There's no place like Puglia

I was lucky enough to experience the ‘Tarant’ retreat at the Borgo Egnazia hotel in October 2018, which was published in the July 2019 issue of ‘Psychologies’ Magazine. Due to space, the feature was cut so here it is….without the cuts! I’ve also posted some pictures from Borgo Egnazia before in an older piece, so here are some new images of Ostuni and Pogliano la Mer interspersed within the text.

I love Puglia and I’m lucky enough to visit every year, each time discovering something new - the fishing village of Pogliano la Mer, the higgledy streets and white-washed walls of Ostuni, the conical Trulli houses of Alberobello.  Between these places lie expanses of olive trees, old and gnarly with secrets to tell, whispering myths of the Puglians and their traditions of music and song. On my last trip there, I discovered more about the centuries old ‘Tarantism’ phenomenon in Southern Italy, whereby farm-worker women are said to have danced in a kind of trance for days on end to rid themselves of venom that a bite from a wolf spider would leave, making them feel hysterical.  Whatsmore, I discovered a spa that used Tarantism as the basis for their most healing and immersive experience.

2018 was mostly joyous; an endless merry-go-round of wonderful experiences, meeting my new partner and the blessing of working from home with a fabulous team of women.  Out of nowhere, I was struck by anxiety and insomnia that reached maddening levels. I’d sink into a downward spiral for no apparent reason. Daytimes were sometimes like manoeuvring through sludge as I was so tired.  

So this time in Puglia was about resting, not travelling around.  My destination the Borgo Egnazia, a hotel that simply exudes calm and a feeling of healing.  Like the women with venom running through their blood, I was starting to feel hysterical so booked into the Tarant programme, a retreat  held within the cocooning walls of their Vair spa. The Tarant is for women only, attracting those in need of rest and regeneration. By October 2018, I felt overwhelmed by responsibility.  I needed time out, free from anxious thoughts over the troubles that plagued me.

I was joined by a frazzled business woman and a younger Italian lady wanting some respite.  Thankfully we all bonded despite our different backgrounds and lifestyles, a relief as we were all staying together in one of the Borgo’s magnificent villas within the grounds of the hotel.   We settled into our beautiful rooms, the gorgeous decoration gave our surroundings a heavenly soforfic feel. My veranda opened out to the rolling flat landscape of Fasano, the village where Borgo Egnazia is situated.  Each morning we were greeted by our joyous maid, Maria, who laid on a magnificent healthy breakfast spread. In the evening we had a private waitress and chef, rustling up our balanced dinners based on the Mediterranean diet.  Every morning, I made a point of taking a swim in our private pool before the Iyengar yoga session in the comfort of our villa.

The Tarant is tailor made and expertly scheduled, determined partly by a questionnaire I completed a week before arrival, and partly by observing how you’re getting on, tweaking things if need be.  I’m hesitant to give too much detail for there are surprises unfolding everyday. Control freaks would balk at the mystery but I found it exciting, relinquishing any need to take charge or make a decision was appealing.  The Vair Spa, situated under the main hotel, is an underground candlelit warren of calm, expertly run by gorgeous staff, mainly women, dressed like angels in their covetable Grecian dresses, who, I later find out, are the closest of friends.  I more or less spent the entire time being cosseted, moving from treatment to treatment. When recuperating, I was eating delicious healthy lunch in one of the fabulous restaurants either by myself or with one of the other ladies. I even had the chance to read by the outdoor pool, eeking out every last drop of Vitamin D.  I wallowed in the tepidarium alone, was scrubbed with raw lemon, olive oil and salt, feeling like a layer of angst had been scrubbed away. I experienced treatments from the daintiest of facial massages to the most deepest of pummelling, the Ortho-bionomy technique obliterating every bodily knot I never knew I had. Doing nothing was exhausting, having to take afternoon naps, relief from the headaches brought about by constant massage and inner realisations.  On day two I felt listless, broken and emotional but always thankful. I was well aware I was having the most amazing experience.

But the healing didn’t just come with bodily touch.  My ‘villamates’ came back one day enthusing about the sensory olfactory experience created by aroma specialist Luca Fortuna,  a subconscious smell test of nine key scents said to reveal your inner turmoils. My session with Luca jaw-droppingly revealed things I’d long suspected;  I’ve got to say ‘no’ more and exert my boundaries. I realised I was holding onto resentment for a current situation which was causing insomnia and anxiety.  

At the heart of the Tarant is the Puglian dance and song, the ‘pizzica-pizzica’, where resident musician, Giuseppe, expertly played the tambourine and sang enchanting lyrics.  But this wasn’t a personal concert just for me, I had to get involved. I copied his movement and his voice, an exhausting yet euphoric experience. At times, I felt I was in a trance-like ecstatic state.  I could see why the Puglians thought dance was a cure-all ( I’m a big fan of dancing all night at a nightclub even at the age of 40, the endorphin release is good for me). I’d read about the Italian physician, Nicola Caputo, who studied Tarantism and it’s victims finding that dance was a healer; he says, “at the third melody, or maybe the fourth, the young woman in my presence awoke and began to dance with so much force and fury that one might have called her crazy.  After two days of dance, she was free and healed.” Even I’m not quite sure I could stretch to two days of foot shuffling. Those Puglian’s must’ve had some serious stamina.  I found some clips of Tarantism on Youtube, black and white footage of ladies dancing like crazy loons.  Yep, that was me alright.     

