Roasting, or Searching for a Food Writing Style

‘”I’m thoughtful when I come to class. My aim this weekend is to bring more personality and feeling to my writing and photography, to transform the sterile and soulless and help it resonate with a wider audience.

Telling stories like this doesn’t come easily to me – I’m not an emotional person – but I know that the proof of the pudding is in the story; that it’s the tale that turns the ordinary into the extraordinary, that illuminates the subject and makes it come alive.

Roasted Veggies Photography www.paolathomas.com

The gilded smoky scent of roasted vegetables emanates from the oven. Aran has made lunch. I fix myself a plate of roasted squash, beets and carrots, perfumed with oil and herbs and speckled with spices. The tender squash is velvet smooth, the flavours nutty, complex and cosily sweet, the subtle colours running the gamut from gold to caramel by way of saffron, ochre and honey. In contrast, an uncooked squash sits on the counter with dishes of fresh raw carrots and beets. The raw vegetables are hard, knobbly – their colours almost aggressively vibrant – subtlety is clearly not their thing.

Vegetables Photography www.paolathomas.com

I chew thoughtfully on the warm soft velvety squash. I know now what I need to do. Roast my stories to bring out their flavour and sweetness. Texture them with salt and herbs and fragrant oils to reveal their hidden subtleties and complexity. Knock off their hard edges and soften their crunch to make them palatable and sweet.

I take another bite. Food for thought indeed.”

Food Writing Workshop Photography www.paolathomas.com

Ugh. The above is a writing exercise I did at the second workshop I took last October at Aran Goyoaga’s studio with the very lovely and inimitable Tara O’Brady (check out Luisa Brimble’s fab workshop here). All I can say is that I most definitely haven’t found my ‘voice’ yet. To me something like the above still sounds pretentious and inauthentic and I have to fight the urge to be snarky even when I’m writing about feelings and emotions that are actually genuine and real. Maybe snark is my authentic voice. I dunno. The only thing I know is that this food writing malarkey is hard, people.

Food Writing Workshop Photography www.paolathomas.com

Tara on the other hand makes it all look easy. The author of the wonderful Seven Spoons blog, she writes with a genuine depth of emotion that I can only dream of achieving; develops all her own distinctive and tempting recipes and does all her own food styling and photography. In her house. In between looking after her kids.

She’s also an amazing teacher. We focused during the workshop on writing and photographing with intention and purpose; developing and building a connection with your audience and how to evoke atmosphere and emotions with both words and photography.

It was heady stuff and brought to us by an accomplished wordsmith, who, unlike some purely visual people, could actually explain her thought processes and ideas. If you get the chance to be taught by Tara, jump at it.

Soup - Photography www.paolathomas.com

The above is a quick iPhone shot of the soup that Tara is styling and photographing above. Girl is a genius AND she’s bringing out her first cookbook later this year. Jump at that too. We saw galleys and it looks FABULOUS.

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Parsnip Cake with Bourbon Brown Butter Frosting

Parsnip Cake with Bourbon Brown Butter Frosting Photography www.paolathomas.com

As promised many moons ago I can now finally reveal my recipe for the Parsnip Cake that debuted back in Edible Seattle in January of last year. Editor Tara and I wanted the cakes in this series to make the most of seasonal, local fruits and vegetables, which hugely limited our scope in January when all that seems to be available round these parts is mountains of kale.  

We started playing with the idea of root vegetables and I remembered a carrot cake I had made for the Minx’s first birthday party back in the Dark Ages. The cake I had in mind was a  moist, squidgy cake, dense with raisins, and warmed with spices and maple syrup  – a comforting wintry sort of cake, made all the more so by snowy swirls of cream cheese frosting on the top. And then we started toying with the idea of substituting parsnips for the carrots.

