TASTE OF THE PAST

Susan Gough Henly savours the fruit of heir­loom crops from a Ten­nessee coun­try gar­den

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

EV­ERY­THING old is new again. As con­sumers seek al­ter­na­tives to mod­ern, ho­mogenised hy­brid veg­eta­bles bred for shelf life and ma­chine har­vest­ing (ev­ery­thing ex­cept hon­est flavour), places such as the mul­ti­award-win­ning Re­lais & Chateaux prop­erty Black­berry Farm in west­ern Ten­nessee in the US are bring­ing the past back to life.

In 1994 Sam Beall con­verted his fam­ily es­tate on 1700 un­du­lat­ing green hectares in the foothills of Ten­nessee’s Great Smoky Moun­tains into a coun­try inn with all the trap­pings, in­clud­ing great food and wine. Then he set about nur­tur­ing the best el­e­ments of coun­try life, cre­at­ing heir­loom veg­etable and flower gar­dens, build­ing a herd of rich cream-pro­duc­ing East Friesian sheep, con­struct­ing houses for the chick­ens and plant­ing ap­ple or­chards.

This month an old-fash­ioned farm­stead will open with a cream­ery, cheese caves, jam­mery and wine cel­lar, al­low­ing Beall to im­merse his guests in ‘‘ a lifestyle with real food in the way it was meant to be con­sumed: or­ganic, sea­sonal and, most im­por­tant, lo­cal’’.

To this end, mas­ter gar­dener John Coyk­endall and gar­den man­ager Jeff Ross have cre­ated a 1.5ha gar­den over­flow­ing with heir­loom beans, toma­toes, let­tuce, pota­toes, gar­lic, onion, squash and beets, as well as herbs and flow­ers that at­tract in­sects away from the ve­g­ies.

It is a colour­ful guide­book to old-fash­ioned veg­eta­bles and an artist’s pal­ette for the ho­tel’s award-win­ning restau­rant.

‘‘ Artists don’t cre­ate mas­ter­pieces with mere house paint,’’ Coyk­endall says. ‘‘ All the heir­looms have been bred first and fore­most for flavour. We have over 50 va­ri­eties of heir­loom toma­toes alone, noth­ing like the plas­tic-tast­ing ones at the su­per­mar­ket.’’

Coyk­endall talks proudly about the gar­den as he sits in his rocker in his neat-as-a-pin farm shed, where piles of dis­tinc­tively coloured beans are laid neatly on the ta­ble along­side jam-jar posies of cot­tage gar­den flow­ers. ‘‘ Beans were the first things the set­tlers learned from the Chero­kee In­di­ans,’’ he says.

The Chero­kee Oc­to­ber beans, for in­stance, have been grown by the same Ten­nessee fam­ily since 1780. And the wash­day field pea was named for its short cook­ing time. Wash­ing laun­dry by hand used to take all day and this pea would cook in about a half-hour, the time it took to bake corn­bread.

Coyk­endall says when­ever he gets a seed from a fam­ily, he tries to get the whole story at the same time.

‘‘ I write it all down in a me­mory bank; things like the his­tory of the fam­ily who grew the seed, how and where it was grown, and how it was eaten,’’ he says. ‘‘ Oth­er­wise the part it played in the lo­cal cul­ture will be lost.’’

Coyk­endall and Ross reg­u­larly sit with guests at ta­bles un­der the trees for gar­den din­ners and tell sto­ries about the pro­duce as each course, burst­ing with fresh flavours, is served.

Black­berry Farm still prac­tises the three sis­ters Chero­kee method of in­ter­crop­ping corn, pole beans and squash (the ‘‘ three sis­ters’’), an ef­fec­tive or­ganic farm­ing method. The corn­stalks sup­port the bean vines, the beans fix nitro­gen into the soil, fer­til­is­ing the corn, and the squash vines shade the corn roots, trap­ping mois­ture and keep­ing weeds to a min­i­mum.

The late-af­ter­noon sun­shine of early sum­mer casts a golden glow over the care­fully tended gar­den beds. Rows of ruf­fled heir­loom let­tuces, in ev­ery hue of green and red, are each neatly marked: prize head, deer tongue, grandpa ad­mires, chicken let­tuce, oak leaf, rossimo, and Aus­trian Forel­len­schluss with green leaves and red speck­les re­sem­bling the mark­ings on a trout. The restau­rant serves this let­tuce with lo­cal trout dishes.

The toma­toes of­fer per­haps the most di­ver­sity. Hun­gar­ian ox heart can each weigh up to 1kg and have a rich, red-wine flavour. The per­sim­mon-shaped pineap­ple tomato, deep yel­low with a flush of pink on the bot­tom, is juicy and full of flavour.

The acidic Hell­frucht, with tiny, light pink fruit, is a favourite for eat­ing straight off the vine. But it is the fuzzy gar­den peach tomato, which has small yel­low fruit with a flush of peach colour on top, which con­sis­tently wins in the tomato tast­ings Coyk­endall and Ross hold at the shed.

We are joined by sous chef Adam Cooke, who has come to col­lect herbs for the evening meal. Ross hands him some white flower buds and spi­ralling stems or scapes of Rus­sian hard­neck red gar­lic with the sug­ges­tion that the kitchen saute them in but­ter as a tasty side dish.

Squash is of­ten thought of as a dis­tinc­tively Amer­i­can veg­etable and in­deed the Ten­nessee sweet potato pump­kin was first grown in the 1600s. This small, tan, ob­long pump­kin has sweet orange flesh.

The curved-neck cushaw squash, white with green stripes, came from the Caribbean in the 1700s. To­day, cushaw pie is an Ap­palachian spe­cialty.

Black­berry Farm even grows Aus­tralian but­ter squash and Queens­land blue pump­kin, as well as New Zealand spinach or te­trag­o­nia, which is high in vi­ta­min C.

First har­vested by Maori, te­trag­o­nia was brought back to Eng­land in pick­led form by James Cook to fight scurvy on the voy­age. It makes a great spinach sub­sti­tute in hot weather in the lush green land­scape be­neath Ten­nessee’s Great Smoky Moun­tains.

While the fo­cus may be lo­cal, or­ganic and sea­sonal, grow­ers of heir­loom veg­eta­bles roam far and wide in their search for those pure flavours from the past that have sur­vived into the ho­mogenised present.

Check­list

THE Dig­ger’s Club, based at the Heronswood Gar­den in Vic­to­ria’s Morn­ing­ton Penin­sula, is Aus­tralia’s pre­mier dis­trib­u­tor of heir­loom seeds for veg­eta­bles and flow­ers. More: www.dig­gers.com.au. It is the sole Aus­tralian im­porter of Amer­i­can heir­loom seeds, which are dis­trib­uted by Seed Savers. More: www.seed­savers.com.

www.black­ber­ry­farm.com

Pic­tures: Susan Gough Henly

Grow­ing con­cern: Jeff Ross, left, shar­ing pro­duce with Black­berry Farm’s sous chef Adam Cooke; heir­loom let­tuces, top right; heir­loom beans, bot­tom right

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