One of the main linchpins of the programme is the actual ‘Tarant’ massage set in the most feminine of rooms adorned with candlelight and hundreds of flowers.  I was essentially the spiders’ prey, as I found myself flat on the floor on a large mat in my bathing suit.  The therapist worked on my whole body from gentle stretching of the muscle fascia, limb manipulation and more Ortho-bionomy, all to the sound of the pizzica music, adding to the authentic experience.  He rolled me up like I was in a web before pushing me back out again. Afterwards, I felt emotionally wrung out and good for nothing but my word, did my body feel like it was on cloud nine!  

Finally, at the risk of giving too much away, the last evening made me weep with joy for the way the whole unfolding of that evening's experience played out, a few big treats in store made me grin from ear to ear.  I want to tell you but it would remove the magic from it. It was a real celebration of what it means to be a woman.  

I left Borgo Egnazia with the foundations to start building myself up again, knowing how to give myself healthy doses of self care, finding the courage to say no and exerting my boundaries.  Arriving back home I felt fresh and ready to go, feeling lighter and more confident somehow. Just being away from everyday life had a huge impact on my mind. Puglia still remains my favourite place in the world, just now with more added ‘oomph’.  


Borgo Egnazia offers the 4 night Tarant Retreat from £3,080pp when booked with Health and Fitness Travel (0203 397 8891 healthandfitnesstravel.com). This includes a full-board basis, the retreat, return flights and private transfers.






Herne Bay project

In summer 2017 I was commissioned by Canterbury Council to produce a picture library of my home town, Herne Bay. It was a commission that came totally out of the blue by a friend who suggested it was something I could do. I spent a week in August walking around town, capturing the heart of the town, it’s events, people, food, sports and buildings, that kind of thing. I had to be careful not to show children, unless we’d planned a shoot to specifically show this (which we did with some of the people from the council offices) so there are lots of the backs of people, but the essence was to capture the vibrancy that Herne Bay can have. Photographing a town can hold a lot of problems; i’m not a fan of street furniture for example, cars, bins that kind of thing so finding a perspective can be challenging. And even more so on a particularly flat, dark and dismal day. But thankfully, most of the time the sun shone. There are a lot of the images that make up the collection but here are a few of my favourites.

Vietnam, 2017 - a foodie trip for Sainsbury's Magazine

In October 2017, I had 6 weeks of absolute crazy travel - France to Madrid to Sardinia followed by Peru and climaxing with 10 days in Vietnam. At the end of this insane 6 weeks, I vowed never to step on a plane again (an absolute lie - who was i kidding?!). I’d worked really hard in 2017 and also worked relentlessly to turn all of those trips into commissions. When I got back, i went straight into a month long freelance stint at my old stomping ground, Sainsbury’s Magazine, and then writing up all of these trips before starting a year long maternity cover at Psychologies Magazine at the beginning of December. It’s no wonder I had no time to do anything on my blog. Yesterday i was looking through my images of that Vietnam trip to find a reference shot of Vietnamese Iced Coffee for a food shoot I’m currently producing for The Sunday Times Magazine. Gosh - I’d not even posted some of my favourite images from that trip on my website, let along the resulting food feature published almost a year after I’d been. i’m going to write more about Vietnam in another post, for there’s too much to say here, but here are a few of my favourite images from Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hoi An and Mekong. The images that I return to are the ones that were not planned, just observing what’s going on in the streets.

Caragh Couldridge, Caragh's Chocolates

In May 2018, I had the absolute pleasure of heading over to Sark, one of the Channel Islands, for a shoot with the very intriguing Caragh Couldridge who not only makes her own chocolates, but she’s also a police officer and yoga teacher. How does she find the time?! Turns out Caragh isn’t the only one with several different jobs; it seems to be common practice on this fascinating little island. I spent ages talking to Caragh before we even thought about shooting, as she was so interesting. She took me down to the lovely little bridge that links Sark with Little Sark where we spent quite some time trying to avoid the ‘tourists’ (myself included!) whilst composing the opening image of her with her bike. This is an iconic spot of Sark so we also had to wait for her dog to play ball and be part of the image. The light was really flat and there was a lot of glare so it was a tad tricky to get right. Typically, the following day the sky was much more dramatic. Nevermind. I loved watching her at work in her chocolatiers, seeing her interact with customers and taking a moment out to show me some of her yoga. My boyfriend came with me, acting as my assistant, carrying my kit, so we spent an extra few days sampling the joys of Sark and had a wonderful time. The place is so magical we are going back this year. Before we left, Caragh invited us to dinner with her husband and we had a lovely time at Stocks Hotel, shooting the breeze. caraghchocolates.com

Clemmie Hooper, Midwife and Author

Clemmie Hooper only lives down the road from me, in Ramsgate Kent. So it was easy to organise this shoot. In fact, we organised two separate ones so we had more time to try and get something of her on the seafront at Ramsgate, despite it being FREEZING cold, Clemmie was happy to make this look as Spring-like as possible whilst I was wrapped up tightly in my coat. Clemmie, along with her husband, is a well known blogger/influencer as well as a Midwife and mother of 4 daughters. She’d just moved into a huge new home not far from the seafront and was just starting the decoration process, even though it was great as it was. It’s always a little more challenge to pictorially show someone who has a ‘job’ with an online presence so we focussed also on her daily life as a mother and as we couldn’t photograph her at the hospital, we also found a way to work around that. It was inspirational to see what Clemmie and Simon had created for themselves. This feature was published in the Spring 2019 issue of Psychologies Magazine.