It seems obvious that carrots can be added to cake – their flavour is delicate, sweet and clean and they are delightful eaten raw. Raw parsnips on the other hand are not so obviously appealing – the flavour is woody, less sweet and just deeply, deeply vegetably. So it was with some trepidation that I lifted that first test cake out of the oven. I needn’t have worried, the alchemy of baking had worked again. The parsnips had roasted within the cake to become soft, sweet and totally unrecognisable as parsnips, just adding an intriguing smoky undertone. Make this cake and I defy anyone to identify the secret ingredient. (The Minx adores this cake BTW).

I made a couple of other changes and substitutions, most notably replacing the raisins with tart dried cranberries, as they seemed more seasonal, and I liked the idea of cutting the rich sweetness a little.  A cream cheese frosting, as is usual with carrot cake, seemed to be the way to go, adding another little tang to cut the sweetness, but this time I experimented with browning the butter and adding some bourbon to bring out the smoky woodsiness the parsnips had added to the cake. I warn you now, this frosting is like crack on a spoon.

Parsnip Cake with Bourbon Brown Butter Frosting Photography www.paolathomas.com

The photography process was interesting too.

Following Tara’s art direction I started experimenting with something fashionably moody and almost Rembrandt-y in its lighting, but that seemed too spare and gloomy for this simple cake with its dark interior and plain white frosting. I decided instead to go for a lighter, cool blue grey palette instead, which would contrast with the rich browns of the cake, but seemed wintry in a more hopeful way and layered on the textures – weatherbeaten wood, rough burlap, vintage lace and hard glass to contrast with the soft sumptuous swirls of the icing.

Parsnip Cake with Bourbon Brown Butter Frosting Photography www.paolathomas.com

 We decided to slice the cake to make it more interesting and so it didn’t end up being just a giant white blob, but getting the slice positioned correctly was a challenge. Too far forward and the slice was in focus but the cake looked like a heap of mashed potato, too far back and the cake looked lovely, but the slice looked unappetising. It took me many shots before I realised that both cake and slice had to be on the same plane of focus and that I had to position something WAAAAYYYYYY at the back to take the eye through the photo and get enough blur that it wasn’t distracting to the main event.

They both took some experimenting, but I ended up being delighted with how both cake and image ended up. And I suggest you root around (ha!) in your vegetable bin, find some parsnips and get baking. And without further ado, here is the recipe you need.

Parsnip Cake with Bourbon Brown Butter Frosting
Serves 8
A rich moist parsnip cake with a decadent take on a cream cheese frosting
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Prep Time
45 min
Cook Time
1 hr
Total Time
1 hr 45 min
Prep Time
45 min
Cook Time
1 hr
Total Time
1 hr 45 min
For the cake
  1. 1 1/3 cups grated parsnip (woody cores removed)
  2. 1 cup dried cranberries, roughly chopped
  3. 6 tablespoons olive oil
  4. 1 cup light brown sugar
  5. 1 2/3 cups wholewheat flour
  6. 1 teaspoon baking soda
  7. 1 teaspoon baking powder
  8. 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  9. 1/2 teaspoon powdered cinnamon
  10. 8 tablespoons maple syrup
  11. 4 tablespoons orange juice
For the frosting
  1. 1 stick of butter
  2. 8 oz pack of cream cheese
  3. 1 cup powdered (icing) sugar (sieved)
  4. 2 tablespoons bourbon, or to taste (optional)
For the cake
  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit (190 degrees Celsius)
  2. Grease and line the bottom of an 8 inch springform cake pan
  3. Combine the parsnip, cranberries, oil and sugar in a large bowl.
  4. Add the flour, baking soda and powder, nutmeg and cinnamon, maple syrup and orange juice. Stir until everything is combined in a sticky, wet batter.
  5. Spoon into the prepared cake pan, level the top and bake for an hour, or until a skewer, knitting needle or stick of spaghetti stuck into the cake come out clean. The top of the cake should be firm.
  6. Let the cake cool in the pan before removing.
For the frosting
  1. Melt half the butter in a small pan over a low heat, stirring occasionally, until the milky solids turn medium brown and give off a nutty aroma (3-5 minutes).
  2. Remove from the heat immediately and set aside.
  3. Cool for about three minutes.
  4. Beat together the cream cheese and remaining butter.
  5. Pour on the browned butter and mix on a low speed until the mixture is cooled.
  6. Add the sugar a little at a time until fully combined and then increase the speed and beat the frosting until it is light and fluffy (about 3-5 minutes)
  7. Add bourbon to taste and mix until fully combined
  8. Use a knife or offset spatula to spread a thin 'crumb coat' of frosting over the fully cooled cake
  9. Add another generous layer of frosting and craft swirls with the back of a spoon.
Notes
  1. The recipe makes an 8 inch cake with frosting. For the large cake in the photograph I used one and half times the cake recipe and a double batch of frosting.The larger cake can be baked in the same 8 inch springform tin, but add around 15 minutes to the baking time and make sure you check for doneness with a skewer. Split the larger cake into two separate layers before icing.
Adapted from my own recipe that was originally published in Edible Seattle
Adapted from my own recipe that was originally published in Edible Seattle
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That Was the Year That Was–2014

