Ian White en­rols in a dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy course with a culi­nary twist in the Vendee in west­ern France

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence -

FOOD and pho­tog­ra­phy are the two great pas­sions in Roger Stow­ell’s life. As a fash­ion pho­tog­ra­pher in Eng­land in the early 1970s, Stow­ell worked on the pi­o­neer­ing women’s mag­a­zine Nova , where he met Caro­line Con­ran. She in­tro­duced him to her hus­band, Ter­ence, who was hav­ing a mod­est de­gree of suc­cess with Habi­tat, a chain of home fur­nish­ing shops he’d started in 1964.

Un­der the Con­rans’ pow­er­ful in­flu­ence, Stow­ell branched out into food pho­tog­ra­phy and, in 1975, helped Habi­tat launch the wok to a young mid­dle-class mar­ket ea­ger to move away from the dull im­age of tra­di­tional Bri­tish cui­sine. Since then he has worked reg­u­larly for mag­a­zines and food shops such as Har­rods and Wait­rose.

He says, un­til he met Ter­ence Con­ran, he didn’t re­ally think about food. Then, in the ’ 70s, when Con­ran was open­ing the Neal Street Restau­rant in Lon­don’s Covent Gar­den (later taken over by An­to­nio Car­luc­cio and closed ear­lier this year af­ter 36 years of trad­ing), Con­ran took him to din­ner at chef Prue Leith’s home in Wilt­shire. ‘‘ She made creme anglaise for dessert and it to­tally changed my at­ti­tude,’’ he says.

Stow­ell’s kitchen is in the heart of west­ern France, he and his wife Jenny hav­ing moved five years ago from Lon­don to the Vendee, just more than an hour’s drive east of La Rochelle. Re­cently, the cou­ple hit on the idea of com­bin­ing Roger’s skills with their French re­treat and launched a res­i­den­tial pho­tog­ra­phy course with a foodie twist.

Guests and their cam­eras would be taken to lo­cal mar­kets dur­ing the morn­ing, when they would fire off as many dig­i­tal shots as their me­mory cards al­lowed. In the af­ter­noon, Roger would show them how to crop and en­hance their images on com­put­ers.

In the evening, he would cook them a gourmet meal us­ing some of the pro­duce they had pho­tographed. Cam­era Hols was born and, one web­site and a few well-placed ads later, Roger and Jenny were re­ceiv­ing their first pay­ing guests.

The Stow­ells’ home has been beau­ti­fully con­verted from two stone-built cot­tages in the tiny ham­let of La Moussiere, just out­side Vou­vant, a hand­some for­ti­fied vil­lage that holds a par­tic­u­lar at­trac­tion for artists.

The walls of Vou­vant’s cen­tral cafe, Cour des Mir­a­cles, run by Ge­orge and Trish Ritchie from North­ern Ire­land, are lined with work by lo­cals, many of whom have mi­grated from Bri­tain.

The Ritchies also run the B & B across the lane from the Stow­ells’ house in La Mous- siere. They have two dou­ble rooms that the Stow­ells use to ac­com­mo­date cou­ples who have booked week­end or week-long ver­sions of the pho­tog­ra­phy course.

On my first morn­ing, I awake to the smell of fresh cof­fee, the not-so-dis­tant sound of cows moo­ing and Roger’s sonorous voice in full song. I pad down­stairs to dis­cover sun­light stream­ing in through the win­dows and the din­ing ta­ble set for break­fast for one. As I munch my way through ce­real and two fresh, warm crois­sants, Roger ex­plains that we will wait for Tony and Jan, my class­mates on the course, to come across from the B & B, and then we will drive to the mar­ket in Cou­longes­sur-l’Au­tize, a few kilo­me­tres to the south.

At the mar­ket we are as much on show as the fruit and veg as we wan­der around self­con­sciously with our ex­pen­sive dig­i­tal cam­eras. (Jan and I used Roger’s Nikon D200 and D70 SLR cam­eras, avail­able for hire.) Roger shows us how to frame shots, take light read­ings from dif­fer­ent parts of the frame, al­ter the depth of field, look for in­ter­est­ing de­tails (such as the way light shines through a cab­bage leaf) and plenty more.

Veg­eta­bles of note in the mar­ket in­clude black radish and sal­sify. The for­mer is of­ten served sliced with sea salt and but­ter as a tra­di­tional en­tree, while the lat­ter, also known as veg­etable oys­ter, is be­com­ing a com­mon fea­ture of restau­rant menus.

When we can snap no more, we drive to Vou­vant for lunch at the bistro-style restau­rant Au­berge de Maitre Pan­netier. On Roger’s rec­om­men­da­tion, we or­der salade de la bas­tique, a de­cep­tively sim­ple dish of her­ring, new pota­toes, red onions and olive oil. It is de­li­cious.

Back at La Moussiere, we load our pic­tures on to our lap­tops and learn how to crop and ad­just them un­til they look more in­ter­est­ing and pre­sentable. At night we con­grat­u­late our­selves on some great work and en­joy a meal of goose ril­lettes with toast, to start, and con­fit de ca­nard, hari­cots and gor­geous ‘‘ goose-fat roasties’’ as the main course.

The next morn­ing, Roger drives us to Niort’s gi­ant food mar­ket, next to an im­pos­ing 13th-cen­tury don­jon. There is no food you can’t buy here and Niort, which is a fair-sized town, proves an ex­cel­lent place for an­other great lunch. The In­de­pen­dent


Cam­era Hols runs week-long res­i­den­tial cour­ses, cost­ing j850 ($1336) (non­par­tic­i­pants j650) a per­son; and Dig­i­tal Gourmet Week­ends from j500. Prices in­clude tu­ition, use of com­puter to save and ma­nip­u­late images, B & B, din­ner with wine, trans­fers from La Rochelle air­port, and to and from pho­to­graphic lo­ca­tions.­er­a­

Snap happy: Clock­wise from main pic­ture, Roger Stow­ell’s shots of fish­ing huts at Fay­moreau; finds and scenes at the lo­cal mar­ket; the ac­com­mo­da­tion at La Moussiere

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