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Name dropping and hob-nobbing

December 4, 2012

Vinn Goute

“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.

The view to St Pauls from the Tate Modern

The view to St Paul’s from the Tate Modern

No reservations

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.

Pickled onions at Cucina Caldesi

Pickled onions at Cucina Caldesi

Just click on an image to view the whole gallery

Un aperativo

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 for the time being and Jo Waltham’s talk on migrating your blog to (self-hosted)  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!!


Cheese – with Ellen Silverman

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.


Less is more with props at the Ellen Silverman workshop

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.

Vitamix winner announcement

Image courtesy of Food Blogger Connect

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?

  1. Sukaina permalink
    December 4, 2012 9:41 am

    What a lively recap. I have been wanting to go for two years but something has always come up. Next year it will be Ramadan.

    • December 4, 2012 11:57 am

      Oh golly – hadn’t thought of that. Not great timing for you. What a shame.

  2. therealgeordiearmani permalink
    December 4, 2012 9:46 am

    wow that was some weekend!! maybe one day when I grow up I will get there, fingers crossed x

    • December 4, 2012 11:57 am

      I’m sure you could find someone to sponsor you 🙂

      • therealgeordiearmani permalink
        December 4, 2012 3:40 pm

        we shall see 🙂

  3. December 4, 2012 10:17 am

    wow that was densely packed… same like the ladies above.. i’hve been wanting to go since the day you mentioned it.. and something always came up.
    gorgeous post sally

    • December 4, 2012 11:56 am

      Thanks Drina. Your kind comment means a lot. I feel privileged to have been able to go to the last two.

  4. December 4, 2012 10:51 am

    It was such a pleasure to finally meet and chat! thanks for the mention up there! hope to see you at FBC5 if not before in Dubai x

    • December 4, 2012 11:56 am

      Oh yes – that would be so cool. The weather here is glorious at the moment.

  5. December 4, 2012 11:05 am

    Oh, lucky you! That must have been an awesome weekend. It is always great to meet like-minded people.



    • December 4, 2012 11:52 am

      Indeed it is Rosa. I think that people who care about food, are generally generous and caring too.

  6. December 4, 2012 12:01 pm

    Fantastic write up of a wonderful weekend! I can’t wait for FBC5, so many people already signed in it’s going to be a fantastic weekend! Food and friends, best combo!

    • December 4, 2012 12:03 pm

      I do so agree. I couldn’t even start to list all the lovely people I’ve got to know through FBC – you being one of them of course.

  7. December 4, 2012 12:02 pm

    Waw, Oh lucky you! It looked like a fabulous day to spent with other bloggers & you all shared your food knowledges with each other. I bet you learned a lot & tasted a lot of fine & delivate foods! 🙂 thanks for this lovekly & excellent post! 🙂 xxx

    • December 4, 2012 12:05 pm

      I don’t know about fine and delicate – more like varied and hearty….just how I like it! Thanks Sophie.

  8. December 4, 2012 1:20 pm

    You food bloggers get to have all the fun! 🙂 Sounds like a great weekend. on a side note – I can’t believe I’ve never signed up for air miles. I wonder how many flights I could have earned by now with the ridiculous amount of money I have spent at Spinneys?!

    • December 4, 2012 4:29 pm

      It does help ease the pain just a little at the checkout. Sign up today 🙂

  9. December 4, 2012 1:24 pm

    Gosh so much fun for you in ONE weekend! It was wonderful to get to see you again and hang out with you. I think you’ll be the best Chief of Tweets at next year’s conference and I hope that Vitamix arrives soon! Your Grano Padano workshop sounded fab too, I’ve met Giancarlo Caldesi once before, he is extremely charismatic. A wonderful write up and lots of photos for me to explore too, xxx

    • December 4, 2012 4:29 pm

      He was lovely – it was all so friendly and casual with terrific food. You’ll be the first to know when my Vitamix arrives (you’ll probably hear the shout of joy all the way from Dubai).

  10. December 4, 2012 1:42 pm

    Sally…Such a wonderful post and a great recount of what seems like an amazing experience….Lucky you…and hope you make it to the next FCB:))

    • December 4, 2012 4:28 pm

      Place booked already – I wouldn’t miss the 5th anniversary fun. Thanks for the nice comment

  11. December 4, 2012 3:19 pm

    You just made me miss FBC12 that much more… and a little hungry for street food. Look forward to seeing you at next year’s event as our Chief of Tweets!

    • December 4, 2012 4:27 pm

      I’m missing that street food…it was such a highlight. Loved your write ups of the sessions

  12. December 4, 2012 3:29 pm

    I am already enjoying all your information loaded tweets Sally! Lovely to meet you at FBC12 and roll on 2013! A great summary above of all the things we saw and learned!

    • December 4, 2012 4:26 pm

      There’s a great community feeling already for FBC5. It was lovely to meet you too and share your sentiments about 2013

  13. Phil Emsley permalink
    December 4, 2012 4:22 pm

    I trust you visited the bread and dripping stand while you were there – I understand there is an extra lard version these days

    • December 4, 2012 4:25 pm

      Of course – went perfectly with my pickled egg and offal burger 🙂

  14. December 4, 2012 4:38 pm

    Sounds heavenly Sally. I think there is something similar in Australia. I’m definitely going to check it out.