 

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography www.paolathomas.com

We’re back from a truly delightful break in Whistler for Christmas, staying again at the Chateau Whistler, in what is now becoming an unbreakable family tradition. This year the usual Christmas magic – gorgeous decorations, amazing food, log fires and Santa on tap – was enhanced by an abundance of crisp white snow right down in Whistler village, which made for wonderful winter walks round frozen Lost Lake (this urban girl has never walked on a frozen lake before), snowball fights and snowman building with the Minx and lots of opportunity to contemplate ‘stuff’.

Lost Lake, Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography www.paolathomas.com

2014 was my best year in ages, for all sorts of reasons.

I started getting paid to do what I love. I now not only write and photograph regularly for Edible Seattle, but I also write and photograph a regular weekly travel and lifestyle column in local online magazine Seattle Refined. I’ve also photographed on occasion for Zagat’s Seattle and completed various paid freelance gigs. The pay is not amazing, but it is approximately eighty four gazillion times more than I was earning this time last year, and these gigs have given me the credibility I need to take on additional clients and approach other publications. Here’s hoping for oodles more interesting work in 2015 (and if you’d like to work with me, my portfolio is here, drop me a line!)

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography www.paolathomas.com

On my big birthday in 2013 I decided to hire a life coach, and 2014 was the year I worked with the amazing Susan Hyatt. She helped set in motion all sorts of deep-seated changes which I’m still processing and working on, but which I think will bear fruit into 2015 and beyond. You know I’m not a particularly woo-woo person, but I can’t recommend life coaching highly enough if you want to squeeze the most juice out of life’s lemons and make the very, very best lemonade. One of the simple things I worked on with Susan was to try and incorporate as much JOY as possible into my everyday life and do more of the things I really love to do and which nourish my spirit. I’m still really bad at doing this – at the beginning of 2014 I found it difficult even to identify the things which bring me joy – but I’m trying hard and getting better. Sometimes we get so caught up in deferring gratification and playing on Facebook that we end up having no gratification at all.

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography www.paolathomas.com

Having a bit more money coming in allowed me to travel more in 2014 than I had since before the Minx was born. Travel brings me JOY like nothing else, and I missed it so much when the Minx was little.  This year I was lucky enough to go to New York twice, once on an insanely wonderful BlogTour, which was a huge highlight of my year; to Tuscany for a life-changing (and I don’t use such terms lightly) workshop with Jamie Schler and Ilva Beretta of Plated Stories, where I decided I need to do more writing; to Rome and Sardinia for a lovely family holiday; and to Thailand, with Susan Hyatt, where I fell in love with a country, its people and its food.

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography www.paolathomas.com

I also spent a lot of time working on my photography, with is something else that brings me JOY. One of the things I love most about photography is how I learn something new every single time I pick up my camera, how every shoot brings a different set of challenges to overcome and puzzles to figure out. I’m still very, very far from where I want to be as a photographer, but having something to work towards is half the fun. Aside from the Plated Stories workshop, the two workshops I attended in October at Aran Goyoaga’s studio in Seattle were both spectacularly thought-provoking and useful and I hope to do more in 2015.

