Monday, March 20, 2017

Plated Stories Food Photography & Writing Workshop Chinon, France

Once again, I proved to myself, some of the best experiences I've had both professionally and personally are the result of going on impulse. Score another point for Last Minute Lora.

It went down like this: I was home in Germany for several weeks and had just returned from a houseboat trip to the Mecklenburg Lake District with my family. I was planning to return to NYC a few days later and suddenly the TV show I was Executive producing was put on an extended hiatus.

That day, I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed when I came upon Jamie Schler's post about having one space left in this workshop. Before I even realized what I was doing I had spontaneously emailed her to see if the slot was still open. 

It was.

I fell in love with Jamie's award-winning blog, Life's a Feast years ago. Her writing is phenomenal and her beautiful recipes never failed to impress me. I was living in Germany full time when I discovered her and felt an E-kinship with her as one American expat to another.

Within 24 hours I swallowed any potential apprehension, postponed my NYC flight and booked my train ticket from Germany to France after snagging that last space. 

Best. Decision. Ever.

The theme of the workshop was Inspiration. At the time of the workshop, I was pumping out 24 posts a month between this blog and my German Food Page as well as producing a weekend morning breakfast television show. An inspiration reboot was welcome and needed.  

Jamie and her lovely husband had recently purchased Hotel Diderot in stunning Chinon, France. I kept up with this launch of her new adventure through her blog and social media. I'd also avidly followed the other workshops and food blogger retreats she had organized in the past years, thinking, "One day..." 

Well, that day came unexpectedly and what a treat. Jamie was handling the writing part of the workshop. Über talented photographer Ilva Beretta was handling the food photography section. 

I arrived at her magical hotel the day before the whole shebang was to start and was immediately taken by the hotel's charming grace. Unlike what was happening back in the East Coast of the USA at the time, spring was blooming in Europe. The hotel was an easy walk from the train station.

Buds were nudging their way out of the hotel's garden and purple wisteria exploded over its ancient walls. My room had lovely big windows overlooking the front garden of the hotel. So far, so good.

Jamie was out when I arrived, so I dumped my bags and headed out to take in my first impressions of this ancient city. It felt so good to be back wandering the cobblestone streets of Europe, the place I called home for over a decade. 

Charming Medieval Chinon is situated on the banks of the Vienne river in the wine-centric Loire Valley. It features picturesque winding streets, lovely shops and restaurants. 

Chinon is the birthplace of Richard the Lionhearted. The city is also noted for Joan of Arc's visit there in 1429. Her presence is widely represented. 

I poked around in churches and shops for a bit then returned back to the hotel where I was greeted by another workshop participant and fellow New Yorker, Renee, the sweet and talented blogger behind Kitchen Conundrum. She was sitting with Ilva. 

Jamie soon joined us. After chatting a bit, Ilva and Jamie left to organize the finishing touches for the workshop starting the next day. Renee and I moved to the little hotel bar to bond more over glasses of lovely local rosé, then headed out to find dinner in the heart of the city. 

It was late by that time so we had a few choices of restaurants. We settled in outdoors at a lovely place. I admit I felt a bit American ordering a burger. It had been a long time since I'd had to navigate France with my horrible French. 

It also didn't help that the restaurant's menu was displayed on a chalkboard by someone whose handwriting I could not read, even if it was in English and darkness was setting in. Between Renee, whose French was thankfully way better than mine and a friendly Frenchman sitting solo beside us, we muddled through. 

I ordered a sample platter for dessert. Wow. Tired and tummies full, Renee and I enjoyed our walk back to the hotel.

The next day we met downstairs for breakfast. I can't even describe how cozy the vibe is in the hotel's breakfast area. There's a fireplace and cabinets full of jars of jam. 

On display across all the tables were the results of the hotel's long history of jam making. Lots of fantastic flavors, some with humorous names. 

Large jars filled with every possible fruit combination were everywhere. Jamie encouraged us to seek out other flavors on the other tables for sampling. Sharing and talking about the jams with other guests added to the warm, family-like atmosphere.

Even though the jams are the star of the show, the hotel also offered up lots of other goodies. There was local apple juice, locally made goat cheese, served with walnuts to crack and honey to drizzle over, two types of lovely yogurts to swirl jam into, a gorgeous basket of bread, brioche, baguette and croissant along with coffee and teas.

I called breakfast at Hotel Diderot a Jam Session because, even though everything is delicious in its own right, basically it was an excuse to experiment with every possible jam and food combination available. 

There were so many delicious flavors but I admit I was partial to the banana version. Jamie spent time working with the previous owner of the hotel learning his recipes. She continues to add her own fabulous flair to new batches. 

After breakfast, there was still time before the other participants arrived. Jamie and Ilva were planning to head out to the city (a short walk) to run some errands for the workshop and the hotel. 

Renee and I asked if we could help. They had it handled so we just followed along like ducklings behind them, helping carry things and gawking at the beauty of the place.

First stop was the outdoor market. Yay! We watched Jamie pick up the hotel's fresh goat cheese from the local goat cheese man. 

She and Ilva selected fresh fruits and vegetables both for feeding us and as props for the photography part of the workshop. Everything on display looked so perfect. Not a blemish anywhere on any of the produce. 

Then it was a very boring stop (not) to a local bakery where Jamie picked up gorgeous quiche and pastries for lunch. We're still talking about this one:

This was Jamie, btw, perpetually in motion between running a hotel and the workshop.

A few stops later, Renee and I were back at the hotel, eying each other, thinking the same thing...let's go back to the market!

