is involved with Blackberry Farm that isn’t beyond passionate about their calling in life. After a lovely stroll through only a fraction of the Farm’s massive gardens, we are treated to a refreshing breakfast, starting with heirloom tomato and watermelon juice and quickly followed by tiny, jewel-like figs, syrupy melon wrapped in salty local ham, and an assortment of sweet breads. After the previous nights feast, this light repast is exactly what I am craving.

Which brings up yet another point about Blackberry—the incredible intuitiveness of the staff and grounds themselves. There is very little that you could hope for or desire that couldn’t be delivered upon, and there were multiple times throughout the experience where I simply thought of something that would make things that much better and the literally appeared. I don’t want to know what witchcraft is involved to make this happen—I just want more of it.
Our morning in the garden then bleeds into a trip to the wine cellars at Maple Cottage, most recently the site of all cooking classes/demonstrations for the Farm. My hardy group, however, is the last to use this gorgeous home for such an occasion, but don’t weep for the future quests—an incredible new facility is being polished off as we speak…more on that later.

Because for now, the wines! Bob Lindquist leads us through a wine tasting that is as enjoyable as it is informational, and he manages to keep the interests of both the novices and true collectors. Indeed, most of the group is clamoring for more information on where to buy these remarkable and relatively affordable wines (qupé.com for more information). Pleasantly relaxed after the tasting, we head upstairs to find an impressive lunch waiting for us, including a soup that I will probably never forget—soft shell crawfish in a corn broth with heirloom tomatoes. Never has a dish captured a Southern summer in a more simple way.

A busy morning leads into a free afternoon to explore Blackberry’s other offerings. Some go horseback riding; others lounge by the pool, soaking in both the sun and the mountain view. I choose to curl up on my cabins porch with a cup of tea to do some writing. In the early evening I make my way to the main house and have a spectacular cocktail—the Farm’s own version of a mint julep. Made with small batch whiskey, homemade vanilla syrup, and garnished with a whole vanilla bean, I am quickly learning that you really can’t go wrong at Blackberry Farm.

That evenings dinner is on my own, letting me sample the dining experience the average guest has privy to. This is quite something on its own—a four course dinner with immaculate service. The food is divine, as expected, but I most enjoy the spirited conversation with one of Blackberry’s sommeliers. He recommends a white burgundy that is as delicious as it is in my budget, and I love that his enthusiasm carries over to even the more modest choices in the impressive wine list.

The next morning I wake up in my bowl of whipped cream masquerading as a bed, refreshed and excited about the mornings events. While a more elaborate breakfast is served in the Main House, I choose to duck across the way to the game room for some lighter fare. Settling in to a large leather chair with a bowl of berries; I nibble on some sweet bread and sip coffee until the time for my next encounter arrives. Today we are to be treated to a cooking demonstration from new head chef Peter Glander. Glander, who has a pedigree unlike anyone in the area I guarantee, has moved down to Walland to open The Barn, Blackberry’s newest 5-star dining experience. This barn, converted from an old structure moved from Pennsylvania, will not only house an amazing restaurant that will allow the Main House to take on a more casual, homey role; it will also contain the cooking classes and demonstrations, as well as an enormous wine cellar. But I digress…

Glander moves with the ease of someone with years of experience in a kitchen, yet he is also a fantastic teacher, answering questions all while preparing a selection of dishes that will also be featured in that evening’s grand finale dinner. Blackberry has provided notebooks with information on all of the wines we have sampled during this culinary journey, as well as the recipes Glander is preparing for us in the stately demonstration kitchen—a nice touch appreciated by anyone who has ever tried to frantically jot down the directions streaming from any television chef’s mouth.

Another afternoon free gives us time to reflect on the past few days, and to prepare for the once in a lifetime experience ahead of us. Rain is threatening the plans to dine in the stately gardens, and so our little troop becomes not only the last culinary group to utilize Maple Cottage for such an event; we are now the first ever group to dine in the new Barn facility. It is not complete, but is incredibly impressive nonetheless, and everyone involved is honored to be there for its christening.

Dinner is… amazing. I soak up conversation from new friends all while eating food that is as fresh and inviting as Blackberry itself. That night we are also treated to some of Qupé’s vintage selections, including one Roussanne that only remains in twelve cases.

Basking in the warmth of company and special treatment, I sit back and reflect on the past three days, which feels like over a week and miles and miles away from home. I came to Blackberry thinking it was out of my price range, that it wasn’t worth the money when I could use that to travel somewhere more exotic, further away. But now I have an entirely different outlook—where else could I experience a weekend like this? Could I learn about heirloom seeds and olive-oil poached salmon? Could I try wine varietals I’ve never even heard of? Nowhere, at least nowhere that I know of. Blackberry Farm is a place for you. A place to reconnect with your roots, to discover treasures in the land in Tennessee you never knew of, and to soak up the knowledge of a group of experts gathered for your benefit. The saying is more than true—Blackberry Farms is easy to find, and oh so hard to leave.

Blackberry Farm
1471 West Millers Cove Road
Walland, Tennessee 37886

(865) 380-2260

(out of a possible five stars)
Accommodations: *****
Dining: *****
Service: *****
Atmosphere: *****
Overall: *****


Kevin said...

Exceedingly cool! I'm filled with envy.

Anonymous said...

FYI - Bob Lindquist is from Santa Maria (Santa Barbara County) in California's "Central Coast" wine growing region, not Napa. Napa is 400 miles North of Bob.

Almostgotit said...

Hey, what are the chances? I google "unemployed" and find a fellow Knoxvillian at the top of the list! Who are you, I wonder? No "about me" anywhere to be seen. Mysterious! Do I know you already? (hmm... Writer. Blogs about Food. Knoxville.)

This is a lovely post. What else do you you write?

All best-

Laurie said...

Nice review and great photo's!

Private Chef said...

Hi There

I just stumbled upon your blog and think it is an excellent read for foodies and especially like the photos and design of the blog.I started off as a blogger myself and realise the importance of a good clean design like you have here. I have now bookmarked it for myself to read and have added you to our new list of "all the food blogs in the world" on which we have been compiling for the last month! Hopefully it will send you some traffic in the long run. Looking forward to reading your thoughts on food so keep up the good work and talk soon. Cheers


Beautiful post! Who the heck cares where Napa is; and that 400 miles 'north' is a bit 'far' since I live in the area (or did), and that's not quite the right mileage.

You can enjoy ALL of California's 'wine country' from way down in Hemet/the Lake Elsinore area, all the way 'up' into the Napa area - in between; hey you 'done good', and no nit-pickin' from me!

GrannySmithGreen said...

Guess where I'm going? Blackberry Farm! I appreciate your blog. Very well written.

GrannySmithGreen said...

Happy and thrilled to read this post. I did several posts about Blackberry Farm on my blog. Feel free to click over and search "Blackberry". You may enjoy seeing my photographs of the farm. I agree with your summation of your stay. Wasn't it heavenly? I can't wait to go again.