There is a wonderful cartoon by the brilliant Gary Larson, showing a panic-stricken man driving his car away from a city that is in the process of being spectacularly destroyed by fire, flood, aerial attack and Godzilla. His dog is hanging out of the window with an unperturbed and inscrutable expression on his face, staring intently at the pavement outside where another dog is walking. The caption is “Suddenly, Rusty spotted something really interesting.” The cartoon makes me smile every time, because it reminds me that whatever is troubling you or occupying your entire mind at any given moment, is unlikely to be having the same effect on any other person, much as you might like to think so. Every year when we arrive to present a new From Plate to Page workshop, I have my own set of worries: what if the sponsor goodies have not arrived and we have no goodie bags to hand out? What if there is a professional writer on the course who thinks our writing exercises are stupid? What if the fondant puddings collapse under their own weight as we serve them/the oven door falls off/there are insects living in the curtains?
But of course, while I am panicking about those (and trust me, I do!), at least I am not panicking about what we’ll be doing (because I helped devise the timetable); whether I will be able to cope with the demands of the weekend (because I’ve done this before); or whether I will at least find one or two friendly faces to get along with (because I know Meeta, Ilva and Jamie will be there). However, I think all four of us often forget that these are precisely the three things that all our participants are worried about! So last month, when Plate to Page (sponsored by Bord Bia the Irish Food Board) rolled into Decoy Cottages in County Meath just outside Dublin, although it was obvious from the high quality of the accommodation that we were going to be physically in our comfort zone, I think it is fair to say that many of the participants were dreading having to step creatively outside of their writing and photography comfort zones. But then, if we never step outside, we never get to go anywhere, do we?
But first, our arrival. Meeta and I were the first to arrive and the very lovely Paula from Decoy was there to greet us and show us around the fantastic traditional stone restored farm outbuildings and point out the impressive pile of sponsor boxes awaiting us. Our accommodation was divided into three adjacent cottages where each double room had its own gorgeous bathroom and each cottage came with am enormous and well-equipped kitchen. We quickly set up HQ in The Loft, popped out to do the weekend grocery shopping, and then returned to pick up Jamie and Ilva from the local pub where the airport bus had dropped them. Soon the kitchen was awash with the sound of laughter and popping Nino Franco Rustico prosecco corks as we caught up over dinner and then opened each sponsor box like excited kids at Christmas in order to pack the famous goodie bags.
The next morning we were up bright and early to greet our participants – and what an international lot they were! Let’s see, we had Anne Marie from Ireland; Monica from the USA; Kate and Sam from sunny South Africa; Susana and André from Portugal; Sumayya from London; Mafe from Panama; Karon from Scotland; Lidija from Slovenia; and Sofiah from Singapore. Everyone had taken our admonishment to heart to keep their elevator pitches brief, and for the first time ever in the history of Plate to Page, we finished those on exactly on time and headed back to the cottage for our sumptuous buffet lunch provided by Earl’s Kitchen, including roast vegetable quiche, salmon en croute, chicken roulade, salads and delightful fresh bread (which went down a treat with our delectably moreish Moorish Smoked Humous and Ed Hick’s bacon jam!).
Lunch was followed by the bit of each Plate to Page where we make participants feel like kids on Christmas morning – the handing out of the goodie bags! Soon everyone was oohing and aahing as they unpacked their Edgeware zesters and knife sharpeners; Ed Hick’s bacon jam; Donegal rapeseed oil; Nino Franco aprons; Rococo chocolate bar; NoMU skinny hot chocolate and dukkah; copies of the Heartbreak Recovery Kitchen cookbook; and adorable Patron tequila miniatures. Later on in the weekend we also held a prize draw to give away the three NoMU recipe boxes that our lovely sponsor had sent us all the way from South Africa. These smart boxes are a modern take on your mom’s recipe index cards – the box comes pre-loaded with tabs for starters, mains, sides, desserts, treats and basics and includes 48 illustrated recipe cards. Every three months, an expansion pack of 48 new cards will be released so that you can build up your collection – like a recipe book that keeps on expanding. The lucky winners of the three boxes were Susana, Mafe and Sam – have fun with your recipes, ladies!
