Question: What do you get if you mix together 14 women, one man and a hyperactive border collie in a remote Somerset farmhouse? No, it's not the start of a complicated joke, or the premise for a horror movie, but an equation for Plate to Page Somerset food writing and photography workshop which took place in May at Meare Court Farm, a gorgeous restored Grade II Listed stone farm building near Taunton. It's the kind of place where you are woken up by the cows lowing in the morning; where all cooking is done on a gorgeous old AGA; where bedrooms are snuggled under the rough hewn beams of the old rafters; and where you can accidentally leave your keys hanging on the outside of the front door all night (as we did...!) and nothing happens! In other words, it is the perfect English country retreat where 11 participants and four instructors could sequester themselves for a weekend of intensive writing and photography.
By late morning on Friday, the first of the participants 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 the instructors 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 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.
Lunch was followed by a brief presentation food writing and photography and then participants 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 something meaningful 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 and could reward ourselves with a glass of Bisol 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, washed down with Bisol's Crede prosecco and followed by exuberantly pink raspberry Eton Mess - delicious with the gentle flavour of vanilla from our sponsor Nielsen-Massey. After dinner, everybody turned in for a quiet and relatively early night.
Saturday morning started off with a hearty breakfast of toast, bagels, muesli, yoghurt, cold meats and cheeses - including the rather awesome Capricorn Somerset Goats Cheese from our sponsors. And then 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. To put these skills into practice, we then headed for our first visit of the day: Brown & Forrest, a small family-owned smokery in nearby Hambridge. Here, we met the charming and enthusiastic owner Jesse Pattison who took us into the smokery to show us how they hot and cold smoke everything from salmon to eels to garlic, cheese and salt. We also got to enjoy some of the smokery's products: cold-smoked salmon; hot-smoked eel, chicken and duck; and some excellent smoked trout paté.
After our visit to the smokery, participants were treated to an English pub lunch. The Canal Inn certainly fits the bill in appearance, with its gleaming draught beer taps, dark wooden beamed interior and low ceilings. Staff and regular patrons were a little taken aback when 15 out-of-towners descended on them and spent the first 10 minutes snapping pictures of everything from the decorative horse brasses to the vinegar bottles - but then how were they to know that these were 15 people on a mission who had to write up the visit as part of an assignment! We enjoyed a starter of asparagus with a poached duck egg and hollandaise; a main of seabass; and dessert of a berry tart with clotted cream. Maybe not traditional English pub food, but lovely nonetheless. And from there it was back to the house for a large pot of coffee, some fortifying luxury almond nougat from South African company Sally Williams, and a writing workshop before participants were turned loose in pairs to write a blog post on the morning's visit to the smokery, while instructors had the opportunity of spending time with each team, providing individual support, advice and guidance. Once all the groups had finished and presented their pieces, it was back to the house for a catered dinner of carrot & coriander soup, salad and mackerel pate starters; poached salmon, roasted chicken with pears, and butternut risotto for mains; plus a mixed berry Eton mess, a lemon cheesecake and a fresh fruit salad for dessert, washed down with Bisol Jeio Rosé prosecco - nobody went to bed hungry or thirsty!
Bright and early after breakfast on Sunday, Jamie and I led the group back to the training room for another challenging writing workshop - although there was much head scratching, inspiration did finally strike everybody and participants produced some great work. After we had warmed up the crowd, Meeta and Ilva took over with their post-processing presentation while Jamie and I went to meet the lovely Hayley, a Plate to Page alumna from Plate to Page Class of Tuscany who had offered to come and help us cook on Sunday and bring us a mid-morning snack: astonishing hand-made raw chocolate truffles from our sponsor Raw Love Life. fHayley whipped up a fantastic kedgeree for lunch, using the nutty and delicious Gallo 3-grain that we had received from our sponsors; followed by a beautiful Victoria sponge cake, using with the incredible (and gorgeously packaged) jams supplied by our sponsor Sunchowder - think flavours like peach-lavender, raspberry-pepper, strawberry-balsamic, or pineapple-tangerine. To drink, we indulged in Orchard Pig's fresh and delicious range of fruit coolers and Bisol Cartizze and Bisol Jeio Rosé. Meeta and Jo even found the time to fit in an impromptu modelling shoot for me in the garden, showing off their stylish and practical Kelly Moore camera bags - the bags for people who don't like to carry a camera bag.
After lunch, participants were once again set a task to perform in groups of two and left to work on their own while the presenters moved between groups offering advice and guidance and Hayley got to work on dinner, stuffing the gorgeous legs of lamb that Donald Russell had sponsored with smoked garlic provided by The Garlic Farm, using the ultra-sharp ceramic knives kindly provided by Edge of Belgravia. The smell in the kitchen by mid-afternoon wonderful beyond words. As the afternoon drew to a close, we gathered in the training room for a final time to hear participants present their final project. But of course, mankind cannot live by writing and photography alone: to fortify everyone for the presentations, we broke out the boxes of Bluebasil Brownies - delectable, gooey brownies in flavours like Caramel Crunch, Cardamom and Chocwork Orange. A large helping of chocolate and 60 mins later, we were done with the last of the participants' presentations, and off to the main house for a traditional English farewell dinner of wonderful asparagus from The Garlic Farm, followed by the utterly delicious slow-roast legs of lamb and washed down with plenty of gorgeous French red wine called Domaine of the Bee.
Breakfast the next morning was a sombre affair - 15 people who had arrived as strangers were leaving as friends: inspired, motivated and happy, yet also tinged with sadness that we had to return to the real world. If you want to be part of the next Plate to Page Workshop, please subscribe to our RSS feed, Facebook page or Twitter feed so that you can be among the first to know when ticket sales open for Plate to Page 2013!
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)