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography www.paolathomas.com

It seems I managed to pick up one or two good health habits along the way too. I received a free Barre3 class on my birthday in September (after half-heartedly attending one or two classes earlier in the year) and for some reason it struck a chord that time and I have since been going 4-5 times a week. It’s not exactly fun, and I haven’t lost much weight, but I feel immeasurably stronger, more toned and more flexible and my body feels so much better. I’ve just bought a year’s unlimited pass at vast expense, so I’m going to have to keep this up in 2015.

Over the last two years I’ve been battling adrenal fatigue and ever-worsening insomnia, which came to a head over the summer when I could hardly sleep at all. My health was depressing the hell out of me and we discussed it at length on the Thailand retreat, when one of my fellow retreaters mentioned that I might want to look at a therapy called TRE. It’s deeply weird, involving exercises that fatigue your core muscles and trigger off a natural instinctual shaking throughout the body, but it’s meant to bring deep relaxation and release deep-seated tension. I started doing the exercises and immediately started sleeping better and within two weeks I was sleeping through the night, something I have not done in years and I’ve been sleeping well ever since, with only a handful of bad nights. Not feeling tired during the day has been a revelation - I honestly couldn’t remember what that felt like – and recent bloodwork has shown that various hormonal imbalances I’ve had are starting to correct themselves. I’m working with a naturopath and a health coach to continue improving things through diet and am doing a Whole 30 for the duration of January.

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography www.paolathomas.com

Finally, and I know a ton of other bloggers have mentioned this, but at the tail end of last year I read a book entitled The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up which I think will actually be life-changing. It’s a charming book and an easy read and essentially encourages you to only keep the stuff around you that brings you JOY and let go of the stuff that doesn’t so it can bring joy to someone else. For some reason that really resonated with me – I now have ‘permission’ to keep that threadbare sweater which is so very comfortable and cosy and to let go of  expensive stuff I bought online which just doesn’t suit me, even though I’ve hardly ever worn it. Already many bags of stuff have gone to Goodwill and I want to continue this process slowly but surely in 2015 . I’m sure that freeing up space and the time spent in ‘stuff management’ will make room for other, more joyful, stuff to come into my life.

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography www.paolathomas.com

So my resolutions for 2015 are really to keep doing more of the same:

- Keep going with the TRE and hopefully keep on sleeping (honestly, if I can just keep this resolution I will be happy).

- Attend barre class regularly for a whole year

- Eat  nourishing food to rebalance my hormones

- Continue working on my photography (and writing) as much as I can

- Travel more (and to that end the year has already got off to a fabulous start with an invitation to go on another BlogTour to the Ambiente consumer goods fair in Frankfurt this February).

- Keep going with the magical tidying up

- Keep on using the fancy planner. It has hugely improved my productivity and focus.

- Refocus this blog as a living portfolio and blog at least once a week (as the lovely Luisa Brimble advised me to do during her workshop).

 

And my word of the year? Well, if you haven’t guessed already, it’s JOY – to continue focusing on activities which bring me joy; to squeeze as much JOY as I can out of the boring stuff that has to be done; and to surround myself with the people and objects which bring me JOY and let go of those that don’t.

Are you making resolutions this year? Or choosing to focus on a specific word? What are you doing and what word have you chosen?

 

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography www.paolathomas.com

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Fancy Hotel of the Week–Villa Chan Grajang

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com

Fancy Hotel of the Week-Villa Chan Grajang. Well, it’s not quite a hotel, but an absolutely stunning and very large private villa, but since it comes equipped with its own Thai chef, large staff and the most wonderful housekeeper ever, it feels like you’re staying in your very own exclusive boutique hotel and therefore seems to work for the purposes of this ongoing series (which I’m sure none of you remember, it’s been so long since I last did a Fancy Hotel post).

 Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com

One of the reasons I jumped at the chance to go to Thailand for a retreat with life coach Susan Hyatt was the fact that Miz Susan doesn’t do anything by halves. When she was organising her retreat she went straight to a website called AwesomeVillas.com which, awesomely, specialises in, you guessed it, awesome villas. Except that the villa we ended up in – the Villa Chan Grajang overlooking Surin Beach – was more than awesome. Stupendous and sensational are superlatives that come to mind, and, judging by the collective intake of breath that occurred when we all arrived, I guess breathtaking would fit the bill too.

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com

As you all know I have a terrible weakness for stunning architecture (an astrologer friend blames it on my moon in Libra), and, after living in Kinfolk in last week’s blog post, this was more akin to taking a vacation in Architectural Digest.

I was so happy here. The lines and symmetry of the buildings were incredibly soothing to the eye and to the soul; the saltwater pool was the perfect blue and the perfect length, and the minimalism of the buildings just served to enhance the spectacular planting and views. Everywhere you looked there was a new vista or detail to observe – a reflection, a shape, a shadow or a texture. My eyes were drowning in beauty, yet relishing every moment and it felt almost spiritually uplifting. It was an object lesson in how our surroundings can affect our moods and mental well-being for good or for ill, and one that I need to apply to my own untidy bedroom and office.

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com

Obviously we had to find out who was the lucky owner of such gorgeousness, and after a few judicious moments with Google, Susan worked out that it was the artist Damien Hirst. Which figured, as its cool white lines were not so very different from the cool white lines of his restaurant Pharmacy, which I used to live close to in my Notting Hill days. I don’t think I’ve been so jealous of a person in my life.

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com

Mr Hirst, if I promise never to call you a charlatan again, will you invite me back to your astonishing house?

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com

The beauty of the villa was only enhanced by the tranquil presence of Pom the housekeeper -  one of many people I met in Thailand who are beautiful both inside and out -  and her wonderful staff. I adored the Thai way of decorating with fresh flowers and little flourishes. The Thais take such pleasure in beautifying the everyday, which is another lesson I need to take to heart.

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com

The view from my bedroom

The food was faintly astonishing too – with mindboggling depths of overlapping spices, flavours and textures, presented again in the most beautiful way. Believe me, the overly salty and sugary Thai food you can find in the US or UK bears little resemblance to the subtle intricacies of the dishes we were served. In my next life I want to come back as someone who has a live-in Thai chef. Surely that wouldn’t be too much to ask?

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com

I loved this place. Loved, loved, loved it and couldn’t bear to leave. One day I will return. That’s a promise.

 

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com

The villa was even gorgeous in the rain

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography www.paolathomas.com

Did you notice all the beautiful women in this post? My fellow retreaters were some of the loveliest, kindest, most creative, thoughtful and inspirational people you could wish to meet. It was a privilege to get to know them.

The Villa Chan Grajang is available to rent through Awesome Villas. Please take me with you.

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Soul Food

The most wonderful thing about this food photography world that I find myself being increasingly drawn into, are food photographers themselves. For some reason which has so far eluded me, they are among the kindest, most generous, most creative and most inspiring people you could wish to meet, and none more so than Luisa Brimble and Aran Goyoaga.

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Aran was ably assisted by Luisa’s friend Adriana

As you may know Aran has recently moved to Seattle and started hosting workshops in her beautiful downtown studio. When I heard she had invited Sydney-based food and lifestyle photographer Luisa Brimble to host a workshop I jumped at the chance to attend – Luisa has shot for The Simple Things, Frankie and Kinfolk amongst others and has recently founded her own magazine in Australia, Alphabet Family Journal, because that’s what you do when your home magazine market is small and opportunities are limited.

She is also a firecracker in person – bursting with life, wit and enthusiasm – with an infectious energy and a warm, generous smile; and her photography is a dazzling combination of graphic simplicity infused with Aussie sunshine, exuberant colour and vibrant personality.

