Plate to Page, Class of Somerset (photo courtesy of Rim Abo-Hegab)
Do you remember your first day at a new school? Maybe it was simply a change from junior school to high school; or maybe your parents had moved town and put you in a new school. Either way, I do not think there is much in the smorgasbord of human experience that matches the terrified dry-mouthed anticipation of that first day. Would you know where to go? Would the other kids be nice? Would the teachers be friendly? Who would you have to share a desk with? Would anybody even talk to you? What if they were all just plain awful?? And then one day you reach adulthood and you think all of that terror is behind you. And it is… until you sign up for a food writing and photography workshop in an old stone farmhouse in the wilds of Somerset with 14 complete strangers.
As a From Plate to Page instructor, it is a little easier because I already know at least three people on each Plate to Page workshop: my three glorious colleagues Meeta, Ilva and Jamie. But even for us, each workshop holds that small thrill of terror: the fear of the unknown. We worry that the venue might prove to be unsuitable in some way; we worry that the technology will not work (nobody mention the worf “wifi” at this point and I won’t have to kill you); and we worry about the group dynamics of a totally new group of participants. Maybe this time they won’t get on with each other – what if we have to mediate in arguments? What if nobody is prepared to read our what they have written, or participate in discussions? What if they gang up on the instructors??
And to be honest, the early omens were not good: a wrong turn that took us straight into Central London at rush hour; a camera filter (still attached to a lens!) smashed to smithereens in Meeta’s bag on the plane; and a further wrong turn taking us to “the wrong Meare Green” village (!?!) and led us on a few lovely, symmetrical circles in the Somerset countryside. Still, we got to see Big Ben and Stonehenge on the way, and by the night before the workshop we were cosily ensconced in Meare Court Farm, a gorgeous restored Grade II Listed stone farm building near Taunton, eating some rather fabulous Donald Russell curries from their new range of prepared foods – wonderful chicken korma, beef madras and chicken tikka masala. We also discovered the unknown pleasures of Russian fudge yoghurt from The Collective Dairy. Besotted! We tried to lock the kitchen door when we went to bed but could find no keys. In the morning, we found that they had been hanging on the outside of the front door all night. It’s that kind of place.
By late morning on Friday, the first of the participants (10 ladies and one lone, brave gentleman – hi Nitin!) started arriving. Some had met in Taunton the night before; some were meeting each other for the first time; and all of them were meeting us for the first time. Within 30 mins of their arriving, they had all chosen roommates for the weekend, met our unofficial 16th participant (Tess the resident hyperactive sheepdog), and settled down to presenting their 5-minute elevator pitches about themselves. With the ice comprehensively broken, we sat down to a buffet lunch of salads, quiches, lively conversation, and excellent local Somerset apple cider from Orchard Pig, who make a wonderful range. We even had our first P2P birthday – Spandana got a surprise cake and a rousing chorus of “happy birthday”!
The afternoon was where the “all work and no shop” motto became apparent to participants as after a brief presentation on good v bad food writing and photography they were thrown into the deep end with hands-on writing and photographic exercises. You could almost smell the smoke from smouldering brain cogs as it dawned on them that yes, Jamie and I really were asking them to write a restaurant review in 10 minutes! Similarly, Meeta and Ilva put the other half of the group through some gruelling paces, pushing their food styling and camera skills to the limit by styling some of our photogenic sponsor products with the rustic English country garden and old stone walls as a backdrop. Then everybody gathered once again in the training room with its floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the green fields, for two more photographic presentations before we were finally done for the day. Baptism by fire!
