London calling

I was going against the traffic somewhat when I flew from Nice to London last month (in summer, sun-seeking Brits are more likely to migrate to the French Riviera than vice versa). Yet while many of my shoots take place in the South of France, my work as photographer often takes me further afield. One of my corporate clients, Airbnb, regularly commissions me to cover their press trips. Previous destinations have included Florence, Paris and Rome, and last month it was London’s turn.

Photograph of a man walking past graffiti
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The basis for this assignment was straightforward. A group of crème de la crème Indian travel writers and food critics had been invited by Airbnb India on a whistle-stop trip to the British capital. Housed in fine (Airbnb) lodgings, they would participate in (Airbnb) experiences, explore, shop and be wined and dined at the city’s finest, on-trend restaurants.

Taxidermied stag head on the wall
A subtle reminder of the origins of the roast fallow deer and venison Scotch eggs served at the Harwood Arms
My role, alternating work as a travel photographer (to capture the locations visited), food photographer (to make photos of the not-too-shabby grub) and property photographer (for pictures of their accommodation), was to provide fuel for the PR machine. Working with the invited writers, my brief was to take photographs for publication on social media feeds or with features in magazines and newspapers such as Condé Nast Traveller, Hindustan Times and Vogue (articles that would likely mention, as part of an unspoken ‘gentleman’s agreement’, the host’s brand).

Taxidermy and a load of pollocks

It was quite curious to be sent back to the UK on a mission as a travel and food photographer. I’ve lived in the South of France for over ten years, greatly appreciating French cuisine, and my nostalgia for England revolves more around people than memories of food. However gastronomy was a key focus of journalists’ interests on this trip, and I was happy to witness changes in food culture that seem to be occurring in my homeland.

I was pretty sure that I’d never seen anything green in a full English breakfast before (aside from a possible serving of mushy peas). I discovered that a pub could be awarded a Michelin star for its gastronomic offerings (unheard of, back in the day when pubs served only deep-fried scampi or sausage & chips, with a packet of pork scratchings as an entrée for the very hungry). The menu at the Harwood Arms boasted true British produce, from Cornish pollock to Wye Valley asparagus, and old-school ingredients like smoked eel and hake collar that I hadn’t heard mention of since my grandparents died. A decent curry is one thing that I miss in France, London having far better Indian food than the French Riviera. But again, I was to be surprised. Instead of being served industrial portions of chicken tikka masala and prawn balti at the kind of neighbourhood curry house to which I’d been accustomed, my clients had arranged a table at ‘progressive Indian fine dining’ restaurant, Indian Accent, in Mayfair. The third establishment of its name, after Delhi and New York, serves dishes whose beauty made them a joy to photograph, and whose tastes and lightness catapulted curry to a whole new level of divine.

Food photograph of a fish dish on a white plate
A far cry from fish ‘n’ chips: Cornish pollock with smoked eel, cauliflower and sea purslane at the Harwood Arms

Gin on a bike

The chosen ‘experience’ on this trip, aside from eating, eating and more eating, was an immersion into the world of gin. The international trend for this quintessentially London spirit shows no signs of abating, and on a sunny afternoon, our group of journalists was taken to South London to learn about its origins.

Close-up photograph of cinchona tree bark in the palm of an Asian hand
Cinchona bark: natural source of quinine in tonic water
Before visiting the Beefeater Gin Distillery, the point of rendez-vous was rather surprisingly, a park. A ‘gin expert’ from the Travelling Gin Company turned up on a bicycle, which he and his assistant proceeded to unpack and transform into a bar. The group was then given a talk and seemingly unlimited tastings of a range of craft gins wider than I could’ve imagined possible. My protestations that as a photographer on duty it wasn’t wise to drink, were shouted down by experts, guests and even my clients, and so I too had something of an initiation into ‘mother’s ruin’.

I learned that a nasty-tasting natural version of tonic water had been made palatable by gin and given to British soldiers in India at the beginning of the country’s colonisation. Apparently the taste of it in the blood repulsed the mosquitoes that were otherwise killing off the army through malaria. As our speaker reached the ‘punchline’, that gin & tonic therefore played a not insignificant role in enabling Brits to succeed as rulers of India, he looked slightly uncomfortable. Presumably he wasn’t used to recounting this particular anecdote to a group of Indian nationals. In any case, I made a note-to-self to drink more G & T back in the South of France, on the grounds of pest control.

2 men with a bicycle give a class to a group of seated people in a park
Mobile gin bar in the park

Property photography before breakfast

Alongside eating (and drinking) with my delightful clients and guests, the schedule for photography was fairly intense. My days began early, as I set off to take property photographs of the writers’ Airbnb homes before we all met for breakfast (and the first food photographs of the day). Time was tight between the earliest hour that guests would agree to get up and let me in, and the breakfast rendez-vous, so there was certainly no flexibility to wait for the best light to photograph the houses, or much time to shoot more than the exterior and one or two rooms. Late at night, after I’d rolled my photographer’s bag back to my own home-from-home, I would begin the download and back-up of the day’s images, and optimise a selection for the writers to post on their social media feeds the next day. But although I was tired when the trip came to an end, and probably wouldn’t need to eat for another week at least, I headed back to Nice happy with this refreshing taste of home.

Interior photograph of a lounge
A slightly English-looking sitting room
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