Luisa is particularly known for her overhead shots of people feasting around loaded tables, and she’d promised to give us a demonstration of how she puts such shots together. All this, plus Aran’s amazing food styling and the incredible beauty of the studio – honestly, people, it’s just like living in Instagram – made for a weekend that I won’t easily forget.

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While we chatted about photography with Luisa, and she told us how she had built her career through hard work, focus and determination (and I’m sure enormous talent and bucketloads of charm did no harm), Aran worked her food styling magic.

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Luisa then climbed her ladder and starting directing the photo shoot – as an ex-wedding photographer she is adept at getting the most out of her models. I, by contrast, just wish I could spritz the people I’m photographing with olive oil and manipulate them with tweezers, which is probably not the best approach.

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And this is the beauty that emerges when two huge talents collaborate (just a phone shot from me as there wasn’t room for us all up the ladder).

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Luisa then did one of her trademark ‘person with armful of flowers standing on a chair’ shots. Seeing her work with, and get the best out of, people was one of the most inspiring things about this weekend.

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See what I mean about living in Instagram?

We then got a chance to do our own photography and styling.

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And it was lovely to have tame and now fully-trained hand models available.

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Everything – food, props, light – was so darn BEAUTIFUL.

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Later that weekend we had the opportunity to watch and shoot Aran as she baked and styled a galette. It’s amazingly soothing watching her bake. She has a quiet serenity and focus about her which is quite mesmerising, particularly considering she was surrounded by loads of cameras when these shots were taken. (NB I am not remotely like this when I am cooking, but I think you probably guessed that already).

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I learned a ton over the weekend – about photography, food styling, how to build a photography career, build rapport with models and how to bake with methodical calmness. But also, and more importantly, I learned lessons from two very different women about how to live life with enthusiasm, grace, focus and immense and inspiring style. Well worth the price of admission I’d say.

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And yes, I shall forever feel inadequate that my eggs are not arranged by colour.

Aran is planning to bring more amazing photographers to Seattle in 2015. Check her blog or social media feeds for more workshop details in the New Year.

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Fish and Spices–the Wet Market in Phuket

 

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This woman was everything, everything

Dear hearts. I can’t believe how long it’s been since I killed some pixels in the service of this blog.

I have no truly compelling excuse, but have been busy with a new freelance job researching and writing a weekly travel post for Seattle Refined  (all enticing ideas for travel which will appeal to a Pacific Northwest audience gratefully  received).

Then most of October seemed to be swallowed up by a two week trip to Thailand, and the resultant packing, unpacking and crippling jetlag. Brace yourselves now for total Thai overload. I am totally, ridiculously obsessed with the country, its people and dear god, the food.  

Just to whet your appetite, I attended the magnificent Blue Elephant cooking school in Phuket Town on the last day of my trip and part of the class involved a brisk walk round the most fabulous wet market. We only had half an hour or so here as part of our workshop, which was tragic really, as I could easily have photographed here all day, every day for the rest of my life and not got bored.

All human, and, so it seems, aquatic, life is here, chaps, and I learned much about Thailand and its people.

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I learned that smiling is Thailand’s national sport and the Thai people are Olympic-level practitioners.

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Possibly because their babies are Olympic-levels of cute.

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Though I wasn’t quite sure about this comedy tee-shirt ( and neither, it seems, were they).

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I learned that Thais are also quite amazingly beautiful.

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As is their seafood.

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They enjoy hacking at things with big cleavers.

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Yes, that is a frog.

They will eat all parts of an animal (as is only right and proper).

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Yes, that is blood. 

And they are somewhat fond of chillies in all their forms.

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And there is no such thing as too many coconuts.

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I would give my eye teeth (if I knew what they were) to be able to shop in a market like that every day. Wouldn’t you?

Come and visit the markets of Campo de’ Fiori, Rome and the Cote d’Azur with me. Markets make me happy.