Thuy Diem Pham, chef and proprietor of The Little Viet Kitchen

After I took a brilliant foodie trip to Vietnam in November 2017, I’d been looking for a decent authentic Vietnamese restaurant in London. So when I was commissioned to photograph one in Islington for the May 2018 issue of Psychologies Magazine, I was thrilled. I’d seen a PDF of Thuy’s new book so I knew it was going to be an interesting space. The Little Viet Kitchen is a gem of a restaurant on the end of Chapel Market, Islington. Inside it was an ode to the feminine with pretty delicate touches from the personal flowers Thuy herself does, right down to the added little decoration details. Whatsmore, Thuy makes absolutely fierce Vietnamese food that packs an punch in the flavour stakes. She was totally inspiring to listen to, her journey to having this lovely little restaurant fascinating. I had a lovely time photographing Thuy, she was so amenable and we had a laugh. I went back the following month with my boyfriend where Thuy knocked our socks off with a brilliant Pho…I was taken right back to Vietnam. thelittlevietkitchen.com

Brigitte Jones, Twisted Vintage

It was a cold spring day when I drove to South East London to meet with Brigitte Jones, a vintage jewellery ‘upcycler’. We had planned some outdoor shots but the weather was so bad, it wasn’t even an option. I was transfixed by her pieces and amazed how Brigitte was able to take some pre-loved trinkets to produce something quite amazing. Her space was super small, an office she shares with her husband, a photographer but thankfully, she had everything well organised so despite being the smallest space I’ve ever photographed in, we kind of made it work. I keep up to date with Brigitte’s work on Instagram @twistedvintagejewellry where she’s always posting really covetable things. The feature was published in the July 2018 issue of Psychologies Magazine. Find her creations on twisted-vintage.co.uk

Becky Cocker, Owner of CARV London

It was fun to meet and photograph Becky Cocker back in the summer of 2018 on two occasions for her story in the October issue of Psychologies Magazine. Becky launched her leather bags and accessories company, Carv, to great success. She has a wonderfully free life; living on a narrowboat and working from a creative space in Hackney plus a mother to her beautiful daughter. Becky’s bags are exquisitely made , each one by hand using centuries-old hand leatherworking techniques and vegetable tanned leather. She was a joy to photograph, happy to do anything I suggested. There are some outtakes from the shoot that were not used in print that I’ve added here. Becky’s bags can be found on carvlondon.etsy.com



Alexandra Jane, Eco Fashion Designer, February 2018

I took a trip to Wales to visit the lovely Alexandra Jane to photograph her on the farm where she lives with her boyfriend and then onto her studio where she makes her eco clothing.  She was so warm, giving of her time and energy and we got on a like a dream.  For a woman so young, she has a drive like no other plus a talent for business and fashion.  This was for the April issue of Psychologies Magazine. 

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Emma Mitchell, Naturalist, January 2018

It's been such a busy year.  I've been doing a maternity cover placement at Psychologies Magazine and have also been shooting for them too.  It's continuing to be a fantastic whirlwind so I'm finally going to be posting some of the shoots and travel trips I've done so far this year. 

Just after the new year, I went to Cambridge to Photograph the lovely Emma Mitchell who runs natural crafts website Silverpebble.  We had a lovely morning with the winter light flooding in her small but cute cottage as she showed me how to curate nature art pieces.  This shoot was published in the March 2018 issue of Psychologies Magazine.  What follows are the pages that were published and some of my favourite images from the shoot.  

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Textile Cooperative in Peru

On the way to the airport on our last day in Peru, we stopped off at a cooperative weaving textiles from Alpacas raised and reared at the same place.  Called Awana Kancha, it sits in a village within the Sacred Valley.  It was great to see how natural dyes are made and how they're used to colour the yarns.  Here are a few images from the stop off.

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South of France - a glorious few days in the Autumn

SOUTHERN FRANCE

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Southern France is best known for it's rolling granite mountains, bountiful farms, underground caves, plenty of heritage and let's not forget chestnuts and vineyards.  Our destination was The Gard and Ardeche, covering Drome, Gard, Ardeche, Vaucluse Provence, Vallee du Rhone and Cotes du Rhone wine.  This autumn, I took the 'slow' travel route with a group of friends, starting with an early morning Eurostar from Ashford International. Within a few hours, we arrived in Lyon and then a further 30 minute train to Valence, picking up a car rental and driving to our first destination, the small village of Uzer.  Thanks to a dodgy navigation system, we took an unexpected detour through the perched village of Montreal, a beautiful village synonymous with this particular area with tiny roads and typically French houses.  Continuing to the top of the hill to turn around, we stopped to witness grand views over 36 villages. Sometimes its worth getting lost.  Avoid the hordes in Summer, the best time to visit is May or October and you'll fall in love. Here's my pick of things to do once you're there.    

 

1.  Stay in a 12th Century Castle

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Chateau d'Uzer is a 12th century castle with a rich history, now owned by the throughly French Veronique and Eric.  Over the last 5 years, they've turned it into a hidden gem of a guesthouse.  Five intricately designed guest rooms, each one different to the other, show a couple with a talent for interior design and exceptional taste.  The garden room, one of the many wonderful features, was added in 1925.  Jutting out the first floor of the house, it has quirky design quips and is a restful place to enjoy a pre-dinner drink.  There are no TV's and deliberately the only place to receive internet are in the main communal areas.  For 35 euros, Veronique will rustle up a delicious 3 course dinner (with cheese) and local wine.  As much produce as possible comes from their organic garden.  What's more, there's an outdoor pool with ample room for decent length swimming and room for sunbathing in the summer months. Eric took great pride in showing us the cinema room they'd built too.  The couple are involved in the local art scene and regularly change the paintings in the hotel plus they host cultural evenings. It's a brilliant price starting at 150 euros per night and worth coming to this little town just to spend the night here.  

