If you haven’t been to Blackberry Farm lately, you haven’t been to Blackberry Farm. That’s the message Blackberry’s proprietor, Sam Beall, brought to a packed house last week at the Knoxville Museum of Art.
The event was a fundraiser for the museum’s guild, but it also was a celebration of the launch of “The Blackberry Farm Cookbook” and a sampling of new prepared food products Blackberry now is selling.
Beall told the approximately 175 women and three men in attendance that Blackberry, constantly evolving since his parents Kreis and Sandy Beall purchased the dilapidated stone and clapboard manor in 1975, has experienced particularly dramatic change over the past six years. “There’s a shocking difference,” Beall said.
The big deal? A new intense focus on the farm component of Blackberry Farm. “The farm is truly alive and a part of every guest’s experience,” Beall said. “It is the driving force of who we are.”
Blackberry has grown from a 9-bedroom inn on 1,100 acres to a 63-bedroom inn on 9,000 acres, Beall said. Shortly, guests will have their choice from three different dining experiences in two different on-site restaurants. Blackberry also contains a 7-acre garden, a herd of sheep, a passel of hogs, five chicken houses, cattle, a honey house, a 160,000-bottle wine cellar and more. Guests can fish for their trout suppers, harvest vegetables and herbs from the garden and forage for other ingredients, should they choose.
Beall, a classically trained chef himself who apprenticed at the famed French Laundry in California, said the Blackberry experience now centers around the farm-to-table concept where local ingredients are showcased in every meal. He champions a kind of “responsive” cooking where chefs first gather the best ingredients they can find - mostly from Blackberry itself - and then create meals featuring those ingredients.
Blackberry consistently wins awards for its food, wine, service and general excellence and is frequently ranked the number one small hotel in the United States.
On Thursday, Beall and Joseph Lenn, the chef de cuisine at Blackberry’s main house, took the stage in the museum’s theater and demonstrated the preparation of sunchoke soup, winter squash soup and country ham-wrapped sturgeon with fennel and sun-dried tomato white bean ragout.
After that, the attendees filed into the museum’s Great Hall for boxed lunches provided by Blackberry. The contents: a smoked turkey sandwich with scallion mayonnaise and sweet hot mustard on rosemary flat bread, toasted orzo and vegetable salad with red wine vinaigrette, roasted turnips and stewed apples and chocolate chocolate chip cookies. Said one awe-struck guest after tasting the turnips, “We always had turnips growing up. But Mom’s turnips never tasted anything like that!”
Here are a few tips from Beall and Lenn’s presentation:
- “At this time of year, soup should be in all our refrigerators to be pulled out at a moment’s notice,” Beall said.
- He used white pepper in his squash soup. “Change up your pepper every now and then,” he advised. “It will keep your taste buds sharp.”
- “If you have soup, you have sauce,” Beall said. Just thicken it and spread it on the plate to be topped by the main course fish, poultry or meat you think it will complement.
- Said Lenn: “Benton’s country ham and bacon made in nearby Madisonville is the best in the country.”
- Get a mandoline to slice vegetables and other ingredients to a uniform thickness. “Every single cook that works with me has one on his station,” Lenn said.
- Beall said even during the winter when foods are heavier and often cooked for a long time, he tries to have a little bit of freshness on each plate. A typical idea: a little salad of parsley, fennel fronds, and finely sliced radishes.
- The leaves of a sweet potato plant are delicious when sauteed as a substitute for spinach.
- Grapeseed oil is the preferred cooking oil at Blackberry because of its neutral taste and high smoke point. Beall said he sometimes uses peanut oil when cooking at his home, but avoids it at Blackberry due to the increasing presence of food allergies among his guests.