“For us to go to Italy and to penetrate into Italy is like a most fascinating act of self-discovery, back, back down the old ways of time. Strange and wonderful chords awake in us, and vibrate again after many hundreds of years of complete forgetfulness.”
So wrote the wonderful D.H. Lawrence many decades ago – but he may as well have been writing it as an attendee of the Venicefoto workshop that I taught together with my sister-from-another-mother Meeta last year. Participants came from all over the world – as close as Italy, and as far as San Diego, as well as from Cyprus, Scotland, Florida, Austria, Germany and Bratislava. Over the course of the weekend, all of them felt strange and wonderful chords of creativity vibrate within them as they worked together and alone, struggled with their limitations and inner demons, and emerged triumphant, energised and inspired after two days. Creativity had been revitalised, friendships had been forged, and all of us had fallen in love anew with Italy, particularly the beautiful Strada del Prosecco.
The Veneto is the area of Italy which surrounds the city of Venice, a hilly region of the Province of Treviso tucked between the Dolomites and the Adriatic. In this beautiful and fertile area is the small strip of land where DOCG prosecco may be produced. This is where you will find the 50 kilometre-long Strade del Vino Prosecco, widely accepted to be Italy’s first wine route, winding through Italy’s most celebrated vineyards in Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Between the small towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene lies the historic Cartizze hill, blessed with a micro-climate that produces the grapes from which the highest quality DOCG Prosecco Superiore is made. And it was over this hill that Meeta and I gazed out on the way to dinner on our first night in Valdobbiadene, enthralled and inspired by the beauty of the place and excited about welcoming our participants.
After a fabulous dinner at Salis (a restaurant that boasts the view in the photo directly above!) Meeta and I got a good night’s sleep so that we could be fresh and bright to welcome our participants in the morning! As always, we had a very international group and as always, for our welcoming brunch, people were a little wary, not sure yet what to expect, how they would fit in with the group or who they would befriend. As always, the stories told during our initial “elevator pitch” session were varied as to people’s reasons for coming and what they wanted to achieve out of the weekend. Having all introduced ourselves, it was straight into the first sessions of the day as I unraveled the mysteries of shutter speed, aperture, ISO and more in my basics of photography presentation before we took a well-deserved break for lunch. I giggled at the expressions of the hotel staff who looked totally perplexed when everyone in the room walked around taking pictures of all the food rather than eating it, and as I listened to people talking and laughing together as we snapped and (eventually!) ate, I knew the group was beginning to bond already.
After lunch it was Meeta’s turn to explain the art of food styling – basic points like light, colour and texture, as well as more advanced aspects like composition and creating a mood. It was great watching participants have eureka moments as they listened to Meet explain how she had created a particular photo and see their faces saying “oh so that’s how she did it!”. Once the presentation was over, it was time for the participants to do some work. The hotel had kindly provided us with the use of their dining room and garden as well as some items left over from breakfast so that they could shoot to our hearts’ content. We were also fortunate in that we had received sponsorship from Zafferano Italy who had generously provided us with a wide selection of their glassware to use as photo props to use during the weekend. This designer range contains beautiful handmade pieces and it is easy to see why the brand is now known worldwide. Their collection contains everything from brightly coloured and funky tableware and glasses, to achingly elegant Champagne flutes – we loved the shape of the Venezia flutes, especially when we filled them with Nino Franco prosecco! I particularly liked the glasses from the Perle collection and the glasses and plates from the Provenzale collection. We also thought this would be a good moment to hand over some sponsor goodies to each participant, including Donna Hay’s Fresh and Light cookbook from Harper Collins, and a jar of beautifully packaged Masala Monsoon garam masala.
After some hands-on grappling with the complexities of food styling, it was back to the training room for a while so that I could explain the good, the bad and the ugly of restaurant photography and how to make the most of ambient light. I’ve always said that the best way to reinforce what you have been taught is to put it into practice – and what better way to put in practice than to head out for dinner at a local osteria Amici Miei. The friendly staff didn’t bat an eyelid as a dozen people descended on the restaurant, cameras all a-clicking, and they spoilt us with a wonderful rustic 4-course dinner comprising a plate of antipasti, pasta, risotto, a selection of main courses and dessert. All the portions were generous, and I was totally smitten with my beef tagliata – buttery soft steak on a bed of rocket. It was great to watch the participants relaxing after the long day and to see how conversation flowed as freely as the prosecco.
