Sunday, 20 November 2016

Learning how to photograph people and food

“Slow everything down when you are taking portraits” were the words that ran through my mind as I tried to keep my nerve during the first few minutes of photographing artisan baker Jes Belsten, in the tight confines his Edward Street Bakery, a converted two up two down terraced house in the heart of Saltaire village, a World Heritage Site, on the outskirts of Bradford.

Like most photographers I have my comfort zone. I specialise in taking photographs of delicious food sitting quietly and beautifully on a plate under natural light. Natural light flatters the myriad of colours and textures which make observing and documenting food so fascinating to me.

Food photography is a branch of still life photography and apart from sporadic movement such as cream being poured from a jug, steam rising from a bowl of soup or icing sugar drifting like fine snow on the surface of a cake it stays pretty still while it is being shot.

Sometimes my work takes me out of my comfort zone and calls on me to take portraits of the people who grow, make and rear the food we eat. Photographing people at work is very different to shooting food and it requires a unique set of skills.

People at work talk, they get stressed by the sight of a camera, they are easily distracted and they often have jobs to do while you are photographing them. This needs careful management to get the best out of the photoshoot. 

The environments in which you find people working in the food industry also throws up challenges such as how to photograph people in low or artificial light, tight spaces and with unsightly backgrounds. I have little experience of this type of photography and felt I needed some mentoring by an experienced professional.

I first heard of Carolyn Mendelssohn from a photographer friend who mentioned her compelling portrait photography. I looked up Carolyn’s website and I was stunned by how composed her models looked, how confidently they peered into the lens and the skill with which Carolyn presented her finished portraits. Since we first met Carolyn has gone from strength to strength and has recently been awarded a Gold Award in this year's Royal Photographic Society International Print competition.

Carolyn offers one to one mentoring to photographers which involves several stages depending on the needs of her client. In my case the mentoring consisted of three meetings.

During our first meeting in Carolyn’s studio we spent quite a lot of time exploring what I thought needed help with. Carolyn’s responses to my concerns and worries about portrait photography were thoughtful and insightful. I was reassured that even experienced portrait photographers can feel the frisson of fear before a shoot.

I was given a neatly presented folder containing notes on planning a shoot, choosing a location, managing time and creativity. There was a checklist of what needs to be done to set the scene for a shoot, guidance on lighting, camera settings and how to direct models or clients.

Everything detailed in my printed notes was explained by Carolyn with ample opportunities to ask questions and to air any doubts or uncertainties I had. Carolyn is a good listener and delivers easy to remember guidance which came in handy later on our shoot. Carolyn also stressed the importance of staying calm and establishing a connection with the person being photographed. She demonstrated how she prepares a person for the shoot by taking some test shots of me.

After our first session Carolyn made arrangements for a portrait shoot in the micro Edward Street Bakery, Saltaire with artisan baker Jes Belsten. The micro bakery has a wonderful back story of an enterprising local couple who have converted the first floor of their tiny, characterful, traditional 19th century terraced house into a busy bakery with customers calling at the door to collect their orders.

One particular issue for this shoot was how to photograph Jes in the tight, artificially lit, low light conditions of the bakery. Carolyn came up with a neat solution. An off camera flash set up to fire through a white umbrella positioned on a lighting stand.

Our second mentoring session, which lasted a couple of hours, was devoted to learning how to erect and use this simple but neat lighting system. Carolyn was very hands on and gave me lots of practise using the off camera flash to take photographs of her in the dark recesses of my own terraced house. The stairwell leading down to the cellar was a good spot!

We arrived at 6 Edward Street at daybreak on a mid November morning as the work at the bakery was in full swing.

Nothing distinguishes the house as a bakery until you stand in front of its navy blue front door and see a very small label with the name of the bakery printed in tiny letters. As the door opened the smell of baking greeted us and Jes was busy kneading and shaping bread. A timer kept sounding to remind him another batch of loaves was ready to come out of the oven in the tiny scullery cum kitchen next door. It was a busy scene. I felt confident Jes and his bakery were going to be great to photograph. His classic dark features, quirky cap and mop of tousled hair made him an interesting subject. The bakery contained beautiful, traditional features such as a richly coloured exposed brickwork wall, a cast iron wood burning stove, original sash windows and a large marble slab.