After lunch was when the “all work and no shop” part of our unofficial motto really began to dawn on participants as they were thrown headlong into freestyle writing and photography exercises that many found challenging. Muffled cries of “oh, but I can’t write!” or “I’m not the photographer – she is!” flew around the table like panicky birds caught in a room. Shutters clicked; cameras were fumed at; fingers clicked on keyboards and then clicked even more rapidly as newly-written text was deleted; eyes were raised skywards as if to ask “why me?!”. It is indeed a bit of a baptism by fire, and it was not without relief that we wrapped up for the day and headed back to the main cottage for some well-deserved Nino Franco Rustico prosecco. To accompany our Donald Russell moussaka and roast vegetables, we cracked open some Brancott Estate Pinot Noir from Marlborough, New Zealand. Had we not told people that it was a Pinot Noir, I doubt many would have guessed this from the surprisingly deep garnet colour. The palate was also surprisingly luch, full of ripe fruit and with lovely soft tannins and subtle hints of spice. But… there was more! The moussaka was followed by a choice of Donald Russell individual cheesecakes, or individual chocolate fondant puddings. These were utterly decadent and totally addictive, with the cheesecakes coming in flavours like blackcurrant, lemon meringue, and white chocolate & ginger; and the fondants coming in flavours like dark chocolate & raspberry; milk chocolate and banana; and white chocolate and strawberry.
Photo courtesy and © Meeta K Wolff
The next morning we gathered again, bright and early, for the new day’s challenges. First Jamie and I blew away the cobwebs with some writing exercises – I loved the looks of disbelief when we read out some of the exercises, followed by the resigned picking up of pens of switching on of laptops, and finally the gathering momentum of writing as the words poured out. Seldom did we reach the end of our allotted time for an exercise without somebody complaining that they wanted more time to write an even longer piece! After this, Meeta and Ilva both led food styling/photography workshops that pushed our participants to think out of the box and try out some visual styles that they might not usually attempt. By noon, all limbered up with exercises, we grabbed our notebooks and cameras, bundled into our cars and set off through the emerald green Irish countryside on our field trip.
Our destination was Sage & Stone, a charming coffee shop in nearby Duleek that runs a regular farmers’ market. There was no market scheduled for the day we were there, but when the organisers heard that a bunch of international foodie bloggers were in the neighbourhood, they very kindly agreed to run a market especially for our visit! I can’t tell you how touched we were by this – a perfect example of how welcoming and hospitable the Irish people are. As if to reinforce this message of openheartedness, within 5 minutes of arriving I found myself locked in deep conversation with a poultry farmer I’d never met before, talking about his chickens, South Africa, and What’s Wrong With The World Generally Today. It turned out that he was not the only chatty vendor at the market. We also met the lovely man himself from Man of Aran Fudge; the very charming Newgrange Gold rapeseed oil chap; the Bellingham blue cheese cheese lady who let us shelter under her awning during the rainstorm; the jolly couple selling their award-winning Pollock’s Pickles, sauces and jams, positively beaming with pride; the fourth generation fishmonger from Fisherman’s Catch; the cheeky chappie witn an armful of fresh loaves at George’s Patisserie; and our old friends Earl’s Kitchen. Of course, Ireland also had to give us a taste of changeable Irish weather and a couple of times during our visit we all had to sprint for cover as the sunny day changed into a version of the Irish monsoon! But when we eventually departed, we left with bulging shopping baskets and happy memories of the truly welcoming vendors at Sage & Stone – the market highly recommended if you are in the area, as is the small coffee shop inside.
Back at Decoy Cottages, everybody styled, photographed and then finally ate their market bounty as part of the day’s assignment. The afternoon was spent working in teams, putting together a written piece and photographs in accordance with their assignment, which the instructors walked around giving input and critique to groups as they worked. This was where the wonderful spaces of Decoy Cottages came into their own, with everyone being able to find a sunny corner, a quiet nook, or the perfect place to style and shoot their food. I even found time to slip away and take some photos of our beautiful surroundings – the rolling green hills, the peaceful garden and the sleek black farm cat. By late afternoon, we were back in the training room where each group presented their assignment, and it was hard to believe that some of these talented writers and photographers were the very people who had told us a mere 24 hours ago that they were outside of their comfort zone and could not write, or were not photographers. And after a gruelling day, I think everyone was happy to hear the sound of popping Nino Franco Prosecco corks for Aperol spritzers as we headed back to the main house for a dinner expertly catered by Earl’s Kitchen (mmmm, berry cheesecake…!).
