Blackberry Farm’s Culinary Program adds an interesting and flavorful twist to spa travel.
It had been decades since I came to this part of the world Walland, Tennessee, thirty-five miles from Knoxville, near the base of the Great Smoky Mountains. Then, as now, I was lost, having made a wrong turn somewhere along the way to Blackberry Farm.
But unlike that college weekend misadventure with a gaggle of friends, I was alone and much calmer. I had plenty of daylight hours left as well as a cell phone to call for directions. Just as I turned off Highway 321 and started up West Millers Cove Road, the words “no service” flashed across the screen on my cell phone. I knew I had arrived at Blackberry Farm.
Three miles down a winding country lane, the white wooden pasture fences came into view. This secluded English-style country retreat known as Blackberry Farm is both romantic and unpretentiously luxurious, with some of the best mountain vistas you will find anywhere.
Most people, avid resort and spa goers included, have never even heard of Blackberry Farm. And the people who know it well want to keep it that way. With less than fifty guest rooms, this 2,500-acre resort is a treasure they would prefer to keep hidden. Nearly eighty percent of the guests are returnees, coming back for a second, third, or even fourth time.
My friend, Nancy, and I chose Blackberry Farm as a meeting place between her home in Chattanooga and mine in Charlotte. My drive was decidedly longer, but once we dropped anchor in a pair of white rocking chairs on the veranda of the main lodge, I lost track of miles and time.
Blackberry Farm dates back to the 1930s, when a Chicago businessman by the name of Lasier and his wife discovered the site on their way to the Georgia coast and turned it into a summer home. As the story goes, Mrs. Lasier dubbed it the Blackberry Farm when she snagged her stockings on a blackberry bush. The current proprietors are Sandy and Kreis Beall, who own the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain. The Bealls bought it as a weekend retreat for friends and family. and later, it became a nine-room inn before growing to reach its current size.
The to-do options abound. Activities include tennis, basketball, bicycle riding, and swimming. You might try mountain biking or horseback riding on the quiet trails into the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park. What about fly fishing on Walland Pond or tooling around the property in a golf cart? If you prefer a more relaxed endeavor, there is always the option of just wandering around the beautiful countryside.
While Blackberry Farm has the trappings to match any other top-notch retreat a beautiful, pristine setting, large elegantly decorated rooms, and five-star service the food (and now the spa as well) are the real attractions. Since John Fleer became executive chef in 1992, Blackberry Farm’s reputation as a favored destination for food and wine has soared. At least that’s what drew Nancy and me to these far-flung parts.
Fleer’s motto exemplifies the essence of Blackberry Farm itself: food should always satisfy but never intimidate. The “foothill cuisine” he creates reflects a comfortable elegance, blending the high brow with the low down. He describes it as “wandering the line between refined and rugged, merging classic techniques with regional, historical, familial, and seasonal influences.”
Since knowledge is power, we wanted to be empowered with the knowledge of how to prepare these wonderful dishes ourselves. Therefore, we signed up for Blackberry Farm’s celebrated cooking school. Created by Fleer some ten years ago, the three-day “Cooking for Friends” classes are held several times a year.
This is the time when Fleer and some of the nation’s most prestigious chefs share their secrets for turning the freshest ingredients many of which are grown on the farm’s heirloom garden into seasonal and regional specialties. While there are no longer any blackberry bushes to snag one’s hosiery, the sweet, juicy berries seem to make their way into dishes on the menu year round.
The course (translation: full-fledged food fiesta) began on Sunday evening with a welcome reception followed by a five-course dinner with wine.
Monday morning we made our way to the Maple Cottage, the Beall’s stunningly beautiful private home, for instruction. The class, which is limited to twenty-four students, includes wine-tasting in the Maple Cottage wine cellar.
Fleer is quite the showman, a characteristic he undoubtedly honed as Mary Tyler Moore’s private chef. Both adept and charming, the chance to hear his running epicurean soliloquy while he struts his culinary stuff is worth the price of admission. The first day menu started off with an eggplant terrine with grilled shrimp. For the main course, there was herb-marinated guinea hen with heirloom tomato and cornbread stew, and for dessert, a decadent chocolate hazelnut tart with white chocolate Cointreau ice cream.
At lunch, Nancy and I ended up sitting with a group of five long-time friends who live all across the country but make the annual pilgrimage to attend the cooking classes. Good food, good friends, and good fun.
Free for the afternoon, I considered going for a brisk walk or playing tennis, but I couldn’t resist the spa’s siren song. Who can say ‘no’ to a place that says its mission is to assist you in finding the balance of mind, body, and spirit? The Farmhouse Spa is located, appropriately enough, in a small, 1870s farmhouse.
I decided to have the Blackberry Mist, the spa’s signature body treatment, which indulges your senses with the fragrant aroma of blackberries. The treatment begins with a gentle exfoliation with Aveda Aqua Therapy salts, then an herbal mask is applied to purify the skin, followed by a steam bath. It all ends with a vanilla hydrating moisturizer.
Tuesday morning, it’s back to cooking school. I didn’t think the meal could possibly match the one the day before, but guest chefs Ris Lacoste and Terri Horne from the 1789 Restaurant in Washington, D.C., did not disappoint. They instructed us in the preparation of salmon cocktail, a roasted rack of American lamb with creamy feta potatoes and merlot sauce, and a white chocolate bread pudding. Again, we ate every delicious bite.
The cooking school becomes a blur as one sensational meal followed the next. When it’s time to leave, I pack my recipes and apron and vow to make at least one of the meals in the near future. Then again, I could just come back to Blackberry Farm. Just as I turn onto Highway 321, I get cell phone reception for the first time in three days. It means my stay is over and that’s not a welcomed signal.