It’s only been two weeks since I got back from our food photography retreat in Italy, but looking at these images makes me itch for doing something similar again. Preferably as soon as possible! In early January, Tania & Maria from EaTravel reached out to me and asked if I wanted to come hang out with them + a bunch of talented food bloggers at a gorgeous villa in Tuscany. They promised good food, stunning photography opportunities and brainstorming on possible future collaborations. Who can say no to that? Besides, one of my New Years Goals was to treat myself to a food photography retreat, only I didn’t expect that wish to come true so quickly!
I immediately looked up flights and booked one as fast as I could, even though it was stretching my budget for this spring a bit. But this opportunity I just couldn’t miss! Also, some of the bloggers that would be there I’ve followed for a long time so you can understand I was very keen to meet these cyber friends :-)
We would stay at La Quercia Estate, which an old, completely restored, villa near the village Impruneta, about 30 min by car from Florence. Veronica & Margherita, mother and daughter, runs the place. They kindly let us all stay there completely for free, while totally spoiling us with good food. Honestly guys, the powerful and positive energies these two amazing people generated is quite remarkable. They made us feel so at home and in the matter of minutes upon meeting them, they shared all the family secrets haha :D
Besides Tania, Maria and myself, Valentina of Hortus Cuisine, Zaira of The Freaky Table, Carolina of La Cocina de Carolina and Ingrid Hofstra were there. Such a kind, funny, warm, smart and talented group of ladies! We had a lot of fun together.
Let’s have a look at our first day at the retreat!
The first morning I woke up early to heavy clouds and a dead silent house. I tiptoed down to the kitchen and found Carolina there, already busy with setting up a simple still life to photograph in the pale morning light. We put on the tea kettle just in time for the rest of the crew to arrive.
Tania was quickly appointed model of the day ;-) For breakfast, Margherita had baked a marble cake for us that we ate along with bowls of yoghurt and fruit (for good measure).
This traditional, Italian country house kitchen is truly the heart of the villa. Here we gathered for breakfasts and cooking classes. There’s only one source of light – the large glass doors looking out towards the garden and hills. The low light produced long shadows in the early mornings, which for some seriously dramatic and interesting photography. Very different from the soft, pale light we have up here in the north!
After breakfast we had some time to ourselves before the cooking class of the day would begin. Veronica had brought out some of her old photo albums for us, which we flipped through with fascination. There were black and white photos of Francesco Clemente, her father, who originally bought this house on the hill and started restoring it in the 1960’s. There were pictures of Veronica as a baby, and of her mother, who didn’t live in this house but in Florence, 30 minutes away by car.
Veronica mainly grew up in Florence with her mother, but she would spend weekends in this house with her father. She told us that she used to hate these weekends. They were so boring to her! Nothing to do in this big, old, draughty house. It was a place for the grown ups. The artists, musicians, writers and thinkers of the time. They would gather in the large living room by the open fire late at night, deeply engaged in fiery debates.
And then in the mid 80’s, Francesco fell ill and passed away, all too young. Veronica was only 21 when it happened, living her life in Florence with no intention of moving to the countryside. But this house was now all she had left of her father. When Francesco died, something shifted within her. She felt as if some part of him still lived on this property, and that she was meant to stay here as well, close to his memory. She began to connect with the place. So, she rolled up her sleeves and got to work.
The house was still in need of massive restoration, and most of it Veronica did by herself. She slept in the master bedroom upstairs, through the freezing winters and abundant summers. Sometimes she hired carpenters and gardeners and other people to help with restoring and managing the estate. Some who’s intentions wasn’t always honest. Throughout the years, people have tried to claim, buy and even steal this valuable property from Veronica, but she has fought them all off and still manages the estate to this day.
Even though Veronica is clearly an incredibly strong and independent woman, living at the estate hasn’t always been easy. She was very honest with us on how hard and lonely it has been. Especially when Margherita was newborn and Veronica’s husband moved to Naples. Then she cried and cried and cried for weeks.