Sunday morning dawned… well, rather grey and drizzly actually – but we were beginning to get used to the vagaries of the Irish weather! After breakfast it was straight into the training room for a bit of mental gymnastics in the form of a presentation on workflow and mastering the art of post-processing. While this was in progress, Jamie and I welcomed back another of our Plate to Page alumni – the talented David (Kitchen 72) who attended Plate to Page Weimar back in 2011. We pride ourselves on keeping in touch with our Plate to Page alumni and love the many lasting friendships that have resulted from the workshops, and after the success last year of asking alumna Hayley back to cater for us in Somerset, we had invited David to do the same in Ireland. While we were busy with photography and writing workshops throughout the morning, he worked tirelessly in the kitchen to whip up quite the most amazing range of salads I have ever seen, including a raw and pickled salad with carrots, radish, fennel and fennel pollen; a kale salad packed full of sunflower seeds; and braised baby carrots with chard stems that totally blew me away. These were all made to accompany some perfect sides of Irish salmon which David barbecued for us and served with a rather spectacular beetroot sauce. But the show-stopper was without a doubt the dessert of grilled pears with beetroot cake crumble, sorrel granita and apple blossom leaves – not only gloriously colourful but a study in fresh flavour and textural contrasts.
After lunch, participants once again sequestered themselves in quiet corners of the cottages to work on their major assignment of the day, giving the instructors some time to help David out in the kitchen, watching him prepare a fresh batch of astonishing salad and vegetable dishes for our dinner. Late Sunday found us heading back to the training room for final presentations, bearing a little treat for participants: freshly made jam tarts! Our sponsors Sunchowder’s Emporia had kindly sent us some of their intensely flavoured jams for the goodie bags, but as some of the bottles had broken in transit from the USA, we no longer had enough to use in goodie bags – so jam tarts for all seemed to be the logical answer! After another impressive series of presentations from the participants, it was a wrap – the formal teaching part of Plate to Page Ireland was over, and it was time for a farewell feast. While we had been away, David had been working his magic in the kitchen and we were greeted by jewelled bowls of beetroot and giant couscous salad; roasted butternut and quinoa salad; roasted cauliflower with fresh herbs; and a gorgeous bowl of mixed leaves, flowers, grapes, seeds and nuts. But the piece d’resistance was without a doubt the glorious smoked racks of Irish bacon, kindly supplied by Bord Bia from Oliver Carty, one of the members of Bord Bia’s Origin Green accreditation scheme. Using this recipe from Bord Bia as a starting point, David tweaked a little here and there and produced the most ridiculously rose pink, thick juicy bacon chops sliced from the racks for our dining pleasure. It was like Christmas coming early, and about the best advertisement for Irish pork than you can get. After polishing off our meat and vegetables, his final treat for us was a seasonal rhubarb crumble
As we sat and talked into the night around the table, I marvelled (as I always do at the end of a Plate to Page workshop) at how quickly a disparate group of strangers linked by a common interest and goal can forge strong and lasting friendships. All around me, plans were being made to meet up and to collaborate after the workshop – and in fact one such collaboration has already taken shape in the form of World Slices, a wonderful collaborative blog of food stories and photography to which seven of our Plate to Page Ireland alumni contribute. It never ceases to amaze me how our Plate to Page participants can embrace the challenge of a strange place, 15 strange faces, unfamiliar writing and photography exercises that push them way outside their comfort zone. There are often tears and frustration along the way, but after three days the group has without fail created their own comfort zone to inhabit- a space where gentle critique is generously given and received with grace; where late-night chats around the kitchen table forge firm friendships; where shared jokes and challenges create a bond that is surprisingly strong; and in which true originality and creativity can grown and flourish.
You might also want to look at the Storify summary of Plate to Page Ireland featuring all the presenters and participants’ tweets, instagrams and posts; or my complete Plate to Page Ireland Flickr set which features some extra pics not included in the blog post. As part of the weekend, our sponsors Nino Franco ran a photography competition for participants – take a look at the gallery of entrants and the winner on Andrew’s blog.
Thank you again to Monica, Sofiah, Anne Marie, Karon, Susana and André, Kate, Samantha, Mafe , Sumayya and Lidija for making the Plate to Page Ireland workshop both memorable and enjoyable, and for the faith you put in us – may your individual and collaborative ventures go from strength to strength and don’t be strangers!
And here are some write-ups from others about Plate to Page Weimar:
Susana & Andre – From Plate to Page: From food to friendship
Susana & Andre – Locally sourced hospitality at the Sage and Stone famers’ market
Karon – Plates and pages in Ireland
Ilva – Plate to Page Ireland
Jamie – Plate to Page Ireland