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Looking for Orcas in the San Juans

 

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This weekend we were dropping the Minx off for an eleven day camp at magical Canoe Island in the San Juan Islands, a couple of hours north west of Seattle (overnight camp!!!) and decided to make a weekend of it. On a bit of whim, we booked ourselves on a whalewatching trip to see the islands’ pods of resident orcas. Long time readers of this blog may remember that we’ve been twice before and not spotted even the fin of a single whale -  the mythical orcas were obviously a figment of the Washington Tourist Board’s imagination.

We set off on a glorious afternoon through the beds of bull kelp.

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The Husband and the Minx were excited.

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We spotted bald eagles

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and very charming seals

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and other whalewatching boats (always a good sign).

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And then, behold! A fin!

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In fact several fins.

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Coming closer

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and closer

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until, peekaboo I see you!

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Wildlife photography is HARD, people! The boat is always gently rocking, the boats are not permitted to get too close, and those pesky whales would pop up and disappear when you were least expecting it. These pics are the best out of dozens and dozens I took, of several different orcas. Male orcas have straight side fins and females have curved ones, and that’s mostly all you get to to see.

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We also had the company of a whitesided dolphin who kept racing our boat before moving over to the side to breathe. Our captain was really excited by this as apparently they’re rare in the San Juans and it was the first he had seen all year.

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The movement blur on the below was unintentional but I like it…

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After a while the dolphin spurned us, to go and play with one of the orcas! I would have loved to have had an underwater camera at this point.

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After that we headed back to Eastsound, and into the most glorious sunset. The stunning beauty of the day and of those playful giants of the ocean will live for a long time in my mind. Sometimes magical is not a strong enough word. How lucky we were.

 

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Seattle Urban Campfire

The LUCKY 7

I just wanted to mention a fabulous event happening in Seattle next week, featuring two amazing women I’ve come to know and love in the past year.

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The two quotes above are from Susan Hyatt whom I have been honoured to have as my life coach over this past year. We’re not quite finished yet but already the changes in my life have been profound and meaningful. I sort of started life coaching on a whim, but I truly would recommend it to anybody who wants to get the best out of life. As you know I’m not a very woo-woo sort of person, but it really has been immensely valuable. Who knew?  (And Susan herself is a darling and a walking talking inspiration to all busy enterpreneurial women out there).

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Susan is just one of many incredible women speaking at this year’s Urban Campfire in Seattle organised by the phenomenal Melody Biringer.  I met Melody properly last year at Camp Mighty, though she’s been big news on the Seattle and nationwide networking scenes for a long time as the founder of CRAVE. Here’s an interview with Melody, conducted last year before the first Urban Campfire, and here’s the list of speakers she’s gathered together for this year’s event.

Fortunately, given what she does, Melody is very fond of s’mores.

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I’d love to catch up at Urban Campfire if you’re going. Let me know in the comments or buy your tickets here.

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Whitney English Day Designer

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Dashing in quickly just to tell you all how an item of stationery is in the process of changing my life. Yes, I am a very sad person. But a new edition goes on sale tomorrow and I think you ought to buy it.

The Whitney English Day Designer already has a bit of a cult following among creative entrepreneurs and rightly so. The first ever planner designed specifically for us, the thought and care which has gone into every page is evident and heartwarming.

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Yes, that says “The Strategic Planner & Daily Agenda for living a WELL-DESIGNED LIFE”. See you’re inspired already. And yes, it is beautifully designed.

I know I’m already very late to this party, but I came across the planner on Instagram a couple of months back and was lucky enough to snag one of the very last available August 2014 – August 2015 planners. Tomorrow on August 15th planners for the calendar year January 2015- 2016 go on sale and I’d hate to see you miss out. Get in fast, these babies sell like hot cakes. Or like hot planners.

Anyway, here’s why I’m in love with this wonderful piece of technology.

The planner comes in a sturdy ring binder with a useful inside pocket, gold protected corners and comes packaged with a pink velveteen ribbon that also serves as a bookmark. My office manager Joan Holloway certainly approves.

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The first page gives you space to picture your vision and dreams and think about your passions, powers, principles and purpose. The planner comes with a code for a free downloadable e-book to help you decide what to put here, which I found really helpful.

