Rhubarb, Orange and Thyme Crostini

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Just back from a lovely Spring Break in San Francisco and Mexico (of which more anon) and dashing in to tell you to head over to Coco + Kelley blog, where you’ll find my recipe for rhubarb, orange and thyme crostini.

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They’re a great savoury way to use rhubarb and look so pretty and spring-like. And now to get back to my unpacking. I’ll be back soon.

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Pink Lady

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Last October I taught a food photography workshop with my dear friend Danielle Acken in Fowey, Cornwall (of which more in another post) and there was a lot of talk of entering the Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year Competition, a specialist food photography competition sponsored by Pink Lady Apples in the UK, but with global reach and prestige.  I’d never entered a competition before, but I’ve been wanting to get my work out there, so it seemed like I had nothing to lose. 

But you still could have knocked me down with a feather when my images were shortlisted in four different categories. What’s even more gratifying is that the images chosen represent three different facets of my work, so I couldn’t be more pleased. The shortlisted images are chosen anonymously by an international panel of incredible judges, who also choose the finalists. However, there’s also a People’s Choice finalist in each category, which is where you guys come in. 

The image above, which I took at Robert Ramsay Cellars, is a pure portrait. I do love shooting at wineries – the barrels curve and bend the light like nobody’s business and when you add in a good-looking winemaker, magic happens. It’s been shortlisted in the Wine Photographer of the Year – People section, sponsored by Errazuriz and I would love you forever if you could vote for it here.

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I thought I’d make an effort for the Pink Lady – Apple a Day category. I’d been seeing apple roses all over the Internet, and though it would be fun to make some with Pink Lady apples (I’ll post the recipe up later). Cue me burning a couple of attempts and then desperately trying to conjure light out of a dull January afternoon in Seattle. But in the end I got the shot I was aiming for.

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The final two images are street photography/culinary travel photography pure and simple. The first one was taken in the Marais last year. I was first struck by the beautiful green of the doors and then noticed that they framed an incredibly French scene of joy in food and friendship. This one is shortlisted in the Food for Celebration category. 

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And finally were in this little restaurant in Tuscany, when, as we were leaving, the ‘chef’ emerged from her tiny kitchen at the back. It had obviously been hard work preparing all our meals, and at the moment she clearly couldn’t wait to see the back of us. She is in the Food For Sale category, and I love how she encapsulates the harsh realities of getting food onto our tables. She is me when I’ve been catering for a big party. 

If you’d like to vote for any of the three images above, they are shortlisted in the Food section and you can vote for them here (you get one vote for Food and one for Wine) and again I promise to love you for ever and a day.

Thank you dear friends! I’ll let you know how things pan out. 

If you’re remotely interested in food photography,  I urge you to check out all the galleries. There is some astonishing work in there. And contributions from good friends Ilva Beretta, Danielle Acken, Sofia Plana, Sandrine Fauconnet and Melissa Love. 

 

 

 

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Home Thoughts, from Abroad

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Home Thoughts from Abroad

BY ROBERT BROWNING

Oh, to be in England

Now that April’s there,

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And whoever wakes in England

Sees, some morning, unaware,

That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf

Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,

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While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough

In England—now!

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And after April, when May follows,

And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!

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Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge

Leans to the field and scatters on the clover

Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—

That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,

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Lest you should think he never could recapture

The first fine careless rapture!

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And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,

All will be gay when noontide wakes anew

The buttercups, the little children’s dower

—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

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Last April we went back to England in the Springtime and spent a couple of days in the Cotswolds. I’ve been feeling homesick every since.

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Rhubarb Polenta Cake with Orange and Cardamom

 

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Occasionally developing recipes is easy. I dream up a flavour combination, figure out the technicalities, make a test version and bam! it works first time.

This, however, was not one of those occasions. This cake, that I made last winter for Edible Seattle, kicked my ass forwards, backwards and into the middle of next week. This recipe is based on a traditional Italian ‘torta di polenta’, to which I thought some seasonal rhubarb would be a lovely addition. And when you have rhubarb, then it’s not much of stretch to pair that with orange and cardamom.