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2. Uzes markets and a horse and cart ride through vineyards

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I fell in love with Uzes, it's gorgeous cobbled streets full of quaint shops offering local arts, crafts, fashions and intricate patisseries.  There's a fabulous market at the Place aux Herbes where local artisan producers sell honeycomb, olive oil, goats cheese, fruit, vegetables, flowers, fresh meat and even fresh fish (one stall has fish still swimming which is then killed straight out of the tank!). I came back laden with honeycomb, olive oil, dried girolles and goats cheese ready for my Friday night dinner guest back home.  One of the best things to do here is explore the local area by taking a horse and cart.  Emmanuelle Pedeneau was our competent horse wrangler, taking us on an autumnal jaunt through vineyards and farms.  Wine harvest was early in France this year due to lack of rainfall but it was glorious to see the bright russets and coppers of the vineyards.  The cart ride took us out to AOC Duche d'Uzes and the vineyard of Domaine Les Lys, where they're confident that 2017 will be a good year for their crop.  Over a delicious gastronomic lunch on their covered terrace (including a hazlenut macaroon dusted with the finest copper sprinkle, a mini lime meringue tart and a Paris Brest which deserves a mention), I tried a delicious slightly oaked Chardonnay, a 100% Syrah blend that was like drinking a soft alcoholic berry juice and a 100% Grenache. Suitably full, slightly tipsy and tired from the heat of the midday sun we jumped back in the carriage back to the farm.  We all left Uzes wanting to come back for the quaint peacefulness and authentic French vibe.

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One night in Uzes isn't enough, but it's perfect for a long weekend.  Book into the l'hotel Entraigues which is a great little base at an affordable price. It has a cute swimming pool (accessible from room 104 in case you want to take a dip straight out of your room) and a small but effective roof terrace with views out to the cathedral opposite. If you love buying food at markets, remember to bring zip lock bags to stop the pong of goats cheese stinking the train carriage out on the way home.

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3.  Go Caving...with a twist

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The drive across the gorges of Ardeche is stunning and amongst some of the best road journeys I've taken for views alone. Knowing there are also over 2000 caves under these gorges is quite humbling.  If you'd have told me by the end of this trip that I'd of gone caving, into what I consider being the deepest depths of the centre of the earth wearing a boiler suit and head torch as my only source and light I'd have told you to get out of town.  Instead, I found myself conquering my fear of the dark and confined spaces for the sake of wine.  Actually it was great to face this fear and also bonding experience with those you share the experience with.  Accompanied by master caver Nicholas Bransolle and winemaker Raphael Pommier of Norte Dame de Cousignac vineyard.  We were guided into the depth of Grotte de Saint Marcel d'Ardeche for a couple of hours in pitch black.  Losing all sense of sight, we stoped for a wine tasting, the idea being that by losing sight, your other senses come alive.  I'm not sure it worked for me as my imagination runs riot in the dark but the rest of the group enjoyed it.  What's more, the 'expedition' involved a zip wire across the caves and a tightrope walk with just our torchlight on our hats for vision.  It was one of the most terrifying things I've ever done.  At the time, I hated it but I felt a big sense of achievement afterwards. 

 

Keeping to the caving theme, and one that's nowhere near as taxing, is a visit to the Pont d'Arc cavern and the Chauvet Cave, a UNESCO heritage site showcasing the first known art dating back 36,000 years.  Although, for conservation reasons, the original site isn't accessible to the public, there's an exact replica very near to the original.  Viewing the impressive cave art created by our ancestors from the Ice Age is quite overwhelming and a surprisingly unforgettable experience.  As with everywhere in France, the main tourist attractions are throughly mobbed during the summer months.  The best time to see the Pont D'Arc / Chauvet  Caves is out of season. October is a great time to visits when it's not as hot and crowded.  Tours are guided with headphones but an unguided visit can be arranged in the evening; a good way to enjoy view the cave art at a more leisurely pace.

4.  Enjoy local food

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A stop off at Auberge la Farigole in Biden for the local dish of Brouffado is a must. A hearty meal of slow cooked beef with capers and anchovies accompanied by earthy potato gratin with ceps washed down with a local beer flavoured with chestnut flower and honey is the perfect way to refuel.  Perched on the side of a popular cycling route, locals take a leisurely lunch on the terrace overlooking a vast vineyard.  As part of the Bistrot de Pays initiative, a collection of restaurants dedicated to only using local produce, I was suitably full and happy, knowing my food was from local farms.  

For a guaranteed dining experience in this area, seek out a restaurant that's part of the Bistrot de Pays initiative, a collection of restaurants dedicated to only using local produce, you're guaranteed good food and produce here.  

5.  Get on a bike

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Just a 30 minute drive from Uzes is Remoulins, also a stones throw away from the Pont du Gard, the UNESCO Roman built viaduct/bridge. We hired some electric bikes (to help with some of the hill climbs) from a place near to the river and took a guided tour through the area, up to the beautiful mediaeval village of Castillion, built using honey coloured stone, complete with the regulatory winding cobbled roads. We caught our breath at the Hotel Vieux Castillion, and from the poolside terrace, took a drink overlooking the Remoulins. We cycled the bikes over rugged rocks, a little too advanced for me, so swiftly made haste for the road after viewing the Pont du Gard from a distance.  For a small entrance fee, visors can spend all day amongst the landscape, bathing in the river, lunching in the restaurant and soaking up the atmosphere.  For electric cycling try and bring some padded shorts as the seats are quite uncomfortable especially when going over uneven ground.  Last admission for the Pont du Gard is 6pm but when you're in, you're in.  Bring a picnic and watch the sunset through the arches along the river.  Stay into the night if you like.  The Pont is also very busy in the summer so the best time to visit is out of season in Autumn or Spring.  