  15. December 4, 2012 4:52 pm

    What a wonderful recap of such a fun-filled weekend! I love looking at the pictures and all those beautiful smiles that just show how everyone was having a grand time.

  16. glamorous glutton permalink
    December 4, 2012 8:34 pm

    I loved FBC12 and hope I’ll be there next year too. It was lovely to meet you too, that piece about grapes was genuinely very good, very admirable that you can write to order. Hope to see you again next year. GG

    • December 6, 2012 8:08 am

      Me too – and my New Year’s resolution is to start a beautiful journal like yours. Thanks for the kind words – Dianne was a great motivator.

  17. December 4, 2012 8:54 pm

    Lovely Sally!!! I felt like I was reliving every moment and I was glad it has taken you so long to write it! LOL
    I can’t believe the Vitamix machine hasn’t gotten there yet – that is not good.
    And yes I did like the picture of me – wish we didn’t all have to wear so many coats indoors, sorta ruins the ensemble ;-))
    Bis hugs to Dubai Luv!

    • December 6, 2012 8:07 am

      Yes – hopefully venue and English summer will be kind.

  18. December 6, 2012 12:37 am

    We splurged for a vitamix and use it almost every day, sometimes more than once.

    • December 6, 2012 8:06 am

      I really thought I didn’t need another gadget and was not interested in the Vitamix at all. The team demonstrated and let us taste so many fantastic things over the weekend that I was totally converted. I can’t wait to get my hands on it 🙂

  19. laura_howtocook permalink
    December 6, 2012 1:03 am

    What a great insight into the whole of FBC4. I am so happy to be coming to FBC5 and have partnered up with Nazima@FranglaisKitchen. It would be great to meet you and I do hope the venue is a little more suitable too. I came for the Saturday evening and found it terribly cold!

    • December 6, 2012 8:05 am

      I’ve lived in the Middle East for 17 years so I was prepared (and wearing thermals!) Really looking forward to meeting you (and hopefully no thermals in July 🙂 )

      • laura_howtocook permalink
        December 10, 2012 1:32 am

        Don’t be too sure, you may need them July or not!!

  20. December 6, 2012 3:39 am

    Really interested in attending (I’m a Londoner), but have trouble justifying the money – no one becomes a domestic violence support worker for the money. 😛 Would you have any tips on searching for sponsors?

    • December 6, 2012 8:03 am

      I admire what you do greatly – we owe a huge debt to people like you who work in really challenging areas of society often under extremely difficult circumstances. Unsung heroes.
      I’ll put some info together next week – and either share on this blog or email you.

      • December 6, 2012 5:29 pm

        Aww, thank you, Sally. I’m really appreciate it. I’m heard such amazing things about FBC!

  21. December 6, 2012 2:22 pm

    I must admit that your depiction of the ways of eating grape sounds imressively erotic 😉

    • December 7, 2012 11:32 am

      So lovely to hear from you. I’m honoured and blushing at the same time!

  22. December 6, 2012 4:54 pm

    Oh my, one weekend. You sure it was only one weekend? My offal-eye caught the photograph that caps “offal burger from tongue and cheek”…. now who’s green with envy!

    • Dima Sharif permalink
      December 7, 2012 10:14 am

      Francine you never fail to make me laugh 🙂

    • December 7, 2012 11:34 am

      Incredibly good stuff. You would have been a kindred spirit.

  23. Dima Sharif permalink
    December 7, 2012 10:14 am

    You were not joking when you said some name dropping lol enjoyed reading this post what fun Sally! Thanks for sharing x

    • December 7, 2012 11:36 am

      It’s the people you meet at these conferences that make them so special. Although I am deeply privileged to be part of such a supportive and friendly food community here in the UAE – especially as it connected me to people like you Dima.

  24. December 13, 2012 1:31 am

    Blimey, you definitely made the most of your weekend! What a great, comprehensive, lively description of it all. Love your enthusiasm for food and this great foodie community. And very tempted to go the the next one. Andrea

  25. December 18, 2012 1:08 pm

    Sally what a wonderful recap – both the high and low lights. That’s objective reporting!!! Well done!!!!

    Having attended the very first FBConnect in 2009, the year I began blogging, I totally understand it. To be in the same room with like-minded individuals, who share a passion for the same thing is beyond words. One gets to learn so, so much.

    Thank you.

  26. December 19, 2012 7:28 pm

    Wow – a tour de force of a weekend roundup!! Glad that we finally got to meet and share a meal (and some cooksisters!). I don’t think I realised the cheese thing was at cucina Caldesi – it’s a wonderful place. went on a bread-making course there one and thoroughly enjoyed it 🙂 You must have got home positively exhausted after all that !

  27. March 3, 2014 12:15 pm

    oh my, i thought i could quickly read this form the office, but its too overwhelming for that atmosphere. This needs a proper sit down at home. Very useful, and i hope to immerse myself into it before making a decision to go to #FBC6


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