What I couldn’t figure out though, was how to incorporate the pieces of rhubarb to make the cake look pretty enough to go in a magazine. Although my family will eat anything that tastes good and is vaguely cake-shaped, for a magazine you need to have somewhat higher standards.

First I tried to make it like an upside-down cake. The concentric circles of rhubarb looked pretty, but the anaemic yellow of the cake’s underside made the whole thing look like an unappetisingly pallid frittata, which I soon gave up trying to photograph. But boy was it good – with its damp, buttery richness offset by the tang of the rhubarb and citrus and the pleasing bite of the polenta.

For my next trick I painstakingly arranged the rhubarb in concentric circles on the top of the cake. It looked magnificent and my hopes were high. Until I dropped it as I was carrying it to the oven. I scraped it back into the tin (thank goodness for the five second rule) and baked it, and the family loved it because it was cake, but it wasn’t anything I could photograph.

I whipped up another cake, again made an intricate rhubarb design on the top, managed to get it into the oven in one piece and then the rhubarb design promptly sank into the cake while it was baking. All I can say is that it’s a good job this cake is so delicious.

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By now I was coming up against the copy deadline. This time round I abandoned the concentric circles and made up for rhubarb sinkage by sprinkling the top with some sliced almonds. And finally I got a cake I could use. With the deadline looming and in the flat winter light of a rainy December afternoon, I managed to grab a few shots, which I felt were OK.

So you could have knocked me down with a feather when my cake somehow wound up on the cover.

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You really do need to make this cake. It may not be the world’s prettiest, but when you’re curled up with a good book and a coffee on a damp spring afternoon, there really is nothing better.

Rhubarb Polenta Cake with Orange and Cardamom
Serves 10
The moist buttery richness of this cake is cut by the tang of rhubarb and citrus, while the polenta has a pleasing bite to it. Perfect for curling up in a chair with a good book, while the rain cascades down the windowpane.
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Cook Time
50 min
Total Time
2 hr 30 min
Cook Time
50 min
Total Time
2 hr 30 min
Ingredients
  1. 2 cups rhubarb, fresh or frozen, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
  2. 2 tablespoons turbinado or demerara sugar (granulated sugar would also work here)
  3. 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
  4. Approximately 1 teaspoon flour for coating the pan
  5. 1 cup caster/superfine sugar
  6. 2 cups almond flour
  7. 3 extra-large eggs
  8. 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  9. Juice of half an orange
  10. Zest of two oranges
  11. 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon polenta or grits
  12. 1 teaspoon baking powder
  13. 1/4 teaspoon salt
  14. 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  15. Approximately 2 tablespoons sliced almonds to decorate
Instructions
  1. Grease and flour a 9-inch cake pan and cut a circle of parchment paper to line the bottom. A Springform pan will make it easier to remove the cake.
  2. Using a stand or hand-held mixer, beat the softened butter and sugar together until pale, light, and fluffy (about 4 minutes at a medium speed).
  3. Stir in the almond flour, then beat in the eggs, one at a time, until the batter is airy and soft.
  4. With a large spoon, fold in the vanilla extract, orange juice, and zest.
  5. Add polenta, baking powder, and salt, still folding gently.
  6. Fold the cardamom into the batter until evenly distributed.
  7. Spoon the batter, which should be a mousse-like consistency, into the prepared pan and smooth it out to the edges with a spatula.
  8. Take the marinated rhubarb pieces out of their syrup and drain on a paper towel.
  9. Press the rhubarb into the cake batter and scatter the sliced almonds over the top. Some of the rhubarb pieces will sink during baking, so you will end up with a rhubarb-studded cake.
  10. Set the prepared cake pan on a baking sheet and bake in the preheated oven 50–60 minutes. The cake should be firmly set in the middle and a deep golden brown on top.
  11. Remove from the oven and let sit 5–10 minutes, until the cake shrinks away from the sides. Then remove from the pan and leave to cool on a wire rack.
Notes
  1. Note: The leftover syrup at the bottom of the rhubarb bowl is delicious on yogurt or ice cream, or you can pour it over a slice of the cake just before serving.
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Robert Ramsay Cellars

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The better I get as a photographer, the more I enjoy shooting people. You have to be totally in charge of your camera to shoot people successfully – to catch the intimate moments, genuine smiles and the light shining just so on their faces.

