Earlier this year in May, I flew south towards Rome for my first workshop this year. Together with one of my most cherished friends and workshop partners Jeanne Horak-Druiff we were going to host and instruct a signature food photography and styling retreat just a stone’s throw away from Rome in the serenity of the Sabina Hills. Sabina's landscape is a tapestry of olive groves, vineyards and ancient hilltop villages, rich in medieval architecture and tradition. The images in this post will envelop you and capture you in the charm this region offers.
The region of Sabina is one of the least discovered treasures of central Italy. Known since the Roman times for its excellence in olive oil, it offers medieval historical centers, Roman ruins, churches with frescos of extraordinary beauty. Set in the Mediaeval Italian village of Torri in Sabina, our gorgeous Rome retreat venue was a spacious design villa, offering just the most stunning views over its own olive orchard, small vineyard and the drop dead landscape of Torri. This tranquil, stylish yet homely venue was home for 3 days and it provided us with a fabulous source of inspiration and offered us plenty of indoor and outdoor space for our hands-on exercises and photo assignments, and visual inspiration to access our untapped creativity.
I have known Jeanne for 8 years. Although we are different on a few scales, there are many things that make us tick like a perfectly tuned clock. What I admire about our friendship is that often not much needs to be said – it just happens and we roll the way path takes us. I count on her advice, her judgment and mad sweary humor. Workshops are all the more colorful when I partner with her. She has apt knowledge about the subject we cover and is never scared of hard work or moving tables!
On the team was the absolutely incredible Rissa Miller, who was not only my on-location liaison, chef, and gracious hostess but very fast became a rock to depend on and steadfast friend while we planned this workshop together. Nothing was too much for Rissa and I was able to pick her brains and brainstorm together with her at all hours of the day.
Chef Rissa Miller grew up on Vancouver Island in Canada, and has worked in restaurant kitchens for over 20 years. She studied cuisine and pastry at Le Cordon Blue, Paris, and has worked for acclaimed Chefs such as Joël Robuchon and Fabio Picchi. Rissa adores the Mediterranean food culture and way of life so she was just the perfect fit (I shall be ever grateful to Betsey ;o) for introducing us).
Jeanne, Rissa and I after sorting out a few glitches were well on the way of creating a unique retreat for our participants. It was not long and our Team Rome was set, with delegates coming from as far as Lebanon and Bahrain and as close as Germany, Switzerland and Ireland. As we communicated through emails with them it became quite clear that this group would be a fun and creative set of people!
As Jeanne and I came up to the driveway of the villa we were squealing like little girls as we saw the venue, the scenery, the weather – it was set for a perfect couple of days. Meeting Rissa in person finally just confirmed my warm feelings towards her. She was full of positive energy, drive and had a power to move even the Italian Carabinieri with her diplomatic charm!
And then there was Johnny Madge. The gentle Englishman who kind of won my heart over with his poise and polish. Johnny was part of the team and was going to be taking us on our foodie field trip, which is a fixed part of the European workshops. An olive oil expert and taster – he is the only foreign member of the Slow Food panel for the annual Guide to Extra Virgin Olive Oils – Johnny has been living in Italy for about 30 years.
I think our delegates arriving to the villa were stunned by the beauty of our surrounding. I almost got the feeling they were holding their breaths waiting to wake up from the dream.
The first morning began with lots of coffee and a beautiful sunrise over the rolling olive groves. Rissa had prepared nibbles and we retreated into the first sessions and discussions of the day. Jeanne began by covering a lot of the fundamental aspects of photography giving the delegates the valuable basis for controlling the camera and the setting. Jeanne also discussed restaurant and low-light photography with some helpful pointers and ideas she has gathered through the several years of blogging.
I moved onto the techniques of photography where we talked in depth about manipulating light, using it to create the desired atmosphere and mood for the images and how to create succulent stories using color and texture. We also discussed current food trends and many important topics revolving around photographing food: picking ingredients, cooking/photo time management, post-processing, finding the perfect composition and discovering an artistic style. An in-depth session on styling with many valuable tips and tricks on placement and composition, props and backgrounds gave a fantastic insight into the creative world of food styling.
Jeanne and I also gave a full session on mobile photography: working with various apps, creating appealing images with a smartphone and finding your mobile mojo!
Throughout the course of the day we were spoilt by our gracious hostess, Rissa, who provided us with beautiful fresh food, salads, pastries and drinks. Beautiful flavors in dishes like her fennel and orange panzanella salad, "cicerchie" beans with olive oil and a bit of parsley, a charcuterie board with wild boar and other salumi all made from pigs raised, butchered and cured by a single family in Norcia bought from a shop in Campo di Fiori in Rome, parmesan polenta cakes the gorgeous jam crostata and cakes – pure simple honest food – just like Italian food should be.
