We all the know the formula, right? Big house in the middle of nowhere. Bunch of diverse people from all over the place who sign up to live there together for a while. Strangers sharing living quarters, cooking together, eating together. Cameras absolutely everywhere throughout the house. Mentors available for a chat 24/7. Strange and sometimes inexplicable tasks and challenges set every day for the participants.
It’s Big Brother, innit??!
Well, no – actually it’s Plate to Page, the world’s favourite and original food writing and photography workshop. And when you put it on paper, it looks like a risky proposition for all concerned… and yet from this unlikely confluence of people, activities and circumstances grows an amazing energy, a flood of creativity, and strong bonds of friendship. We saw it the first time when we ran the inaugural Plate to Page workshop in Weimar Germany in the Spring. The question was whether we could repeat that incredible synergy in Tuscany in the Autumn with the second Plate to Page workshop. Do you think we succeeded? Read on and judge for yourself!
After months of planning, chasing sponsors, managing waiting lists, Skype meetings, and endless e-mails, the day finally dawned for me to fly to Italy to be reunited with my Plate to Page family (Meeta, Jamie and Ilva). Seeing Ilva and Meeta running towards me on the tiny platform at Seravalle Pistoiese was quite surreal – but nonetheless fabulous! That night after Jamie had also joined us, Ilva’s house was a flurry of activity: presentations to be finalised, sponsor samples to be unpacked and marvelled at, goodie bags to be packed (to bursting point and beyond!) before finally bunking down for the night like a slumber party for grown-ups. When we awoke on Friday morning, the first thought I had was “cold!” – but when we flung open the shutters we were greeted by the most perfect crisp Tuscan Autumn day imagineable. The weather gods were smiling on Plate to Page! Soon we were packing Ilva’s retro-tastic 1986 Fiat Uno to the gills with the goodie bags and speeding off to Il Salicone, the villa that was to be our home for the weekend, set among the vines, cypresses and golden autumn colours. We explored the villa and gardens like excited kids, discovering hidden bedrooms, frescoes, chandeliers and friendly felines!
Before long, our guests of honour – the participants – started arriving and we finally got to put faces to the names we had so far only “met” on e-mail: Marta and Kate from Belgium; Judith, Robin and Lynn from the USA; Alex from Italy; Elizabeth from Canada; Denise from the Netherlands; Valentina and Hayley from the UK; Heidi from Norway; and Olivia from Malta. We gathered over coffee and tea, casting shy glances at each other like teenagers at a disco, trying to gauge who we would first connect with. The first order of business was elevator pitches – a 5 minute slot for each participant that revealed the diverse and surprisingly emotional reasons why we blog. For lunch, we gathered in the villa’s old kitchen around a long table for out first Tuscan meal of fusilli Arrabiata, followed by tea and fruit salad in the garden. Already, barriers were breaking down and bonds were beginning to form.
