I arrived in Tennessee on a foggy morning and so much the better: As our car crept along the back roads that lead to Blackberry Farm, a 44-room country inn in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, the woolly clouds erased the mental grime left behind by months of urban living. Innkeepers Kreis and Sandy Beall had proposed to pamper all of my senses, and I willingly accepted. The answer is yes to just about any question guests ask the Bealls, who’ve turned their rambling 1,100-acre estate into a comfortable, inviting inn where weary travelers can’t help but relax and rejuvenate.
“Would you like a fire started?” inquired the young man with the sweet-as-honey Tennessee drawl as he delivered my bags to my private cottage. “Of course,” I replied. He readied the hearth as I checked out my well-appointed room and set my sights on a soothing cup of tea and one of the chocolate-covered ice-cream bars neatly stacked in the freezer of my very own fridge.
Filled with antiques, my cottage was reminiscent of an English country hideaway. I vowed to sink into the giant featherbed and never move from that spot – well, perhaps I’d venture as far as the front porch.
I settled into a rocking chair and watched as the fleecy fog began to lift and the peaks of the Smokies began to reveal themselves. A doe slowly made her way to the pond. Not a creature was in a hurry at Blackberry Farm, which suited me just fine.
And so did dinner that night. Eager to revive my home-entertaining skills, I had signed up for a weekend program called Cooking with Friends. Like many Americans, I wanted to polish my cooking techniques and learn how to plan successful dinner parties, where friends and family could feel at home and enjoy a meal together. And what better classroom than an elegant country inn known for its extraordinary hospitality and the innovative kitchen of Chef John Fleer?
Entertaining at home is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, and cooking schools across the country are eager to encourage the trend. I wasn’t interested in learning to produce the complicated, show-offy meals that require an extended leave of absence from real life to prepare, but I did want to learn about the kind of honest and engaging fare that chefs like John Fleer, of Blackberry Farm, serve every night.
Fleer calls his unique brand of cooking “foothills cuisine” – a marriage of his Southern heritage and classical techniques: “I refer to my great-grandmother’s recipes as often as I do my textbooks,” says Fleer, who firmly believes that great food can be prepared without any pretense. As the lesson begins, it’s clear that we’re playing a pleasant round of show-and-tell: John does the cooking, and we willingly soak up his culinary wisdom and confidence.
That’s exactly the appeal of the programs many country inns, hotels, and cooking schools are now adopting. Most home cooks are looking for programs that offer a good dose of simple know-how and a touch of razzle-dazzle, too. That’s where chefs like Fleer step up to the plate: “Food should never intimidate – only satisfy and nourish,” he says as he prepares an asparagus and goat-cheese tart.
Soon we’re tasting the dish, followed by a roasted Cornish hen with tarragon. After sampling a “spring fool” of rhubarb and vanilla (we now know how to select, scrape, and store actual vanilla beans), we walk away from the table confident that we can re-create this spread at home.
At Blackberry Farm, you don’t just eat and drink with the Smokies in the background – you also hit the trail. Seven miles of footpaths weave through the property’s woods, which buddy up to the Great Smokies National Park with miles of hiking trails of its own. While you could grab a map and strike out on your own, you would miss the Tennessee humor and mountain lore of Dwight McCarter, a retired park ranger who leads hikes for the inn. “Bear tracks – mother and cub,” he points out, deciphering the forest’s language for us. Birdcalls, berry patches, hidden logging routes of early settlers – they’re all familiar to him.
The trek rewards the eye and calms the spirit as we head to our cottages to indulge ourselves in hot tubs before “classwork” resumes. This time, it’s a wine tasting and more of Chef Fleer’s foothills specialties, including sweet tea-cured pork chops on a bed of creamed spinach – the star of a four-course dinner that would make his great-grandmother proud.
After dinner, the moon climbs over the treetops and the crickets start warming up for their own performance. The creak of the rocking chair is my own contribution as I ponder the next afternoon’s choices: A dip in the pool beneath the maples? A fly-fishing lesson in a nearby stream? Tea in front of a snapping fire? Back to the trails with bird book and camera? Well, maybe if I get ambitious. For now, the featherbed beckons. Tomorrow’s a new day, I’ll make up my mind then.