Learn Farm-to-Table Cooking at This Glamping Retreat

One of many activities at Collective Hill Country in Wimberley

It’s taken exactly one hour to approach the gated entrance of Collective Hill Country, a glamping retreat located on an expansive ranch near Wimberley. I’m set to experience a cooking class hosted by the property’s executive chef, inside a fine dining yurt nestled in the juniper trees.

The view from the dining hall, Three Peaks Lodge (Photo by Jessika Roth)

A smiling Eddy Young, the property’s general manager and welcoming committee, escorts me to the dining hall, Three Peaks Lodge. This primary tent’s large canvas exterior is an unassuming mask of the elegance inside, where I first catch a glimpse of the Collective charm: fresh-picked wildflowers adorn dining tables, blankets are draped over chairs, and heavy rugs cover the hardwood floor. The tent walls are tied open on all sides, allowing the natural environment to become an extension of the indoor living space.

Young opens a bottle of crisp white wine, and I am officially on vacation, for the afternoon at least. We hop in a golf cart to explore the property, where 12 yurts are arranged, each with a personal walkway, named after native flowers, connecting to the main path. The sleeping spaces, like the dining yurt, have a minimal exterior, but the rooms are surprisingly complete with all the comforts of a luxury hotel room. There’s a bed layered with high quality linens, bedside tables and lamps, a floor length mirror, writing desk and cozy chairs, and glamorous touches like a chandelier and personal wood-burning stove. I’m standing in the woods, but this lodging offers the amenities of a hotel experience, robes included.

Chef Stefani Immel in the Three Peaks Lodge kitchen (Photo by Jessika Roth)

We make our way back to the Lodge to meet Chef Stefani Immel in the kitchen, a space just as thoughtfully designed as the rest of the property. Many would be challenged by the limited equipment and power, but Immel uses the constraints to her advantage, crafting straightforward but elegant Hill Country fare. She dives right into our class, Beer, Brining and Branding. I’ve been nervous about the branding portion of the class – what will we be branding? – so my imagination runs wild. But with wine in hand and an openness for new experiences, I stay focused on learning how to brine the meat, not brand it.

Immel demonstrates the essentials of brining, sprinkling in general kitchen tricks that would benefit any home cook. A brining ratio worth memorizing is one cup coarse salt, one half cup sugar, one gallon water, and to this base, all kinds of aromatics can be added (think fresh herbs, spices, or citrus). She fills a large pot with the brining base plus cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, garlic, oranges, rosemary, thyme, and peppercorns and places it on the stove to dissolve the salt and sugar. Once cooled, the base is poured over a whole chicken inside a sealable container, the meat fully submerged. The chicken will be refrigerated at least overnight before roasting or smoking, and the brining process will tenderize the meat.

Photo by Jessika Roth

To show us the difference, Immel retrieves two chicken breasts – one already brined and one unaltered – and cooks both in a cast iron skillet with a delicious amount of butter while explaining the property’s menus. There isn’t actually a written dinner menu on site – instead she speaks to each guest to customize meals based on availability and preferences. Much of the produce is sourced from Back to the Gardens, the adjacent nine acre farm, and Immel communicates with Farmer John regularly to understand what crops are in process or ready to be picked, allowing her to cook with the seasons, and keep her pantry lean. (In the future, the team hopes to offer a class combining a farm tour and hands-on cooking experience. The guests would pick what they wish, farmers' market-style, and together they’d prepare a meal in the kitchen, removing some of the intimidation of cooking with new ingredients.)

Three Peaks Lodge does have a set lunch menu of salads and sandwiches, and a picnic basket can be prepared by request to accompany a walk, wine tour, or horseback ride. Also available are the BBQ Boxes, featuring all the supplies needed for guests to grill snapper, burgers, carnitas, or flat iron steak. The kit comes with pre-made grilled veggies and roasted potatoes so that guests don’t work too hard. After all, it’s a vacation.

Photo by Jessika Roth

We taste both the brined and unbrined versions, and despite her goal to show us unbrined chicken is bland, Immel’s is still excellent. But we taste her point – the brined chicken has a stronger flavor, the meat is more tender, and the texture is softer overall. Brining for the win, I get it!

Young returns to let us know the branding lesson is ready, so we head to the community picnic tables where a wood-burning stove holds a branding iron resting on orange coals. Bamboo cutting boards of various sizes are stacked on the table and, much to my relief, are the only thing we will be branding. With protective gloves on, we learn how to position the iron properly for an even sear of the property’s “shelter” symbol, a reminder of just where to seek it.

This class, and other immersive activities, are available at Collective Hill Country. The Wimberley property is open through end of May, temporarily closes for summer, and will reopen in September. For more info see www.collectiveretreats.com/retreat/collective-hill-country.

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