But there was not much time for contemplation: After all this is Plate to Page – All Work and no Shop! Soon we were back in the classroom (albeit a classroom with chandeliers!) to discuss good and bad food photography before splitting into smaller groups of six for some pretty intense writing and photography exercises. Never let it be said that we break our participants in gently on the first day! The writing party decamped to the garden where we did our writing in the dappled late afternoon sun under the trees, watching the activity from the windows above us where the photographers were draping cloths to make diffusers and balancing boards precariously on windowsills. “What – you want me to rewrite my piece in the voice of a child? In ten minutes?!” was a pretty common theme… but soon all you could hear was the scratching of pens on paper and the tapping of fingers on keyboards – and the snapping of camera shutters! After the whole process had been repeated with the groups swapped round, we headed for the kitchen where the famously bursting-at-the-seams Plate to Page goodie bags were handed round, filled this time with goodies such as a home baking book from Taste of Home; a fantastic pack of four spices (black salt, tasmanian pepper, chipotle chile and saffron salt) from Smaromi; a deliciously pink block of Himalayan salt from Gourmelli (other bags also contained chocolates, mustards or vegetarian caviar from them); various kitchen tools from the Oxo Good Grips range; Jams fromSunchowder’s Emporia; a gorgeous knife from ZWILLING J.A. HENCKELS; a jar of sweet piquanté peppers from Peppadew; quick risotto kits from Riso Gallo; matcha powder from Matcha Factory; an adorable travel-size bottle of Tabasco; flavoured extracts (either vanilla or orange) from Nielsen-Massey. And although they weren’t in the goodie bags, there were numerous bottles of prosecco generously provided by Bisol consumed throughout the weekend to keep proceedings flowing smoothly. Dinner consisted of platters groaning with Italian antipasti, followed by steaming bowls of chicken cacciatore (THANKS ILVA!!) and a cheese board to fiish. And then, astonishingly, the troops were ready to head back to the classroom for a post-dinner presentation on photogrpahy (possibly the gentle lubrication of some bottles of Bisol Jeio prosecco eased the journey 😉
Saturday dawned misty and gorgeous but soon enough the sun broke through the clouds – it seems the sun always shines on TV Plate to Page ;). The day got off to a brisk start with another set of writing exercises encouraging participants to find their creativity and to think carefully about the language they use. Having covered the verbal part of the morning, it was the turn of the photographers to take charge and we all decamped to our gorgeous photography “studio” – tons of natural light and frescoes (baby, frescoes!). Ilva and Meeta both worked on creating a mood and helped participants not only with their camera settings but also provided food for thought in terms of fresh angles and compositions. Intriguing vegetarian caviar from Gourmelli, fresh-flavoured jams from Sunchowder’s Emporia and addictive sweet piquanté peppers from Peppadew made the perfect photographic models – and all our snapping away prompted the coining of the term “pepperazzi”! You could almost smell the brimstone as brains and creativity were stretched; and see the lightbulbs above heads as “eureka moments” were experienced.
But mankind (and bloggerkind) cannot live by creativity alone. Lunchtime provided us with the perfect opportunity to stroll down the road, through Il Salicone‘s vineyards bedecked in amber leaves, to their winery. Once we were seated contentedly in the sun at two tables in the garden, Nicoletta and her team proceeded to serve us with a feast: platters of cured meats; cheese with local honey; crostini with chicken livers; frittata …. We were so busy snapping away to get the perfect shot of drizzling honey and glistening olive oil that we scarcely noticed the arrival of a loaf of bread the size of a your average pillow and a cheerful orange tureen of ribollita (Tuscan peasant soup) – but we certainly wasted no time photographing them once we had noted their presence! For dessert, we had beautiful crostata, consumed while we sat as contented and happy as well-fed cats in the surprisingly hot Tuscan Autumn sun, discussing appropriate topics such as our preferred Deadly Sin out of the available seven (a definite leaning towards gluttony!). But the best was yet to come – hard cantucci biscuits to be dipped into the robust, fruity glasses of Il Salicone’s own Sangiovese wine, to be softened and stained the colour of blood, before being popped into mouths for a sweet, tangy, alcoholic hit. Tuscan heaven. All too soon we were stirred from our contented, somnolent state to follow Nicoletta into the cool depths of the winery to hear how their wine is made before heading back to the villa. The participants had a couple of hours on their own to work on a project, so I snuck off to make the acquaintance of a friendly piccolo gatto Toscano, and to try and capture the beautiful Tuscan surroundings on camera.
Late afternoon was spent listening to and giving feedback on the participants excellent work in teams on a written piece complemented by appropriate photographs (some outstanding work here, which we hope to showcase on the Plate to Page blog shortly!), before heading to the kitchen to prepare dinner. We all retrieved our smart new Zwilling aprons from our goodie bags and got to work preparing the artichokes and mushrooms for the two pots of risotto – our sponsors Riso Gallo had kindly provided the carnaroli rice. Dinner was once again a convival affair with rather a lot of excellent Bisol Crede prosecco and tales being told of how each of the participants had come to hear about the workshop – a surprisingly diverse range of circumstances! And even after the instructors retired to bed, exhausted, participants were still to be found huddled around laptops and tables, laughing, chatting and sharing stories.