Setting up the off camera flash was a bit fiddly and I needed quite a lot of help. Carolyn took the major role in making sure this lighting rig worked. Small adjustments were require to the manual settings on the flash as the ambient lighting in the room changed and Jes took up different working positions around the small room.

Carolyn offered reassurance and technical guidance throughout our shoot but at the same time she gave me the space to make and learn from my mistakes without being critical.

We were at the bakery for about two and half hours during which time I took nearly 300 photographs. When I reviewed them I could see as the morning progressed Jes and I became more confident and relaxed and the photographs got better. We had formed a connection which is really important in portrait photography. The result was a great collection of portraits that showed a real person, beautifully portrayed in his interesting working environment. The off camera flash was effective and lit Jes and the room with a gentle natural looking light.

I still have a lot to learn with regard to taking compelling portraits of people but I now know how to go about getting more of the experience I need to progress my learning.

Being mentored by Carolyn helped me to think more carefully about what I was doing as a photographer. It taught me how to work more effectively with clients, the importance of slowing things down, some useful photographic techniques and most of all it was great having her by my side as a gentle, wise companion as I reached for the next rung on the ladder of my photographic journey.

Carolyn is based in the historic and beautiful Saltaire, village in West Yorkshire. For more information about Carolyn’s mentoring sessions

Monday, 10 October 2016

Pici with chard, heritage tomatoes and roasted garlic cloves

"Have you tried Jamie Oliver's green worms" my sister asked me over the phone yesterday. I had no idea what she was taking about but I listened carefully. 

"Place 200g of spinach in the bowl of a food processor and blitz to a thick green sludge adding 300g of plain flour as you go. When the mixture forms a ball of firm but slightly sticky dough begin tearing small pieces of dough off and roll them into shapes like thin green worms.  Sprinkle with more flour if the worms get too sticky. Have a large pan of lightly salted boiling water on the go and throw the green worms in to cook for about 2 minutes. You know when they are cooked because they float to the surface of the boiling water."

At this point of the conversation all I could think about was Roald Dahl's grotesque  character Mrs Twit who makes a plate of real worm spaghetti for Mr Twit who she does not like very much. I listened on as my sister made the the green worms sound a little more appetising when she described what to serve them with.

"Chop a few heritage tomatoes and  sautée lightly with a little olive oil, garlic, a few toasted pine nuts, basil and serve with grated Parmesan. It looks amazing."

I was beginning to come round to the idea the green worms might be quite tasty and fun to eat especially as I have some children coming to stay very soon.

"They could spend an afternoon making them" I thought. 

Later in the day I walked through my vegetable patch and spotted the large dark leaves of chard with their egg yolk yellow stems and veins. Chard is a great alternative to spinach and the thick, colourful  stems can be chopped, cooked in a little butter and sprinkled with freshly grated nutmeg. They would be great stirred into the chopped tomatoes. 

Finally I liked the idea of caramelising some of the very small garlic cloves I have grown this year and throwing them into the sauce. 

"Do the green worms have another name" I asked. 

"Oh yes I think they do. They are called pici pasta" my sister replied. And with that I set about making some for a very quick meal after my Monday evening yoga session. They were simple, filling and delicious. 

NB The pici can be left on a plate scattered with flour to dry a little. They can be stored in the fridge for a day but they will take a little longer to cook.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Lofoten - Fishing off the NW coast of Norway

Lofoten is an archipelago off the north west coast of Norway, just above the arctic circle. The islands are warmed by the Gulf stream which makes them a climatic anomaly for this latitude. The Gulf stream means the warm sea is rich in nutrients which attracts migrant cod in the winter months. Since the time of the Vikings these islands have been at the heart of Europe's fishing industry.

September in Lofoten can be warm but the weather can change quickly from sunny to intense, persistent rain and storms. We have seen both during the days we have spent here. 