Dinner was a wonderful event. As the sun went down behind the hills, the village of Torri was illuminated in the entire color spectrum of a sunset – from a burning orange to a soft pink finally into a cooler blue. The chandelier in the villa came on and vivacious chatter resonated throughout the villa. “C’est bon ca!” as Swiss and Italian wines were uncorked and tasted. Pasta was rolled and cut, while several pictures were shot! The egg taglietelle pasta was served with a simple pomodoro sauce. There was a wonderful artichoke flan with parmesan bechamel sauce and a Tiramisu with rose zabaglione. The first evening ended on such a light and heady note (probably because of the wine) it felt like we had know each other for years not just a day!
Johnny returned the next day to take the entire group on our much awaited tour and olive oil tasting. Johnny first came to the region in 1982 to study architecture and to learn to carve marble in Carrara (he is a gifted carver and sculptor). Later on, he fell in love with the Sabina region, with the olive groves and the peaceful environment. Although he did not know much about olive oil, having some olive trees on his property, he followed a local person’s advice to leave the olives to dry on the ground for some days before taking them to the mill. The result was as he says the most terrible product. Since then he studied and tasted a lot of olive oil to learn what really is – and how to make – a good olive oil. Johnny is extremely passionate about what he does. Johnny’s tours and a revelation and delicious. As we drove through the gorgeous Sabina regions stopping in poppy fields and visiting a 2000 year old olive tree, Johnny narrated several anecdotes about how some of the best extra virgins are born here and how he came around to being the only foreign member of the Slow food panel for the annual olive oil guide in Italy.
We drove up a winding hill in Lazio towards the stunning Farfa Abbey and to Le Comari di Farfa, a wonderful secluded little trattoria perched on top of a hill, where we spent the rest of the afternoon. We were the only guests and as the lovely ladies in the kitchen prepared a typical rustic Italian lunch Johnny gave us the low down on olive oil. We started with a first for me – an olive oil tasting. First release all the aromas by warming the glass in the hands then capture these aromas by putting a hand over the glass giving it a good swirl. Taking a sip of the thick liquid we covered the inside of our mouths, making a hissing sound we were to send it to the back of our throats, then by breathing through the nose to get the most of the aromas. Some oils can burn but if there’s no smell or burn then it’s not extra virgin oil. We tried a few really good oils but to learn the difference Johnny made us taste a few low quality supermarket oils too.
During our tasting Johnny taught us all about olive oil including what extra virgin means, how olives are picked and oil is produced, and how to choose a good oils. I came away from this quite enlightened and I saw how Johnny captured all of us with his wonderful charm and charisma.
Lunch was a divine affair where the olive oils were highlighted in a fantastic manner. Each dish was a symphony of flavors and aromas and even though at some point we just could not eat anymore – we continued to indulge.
Back at the villa in Torri the participants tackled the final aspects of their assignments and presentations, while Jeanne, Rissa and I had a little time to enjoy the breathtaking view. We also spent time with each participant going through and tackling their individual challenges.
Looking back after so many months past – I have to say this was definitely one of the highlights of my workshop series. Each workshop offers a special something, often it is the partners I work with, the participants that make the event whole, or the location – there are so many aspects that come together to make a great workshop and here I strongly felt like it all fitted to create a harmonious and successful event.
My foremost thanks goes to our lovely Team Rome – who put their faith in Jeanne and me. We love what we do and when we meet open-minded passionate people who share a common hobby it becomes fun and a lot of creative ideas flow. Thank you for coming from Bahrain, Lebanon, Germany, Switzerland and Ireland. Thank you Nadine, Amal, Zehour, Karen, Nadja, Donya, Antje and Nemeth.
Thank you to the most amazing Rissa who’s warmth and grace captured all of our hearts instantly. Your passion and that gorgeous smile lights up any room. Your dedication and hard work made this a successful workshop and I am already looking forward to putting our heads together for the next one!
Huge thank you to Johnny for his knowledgeable insight and charm. You captivated us with your humble yet enigmatic way. The day spent with you was spectacular and an eye-opener on so many levels.
And to Jeanne – my sister-from-another-mother. Thank you for keeping with me each step of the way. I appreciate your support, advice and friendship without judgment and honesty.
I am putting together my workshop schedule 2017 and look forward to a few great events next year. Keep yourself updated on my workshop page or sign up for my workshop and e-course newsletter. Subscribers to my newsletter get priority registrations to all workshops and are informed first.
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