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6.  Finish off at a top class restaurant

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Our final night was spent in Nimes, checking into the Aparthotel right next to the train station so we could maximise our time here as much as possible.  Restaurant Vincent Croizard is one of the best in the area.  Entrance is through a small door in a house with no front windows; it's discreet entrance gives it the exclusive feeling of a private club.  Service is spectacular, food is special.  We were served a soft steak Tartare followed by Red Mullet cooked in a bouillabaisse with beans, chorizo and beans; delicate with a hint of warming spice.  The main dish of Fillet of beef was cooked to perfection with umami flavours coming from the Girolles and Shitake mushrooms.  Dining here is a slow experience, best reserved for special occasions and a great way to finish off a visit to the South of France.  

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HOW TO DO IT:

Voyages-sncf.com - Fares from London to Valence start at £111 standard class return. All fares are per person and subject to availability. For bookings visit www.voyages-sncf.com or call 0844 848 5848.  For more information visit www.tourismegard.com and https://en.ardeche-guide.com

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Like a Pig in...

Like a Pig in...

I’m the epitome of the perfect guest The Pig could hope for; I wallow in my room, I relax in the bar, I drink and eat far too much plus I'm happy to roll around with a full yet healthy belly.

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Sacramento, US. A new food destination?

At the end of January this year, I took a trip to Sacramento in North California as I had a commission from Olive Magazine to investigate this very foodie town.  Olive published the feature online which can be seen here.  Below is my original unedited text:

I'm drinking a Bloody Mary inside an old converted garage in midtown Sacramento with owner of Preservation & Co, Jason Poole. Having only checked into the Citizen Hotel downtown an hour ago, I wasn't expecting such a rapid foodie onslaught but Jason's a snappy character, full of energy so I do my best to keep up as he opens jars of preserved vegetables to garnish my drink. Who knew a Cayenne Carrot stick would go so well with an alcoholic drink? He's just taken a delivery of pressed tomatoes from a local Californian company, from the field to his store in 4 days, ready to add to the next batch of his infamous Bloody Mary mix, hitting 30 bars in Sacramento and 700 more across the US. Jason is keen to show me some popular bars and life after dark which wasn't on my agenda but I roll with it, for all the best things are found when you hang with a local.  Jason doesn't just have one of the best examples of farm to fork businesses in town, he's also incredibly connected.  For the next few days as I eat my way through this 'farm to fork' city, a place where the mentality of the people is always farm based and a farmers market is normal, it seems everyone knows him.  And, I later realise, everyone in the food business here knows everyone else in the food business. It makes for a community that has food right at it's very heart.  

Leaving the preserves behind, I'm pleased to tuck into dinner at Hawks, a relatively new hip restaurant on Alhambra Blvd with an open bar and kitchen. The vibe is buzzing, the menu looks incredible and I dive right in.  I decide to try a few small plates that feature a few ingredients I've never heard of so I go for the Point Reyes Toma Cheese, a semi-hard buttery cheese that rubs along nicely with the lavender black pepper honey it's served with and the locally grown Coraline Chicory turned into a lighter version of a Caesar salad with crunchy breadcrumbs, bacon and parmesan all washed down with delicious Californian wine, of course. I didn't mean to go vegetarian but I was drawn in by the lure of freshly picked, locally grown vegetables. This place has impeccable service, knowledgable staff and it's packed out on a Wednesday night.

From here, it's a short Uber ride to Folsom Blvd to check out one of the hottest new and innovative openings in town, already working it's way to a Michelin star. Kru is a contemporary Japanese restaurant complete with a designated sushi bar and an enviable Japanese whisky selection.  With sake on the menu too, I continue the theme, taking advice from the head barman whose knowledge of Japanese drinks is astounding.  I eat sushi at the bar and indulge in huge, freshly flown-in scallops from Japan coated with foie gras, not the best example of farm to fork cuisine but rest assured the sushi rice is produced in Sacramento.  Ready to move on, the hot spots are The Shady Lady's on the Historic R Street for the best cocktails in town and B Side, the 'barman's bar' across the road both with a great evening vibe lasting long into the early hours.

The next morning calls for a coffee and nowhere does it better than Temple.  There are a few branches in Sacramento but the best one is at 22nd and K Street. Not only is it set in a gorgeously restored building, it's also at the cutting edge of coffee; its Japanese 'Kyoto' slow-drip is like something out of a chemistry class producing a complex finish cold-brew coffee after an 8 hour drip process. My favourite is the Nitro Cascara tea which contains less caffeine but produces a refreshingly fruity peach flavour. The 'Afogato' is essentially nitro coffee over gelato and is really popular. Their coffee is more than fair trade; it's purchased from Africa and Central South America direct from the farmer and brought based on cup quality. In keeping with Sacramento's foodie ethos, they roast their coffee just 5 blocks away, and not only do they supply the majority of Sacramento restaurants, they also supply most of California.