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Unlike food, people don’t sit around patiently while you spritz them with olive oil and tweak their garnishes, or spend ages futzing with the settings on your camera. You need to be able to think on your feet, make the most of the available light and instantly know which button on your camera does what, and for a long time that totally freaked me out.

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You also need to create genuine rapport, to make people who aren’t used to having their photos taken relax and connect with the camera. I’m not sure I could ever do that in an anodyne studio, but I’ve grown increasingly to love taking environmental portraits of the chefs and food artisans I meet every day.

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I’ve found that when people are in their natural habitat – describing and showing you the work that they love – all fear of the camera melts away, and my job as a photographer becomes exponentially easier.

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Of course it helps if you have, as I did on a recent shoot at Robert Ramsay Cellars , the world’s most photogenic family, complete with tiny blonde four-year old; a female winemaker who looks like Kate Middleton, and stacks of barrels and boxes, that bent and shaped the light amazingly.

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Because when you have those things, magic happens.

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The wine in those barrels is pretty magical too. I’m a particular fan of their rich, smooth Par La Mer blend. Thanks so much to the Harris family and winemaker Casey Cobble for being such great sports and making my job so very easy.

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Fancy Hotel of the Week: Hotel Diderot in Chinon

When my dear friend and mentor Jamie Schler – food writer extraordinaire – announced last year that she and her husband Jean-Pierre were taking over the Hotel Diderot in the Loire Valley, I decided to tack a trip to France onto our planned vacation in England. A workshop was arranged, my friend Stacey and I spent an incredible day in Paris before taking the train down to Chinon, and I returned to Seattle sated with beauty, inspiration and croissants.

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And I realise that I never ended up blogging about Jamie’s wonderful hotel. If you’re visiting France and want to stay somewhere just bursting with charm, history and inspiration; stunning rooms; exquisite breakfasts; and, exceptionally delightful proprietors, then I recommend you book immediately.

When it comes to property you can keep your two-car garage, your granite countertops and your walk-in closets. The only things I’ve ever truly coveted in a house are a mature wisteria, a gravel driveway of exactly the right sort of crunchiness and a wrought-iron spiral staircase.

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As I turned into quiet, cobbled rue Diderot, the first thing I saw, piled up on the weathered stone gate pillar like an old lady’s swimming cap, was a wisteria of exceptional age and magnificence.

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Worse was to follow.

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The gravel of the entrance crunched in the most deliciously satisfying way and as I turned to look at the façade, I saw, to my chagrin, the pièce de résistance spiralling upwards. Quelle horreur!

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Jamie greeted us and showed us to our room.

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Of course there were acres of toile de Jouy and ancient beams and French doors looking out onto a pretty terrace wreathed in peonies.

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Tentacles of jealousy started writhing around my cold black heart – this was not just any hotel, it was the fantasy French hotel of everyone’s dreams.

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To be fair to the woman, it seems like there might be a little work involved in running a successful hotel.

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Jamie posts exhausting updates on Facebook describing her efforts to keep the perfect preserves cupboard stocked with delicious jams of every conceivable flavour and hue.

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It is possible that getting up early to prepare a magnificent breakfast replete with locally sourced goat’s cheese, walnuts and honey for hungry hordes of eccentric English tourists is not always sweetness and light.

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And I’m prepared to accept that ensuring all twenty-three bedrooms are lovingly cleaned and tidied each and every day might get slightly wearing, as well as spending the winter carefully nurturing the perfect French garden.

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But then I remember the evening light caressing the weathered façade, the shadows dancing on the peony-pink umbrellas on the terrace and yes, dammit, the ivy twisting through the railings of that SPIRAL STAIRCASE and I am consumed by bitter envy once more.

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Here is madame la châtelaine trying not to look smug. Unfortunately she is far too lovely to hate.

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Back

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Oh how I have missed blogging.

I’ve had all sorts of beautiful (to me at least) posts lined up in my head over the last few months, but life always got in the way and they never quite made it onto the screen.

