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.

clip_image002[4]

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.

clip_image004

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.

clip_image006

Worse was to follow.

clip_image008

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!

clip_image010

Jamie greeted us and showed us to our room.

clip_image012 clip_image014

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

clip_image022

clip_image024

clip_image018

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.

clip_image016

clip_image026

clip_image028

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

clip_image030 clip_image034

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.

clip_image036

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.

clip_image041

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.

clip_image039

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.

clip_image020

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

clip_image032

Share

Back

romanescosoup-17

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.

romanescosoup-3

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.

romanescosoup-2

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.

romanescosoup-11

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

romanescosoup-5

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.

Share

Summer’s End

HeronPoint-6

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).

HeronPoint-12

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.

HeronPoint-11

HeronPoint

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

HeronPoint-15

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).

HeronPoint-16

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.

Heron Point Beachhouse

Heron Point Beachhouse-5

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.

Heron Point Beachhouse-4

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.

Heron Point Beachhouse-2

Heron Point Beachhouse-3

I  was deeply, fabulously content here.

HeronPoint-10

HeronPoint-14

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.

HeronPoint-2

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.

HeronPoint-8

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.

HeronPoint-7

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.

HeronPoint-3

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

HeronPoint-9

HeronPoint-5

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.

HeronPoint-13

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.

HeronPoint-17

Hello Autumn.

Share

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 by 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 by 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 by 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 by 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 by 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.

Share

Tuscan Churches and a Personal Revelation

Tuscan Churches - photography by www.paolathomas.com

You would be hard pushed to find a less religious person than me but I do adore a good church.  Particularly a good European church where the very stone has been engraved by centuries if not millenia of stories and ghosts, joys and sufferings. Even the air seems full of other peoples’ memories somehow.

Tuscan Churches - photography by www.paolathomas.com

Tuscan Churches - photography by www.paolathomas.com Tuscan Churches - photography by www.paolathomas.com

Tuscan Churches - photography by www.paolathomas.com

We were lucky enough on our Tuscan travels to visit a number of ancient churches and abbeys, whose spare, austere, stripped down beauty made a moving contrast to the overwhelming rococo splendours of those various cathedrals and duomos commissioned mainly to celebrate the wealth and prestige of that particular city’s inhabitants.

Tuscan Churches - photography by www.paolathomas.com

Tuscan Churches - photography by www.paolathomas.com

I also had a bit of a revelation on this trip, one that hit me with an almost spiritual force, the discovery – thanks to Jamie Schler’s patient tutelage -  that I can write, that I might even be a good writer, but it’s so much easier for me to hide behind a rococo façade of sarcasm and terrible puns. I learned that I’m scared of seeming pretentious and inauthentic when I write, but that good writing involves writing from the heart and making oneself vulnerable and for me that is difficult in the extreme. I don’t consider myself to be particularly emotional, and find delving even a little deeper into my own thoughts and feelings – getting down to the soft person beneath the hard, snarky carapace – to be almost completely terrifying.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this newfound knowledge. It’s currently percolating around in my brain. But expect some attempts at some more ‘writerly’ writing on this blog in the future. And even saying that out loud scares the bejeebus out of me.

Tuscan Churches - photography by www.paolathomas.com

In the meantime, back to churches (this is all going to make sense soon I promise).

On our trip to the Renaissance town of Pienza we were given the task of thinking about a person, a colour, a sound, an emotion and a smell, and then for a quick fifteen minute assignment weaving them all into a small composition. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I chose to write about a church as they’re some of the places where, despite my lack of belief, I feel most emotionally responsive and vulnerable, yet also most comfortable and at peace.

Tuscan Churches - photography by www.paolathomas.com

“I looked up at the stone walls of the cathedral – centuries old, they were a symphony of soft neutral colours – faded ochre stone, soft mushroom brown wood, the pale rose of ancient terracotta – which all combined to create that colour watercolourists know as raw Sienna, a colour which I finally found myself fully understanding, since these golden walls stood only a few kilometres from Siena itself.

Tuscan Churches - photography by www.paolathomas.com

Outside a tall, spare, white-haired man, in a neatly pressed black suit and a white dog collar, walked from the church towards the other side of the piazza. He unfurled a gigantic handkerchief as white as his hair, blew his nose extravagantly and glared at me, as if daring me to whip out my camera. Then he proceeded with hurried steps to the raw Sienna building across the square, opened the antique wooden door and disappeared into the shadowy depths of what I assumed was his home.

Tuscan Churches - photography by www.paolathomas.com

I, on the other hand, entered through the antique wooden door which led into the cathedral and was immediately assailed by the scent of old churches – that indescribably potent mixture of incense and beeswax, of flowers and damp, of the small homage of careful cleanliness and floral tributes, still somehow weighted with the dust of centuries.

Tuscan Churches - photography by www.paolathomas.com

I’ve only ever smelled that smell in Europe, never in America, and at once I was overwhelmed with nostalgia for a world full of old things and history, for tradition and timelessness, for stories stretching back century after century, for the Old World, for my world, for home.”

Tuscan Churches - photography by www.paolathomas.com

Tuscan Churches - photography by www.paolathomas.com

Tuscan Churches - photography by www.paolathomas.com

Tuscan Churches - photography by www.paolathomas.com

With many thanks to the Abbey of Sant’Anna in Camprena (location apparently for many scenes from the English Patient) ; the Abbey of Sant’Antimo; the Duomo di Sovana; the Church of Santa Maria, also in Sovana; Pienza Cathedral, the Church of San Francesco, also in Pienza for helping me illustrate this post.

Join me here for some Tuscan Street Photography.

I think I need a lie down after all that. I’m sure we’ll get back to our regularly scheduled snark very soon.

Share