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