Name dropping and hob-nobbing
“Can you hold on a minute? I can smell burning….” The girl from Airmiles accepted this request calmly and courteously. Throwing the phone down I raced downstairs to be greeted with devastation on several fronts. My Christmas puddings ruined, my plastic pudding containers melted, my beautiful new gleaming steamer pan black and sizzling and coated with melted pudding bowl. The atmosphere was toxic! All I could do was switch off the gas and return to my phone call. But at least I was booked to go to London for Food Blogger Connect. So much for multi-tasking.
Non-bloggers may view going to such an event as I would a train-spotting convention. However what food bloggers do have in common with train-spotters (bear with me) is a complete passion for our topic and the desire to swap ideas with like-minded people.
After having a wonderful time last year I was keen to go to Food Blogger Connect again but justifying a flight to London for a long weekend was difficult. Airmiles to the rescue. This is a scheme available in the Middle East where you collect points at a range of outlets and can redeem them for a wide range of things including flights. My points accumulate quickly because I get them at the supermarket (Spinneys) and my credit card (HSBC). Booking was really easy and took one phone call – my ticket was emailed and that was it.
The fabulous thing about the networking facilitated by the internet and social media is that it does bring like-minded people together, from all walks of life and fame and fortunes. I knew I was going to meet some special people but was not prepared for quite how many. Warning; masses of name-dropping ahead, (but I hope to convey why I it was such a big thrill to meet them all).
I was waiting at the doors of the Tate Modern as it opened. What luxury to stroll round the Munch exhibition on my own. The coffee shop balcony has one of the best views in London across the Millennium Bridge to St Paul’s cathedral. Soon I was dragging my bag over the bridge in the September sunshine taking in views of the Shard, the Gherkin, the Globe theatre and Tower Bridge.
Just click on an image to view the whole gallery
Cucina Caldesi was the venue for a cooking session with chef Giancarlo Caldesi where humble food bloggers like me and revered food writers such as Valentina Harris and Roz Denny and President of the Guild of Food Writers Jane Suthering all got stuck in preparing a sumptuous lunch using Grana Padano. I then hot-footed to Highgate for afternoon tea with Sunday Times food writer, cook and TV presenter Diana Henry. I finally made my way through the rush hour Underground game of sardines, via the Docklands light railway (and great views of some of the Olympic sites) to the door of Cook Sister. What a warm welcome I received from Jeanne who I had never met before; Karin from Yum and More and I even tucked into real cooksisters for breakfast.
A sparkling start
The Ragged Canteen was in full swing with some muffiny things for breakfast, and the Vitamix team was drawing in a crowd in the courtyard, but things started with a bang when Champagne Jayne opened the Moet. An expert guided tasting of Moet & Chandon, Tarlant and Lanson by educator of the year distracted us from the light shower of rain. I was delighted; yes I miss rain in Dubai. It was wonderful to see so many friendly faces from before and I had a list of people I’d got to know and admire online that I was really looking forward to meeting in person.
Felicity Cloake‘s writing in the Guardian is authoritative yet disingenuous; a real joy to read. It was when she confessed to ‘a decidedly unhealthy obsession with custard‘ that I became a life-long fan. She spoke to us about how she became a food writer and went through some of the basics of style, which “separates writing shopping lists or recipes from something that people actually want to read”.
Helen Best-Shaw from Fuss Free Flavours welcomed a complete stranger from the internet to stay at her flat for Food Blogger Connect 2011 (that stranger was me) and gave me the warmest welcome (and comfortable bed) this year too. As one of the top food bloggers in the UK she has extensive experience of working with brands and PR companies who want to engage with food bloggers. Practical guidance from Helen in conjunction with PR company Golin Harris gave excellent pointers on how to build rewarding relationships.
Shooting in the dark
An enclosed railway arch with no windows and strip, fluorescent lighting must be the absolute opposite of the ideal venue for taking beautiful food photography, but David Griffen was there to show us how to use artificial light; what a challenge. I was initially a little in awe of David due to the exquisite images he takes but he worked really hard to help everyone get the best out of their camera – whether a point and shoot or a DSLR, at every set up. At one point he dashed off, rummaged around in a pile of stuff that was being stored at the back of the room, and came back with the perfect prop. He works closely with top chefs and his admiration for what they do is comes through in his images as well as what he says about them. “Artists’ studios are all about getting the best possible light and what these guys (chefs) are doing is exactly the same, so why is the light in professional kitchens so bad?” He also believes that food is natural so you should shoot it like nature.
David changed the way I approach my photography in one enjoyable and incredibly informative session. If I took one thing away it was his statement that food is about texture and to use the light direction to capture that texture. Do check out his website and his really useful and inspiring mobile phone food photography site too.
Into the school yard
Food stalls were setting up in the railway arch and outside. The whole conference was filled with a succession of the best street food that London has to offer. The Whisk team (remember that big online idea by floppy-haired Nick from the last series of The Apprentice) were telling everyone about their recipe ingredient ordering system while providing the most delectable cocktails. I finally made it to the Bell & Brisket where Bel was making divine salt beef sandwiches; she persuaded me to try my first pickled egg and I sipped some Head in a Hat ale while discussing with Peter whether the correct way to eat one really was by putting it into a bag of salt and vinegar crisps first (it’s a bloke thing I think).