So we did. Another lap at a more leisurely pace revealed wonderful vendors like a woman selling handmade baskets from Madagascar. 

Inspired by the whole spring in France vibe, I immediately fell in love with the green and pink tulip shaped one on the extreme left below.  $16 euros later, it was mine. 

We then moved over to the soap vendor who had what seemed like hundreds of fragrance varieties available. 

The vendor himself was hilarious, an extremely gregarious guy. Renee and I spent what seemed like an hour, sniffing soaps like junkies and having funny conversations with the owner. 

He pulled in other happy market vendors for language consults when no one could figure out the name of the fragrance in English. We purchased soap an moved on.

The flowers and herbs made me so happy. When I left NYC it was bleak and snowy. I love snowy but we were at the end of what seemed like an endless winter in NYC. 

The warm Loire Valley weather and the flowers and produce refreshed the Spring in my soul. 

As girls do, we moved on to the shoes. I had spotted a specific pair when we flew through the market earlier with Jamie and vowed to come back to check them out. Here they were, in my size and 45 euros later, they were tucked into my new Madagascar tulip basket. 

Scarves were also purchased and I couldn't resist olives marinated in oil and lemons. After I fumbled in my bad French to the vendor and let a German word slip, he happily switched to German. Whew. After that, the transaction went swiftly. 

Then it was back to the hotel to help prepare lunch in Jamie's historical kitchen and greet the other members of the workshop.

I know at this point it's hard to believe we were there to work, not shop. But it was time to eat, present our elevator speeches and get to work.

Paola and Stacey's arrival bumped up the energy of the group another notch. We were still waiting on Michaela and Cornelia who unfortunately had car trouble on the way from Vienna. We went ahead with lunch (those Quiche!) and Paola and Renee pitched in to make the salad and the dressing. 

After lunch, it was on. We spent the rest of the day and the next working on photography and writing assignments using the hotel and the ancient city as a backdrop and inspiration. Jamie and Ilva pushed and prodded us to break our own set patterns in our creative work by trying out new ideas and styles. Our missing two participants eventually arrived in time for dinner.

The days were divided in half, photography, then writing. Our small group convened after every assignment to review and critique each other's work. And of course, there was Marty, Jamie's huge character of a Boston Bull terrier, who has since crossed over the rainbow bridge. Marty was everywhere snorting like a coke fiend, generally being lovable and was the perfect addition to the group.

My big handicap was my camera. I had arrived in Germany with only a point and shoot. Of course, I had fully intended to upgrade my camera for at least year prior, but with a full-time TV job, a part-time writing job, a blog to feed and various other obligations, researching a new camers putchase just kept getting pushed to the bottom of the list. 

Ilva handled my dilemma perfectly. More importantly, I learned so much watching her critique and encourage the other skilled and talented photographers in the group, seriously talented people whom I learned from as well. I felt privileged just to be in the room with them and loved looking at their work.

Having reviewed some of my previous work from my blog, Ilva was determined to break me out of my own patterns. I have a confession to make. I was a macro whore. I rarely budged from using the two macro setting on my camera when photographing food. Ilva would sneak up behind me when I was working on an assignment, snapping me to attention to pull back. She excelled as a teacher with this remedial student. Here's Ilva working away.

Since the workshop, I've graduated to an SLR Canon Rebel and am a macro whore no more. A rebel is not a hugely professional leap but I am much happier with the quality of my pictures. Baby steps people. 

On the second night, Jamie had organized a dinner at a local restaurant run by a talented chef and her husband. We were treated to sparkling wine upon arrival.

The restaurant itself had an open kitchen where diners could see the chef working. This sole being in the kitchen turned out the most gorgeous food and presented as if a professional food stylist had slaved over each dish.

Inspired by the spirit of the workshop, I stepped out of my comfort zone and ordered veal which did not disappoint. The arrival of my pink pear dessert caused quite a stir at the table. 

The next day, after our work was done, Renee and I took a hike up into the hills above Chinon. 

We wound in and out of charming streets and loved noting details on doors and houses, the flora and the fauna.

Returning to town we stopped at a bakery. Someone had to buy this pit bull's head-sized meringue that was as delicious as it was stunning and it might as well have been me. 

We also loaded up on some goods at a beautiful kitchen and dining shop. 

On our last full day of the, a visit to Chateau Riveau, one of the local Chateaus the Loire Valley is famous for, was organized for an inspiration assignment. We received a private tour of the gardens and buildings from the Chateau's charming owner and experienced a lovely lunch on the grounds. More on that in a future post. 

I gained a lot from this workshop. Living, working and eating together with seven other talented, very creative women was an incredibly uplifting experienced. 

The theme of the workshop was Inspiration and Creativity, I felt immersed in both. We laughed a LOT (ok I may have cried a bit as well). The collective support and sense of humor buoyed us through insecurities and creative blocks.

When it was time to say goodbye, I couldn't help but feel I was parting from family. We packed a lot of fun, learning, exploring and culinary experiences in a few days. I came for inspiration and I got it a thousand fold. The people, the city, the hotel, the workshop, all of it an inspiring and unforgettable experience. A big thank you to Jamie and Ilva. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

1 comment:

  1. First of all I must compliment you for your excellent memory! And that is all I will say on that subject. I really enjoyed being brought back to Chinon with you and the others, not only did you take a lot of great photos, you also made me remember things I had forgotten! It was such a pleasure to do that workshop with you, I have vivid memories of you crouching on the gravel doing your macro thing... Thanks a lot for this wonderful write-up that not only brought me back in time but also made me want to do it again! /Ilva


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