At Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm, the seasons and gardens guide the menus and inspire the dishes on the dinner table. From growing greens to foraging wild mushrooms and making cheese out of milk from grazing ewes, the team of chefs and artisans highlight nature’s abundance at every mealtime. To learn more about Blackberry Farm’s unique “Foothills Cuisine,” we talked to proprietor Sam Beall, who shared his garden and culinary philosophies.
What does farm to table mean to you? How does it define the way of life at Blackberry Farm?
Farm to table is getting beaten up. To me, it means the interest and effort to eat real food. Real food is food that you get excited about because of the quality. You know where it came from, you might even know who grew it, but you always know how it was grown. That’s farm to table. It doesn’t have to be from your own farm, but it’s about truly having interest and the effort go into your products.
How did growing up on the farm influence how you think about food?
Other than a few staples, I don’t go to the grocery store. What is being offered from nature at that moment — that defines what we’re eating.
What are some of your favorite ingredients you grow on the farm in the fall, and your favorite ways to use them?
Greens — collards, turnips, kales, mustard greens — there is not a night when we don’t have greens on the table. They are always cooked different ways, not always the traditional long cooking with ham hocks. We enjoy them fresh and crisply wilted; raw young greens; butter poached; or olive oil-sauteed.
Also, I love turnip roots and our milled corn. We mill all of our corn at Blackberry Farm, and this is the time of year to enjoy grits. In a way, they are freshest in the late fall-early winter, when we have just dried and ground them. This is also the first time of the year that we start to eat dried beans. Pumpkins, squashes – my kids love it when I cube them up and roast them.
Describe the “Foothills Cuisine” at Blackberry Farm. How do you take homegrown ingredients to the next level?
Foothills Cuisine is defined in party by our geographic definition; our location is right on the other side of the foothills mountain range. On one side is rural and rustic, and on the other side is Knoxville, an urban city. Our influences are both the refined food of the city and the rustic country fare to our south. Our food borrows from both influences and walks that line.
Our reputation is for fine dining, but we still serve beans and cornbread, and chicken and dumplings. Those are not menu items you would find at Per Se in New York, for example. I think this cuisine and our Southern cuisine as a whole allow us to be more casual while still being very committed to quality. It’s just borrowing from the more refined haute cuisine that is taught in much of the culinary world these days while also remembering traditions and the region and what this cuisine has historically stood for — and, of course, the families, mothers and grandmothers who taught us how to cook.
The seasons dictate the menus at Blackberry Farm. What’s your favorite season for eating and sharing meals?
You would assume summer, because the garden is at its bounty, but I’d probably say the spring. We come out of a season where the availability is less and we’ve been eating preserved, dried, cured and pickled items held over from the summers’ bounty and put up to get people through the winter. That used to be out of necessity. Also, we can’t use it all at a given moment. When we have hundreds of pounds of tomatoes coming from the gardens, we can’t use it all. Thus, we preserve in the time-honored way that’s always been done; there’s not a grandma who didn’t put up a whole closet full of jars and cans. Canning is still very much a living art around here.
In the spring, when your diet has in large part been those foods, your palate gets really excited about anything fresh: lettuce greens, peas, beets and carrots, wild mushrooms, bitter greens, foraged greens. I love spring for that reason.
How does using time-honored crafts like cheese making and preserving honor the heritage of the region?
It was the only way to sustain life in these mountain parts. We didn’t have the luxuries of grocery stores, so if you did not pickle and preserve and put up, you did not have a food source to get you through winters. On the most fundamental level, that’s the only way it was done.
How do you balance innovation with tradition?
We do have technology – refrigerators, freezers – so we don’t have to do everything as it was done before. We’re borrowing from tradition to preserve the old ways, but at the same time, we have the ability to have a greenhouse and start things early or take things later into the season. That’s a blend of tradition and new ways.
Also, there are the flavors we use. One of the signature dishes in The Barn is a smoked buttermilk consommé, which is served with a farm egg or, in the summertime, adapted to include beans from the garden and cornbread. Beans, cornbread, buttermilk – those are staples around here. For the consommé, we clarify the buttermilk so that it’s no longer white; it’s just a clear liquid, but it has all the flavors of buttermilk and, in addition to that, a smoked element, which is done through technology. That’s how we will reinterpret tradition.
Almost every night there’s an egg dish on the menu. We love to showcase our chicken eggs, because a great chicken egg is something to be reckoned with. We cook the eggs for 2 hours in immersion circulators — they come out perfectly soft boiled.
A fully-working farm requires a full team — gardeners, chefs, butchers, etc. What’s your process for collaboration and creation?
We have a farmstead meeting every week where we talk conceptually, and then they are the owners of their areas. I want to follow their creative talents, so ultimately they all understand that they have ownership. Their areas are not going to be as great if they’re not the driving forces of them. We all gather because I think ideas are always better when you can reflect and hear perspective from those who understand and appreciate each others’ crafts.