Sunday was yet another perfect sunny Autumn day (does it EVER rain in Tuscany in the Autumn? Ilva??) and fortfied by breakfast and heart-stoppingly strong coffee, we once more gathered at the table for some of the most challengeing exercises (according to the participants): writing to a tight word count. Ever tried to convey a recipe in a tweet? You should – it’s refreshing 😉 Following that, the photography team took over again for presentations on workflow, post-processing, and the challenges of magazine photography. Having explained the final assignment to everybody, we headed downstairs where the lovely Paola and her team had already started covering the table in lunch – excellent charcuterie and crostini featuring the colourful vegetarian caviar from Caviart (sponsored by Gourmelli). This was followed by pizza, groaning under its toppings of buffalo mozzarella, capers and olives. Participants spent the afternoon paired off and working on their assignment, finding quiet, sunny corners of the garden to photograph and write in a perfect setting. With a little time to myself before I needed to go and check on each pair’s progress, I took a quick walk in the gorgeous vineyard and found myself befriended by another ball of feline fluff. Wonder if Easyjet would have let me bring him home as hand luggage?
For the last time, we gathered in the lecture room and as each pair shared their final assignment: a magazine article with photo illustrations. What struck me as I listened to everyone’s work was how committed each one was to the assignment; how brave they were to share their work with people that were complete strangers to them two days previously; and how much progress had been made in just two days. The weekend’s work certainly ended on a high note. Conversation around the dinner table that night was more relaxed and the Bisol Cartizze (an absolutely superb example of prosecco, full of complex apple and pear flavours) flowed freely. A first course of fried polenta topped with baccala in a tomato sauce and Peppadews; and pasta fritta filled with ham and cheese (absolutely, 100% addictive!). This was followed by ribs, spiced and cooked Tuscan style. And the grand finale was a selection of little jam tarts filled with our sponsor Sunchowder’s outstanding jams. The raspberry and habanero proved quite astonishing: the sweet hit of raspberry jam, followed by the serious afterburn of habanero chillies. It was a bit like finding out that a nun is wearing red lacy suspenders under her habit 😉 Even later in the evening, laptops were brought out and playlists scoured for potential singalong numbers (although there is no truth to the rumour that I know all the words to every ABBA song ever made ;)).
The next morning after breakfast there was a flurry of hugs and goodbyes and “see you on Twitter” as people caught taxis and packed cars to leave. We had come from far-flung corners of the globe, a collection of four instructors and twelve particpants who had never met. Bags had been packed, presentations had been prepared and camera batteries had been charged. We had greeted each other cautiously and then thrown ourselves headlong into the weekend. Heads were scratched, pencils were chewed and assignments were completed; props were moved, light was reflected and camera settings were pondered. Meals were prepared and eaten around a long table, alive with the sound of conversation and laughter. Wine was drunk, songs were sung and friendships were forged. And then just like that it was all over and we all went our separate ways, with only the photos and our tweets to prove we had ever been there; but all of us richer for the things we had learnt and the friendhips we had made.
Photo courtesy of Marta
And, once again… would you really trust these four to teach you anything?? ;o)
Last week we revealed the venue for Plate to Page UK taking place in Spring 2012 in a simply stunning seventeenth century Manor House in the lush landscape of Somerset. Since then we’ve been busy behind the scenes plotting and planning and I just wanted to give my readers a heads up: keep an eye on us on Twitter, Facebook or subscribe to the From Plate to Page website because on Monday 21 November we’ll be opening registrations to From Plate to Page Somerset and believe me, you do not want to miss this!
For other perspectives on the Plate to Page Tuscany weekend, have a look at what the other presenters and the participants have said:
Judith – Plate to Page magic in Toscana
Elizabeth – Plate to Page: eating and drinking in La Bella Toscana
Robin – Plate to Page Tuscany
Olivia – Plate 2 Page: the skills, the people, the fun
Hayley – Plate to Page Tuscany & a jam tart recipe