After toasting ourselves with a glass of prosecco for the day’s hard work, dinner was an informal affair at the gorgeous wooden rustic wooden table in the kitchen, warmed by the old AGA. Sponsor Donald Russell had very kindly provided us with 15 fish pies from their range of luxury ready-made meals, which we served with minted peas. These were fantastic – packed with fish in a super-creamy sauce, and definitely not too heavy on the mashed potato (the mark of a good fish pie if you ask me!). This was all washed down with the Crede prosecco that had been provided by sponsor Bisol Prosecco. Anybody who thinks prosecco does not match well with food simply needs to try this – it’s a wine that loves food and is not at all sickly sweet as you might expect a prosecco to be. And to top it all off, we had an exuberantly pink raspberry Eton Mess (rather than the traditional strawberry one) – delicious with the gentle flavour of vanilla from our sponsor Nielsen-Massey. After dinner, everybody turned in for a quiet and relatively early night – well, quiet until I turned on the hall light to get the keys out of the front door and one of the lighbulbs in the chandelier exploded above my head. This instantly shorted out all the ground floor lights and left me in the pitch dark, hearing things falling around me (like a line from Insomnia!!). Cue petrified shrieking and language that would make a sailor blush. Poor Nitin who was innocently trying to go to sleep in the adjacent room! As if it was not stressful enough to be the only bloke in a house of 14 women…
Saturday morning started off somewhat more restfully with a hearty breakfast of toast, bagels, muesli, yoghurt, cold meats and cheeses – including the rather awesome Capricorn Somerset Goats Cheese from our sponsors. After some log-throwing for Tess (how could you say no to those unblinking eyes?) it was back to the training room for the morning’s first photography presentation. This was followed by a hands-on styling session which saw Ilva and Meeta each talking the participants through how they would style and set up a shoot, and then some free play time for participants to experiment on their own.
After that, we braved the highways and byways of Somerset once again and headed for our first outing of the day: Brown & Forrest, a small family-owned smokery in nearby Hambridge. Here, we met the charming and enthusiastic owner Jesse Pattison whose first response to being faced with 15 people with Very Large Cameras was: “Blimey – now I know how the stars must feel facing the paparazzi! I’m going to have to suck my tummy in for an hour!”. Jesse then took smaller groups of us into the smokery to show us how they hot and cold smoke everything from salmon to eels to garlic, cheese and salt. It was hard not to be enthused by the entire process of smoking after spending 15 minutes with Jesse. Although he says he bought the smokery 12 years ago on a whim after one too many beers, his passion for the business is tangible. And having finished our tour, we got to enjoy some of the smokery’s products: cold-smoked salmon (which they supply to the The Ivy & J Sheeky); hot-smoked eel, chicken and duck; and some excellent smoked trout paté. There is also a shop full of their own and other artisanal products, and a restaurant where the fruits of Jesse’s labours can be sampled.
OK, it’s intermission! Go and get yourself some popcorn and maybe a glass of prosecco… Stay tuned for Part II next week – our pub lunch and the final day of the workshop!
Thank you to our awesome participants for making the weekend as special as it was:
And thank you to our stellar cast of sponsors – we could not have done this without you:
Bisol Prosecco | Donald Russel (legs of lamb, curries and fish pies) | Sally Williams (nougat) | Halen Môn (smoked sea salt) | Orchard Pig (Somerset ciders and fruit coolers) | Laithwaites Domaine of the Bee wine | Capricorn Somerset Goats Cheese | F & W Media (Brette Sember’s Muffin Tin Cookbook) | Riso Gallo (3-grain rice & easy risotto) | Edge of Belgravia (limited edition numbered ceramic knives) | Sunchowder’s Emporia (gourmet jams) | Blue Basil Gourmet Brownies | Taste of Home (cookbooks and aprons) | Gourmelli (selected gourmet foods) | Nielsen-Massey flavoured extracts | The Garlic Farm (smoked garlic, fresh asparagus, relishes) | Raw Love Life raw chocolates | Kelly Moore (camera bag vouchers)
Here are some other perspectives on the weekend:
Meeta – From Plate to Page snapshots
Juliane – Plate to Page – a workshop to remember!
Wendy – Plate to Page 2012 Somerset