Nowadays, Veronica has an assistant and a gardener who helps run the estate. Margherita is in charge of bookings and social media, and the house is fully booked throughout the high season with families and friends who rent it for one week or more at a time. Veronica also regularly teaches cooking classes here, and it was one of those that awaited us on this gloomy afternoon. But first, some coffee and explorations of the garden!
Later in the afternoon, we gathered around the large marble table in the main kitchen to learn how to make classic tomato sauce, lasagna with fried zucchini, prosciutto, smoked cheese and bechamel, and valeriana salad with Veronica’s special vinaigrette.
Red onions are sautéed in plenty of olive oil and with whole, canned tomatoes. In the winter time there’s no point in buying fresh tomatoes. They will be either imported or green house grown. Flavorless either way. The canned tomatoes makes for a richer and more flavorful sauce.
Heaps of basil, some pepper, a teaspoon or so of sugar and 3 pinches of salt. Veronica is very particular about the pinches. You pinch with three fingers, and you always add 3 pinches. Then it is always perfectly salted. No need to taste ;-) Now, let it slow cook in the stove.
Meanwhile, salt the strips of zucchini to drain the water from them, and whisk together the béchamel sauce. Here, Maria is snapping a pic of the zucchini stripes.
Butter, flour, milk, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Nice and creamy! When you make béchamel sauce for lasagna, you add a little extra milk to have enough liquid for the dried pasta plates to cook properly in the oven. Make sure to use the whole nutmeg nuts instead of the dried powder, for best result. Grated, obviously.
Carolina capturing the just fried zucchini and the béchamel ingredients.
Layer it up! Pasta plates, béchamel sauce, fried zucchini stripes, smokey cheese, prosciutto, parmesan cheese, basil, repeat. Oh, and salt & pepper of course.
Veronica also made a huge winter salad for us. Here’s how you do it:
Peel and slice oranges. Thinly shave fennel.
Rinse a lot of valeriana leaves (or spinach). Valeriana tastes kind of like wild spinach! Combine with the fennel and orange slices.
Top with walnuts and rosé pepper.
Then make the dressing! Veronica’s ”special vinaigrette” contains olive oil, lemon, red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, salt & pepper. Add the dressing just before serving the salad.
Back to the tomato sauce. If you wanna make it true Italian style, pass the sauce through a… passer? until you have a smooth sauce with no bits of onion or herbs. Stir in heaps of grated parmesan, as much as you can. Serve with pasta! (You can also serve the sauce chunky as it is).
This sauce was made only for me <3 Even though this food was made with so much love, I had to pass on the prosciutto. But I got some of that fried zucchini and smokey cheese and it was pretty awesome.
Many many hours later of cooking and photographing, we sat down to eat and chat on everything from blogging and photography to relationships and the history of the estate. Everyone had such interesting stories to tell, and I could feel that these women are certainly some seriously special people. Warm, funny, smart and passionate about food. Every single one. I went to bed dead tired but full of positive energy, inspiration and gratefulness for being in this beautiful place with all these amazing people.
On the second day, I filled an entire memory card with photographs. The food, the light, the craft of shaping gnocchi and whipping up chocolate cake – it was pure foodie perfection. But these photos (or rather a fraction of them) I’m saving for next time!
Oh! Don’t forget to check out the girls instagram accounts: (they all ah-maze me)
Ingrid (is the light in the Netherlands always this dreamy? <3)
Zaira (like a Caravaggio painting) + her handmade ceramics (at the top of my props wish list!)
Valentina (love her Italian farm-to-table feeling!)
Carolina (would go to Barcelona only to spend a weekend in her kitchen, listening to her silly jokes and eating tortilla)
Tania (so envy of her creative life divided between Amsterdam & Cape Town!)
Maria (same as above haha. Would kill for this girl’s life! Luckily I can follow along on insta :-)
Have you guys gone to a food photography retreat or a workshop of some kind before? Tell me about it!
Disclaimer: I was invited to join this retreat and stay at La Quercia Estate free of charge (except for the plane tickets, which I paid for myself). I haven’t been paid to write about the estate, but I chose to do so anyway. All editorial choices and opinions are 100% my own :-)
Until next time,
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