The islands have a fascinating history. Vikings colonised the fjords until the late 11th century with many interesting relics and ruined settlements remaining. The Viking museum at Borg is sited on the ruins of one of the largest longhouse ever found. It provides a remarkable reconstruction of how a Viking Chieftain lived with fine glasses imported from the UK, beautiful woven and embroidered cloths, wine and good food. 

After the Vikings, Lofoten is best known for its role in North Atlantic fishing where it has been at the centre for more than 1, 000 years. 

From mid-February until the end of April millions of Arctic cod migrates from the Barents Sea to the spawning grounds near Lofoten. Here it is caught, processed and exported around the world either as fresh or dried fish. 

Since the Viking times cod has been hung out to dry in the unique climatic conditions of low temperatures, dry air and a low rainfall. The wind and air temperature are also important. Too cold and the frost will destroy the fish and too warm and flies will lay eggs in the flesh. This natural drying process cures and preserves the fish which can last for many years.

If you visit Lofoten it will not be long before you see racks of cod drying outside on large tent shaped wooden racks. The dried fish is referred to as stockfish. 

Stockfish is dried without adding salt and its name derives from Germanic Stokk, which means “stick”. In ancient times, fishermen used a skewer to open and clean fish on a long wooden stick.

These days the fish is beheaded and left drying in the sun before it is opened up, gutted and then hung up to dry. Fish is hung to dry during February and March and taken down in June. 

Only Arctic Norwegian cod (gadus morhua) or “Skrei” can be used for stockfish. It is caught between February to April and is considered a much finer product than cod dried using salt.

The biggest importer of stockfish Italy, Spain and Nigeria. Stockfish is known in Italy as Stoccafisso.  Sometimes  stoccafisso is confused with baccalà which is salted, dried cod. They are quite different. 

Many famous Italian recipes, especially in the Veneto region, actually call for Norwegian stockfish however many recipes used the two types of dried cod interchangeably.

Stockfish needs to be soaked in water for several days before it can be used. The water has to be changed several times and the bones removed, usually after the first day of soaking. 

The hydrated fish is often served in beautifully prepared fish stew with tomatoes, garlic, potatoes  with mediterranean vegetables.

The photographs below were taken in Lofoten and show stock fish hanging up to dry and old fishing boats used to catch fish. 

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Two of the loveliest cakes from our book Cooking for the Sensitive Gut (Pavilion 2016) are the Chocolate and aubergine cake - which is decorated with cranberries (P156) and the Banana, vanilla and pecan nut cake (P158).

As it is summer I thought I would add raspberries to the chocolate cake instead of cranberries and borrow the white chocolate icing from the banana cake to add a bit of glamour to the chocolate cake.

I did have an excuse as we were promoting our book at a local event in Ilkley where a friend of mine was opening a shop and was happy to promote local writers and artists. I provided some gorgeous finger food using recipes from the book, including this cake.

The chocolate and aubergine cake is dark and delicious. The aubergine adds a lovely silky texture. Topping the cake with a little white chocolate and a raspberry is magnificent. The cake is gluten free.

The cake is rich and so I cut it up into bite sized pieces 2cm along each side.

So do give it a try if you need a cake fix just remember though to just have a bite or two as the chocolate makes it quite rich.

Chocolate and aubergine cake with white chocolate icing


  • 1 large aubergine (weighing roughly 400g)
  • 300 g/10 oz dark chocolate, (60% minimum cocoa solids), broken into squares
  • 50 g/ 2 oz cocoa powder
  • 50 g/2 oz ground almonds
  • 3 medium free range eggs
  • 1 tsp orange extract
  • zest 1 orange
  • 200 g/7 oz golden syrup
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • pinch of sea salt
  • 1 tbsp brandy
  • 100 g/ 4 oz fresh or frozen raspberries and a few blueberries
  • edible flowers to garnish such as borage, lavender or rose petals

For the icing

  • 350 g/12 oz icing sugar
  • 20 g/ ¾ oz butter
  • 100 g/3 ½ oz white chocolate, melted and cooled a little
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract


Preheat the oven to 180°C/ 350°C/gas 4. To make one cake you will need a square loose bottomed cake tin measuring 23 cm/ 9 in across and 7 cm/3 in deep

Line the cake tin with non stick baking parchment and brush lightly with oil.