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It’s partly because I’ve been lucky enough to have a ton of work. Somehow I’ve managed to parlay this food photography, recipe development, writing and content development gig of mine into an actual job, with several regular clients, including Edible Seattle, Seattle Refined and Zagat’s and a bunch of one-off gigs that have been hugely enjoyable and very rewarding (if not always financially).

I’ve also been travelling like crazy. Over the last year and a bit I’ve averaged over a trip a month, which has been total madness, but has left me with a bunch of photos and impressions I’d still love to share with you.

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And other stuff has been happening behind the scenes. In October I went back to England, this time to teach a food photography workshop with my dear friend Danielle Acken in the glorious surroundings of Fowey in Cornwall. I love teaching and we’re planning more workshops together throughout the year, so stay tuned for news of those.

I’ve also been working on building my photography portfolio, rebranding my sites, including this blog, and bringing everything together under one big umbrella. I had an update meeting with my web designer this morning and I’ve been grinning with crazy excitement ever since. It’s going to be so pretty!

And I am bursting with ideas for a newsletter, a podcast, a couple of online workshops, and maybe even a quarterly magazine, that I really want to share with you.

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In short, it’s time I got back to regular blogging. I hope you’ll join me back here next Wednesday.

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I’ve started contributing a regular monthly recipe and photos to lifestyle blog Coco + Kelley . So click here for my recipe for Roasted Romanesco Soup with a Pistachio Pesto and Crispy Prosciutto – it’s warm and comforting enough for the tail end of winter, and pastel pretty enough for the beginning of spring.

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Weekend Link Love–Apptastic

I’m hoping to revive Weekend Link Love, as a place to share interesting and useful stuff I’ve come across over the week.

Here’s a bunch of apps that have been making my world a brighter place recently (together with my brand new iPhone 6s+).

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First up is 365 Days of Flow a little app I found that has been giving me a ton of pleasure. Several people have recommended Flow Magazine to me, which apparently celebrates creativity, imperfection and life’s little pleasures. I’ve ordered the magazine and will report back on that shortly. In the meantime, they have a very cute little app which imparts a little word of wisdom and a sweet watercolour illustration every day.

They’re also hosting an Instagram hashtag in October #flow30daysnature which I’m joining in with this month (images in this post are my contributions so far). IMG_6931.jpg

Next up is the Cozi family organizer app. This app allows the family to run one shared online calendar to which you can upload existing online calendars – we’ve input the Minx’s school calendar and ballet calendar –  which can then be synced with your personal online calendar. Every member of the family can contribute, it’s all colour coded so you can see at a glance what everyone is doing, and it can be accessed on everyone’s different devices.  It also includes a shared shopping list, family messaging, important contact information etc. I’ve been wanting something like this for YEARS.

Have you heard of the Pomodoro Technique? It’s a productivity tool whereby you work in a focused way for twenty-five minutes and then take 5 minutes break – each work + break period is called a ‘pomodoro’ after the original inventor Francesco Cirillo’s tomato-shaped kitchen timer. After four pomodoros you take a longer break. It’s as simple as that. I can’t begin to tell you how much more productive this has made me. My work days are all so different that it’s difficult to put together a structured daily routine, but if instead I aim to fit in a certain number of pomodoros, I can be more flexible. There are many, many pomodoro apps on the market, but I’ve been using Pomodoro Timer and love it.

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I’ve just finished reading 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works – A True Story by ABC news journalist Dan Harris. I started getting interested in Buddhist teachings when I was in Thailand but hadn’t done much about it until now. The book is part memoir and part beginner’s guide to Buddhist meditation and mindfulness. I loved its totally no bullshit approach –  chapters entitled ‘the Power of Negative Thinking’ and ‘The Self-Interested Case for Not Being a Dick’ spoke deeply to me – and I’m now about half way through the accompanying 10% Happier: Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics app. It’s a bit pricey at $20 but it’s well put together and I think I might be well on the way to starting a daily meditation practice, which is quite astonishing to contemplate.