I can't resist ducking into Ginger Elizabeth's, the best place in town to buy chocolate. I break my 'no chocolate until 3pm rule' and get stuck into one of their incredible hot chocolates lightly scented with Rose and their Lavender Caramel chocolate 'Bon Bons'.  The chocolate here (only Valhrona) also has the farm to fork ethos; chocolate is flavoured with Del Rio botanicals from West Sacramento, the lemons from Ginger's backyard and strawberries are from Terra Firma, a community based farm in the Bay area; if in doubt, the labels tell you where everything's from. The flavours and textures are superbly smooth, the predominant flavour of chocolate followed by a delicate but punchy kiss of secondary flavour. Ginger herself worked as an executive pastry chef in restaurants all over America before opening Ginger Elizabeth's in 2007 with her husband Tom, ex chef at The French Laundry, and as one of the tasters, you can rest assured the flavours are out of this world.

Lunch is just over the road at Mulvany's, a well-known and respected eatery set in a former Firehouse, famous for it's double-cut brined pork chop.  Owner Patrick and his wife Bobbin are known throughout Sacramento, having been here for 26 years and one of the driving forces behind the farm to fork culture.  Over a delicious lunch of super light minestrone soup and meatballs with a garlicky homemade fettuccine, he tells me about his ingredients; "Everyday there's something new and cool and I get to sell it. It keeps me interested. A customer might call up with peaches from his gardens and my neighbour could bring lemons from her house.” The couple are so passionate about their home town, sustainable food, education and non-profit work, even running an International Mentoring Women's programme and various food events throughout the year. Staff have been with them for years and there's really a close-knit community feel to their restaurant. Mulvany's is THE history of food in Sacramento so it's a must.

Sacramento is easy to navigate so walking is the best way. I really enjoyed a saunter through the park at Capitol with its great variety of labelled trees and with citrus season in full swing, I was never far away from a juicy orange. Despite Sacramento's city status, it feels quite suburban.  Cute prairie style houses, reminiscent of the gold rush times, sit alongside quirky bars and restaurants; there's never a corner without something fun to see or try - none more so then Ruhstaller beer hidden downstairs in a speakeasy style bar, complete will doorbell. Owner, Jan-Erik Paino, is passionate about his beer and confirms my thoughts about Sacramento; “There's not a city mentality here, it's a slower way of life”. Sacramento was, once upon a time, the largest beer brewing and hop growing region in the world, but that sadly ended after WW2. Ruhstaller has a large, unusual space with a pool table and plenty of room to house the artistic nights they like to put on throughout the month. There are at least 8 beers on at any time so there's something to fit every palate but my go-to would be the Triple Crown, a beer featuring the blackberry grown alongside the hops. The terroir just outside the city gives their beer a different taste then other American States making for some unusual flavours.

The perfect follow on from a few pints is a pizza. Paving the way for a new breed of restaurant is The Federalist, a vibrant community feeling pizza restaurant housed in a shipping container.  The concept was thought up in 2014 by architect Malvin Maldonardo who lives next door in his Federalist house. He wanted to open up quickly, so using his knowledge, he built this cost-effectively and essentially by himself although the opening was supported by many of his fellow restaurateurs who helped kit him out with the produce and support he needed for a successful evening, once again showing how supportive Sacramento is. The Federalist is a triumph and a lot of fun where everyone sits on communal benches. I firmly place myself next to the pizza oven where his head chef speedily knocks up some Neapolitan style sourdough pizzas (it takes 3 days to produce the dough) with American style toppings whilst people play Bowles at the makeshift 'green' alongside the restaurant which makes for a totally relaxed atmosphere.  Beware the beer sizes though...they are huge.

No trip to Sacramento is complete without at least a day over in the old town, an original historical district dating back to the GoldRush era of 1848. Of course, should you wish to stay here then why not spend a few nights onboard the Delta King, a 285 ft riverboat. There are several museums, all worth a look at least just to get an understanding of the city but there are also a few interesting eateries and plenty of sweet shops. I loved the classic burgers at Ten 22. Wine enthusiasts should head to The Underground Tasting Room to sample some 'boutique' style wines without having to leave the city. There are two vineyards represented here, 'Rendezvous' whose vineyard is 20 miles South of Sacramento in Clarksburg and 'Twisted Twig', situated East into the foothills of the Sierra in El Dorado. Twisted Twig makes a limited amount of red wine, around 1000 cases a year but the wine is very good quality and is a great way to showcase what smaller vineyards can produce. The bar is situated on the original level of the Old Town (which is lower then it is now) and is a great pitstop to sample some very local wines, cool down in it's courtyard and soak up the atmosphere of this fascinating place.

The next morning, I went to see just how close farm to fork is for Sacramento, I take a short drive out of town to Soil Born Farm, a non-profit organisation home to 55 acres of certified organic farm. Behind this brilliant concept are two young organic farmers with no previous farming experience, just a strong conviction to give back to the community. In particular, their concern was to ensure vulnerable people could get easy access to healthy food, via donation to a Food Closet or the Sacramento Food Bank.Their vision for a farm and education centre is now in full-swing; starting from the root by educating children in their summer camps and teaching basic cooking. In May up until November there's a farm stand open every Saturday for people to buy vegetables. Chefs from Sacramento have supported them too; Malvin from Federalist has brought out his pizza oven numerous times for events they run on the farm.