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Then you use the work you’ve done in defining your ‘core’ to inform yearly goal setting, which then gets broken up into 3 month, 6 month, 9 month and 12 month goals for different areas of your life. If I get anywhere close to reaching these goals this year I will probably die of excitement. And yes, I have been colour-coding things using the official recommended pens (I do feel like I’ve joined some sort of cult). 

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Then you can set goals and big to dos for each month as well as viewing your month at glance. Aside from the colour-coded pens, I have also become the sort of person who washi tapes their planner. There really is no hope.

There’s a ‘year at a glance’ page too, in case you’re running out of places to put washi tape.

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Once you have your month beautifully planned there’s a whole page for each day, including spaces to put your to dos for that day and daily schedule. There’s a ‘Download’ section for notes (I use it to write a brief summary of my day), a place for a daily gratitude which is rather lovely, and somewhere to write what’s for dinner, which is obviously critical. There’s space to write your top 3 to dos for the day and each day also has an inspirational quote.

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In short, I shall henceforth be leading the mostly perfectly designed, organised and inspired life. Which really makes this planner very good value for money.

Get your January planner in the Whitney English Etsy shop this very morning.

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Colours, Cabbages and Cobblestones in Rome

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This year we decided to start our family vacation in Rome, and I went back for the first time since working there for six months way back when.

I had lived in an apartment in Campo de’ Fiori in the heart of the medieval Centro Storico, which I adored, and this time we decided to rent a really cute Air BnB apartment in the same neighbourhood. One of the things I love most about Campo de’ Fiori is the magnificent market which fills the piazza every morning and is a paradise for food and street photography. It was great just to hang out in the mornings watching the stallholders and restaurant owners set up, before the serious sightseeing of the day began.

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Come for a little walk with me through the twisty streets of Rome and the market of Campo de’ Fiori.

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Our apartment was in this little cobbled street between Campo de’ Fiori and Piazza Farnese.

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Fountain in Piazza Farnese

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We breakfasted every morning in the Caffe Farnese, five minutes from our apartment. Here is the Minx writing her vacation journal (she became markedly less diligent the further we got into our holiday).

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The market was a delight.

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Campo de’ Fiori means ‘field of flowers’ and that still rings true today.

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Rome was gripped by World Cup fever when we arrived, which lasted only until Italy’s ignominious defeat at the hands, or more accurately teeth, of Uruguay, which we watched in one of the open air restaurants in the piazza.

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Even my old friend, the statue of Giordano Bruno, which gazes out over the piazza at the site where he was burned to death, was subdued that evening.

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Unfortunately I made a terrible parenting mistake by buying Mission Rome for the Minx. It’s a sightseeing scavenger hunt book which I thought would keep the Minx vaguely amused if we took in a few sights.

Instead I refer to the review of the book I wrote on Amazon. My love/hate relationship with this book runs very deep.

Do not on any account by this book! *****

If you want to have a pleasant, relaxing, wine-fuelled Roman interlude that is… I bought this for my nine-year old daughter and then spent 3 days being marched all over Rome while she figured out every possible permutation of itinerary and points scores (also tremendously good for her math). Half of me was thrilled she was so inspired and half of me wanted to take the book to the very heart of the Colosseum (4 points), stab it, burn it and gouge its eyes out .

This book is like sightseeing crack, perfectly pitched at 3rd to 6th graders, and has pulled together some really interesting facts and cool things to locate, which kept the interest not just of my grade schooler but also of her exhausted parents. Thank goodness we only had three days to spend in Rome and very good walking shoes. Seriously you buy this book at your peril. Caveat emptor.

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Here’s the Minx scribbling in the accursed book and here’s the Husband just after telling some heinous lie to the Bocca della Verita.

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I think we stopped to talk to pretty much every cat in Rome.

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And, as has been the case since time immemorial, the cobbled streets of the Eternal City were filled with gladiators and nuns.

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It was lovely to be back.

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