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This week the sun’s been shining, we’re all settling finally into our new routine, I’m getting over a cold, I blogged about our summer holiday on Whidbey Island and a great friend came to visit from London. But then it ended with terrible news about one of the fabulous women I was with in Thailand last year. Carmen’s tragic story is not mine to tell, but the world is a poorer place without her beauty of spirit and she could have given a masterclass in random acts of kindness. I know I am a kinder person because of her.

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Summer’s End

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It was the best of summers here in Seattle. Day after sultry golden sun-filled day, followed by night after velvety warm summer night spent drinking pistachio sours with friends up on our roof deck. (One day I’ll blog the recipe for these).

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I’m always conflicted about summer. On the one hand there’s the obvious glorious summeriness of it all (see above), which I love and adore, but on the other school is out (for thirteen weeks no less), so sometimes it seems I spend more time driving the Minx to various camps and desperately trying to cram all my assignments into a few hours than lying on a lounger working on my Vitamin D levels.

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This year though, I was determined that things would be different. We’d already been to Europe in the Spring, so we decided instead to rent a house out on Whidbey Island, and just hang out as a family. I had in mind the sort of place I wanted – near Coupeville, my favourite town on Whidbey, close to the beach, and just as comfortable and relaxing as being at home

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But soon, after spending long hours poring over vacation rental sites with a fine toothcomb, we were starting to despair. Everything was either too big, or too small; too booked or too expensive; frankly rather shabby or decorated in various distressing shades of shit brown (all too common unfortunately in the Pacific Northwest).

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Until, out of nowhere, the most perfect little house popped up. Close to Coupeville, right on a point with beaches to the front and side, and newly decorated in soothing shades of grey and blue.

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I spent the whole summer wondering what on earth would be wrong with this place but when we arrived in August it was immediately clear that it was absolutely, utterly, perfect.

We met the charming owner and it turns out the property was being remodeled over the spring, only became available in May, and had been immediately booked solid.

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See, manifesting WORKS people! Soon I will be a skinny blonde millionaire with a three-masted yacht, a Brazilian toyboy and lavender farm in Provence.

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I  was deeply, fabulously content here.

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We watched the sun rise over Mount Baker through the huge glass windows, as herons tiptoed daintily over the sand dollars left at low tide.

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We paddleboarded out in the tranquil bay – thankfully avoiding the orca that hung out near the point – kayaked round the mussel beds and rented a yacht from a local skipper.

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The Minx (on the right) and her friend who stayed with us

We ate wonderful foods crafted by local artisans, produce which had woken up that morning on a nearby farm and pretty blue eggs that our neighbours were selling on an honour system. A local roaster crafted a coffee blend just for us and dropped it round personally.

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We found the best places for lunch, dinner and wine and ate vast quantities of fresh mussels and clams, plucked out of Penn Cove that very morning. We instigated a ‘no electronics’ rule – and did bizarre things like read books, play board games, do jigsaws, and make art.  I joined a nearby yoga studio for morning sessions and watched the sun go down over the point every night.

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We laughed. A lot. And I felt all the knots in my shoulders and in my mind slowly unwind.

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I even got through a ton of work, though it didn’t really feel like work. Instead they were fun day trips with writing attached. Here are some ideas for things to do in Coupeville, in Port Townsend and on San Juan Island, which I wrote and photographed for Seattle Refined. And here are some ideas for restaurants on the island which appeared in Zagat’s.

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Since we’ve been back, it’s been one thing after another – the Minx is off to middle school, our beloved Flora was hit and killed by a car and I’m just coming to the other side of a snotty cold, but through it all memories of my happy place keep peeking through.

And I’m only able to tell you about it now, because we’ve already booked it again for next year.

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Hello Autumn.

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Inspiration

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It’s been too long once again. Not because I haven’t wanted to write, but because there are only so many hours in the day. 

Summer is always a double-edged sword for me – on the one hand it’s great to spend more time with my girl, more time entertaining friends on our roof deck (the cocktail of the summer is the pistachio sour) and more time just lazing on a lounger reading beneath the stars on a warm summer night.

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On the other hand it’s always a time of enormous creative frustration. The light is so amazing, the markets are groaning with the most glorious produce and the temptation to spend time time playing in the kitchen and photographing the results is so very, very strong.

