No matter how luxurious its accommodations and services, Blackberry Farm, a 4,200-acre historic property in eastern Tennessee's Smoky Mountain foothills, invites guests to immerse themselves in country life. For some guests of this Relais & Chateaux resort that may be fly fishing along hundreds of miles of rivers teeming with trout, while for others, it's foraging for morels in early spring and elderberries in summer and preparing a simple, gourmet lunch over a crackling campfire in the kitchen garden.
"We share enriching experiences based on the passions of each staff member who lives, eats and breathes his specialty," says activities manager Thomas Krajewski, who stays up on trends whether last year's addition of paddleboarding, the shooting academy's archery field that opened in spring, or a wellness center due in 2014. "We offer a spa and boot camps, but this amenity brings the holistic approach to another level."
As overwhelmingly delightful as a camplike menu of activities may seem, all this horseback riding and hiking basically fills in the gaps between three square meals a day, as it should. People associate this destination with good eating, and rightly so given the amount of food-related events. But before the first black-eyed pea even hits the plate, it starts with the soil. Thanks to age-old runoff from the Appalachian Mountains, the farm's incredibly fertile earth yields a bounty of crops grown from its cultivated heirloom seed program.
"Because of our elevation, too, we're able to grow more and longer, an attraction that dates back to the Cherokee," says garden manager Jeff Ross, who plants a permaculture-geared hodgepodge including 40 varieties of tomatoes and 15 types of beans. "There's something to harvest 365 days a year." He teaches interested parties his "roots to shoots" philosophy, where basil isn't just relegated to pesto, and arugula flowers might top a pizza. Along with the butcher, and the canning and pickling expert, he hosts cooking classes that are as farm-to-table as it gets, culminating in an al fresco repast. On Wednesdays lanterns glow in the vast vegetable patch for intimate dinners, and the whole month of August is dedicated to gardening workshops, walks and tastings. According to Ross, this has become a hugely popular time of year as more people are coming specifically for this in-depth, hands-on learning.
For those who'd rather just sit back and relax in the dining department, executive chef Joseph Lenn oversees daily operations of Downton Abbey proportions, the major difference being contemporary advances in health (creamy soups and sorbets via technology versus heavy dairy products, though he suggests cheating a little with the panna cotta made with real churned buttermilk). Inspired by classic Southern cuisine, his menu meanders with the weather's whims, aside from a few consistent rotations like chicken and dumplings, albeit a sophisticated version of guinea hen and gnocchi flavored by ramps or black truffles depending on the season.
"I learned from my grandmother who grew up in the Depression, so living off the land with what's at hand comes naturally," says Lenn of his old-fashioned approach to freshness that's new again. "Staying on a farm is the next step for like-minded enthusiasts." Blackberryfarm.com, from $895.
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