Before I leave this brilliant foodie city, I check out the unassuming Kim's Vietnamese restaurant just a few doors down from the hotel that I've been keeping my eye on especially since I peeped through the window to see four Vietnamese ladies taking charge of the kitchen. It's brightly lit, and not entirely inviting but it's full of diners and many Vietnamese, which is a good sign. Needless to say, it's here I consume the best Beef Pho I've ever tasted. I leave Sacramento completely blown away by it's sense of community, the quality of the restaurants, cafes and bars and, of course, all the people I've met. Watch out New York and London, you have a new city to compete with.

Fly from London Gatwick to Oakland California (from £149 one way) with Norwegian Air, a low-cost airline giving easy access to Northern California.

For more information go to www.visitsacramento.com

Stay at.... www.thecitizenhotel.com

Car hire....www.alamo.co.uk

 

 

Borgo Egnazia, Puglia, Italy

I've fallen in love with Puglia. It's the large stretch of Italy that reaches down into the heel of it's famous boot and runs alongside the Adriatic sea. A land where olive trees are like the Ents in Lord of the Rings, gnarled and rugged, holding the mysteries of the past in their roots, some for 1000 years. It's where the Itria Valley stretches down into rich farmland producing some of the best crops in Italy. Let's not even talk about the gorgeous oilve oil, most of which is produced in Puglia. Forget an overrun Rome...this has it all. Space, peace and one of the most beautiful hotels I've ever stayed in.

The hotel is the Borgo Egnazia, a magical place in the heart of Puglia and I'm actually here on a Balance Magazine commission, sampling one of the 14 programmes on offer at their drop-dead incredible spa. 'Fure' is a 3 or 6 day programme, a great kickstart for those who've fallen out of love with moving their body, like me. In this glorious Puglian landscape, it's easy to find motivation. Patricia Bortolin is the creator of the Vair Spa, a unique and transformational space in the basement of the hotel, evidently more then just a place to feel good; it's where many come when stress is on the horizon, to put preventative measures in place. Or if stress has already set in, the right environment to do some really deep inner work with one of the more intense programmes. The spa menu reads more like a book – on my first night here I settle in my favourite place, the bath, and read through. Comprehensive explanations of all treatments means everything sounds amazing, quite frankly. As it was dark when I arrived, I simply came to my room and scoffed the cold meats platter laid out for me, dunked my bread into the olive oil and moderna vinegar combo and then ordered a plate of local pasta, to satisfy my craving for local food. Unlike dried pasta rubbish we're mostly used to, this had a firmer, chewier texture. Yum!

It's hard to imagine this place has only been here since 2010. The mystery of the land informs the entire design of the property; which has been done to an exquisite standard. It elegant. Sophisticated. I want to waft around in a long floaty dress. More then anything, it's ridiculously romantic. Everyone who works here is from Puglia and most speak English, in fact, a fair few of the staff I spoke to have worked in London hotels but there are a few, mainly behind the scenes, who don't speak English. Entering the reception area of the main hotel, the part known as 'La Corte', has an instantly calming influence. It's all creams and whites and flickering candlelight and sereneness. The smell of a special fig blended with other smells is probably what i'll always associate with this place. In fact the scent can be brought in the on site shops but, not only am I here with hand luggage, I also kind of only want to retain the scent for future visits. Because i'm going to come back here, 100%. Without a second thought. Everything is like a dream here. Even the gorgeous tree in reception, made from a discarded olive tree trunk from the golf course and the leaves made from old books is stunning. Apparently it's due to change so let's see what replaces it!

 

My room is out of this world, a sensory calm haven, almond oil scent in the bathroom, subtle lighting, the texture of the tuffi rock walls, the sheer fabrics, the comforting throws, the sound of the running water from the balcony. When I came back from the spa before heading out to dinner, housekeep had been to do turn down service and had put some Johnny Lee Hooker on the TV radio and I was overjoyed. It's made for couples! Everything at Borgo Egnazia was created by local designer, Pino Brescia who clearly knows this land well, taking inspiration from the ancient town of Egnazia, the ruins of which can still be seen in the gardens. Instead of paintings, there are lengths of tied up rope hanging on the walls, piles of old books bundled together set into crevices, a nod to Puliga's rich farm history and respectful knowledge of it's elders. I have the La Corte Magnifica room which is huge – a seperate living room off the main bedroom and bathroom and it's own large terrace area. There are smaller rooms that are equally as gorgeous. To be honest, it was extra space I didn't really need as I was out for a large portion of the day but I wouldn't turn it down again. Alternatively, out into the Borgo (meaning 'village') there are cute little Casetas if you'd rather a more private experience or if there's 6 or more of you, there are villas with private pools that are gorgeous. Some come complete with a Massaia, which is basically a private housekeeper who also is an amazing cook. The villas are huge so there's plenty of room for private dining. Borgo Egnazia is a resort, but it's not a resort. It's so cleverly designed that it doesn't feel like a resort, rather like a little village. There are 4 pools, 1 outdoor heated, 1 inside heated, 2 out of the Borgo by the main hotel. Children are very welcome here, there's even a great kids club, but some areas are restricted which is a good thing. There are several restaurants on offer all with amazing food, so you need not leave the hotel but i'm told there are some brilliant Trattorias in neighbouring villages so always worth venturing out if you feel to do so. One must is lunch in the Golf Club (which i'm told is fantastic by the way and quite first class, especially as Italy isn't known for it's gold at all) which is ultra traditional, all food cooked by the Massaia who I thought was in her 70's but turns out she's about my age. And the restaurant on the beach which specialises in fish. In season, they set out a stall like a fishmarket, you pick your fish, have it cooked however you want before tucking in. Sea Urchin is popular here...i couldn't think of anything worse personally! I had dinner in the Egnazia restaurant which is about to change into a fine dining restaurant as they aim for a michelin star. Judging by the food and service I sampled, I'd say they won't have to wait long. I will always remember the bread gnocchi with mushrooms and a really REALLY thick sticky mushroom sauce that was utterly delicious. And the wine menu is full of italian wine, as you might expect. It's my favourite so I was happy. The bar is rather swish with a great spirits selection, knowledgable bar staff and relaxing places to sit. It's all about the 'nook and cranny' here.!