Puncture the aubergine all over with a skewer, place in a bowl, cover with Clingfilm and cook in a microwave on high for 5 minutes until soft. Throw away any liquid that has accumulated and leave the aubergine to cool a little.

Skin the aubergine and puree with a stick blender or liquidiser. Add the broken up chocolate which will melt in the warmth of the aubergine.

Place the remaining ingredients apart from the raspberries and caster sugar in a large bowl and mix together thoroughly. Stir in the aubergine and melted chocolate and half the cranberries.

Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin and bake for 40 minutes until firm to touch.

Remove the cake (s) from the oven and cool for 15 minutes before turning out onto a cooling tray.

For the icing: beat the icing sugar, butter, vanilla essence and melted white chocolate until you have a thick icing. Add a little milk if you need to loosen the icing.

Spread the icing over the cake and cut into 2cm squares. Decorate each with a raspberry or blueberry and the odd edible flower.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Simple spelt bread

This is one of my all time favourite home made bread recipes. It is simple and quick to make in a few hours with minimal input from the cook. The loaf can be made and proved quickly in the evening and left in the fridge overnight to rise ready to be baked first thing in the morning.

Spelt bread dough comes together quickly and becomes pliable with the minimal kneading method described below. The end result has a nutty flavour and springy open texture.

I usually double the quantity and make two loaves so one can be stored in the freezer as a stand by.

Spelt is an ancient grain, has a nutty flavour and produces excellent bread. Records show it was cultivated in the Middle East 12 000 years ago but by Roman times spelt flour had become popular throughout Europe.

Makes 1 small loaf

15 minutes hands on time


  • 300 g/11 oz wholegrain/white spelt flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp active dried yeast
  • 200 g/7 fl oz warm water
  • You will need a 450 g/1 lb (15cm/6 in by 10cm/4 in) loaf tin greased with vegetable oil.


Place the flour, yeast and salt in a bowl and mix together. Gradually stir the water into the flour with a wooden spoon and then use your hands to bring the mixture together to form a ball of dough.

Cover the bowl with Clingfilm (or use an elasticated shower cap or a clean used plastic supermarket bag) and leave for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes the dough is ready to knead. Spelt flour is one of the easiest flours to knead as it develops its elasticity quickly.

Kneading the dough

Keep the dough in the bowl and pull a portion of the dough up from the side towards you and then press it back it to the middle of the dough. Spelt dough is quite stretchy so this should be easy for you to do. Turn the bowl slightly and repeat this process with another portion of dough. Repeat these movements about 8 times or until you have worked around all the dough. This should take about 10 seconds.

Cover the bowl again and let it rest for 10 minutes. Repeat this kneading and resting process twice.

Give the dough a final knead (you have kneaded it 4 times in all), cover and then leave to rise for one hour in a warm place or if you want to eat the bread the next morning leave the dough overnight in a cool (15° - 18°C /59°F - 64°F) place so that it doesn’t over prove. The dough should have doubled its volume by the morning.

When the dough has risen to twice its original volume - uncover the dough and while it is still in the bowl punch it with your fist to deflate the dough ball.

Lightly dust a work surface with spelt flour. Remove the dough from the bowl and place it on the floured work surface. Gently pull into an oval shape and fold both ends over into the middle. You will now have a rectangular shape. Pull and fold the top of the rectangle one third of the way towards the middle, move round 180° and keep folding until you have a shape the side of your loaf tin.

Place the dough inside the prepared loaf tin, cover with Clingfilm, or a plastic bag, and leave the dough in a warm place to rise to almost twice its original size (about 45 minutes).

About 15 minutes before the bread has finished rising, preheat the oven to 240°C (475°F), gas 9. Place a roasting tin at the bottom of the oven filled with a cup full of water. Then when the oven is up to temperature, remove the cover and place the loaf in the preheated oven and immediately lower the temperature to 220°C (425°F), Gas 7. Bake the loaf for about 35 minutes or until the surface is nicely browned. Turn the loaf out of the tin, tap on the base to check it sounds hollow and is cooked and place on a wire rack to cool.