A luxury resort in Tennessee puts back-to-the-land foodies at the center of the action
Author KIRSTEN MATTHEW
DRIVE 45 MINUTES SOUTH OF KNOXVILLE on Highway 321 and there, in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, you’ll find a boutique hotel that’s something akin to a sleepaway camp for foodies.
It doesn’t come cheap – one night, including meals, at Blackberry Farm starts at $795 per couple – but almost any culinary yearning can be catered too. There are six acres of vegetable gardens where guests can pick tomatoes and peppers; two award-winning restaurants with chefs happy to hang with patrons; an on-site forager who will guide visitors toward wild mushrooms; the Larder, where staffers explain how to make jams, jellies and sauces; and cheesemakers, butchers and bakers all primed to share their secrets. As this is a working farm, fall is prime time to get your hands dirty.
“In September we’re harvesting everything, and our preservation kitchen is going crazy making jams, jellies and pickles; our sausages are being made,” says Sam Beall, owner of Blackberry Farm. “It’s when we’re at our busiest.”
Beall’s parents purchased the 4,200-acre property in 1976 and ran a successful hotel there, but when Beall became proprietor in 2001, he’d spent a few years living in California, where he worked at The French Laundry. Naturally, he wanted to ramp up Blackberry’s gourmet offerings.
So the 35-year-old father of four increased the kitchen garden from a quarter acre to six and hired a team of gardeners to tend it. He bought chickens and a herd of sheep, which provide milk for the homemade cheese. He lured charcutiers, chocolatiers and preserving specialists. Around 100 employees work to produce the establishment’s edible offerings, including the high-end products — truffled quail eggs, onion jam — that are available at Williams-Sonoma. Up to 90 percent of the produce served in the two restaurants is grown on the farm; this month that means plenty of heirloom tomatoes, eggplant, shiitake mushrooms and black walnuts.
Beall has also enticed world-renowned chefs like Alain Ducasse to an 18th-century Amish barn on the property for three-day cooking demonstrations and feasts for guests. This month, Judy Rodgers, chef and co-owner of San Francisco’s famed Zuni Café, will be visiting.
Lazy gourmands can forgo the classes and outings and just eat. And this being a luxury resort, the pool and spa are popular hangouts. But most guests don’t sit still for long, Beall says.
“They no longer want to sit in a rocking chair — they want to be challenged and inspired,” he says. “These days, cheesemaking is as popular as the spa.”
BACON AND OTHER PIECES OF PORKY GOODNESS have been having a moment in American cuisine of late (bacon-flavored ice cream, anyone?). And chances are good that if you’re eating pork in one of the country’s best restaurants, it came from Allan Benton, of Madisonville, Tenn.
Benton’s company, Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams, has been smoking bacon and aging hams for the last 38 years. After a rough start, word spread about the taste of Benton’s hogs, and chefs from all over the country came calling. These days his protein graces plates at 80 restaurants in Manhattan (including Tom Colicchio’s Craft and David Chang’s Momofuku eateries), Absinthe in San Francisco, Chicago’s Table Fifty-Two and John Besh’s New Orleans spots.
Benton produces 14,000 hams and 35,000 bacon butts each year, all from Berkshire pigs mixed with heritage breeds like Tamworth and Red Wattle, which have more fat and marble. He sells his product online, too, so keen home cooks can get ahold of it wherever they are in the country.
With a staff of 10, Benton’s is a streamlined operation. “We’re embarrassingly small,” says Benton. “We’re a hole-in-the-wall business. It’s never been my goal to make a lot of ham or bacon; it’s to make exquisite ones.”
Just over a year ago, Tennessee’s first legal moonshine distillery opened in Gatlinburg, and since then, Ole Smoky Moonshine has been churning out the same hooch that once had to be obtained on the sly.
It’s not for the faint of liver, that’s for sure. There are 100-proof varieties (and others that are made only seasonally), including the classic Corn Whiskey, made from a century-old family recipe that uses only corn grown in the eastern part of the state; White Lightning, which is distilled six times and is designed to be drunk with mixers because it packs such a punch; and Moonshine Cherries, which comes in a jar filled with maraschinos for snacking on while sipping. The liquor is distilled on-site and sold in the Ole Smoky store. You can buy it online too – but you don’t get the free tastings that come with visiting the source.