The next day dawned cool but sunny – a real bonus as we had been fearing rain, and we were due to visit some gorgeous vineyards and shoot images outdoors! After a quick breakfast, we set off for the Nino Franco winery on the outskirts of Valdobbiadene, our principal and most generous workshop sponsor. Antonio Franco founded the “Cantine Franco” winery in Valdobbiadene in 1919, making this one of the oldest wineries in the village. It was Antonio who founded it but successive generations have built on his foundations: his son Nino expanded production and since Primo Franco took over in 1982 he has steadily improved the winery’s performance. Aside from investing in the production process to improve quality, Primo also began to travel so as to build an export market for his wines in Europe, the Americas and the Far East. Primo Franco was one of the first pioneers to export the Prosecco and to introduce a different sparkling wine than Champagne into the international market. Although the estate is not open to the public for visits or tastings, Primo showed us around the vineyards and the cellar, as well as a panoramic view of the village and the Franco vineyards,before escorting us to the gorgeous modern tasting room to talk us through some of his wines. When you meet Primo in person, it is easy to understand his success – he is open-minded, knowledgeable and very charming, and his love for what he does is evident. First Primo explained to us that all Prosecco is made from Glera grapes and has to be made in certain designated regions only. It is generally a dry sparkling wine with with bottles labelled Brut having up to 12 grams per litre of residual sugar, Extra Dry having 12–17 g/l, and Dry being the sweetest at 17–32 g/l. Prosecco is permitted to be fermented in large stainless steel tanks (the cheaper varieties) but premium prosecco is made in exactly the same way as Champagne, fermented in the bottle. To find the premium stuff, look for the terms “Prosecco Superiore DOCG” on the label.). We tried four of their wines, starting with the entry level Nino Franco Rustico NV (a pale colour, fine mousse, an appley nose with a hint of yeast, and a refreshing palate with low acid); the 2013 Riva San Floriano single vineyard prosecco (a nose of white peaches and flowers plus a wonderful fruit salad palate but balanced by a clean acidity); the 2011 Grave di Stecca prosecco from a single walled vineyard (a yeasty and surprisingly herbal nose, far less fruit on the intense and complex palate with a long Champagne-like finish); and the 2013 Primo Franco with the highest sugar content at 27g/l (a shy nose but a lush palate of litchis and almost tropical fruits, creamy and mouth-filling with a very long, clean finish).
Having explored the Nino Franco vineyards, cellar and tasting room it was time to explore another part of the estate: Villa Barberina. Villa Berberina is at 18th century villa on the Nino Franco estate, set at the end of an elegant gravel drive among the vines and ancient trees in a peaceful garden complete with swimming pool and quiet terraces. Comprising five spacious bedrooms, a number of large living rooms, a library and a modern kitchen, the house ie available to rent either as an entire property or as individual bedrooms. But on this occasion the Francos had thrown open the doors of the villa for the exclusive use of our workshop participants for lunch and a photoshoot. But of course, there is no way that you will come into an Italian home without first being plied with food and both Primo and his glamorous, charming wife Annalisa were on hand to welcome us warmly, to pour prosecco and to present us with a feast of local meats, cheeses and breads as well as a seasonal asparagus risotto.
With lunch done and dusted, participants split up into groups and worked on their assignments. People quickly took advantage of our gorgeous location and spread out across the house and grounds, clutching food, bottles of Nino Franco and props from the gorgeous prop station that we had set up under the ancient stone arches. Meeta and I took a moment to catch our breath and to wander down to the vineyards with a glass of rosê, allowing people some space to develop their ideas. As we made our way back to the villa, we were amazed at the creativity of the photoshoots that had been set up. Here, a windowsill was being used as a tabletop; there a gorgeous breakfast tray sat on the gravel; and Ruby was doing a poolside shoot. We spent some time with each group, giving advice and guidance, before the thunderclouds that had been threatening all afternoon finally arrived and the heavens opened, leaving us shrieking with laughter and running back to shelter the villa for an hour or two of editing ahead of participants’ final assignment presentations back at the hotel. As always, the quality of people’s work and the amazing synergy that comes from working in pairs astonished us, as did the warm camaraderie over our farewell drinks. Our time on the Strada del Prosecco had not only awakened our creativity but also recharged our energy and grown our circle of friends and confidantes.
Organising a workshop long distance is never easy (especially when you are on a crutch after a broken femur as I was!), but for this workshop we had the good fortune of working with some of the most amazing people who made our lives so much easier. Dacotah Renneau and I have been friends for many years and as her job takes her to Valdobbiadene fairly often, she was invaluable as our eyes and ears in Italy, and was the driving force behind our hosting the workshop there. She had introduced us to our principal sponsors, Primo and Annalise Franco of the Nino Franco wine estate – and more generous, accommodating and charming sponsors you could not hope to meet. And then of course there was the super-accommodating team at the Hotel Diana where we and the participants would be staying – Michela, Francesca and Sauro were so enthusiastic and efficient and nothing seemed too much for them, both before and after our arrival. We were very pleased with their large breakfast room, much of which we had at completely at our disposal during the day for photoshoots, and the pretty garden which provided a great backdrop for participants to shoot their food. The basement also houses a large conference room ideal for slideshows and presentations, and the lunch that they whipped up for us on the first day was delicious. My and Meeta’s double room was clean, comfortable and of a good size with lovely views of the town and surrounding hills. It also offers excellent value for money and is only a short walk into the centre of the town. The workshop would also not have been the same without the generous support of Harper Collins who sent each participant a book of Donna Hay’s breathtaking book Fresh and Light; Zafferano who sent such exquisite props; and Masala Monsoon (a company run by a our good friend Sumayya Usmani) who donated little jars of their gorgeous floral garam masala blends – a massive thank you to all of you! And of course, none of this would be possible without my awesome, amazing and inspirational co-presenter Meeta, who rocks my world every time we work together!
General silliness in La Follina with Dacotah and participant Monica
Sisters from different mothers!!
For even more photos, please see my Flickr album of the weekend or the Storify summary of the weekend that I put together for your viewing pleasure. Here are some other perspectives on the weekend, from Meeta as well as from some of the participants who have blogs:
- Meeta’s Venicefoto – Inspiration on the Strada del Prosecco
- Monica’s Food photography in Italy
- Eva’s Food photography & styling workshop
- Andrea’s Prosecco Italy – May 2014
This workshop was generously supported by: