Around the Table in Alentejo

A year ago, I had no idea how to use a camera. I didn’t even have a camera to speak of. By mistake, I signed up for a photography and food styling workshop thinking it was a cooking and food styling workshop with maybe a dash of photography thrown in. I had been up way too late, breaking all the rules of not using your phone while in bed, when I spied on Instagram that two bloggers I had admired for ages were doing an Around the Table workshop in Portugal.

I didn't know what an Around the Table workshop was but I did know that Portugal was (and is) my spirit home. Plus the workshop began on a milestone birthday for me, which surely was a sign. Plus I love sitting around tables. So it pretty much seemed like destiny.

The hosts were the bloggers Marta Greber (of What Should I Eat for Breakfast Today) and Sanda Vuckovic Pagaimo (of Little Upside Down Cake), both of whose striking photos and recipes I had been following on Instagram, through their blogs, and on Pinterest. I imagined sitting around weathered Portuguese farm tables in Alentejo with like-minded people eating fresh farm-to-table food that we had foraged and prepared together. I panicked and rushed to sign up before the workshop could sell out without reading the not so fine print. When we received an email asking us what camera equipment we used, and people started talking about their filters, lighting and hardcore full-frame cameras, I realised I was in trouble.

As it turned out, there was zero cooking for us to do. I mean, none whatsoever. They had teamed up with a talented Portuguese chef, foodie and photographer, Filipe Lucas Frazão, to feed us during the workshop, so our only task was to take photos. I did manage to force my way into the kitchen once, when Filipe was making Vietnamese summer rolls, and I rolled away with him, happily in my comfort zone. Thank god I had at least bought a camera beforehand so I wasn't running around the workshop with just my iPhone.

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Luckily, Sanda and Marta are incredibly patient and generous teachers. They are completely open about how they approach photography, their techniques, their career progressions and are so invested in seeing their students learn as much as possible. I also learned so much from the other participants who helped me when I was too embarrassed to ask Sanda and Marta for help (more on a few of them in my next post.) Thanks to Sanda, Marta, Filipe and the workshop, I learned how to work most of the mysterious buttons on my camera, and I learned that I loved taking photos.  A lot.

So when I heard Marta and Sanda were doing another workshop together with Filipe at São Lourenço do Barrocal in Alentejo, which I literally had just been reading about, I didn't argue with fate. Those four days at the stunning São Lourenço do Barrocal with Sanda, Marta, Filipe again and my fellow students last month were just glorious. With Sanda and Marta setting up and styling scenarios for us to shoot – from Sanda kneading her famous spelt bread to a picnic by the lake to Chelsea Fuss of Frolic foraging for flowers in São Lourenço’s fields – we clicked away. Sanda and Marta took care to check in on each of us during the shoots - were we happy with the shots we were getting, did we want to try shooting from another angle, etc. With their guidance, I took such a ridiculous number of photos that I’ve only just finished processing them.

 The lovely Sanda asked us to shoot just her hands, but apparently I'm bad at following directions.

The lovely Sanda asked us to shoot just her hands, but apparently I'm bad at following directions.

Since this was my second time doing the workshop, I suppose I took a more relaxed approach than last year, when I was frantically trying to chase the light with the wrong aperture set on my camera. There's no chasing of light at São Lourenço because there is light everywhere. There's also a pool where you can look like you're walking on water. Or if you're feeling particularly active, there's an impeccably organised vegetable garden where you can steal fresh green peas off the vine and then confess the theft to the warm and soulful bosslady, Susana Lourenço. In the middle of the Alentejano countryside, São Lourenço do Barrocal is a chic desert hideaway with its bleached stucco and radiant sun.

We stayed in cottages with sprawling stone-lined kitchens bigger than most in Hong Kong and there was no way I could not not cook in them. So sometimes instead of taking more photos or editing my overflowing catalogue of pictures in Lightroom, I stole a few hours with Sanda, Marta and Filipe in their kitchen helping them prepare meals and catching up after a year.

 Chelsea Fuss ignoring our swarm of paparazzi.

Chelsea Fuss ignoring our swarm of paparazzi.

I was honoured when, before the workshop, they asked me if I would be willing to cook a Korean dinner for everyone. After discussions with Filipe, who was to be my forager and sous-chef, I brought a few ingredients with me from Asia. Okay, I brought 25 kilos of ingredients, including a gigantic daikon and three kinds of gochujang (Korean chilli paste), but in my defense it was not all for this one dinner.

Filipe helped me prepare the meal, as well as Marta and Sanda, and I was also touched that the other ladies were eager to pitch in. The workshop had yet another collection of talented, warm, funny and motivated women (for some reason, these workshops have been all women, lucky Filipe). We filled mochi with black sesame paste, fried up some courgette pancakes, assembled bibimbap fixings together, and everyone helped carry the food to a special corner of the estate. We ate outside as the sun was setting, toasted our last night together, and stayed until the night chill set in and we had to warm ourselves up with a bracing white mulberry aguardiente from Serbia (or rakija) brought by one of the workshoppers, Nevena.

Of course, I didn’t take any photos with my camera of that dinner. I rarely manage to take photos when I’m running around and trying to put food on the table. But trust me that it was a beautiful evening with even more beautiful old and new friends around the table. Thank you to Sanda, Marta, Filipe, Susana, Marielle, Jette, Nevena, Marta W, Natalia, Zosia, Ana and Soraia for making me want the Around the Table Workshop to be an annual tradition. Here are a few shots of mine from those special four days, with styling and staging by the masters, Marta and Sanda.

xx Mina

p.s. I just learned that Sanda is leading another workshop in October in Florence with another photographer I love, Renee Kemps, with meals prepared by food writer Emiko Davies, all organised by one of my friends from last year's workshop, Marina Denisova. More info here. Now what is it that I have to do in October…?

 Marta Walsh at work.

Marta Walsh at work.

 Soraia Martin's casual solo picnic.

Soraia Martin's casual solo picnic.

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 Marta, both mentor and model.

Marta, both mentor and model.