 

There's lots to do nearby and although the hotel can arrange a hotel transfer I would suggest hiring a car so it's easier to explore local areas as it would be a waste to come all this way and not go to nearby Alberobello, the cone-roof houses known as 'Trulli' or a spend a day in Lecce, known as 'the Florence of Southern Italy'. There are UNESCO sites here and everything is within driving distance. I'm told the streetfood scene in Bari (you can fly here via Ryanair or to Brindisi, Bari is 50 minutes and Brindisi about 30) There's so much to do here, from olive oil making, cycling around the groves, cooking with a local I could go on. There are what's called 'local advisors' here who are a bit like a concierge, but more. Not just limited to men, they are also women. The idea is they fix up anything you want to do locally, make suggestions and all via the wonder of Whatsapp. They are like a personal servant. What's not to love?!

 

Back in the spa there are some really unique treatments. I can only talk about the ones I had. I tried the 'Astrignul' a unique hour that fuses movement with the Apulian love of Pizzica, an Italian folk dance, something still common in all villages across Puglia. Giuseppe led me into this with a tambourine beat, singing an Apulian working song, enjoying his voice, surprising myself by joining in, following his movements, copying his breathing technique, singing my heart out. I totally loved it but I imagine the shy wallflowers amongst you might find this a challenge...like being the first one to dance at a club and not wanting to because of fear of everyone watching you. But it's totally liberating so i'd give it a go. There was the Spirit V, designed to be had after exercise, which can last for up to 2 hours in Roman Thermal baths, a journey through the different heat stages using the different bathing pools (so up my street!) before a scrub using sea salt, olive oil soap and rosemary water. I guessed the right scent as I smelt like fresh Foccacia bread! There are a range of facials but I had the 'Abbel Bel' a fluid facial massage, layer upon layer of angelic hand movements with natural scents of lemon and rosemary wafted in front of your nose, beauty rituals influenced by the Apulian women of the past, set to the soundscape of birdsong and traditional music of Puglia that works with the brainwave. I get slightly irritated at regular facials following the regime of 'cleanse, tone, scrub, mask etc etc' so this was very refreshing.

Then there was the very intriguing treatment called 'U Se Ca Si Crisuse' which translates to 'do you know you are weird?' quite amusingly. It's a bit of a reading, like tarot card, where you smell lots of aromatherapy oils, say what you like and don't and your palate is then 'read' to create a profile of you. It's rather difficult to explain but it's very interesting and quite accurate.

 

As well as a brilliantly equipped gym with personal trainers, there's also Iyengar yoga sessions with the most graceful teacher I've ever come across, either in a class or one to one, which I really recommend. My body is in a bit of a mess, put simply. I have really tight hamstrings, calf muscles and I can't straighten them at all. It's rather embarrassing, but he tailors the class to me rather then ignoring my cries of pain, tells me to do these stretches everyday and my legs will get better, as will my flexibility. Now I just need to find a clear piece of wall I can prop my legs against! At least one session of this is a must. It's a very precise form of yoga, and all the specific movements can be a little frustrating at times but it's essential to get it right.

 

By the way, you'll want to steal the dresses off the girls who work in the spa. They're coffee mocha coloured long maxi dresses and I coveted them. The girls are all gorgeous but also very skilled at their craft. In fact, most of the staff here are gorgeous. The men all smell amazing. So up your game and come prepared. It's not a place where you have to dress up, but the kind of place where you want to dress up.

 

In my opinion, this place is worth every penny. Depending on what level of accommodation you go for and the time of year, the price can vary BUT Healing Holidays have some great deals that also incorporate a spa journey so this is worth checking out for sure. It's offset with the flights being operated by Ryanair, cheaper the further ahead you book. Oh and make sure you bring proper luggage as you'll want to at least bring back olive oil, wine and maybe the scent of Borgo Egnazia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

India 2016 - The Golden Triangle route

I've been to India a couple of times now.  Each time I feel uncomfortable yet completely mesmerised by everything about this country.  I particularly love photographing the people; what photographer wouldn't?  My favourite place from my last trip in November 2016 was the day in Karauli, still a little untouched by tourism.  I was totally enchanted by the City Palace, especially just seeing a few locals sitting around the grounds and carrying out general work to keep the place looking tidy.  It felt a little like a 2D city in 3D.  I'm not sure how else to describe it apart from full of texture, peace, greatness and a real sense of a past.  If Tim Walker could get his hands on this place it would make for the most magnificent fashion shoot location.  Although I'm not sure what the locals would make of it, but, by far they were the most friendliest village on this tour.  There are many pictures from this trip i want to share but here are just a few.  

i love the way the hog is looking at me with his beady eye....

i love the way the hog is looking at me with his beady eye....

The Great Magnolia Tree

I came across this wonderful Magnolia tree at the weekend, in full bloom, slightly ahead of season.  It was a dull, grey day for the most part, with a little blue seeping in but considering the bland light, it helped create these rather lovely graphic shots of one of my favourite flowers.  I particularly love the rain droplets on some of the petals.