But it’s been punishingly hot here – too hot to turn the oven on – camps finish early, it’s a struggle just to complete my regular work (astonishingly I seem to have pulled together a portfolio of regular clients – Edible Seattle, Seattle Refined and Zagat’s, and have been doing a lot more commercial work) and a house full of tween girls making videos to Taylor Swift songs is not very conducive to creativity.

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This year that tug of inspiration, that craving to follow the muse’s siren song to the exclusion of everything and everybody else has been overwhelming thanks to two amazing workshops I’ve attended in recent months.

You already know Ilva and Jamie of Plated Stories fame. When I heard that Jamie and her husband Jean-Pierre had acquired a small hotel in Chinon in the Loire Valley I of course had to invite myself over for a visit while I was in Europe. Before very long a whole workshop was being arranged, with Ilva too, under the title ‘Finding Inspiration’.

Because obviously inspiration is hard to come by when you’re visiting the world’s most charming hotel (of which more another day) in the world’s most charming small French town (also of which more another day), under the tutelage of two incredibly patient, generous and supremely talented women and while sharing the whole experience with a bunch of other immensely talented, smart and funny photographers and writers. We ate delicious meals in Jamie’s kitchen, critiqued each other’s work, bounced ideas off each other and chatted long into the night, while our eyes and minds drank in more beauty than any eyes and minds should reasonably have the right to expect.

Was that my camera clicking from early morning until nightfall? Perhaps finding inspiration wasn’t such as struggle after all.

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The summer’s second workshop blew my mind too, but in a totally different way. After reading my friend and mentor Jackie Donnelly’s write up of Seattle portrait photographer John Keatley’s Survival Guide workshop, I knew I had to attend. Even if it meant heading to St. Louis (which, as it turns out, is charming and fun, with killer ice cream and barbecue).

This time I didn’t even turn my camera on. Instead I listened as John, his wife Nichelle and his assistant Taylor told us everything they had learned about running a successful photography business. And by everything, I mean EVERYTHING. How to market yourself, how to pitch, how to bid on a project, how to invoice and even what thank you presents to send afterwards. We talked branding and direction, target markets and dream clients, got right into the weeds with finances and had our portfolios constructively and comprehensively critiqued by both John and our peers. The workshop was held in food photographer Rob Grimm’s awe-inspiring studio – it was worth the price of admission alone just to spend time in that space – and the creative energy sparked and fizzed all weekend.

This time the only pictures I came away with were a few grainy phone pics (I’m hating on my iPhone 5s with fire of a thousand suns currently) but instead tucked into my suitcase was something infinitely more precious, a small notebook with the text of every one of John’s slides, covered with all my own hastily-scribbled notes  – the blueprint for growing my own business to the next level and beyond. Let’s all hope that my scribbles are actually legible.

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It’s funny how inspiration strikes – a scrap of an idea here, a fleeting picture there, a story or a conversation that will lead you off in a whole new direction, changing your life in big ways and small.  Chinon’s incredible fleamarket inspired me to visit the antique shops of Snohomish, where I ended up buying a set of vintage weighing scales like the ones Jamie had in her kitchen. Walking through the chateau de Chinon chatting with Ilva led me to reread a couple of biographies of Eleanor of Aquitaine (who spent part of her life in Chinon) and then to watch the supremely fabulous Empire (which is based on her story – Eleanor’s not Ilva’s). My late night conversations with Stacey have inspired me to search for a studio and my portfolio reviews with John Keatley and Rob Grimm have made me want to focus more on my still-life food photography. I want to blog more and market myself more, grow my Instagram following and rebrand my website and collaborate with more people and start teaching workshops. But above all else I just want to make images and write stories. My head is currently bursting with them.

On Sunday we’re off to spend a few weeks on Whidbey Island, so I can relax and recharge and make the most of the final weeks of what has been an incredible summer here in the PNW. But come September 9th when school finally goes back, I’m SO ready to put all this pent-up inspiration to good use.

The images in this post were made in Jamie’s apartment under Ilva’s watchful eye. Through their blog posts and Facebook updates those two inspire me every single day. (Here is their take on the subject of Inspiration). 

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