I had the idea of “Appledrane” in my head for a while before I started the blog. It’s an old Cornish word, describing the sound a wasp makes buzzing around inside a rotten apple. A bit odd for a food blog I know – I just liked the idea of walking through a muggy orchard in late autumn, hearing a muffled buzz rising up from the fermenting fruit beneath the branches. A blog is a great outlet for ideas and experimentation; I can try out quirkier (dare I say weirder) concepts here than I might explore in my day-to-day work. In some ways I treat it a bit like a sketchbook, which is essentially one of the reasons that I started it.
I’ve been working at BBC Good Food Magazine for just under five years. Previously I’d been art directing photoshoots in hotels and restaurants; the chance to work at GF was a great opportunity. My day-to-day work involves commissioning photographers and prop stylists, art directing shoots and finally designing features and making sure that the magazine goes to print smoothly. It’s great to be a part of the whole process – I also shoot regularly for the magazine. I’ve learnt so much during my time at the Good Food, both from colleagues and the external contributors that we work with.
For professional work I’ll hire a studio in London, but blog-wise the light’s perfect in one of our upstairs rooms at home. To be honest half of the recipe shots on Appledrane have been taken quietly tiptoeing around with a camera while our young daughter Amelie’s having her afternoon nap in the room next to me. I do most of the writing on the train to London from Hampshire each morning – one has to seize these quiet moments when they present themselves.
A lot of the time I work backwards. I’ll chance upon an old bit of metal in the Basingstoke Canal and think, “That little bowl I’ve got in my prop cupboard would look great on that”. I then think about what goes inside the bowl. If I can find the ingredients out foraging, then all the better. It’s a good way of working when you’ve got limited props at hand – it keeps the styling strong. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t all-consuming; photography, prop hunting and thinking about food. I think my partner will ban me from the kitchen if another rusty old teaspoon finds its way into the cutlery drawer.
I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark 2, using a 50mm lens. I’ve got a few diffusers and reflectors at hand to soften light, pick up highlights on food and fill in shadows, but for the most part I only work with natural light. The majority of my blog props are sourced from boot fairs, charity shops or home-made.
My advice to a food blogger starting out is try to be strict when editing your own content. This is definitely something that I’ve learnt through working at Good Food. I wrote a Mackerel pate recipe earlier in the year – took the shot, but had a niggling feeling that it wasn’t quite right. It was OK, but in the end I felt it was better to bin the picture and run the piece without a photo than to upload something that I wasn’t 100% happy with. It’s also good to think about the pace and flow of your blog – try to surprise your reader. If you’ve been shooting on lighter tones for a while, maybe now’s the time to darken things down and go moody for a shot or two.
As much as I love the current rustic style, I do feel that commissioning editors, photographers and stylists will begin to move on creatively at some point. Speak to a food photographer who’s been in the industry for 20 years and they’ll tell you how cyclical the trends are; they were there the last time the vintage tanks rolled into town. I’ll freely admit that I’ve recently started to write ‘NO VINTAGE ENAMELWARE’ on briefs to prop stylists; there are only so many beaten-about, blue rimmed pie dishes that you can look at on set before it begins to drive you insane.
I genuinely believe that blogging has played a part in the popularity of this lo-fi approach; most people have a weather-beaten old piece of wood in the garden that they can use as a surface – it’s essentially a very democratic style.
My cooking style is pretty random at the best of times – it might sound weird but I love using up leftovers. It’s just as well; often there’s plenty of food going spare at the end of a shoot, the challenge is not letting it go to waste. We’ve got a well stocked vegetable and herb garden at home, it’s satisfying taking a a piece of leftover roast lamb from the fridge, snipping off some fresh mint from the garden and fashioning a tasty meal out of ingredients that I’ve already got in the storecupboard. A police sniffer dog cut me suspicious glance at Waterloo the other day, I was certain that I was going to have to open my rucksack and explain why I was smuggling a boiled ham hock out of one of London’s busiest commuter stations.
One of my favourite restaurants to eat out at in London is Hot Stuff. It’s a tiny Indian restaurant in Vauxhall; there’s only enough room for about 20 people to sit but the food is sublime. At the weekend I spend more time in the kitchen, there’s a great butchers in Hartley Wintney called Grave’s – they stock lots of unusual cuts of meat and plenty of game when it’s in season. I try to go out foraging at least once; Amelie’s pretty enthusiastic about exploring the countryside but tends to eat most of our bounty. We went out blackberrying this morning and returned with a handful of acorns, two hazel leaves and a feather. My cookbook of the moment is Darina Allen’s ‘Forgotten Skills of Cooking’, it’s beautifully shot, written and there’s a great wild food chapter.
I’m very fortunate to be in a position where I spend the week working in a job that I love, but can take on freelance projects in my own time. I’ve spent the last few weekends in Brighton shooting a cookbook due for release next year, and will be heading up to the Scottish Highlands in a couple of weeks’ time for a wild mushroom shoot. I’d love to keep writing too – who knows what the future holds.
Twitter is great. I’ve met many people through using it who are warm, kind and genuinely passionate about what they do. It’s also great for discovering new sites; I came across Chris Harding’s excellent blog (http://eat-chris-harding.com/) through a re-tweet from someone that I follow. I’m cautious about ‘playing the game’ – I think it’s important to retain integrity within a sphere that could be essentially seen as a marketing tool.
Stuart Ovenden’s Blog: www.appledrane.blogspot.com
Follow Stuart on Twitter: @stuovenden