Pen to paper
I would describe Dianne Jacob’s writing as pithy and wise. She has a razor-sharp way of getting to the crux of the matter and she is not afraid to address issues head on. Her book ‘Will Write for Food’ has become a bible for many and some of the most stimulating debates kick off in the comments section of her blog. I introduced myself tentatively, assuming she probably wouldn’t remember me from the odd tweet and blog comment we’d exchanged; however she responded by standing up, giving me a big hug and we were soon chatting. It was the highlight of the whole conference for me.
It seems to be de rigueur for many people who write about food professionally to have a go at food bloggers. Dianne, however, created a nurturing environment for the workshop and fostered confidence in every delegate in the room. She praised us for being writers already, recognising the regular commitment a blog can take. She set us to work too. Firstly to write a short piece, with a beginning middle and end, in five minutes about an ingredient in the room. I chose some grapes and kept popping them into my mouth while I was writing. It was like short-circuiting my writing – taste, feel, write – it took away too much thinking time…which is a good thing. My teens laughed out loud when I read it to them (possibly a submission for Tangerine and Cinnamon’s Foodie Pseudery column?) but it was just one way Dianne got us to really think about taking our writing to the next level.
There are many ways to eat a grape.
Icy cold from the fridge, clammy and smooth, a pop as you pull it from the stalk. You hold it in your mouth, pressed against the roof, the skin smooth like the carved marble of a statue? How long before you yield to the temptation to bite and crunch so the sharp juice explodes.
Or warm from basking in the sun, serried rows of vines pruned and tamed to coax them into fecundity. The taste is golden, the juice submits easily.
A chaise lounge and an ardent lover are required for the peeling method. The rest is up to you.
Light, shade …and more eating
After lunch from some terrifically good street food stalls, I learned more about light from photographer Sarka. “If you understand light and you know how to control light you can create beautiful pictures. You can tell a story with light – each of us associate light with different memories. Go around your house with an apple or something and test where the light is best at different times of the day. Find where the key light is – it can define the mood and texture of your photo.”
I’ve decided to remain on WordPress.com for the time being and Jo Waltham’s talk on migrating your blog to (self-hosted) WordPress.org and Jason Lee’s fascinating (and scary) presentation on internet security confirmed that this decision is the right one for me just now. Hugo Pickford-Wardle’s (aka @mistertruffle @hugopw) presentation about a social media grand plan was music to my ears. There are so many ‘snake oil salesman’ in this field and he was the exact opposite. Through sound strategy married with creative thinking his company Rumblechat helps tell food brands’ stories. My favourite quote from him is ‘the tactician must know what to do whenever something needs doing; the strategist must know what to do when nothing needs doing.’
Another day ended wrapping up warm and huddling round phenomenally good street food stands and drinking cocktails and Lebanese wine. My eyes were out on stalks going home on the Underground on a Saturday night – those spray tans, those shoes!!
The discerning eye
What’s the first thing you see when you look at your photograph? Is it forks, knives, big shadows? What do you want to see? Seeing a shot through the eyes of top food photographer Ellen Silverman put a few more pieces of the ‘light and food photography’ jigsaw pieces in place. Ellen was petite, elegant, stylish and utterly ruthless…not with us the workshop attendees…but her approach to making the shot absolutely perfect. Find some of the key takeaways from this session on Candids by Jo.
An amazing ending
Final eating, goodbyes and giveaways remained. I had gravitated to the Vitamix stand many times over the weekend and consumed an array of soups, frozen yoghurts, smoothies, margaritas, custards and ice-creams that this incredible machine can produce (even a mulch for your garden out of the left-over peel). Trying to justify how to buy one as a Christmas present for my teens and husband (i.e. me) I held my breath along with everyone else as the draw took place. Vitamix were giving away three machines. I think my face says it all when my card was drawn. Sadly, I’ve not been able to test it out yet as it still hasn’t arrived, however when it does you’ll be the first to know. In the meantime see what my lovely friend Ren (met at FBC12) made with hers. I said a final farewell to everyone dragged my bulging bag (packed with gorgeous goodies) back across London to Heathrow.
So what were the best things for me about my second visit to Food Blogger Connect:
- Brilliant networking – I’ve reconnected and made new blogger and speaker friends. So many new opportunities have opened up from both events.
- Workshops – getting the advice of some leaders in their field in a small group is one of the best ways of learning for me. It was a real privilege to meet Dianne Jacobs, Ellen Silverman and David Griffen in particular.
- Speakers who make you think outside your subject. Even if you are not involved in a niche blog for instance, or wanting to sell your images to Stock Food, or pitching to a travel magazine, the variety of speakers and topics over both conferences (Felicity Cloake, Tim Hayward, Fiona Beckett, Heather Grant, Sumayya Jamil, Jaden Hair, Vanessa Kimbell to name a few).
- The street food stalls this year were varied, exciting and the food was of a very high standard. Something you’d find hard to experience all in one place and not outside the capital.
And the downsides…
- Well, the venue had its challenges….at once quirky, cosy and interesting but also a bit cold, and not really up to the technical challenge. But I believe the hunt is on for another one for FBC5 (the fifth ever FBC in July 2013).
- With so much to pack into two and half days you can’t do it all. Because I went to so many workshops I missed out on quite a few of the presentations but several can be downloaded here.
- As most people don’t make any money (or a nominal sum) from their blogs, it’s quite an investment. But there is plenty of scope to look for sponsors (FBC alumni will always help) and there are some great early bird deals on during December. Register for a place here.
Will I be going to the fifth Food Blogger Connect? I just can’t stay away. And I’ve joined the team to look after their Twitter strategy (just call me Chief of Tweets!) – so come and say hello on @bloggerconnect (hashtag #FBC5). I’d better start saving my Airmiles…. See you there?