PUBLISHED: 11:25 24 October 2012
For photographer Rachael McKenna, a move to France enabled her to fulfil her dream of taking beautiful lifestyle images of her adopted homeland, as Anna McKittrick discovers
Nothing evokes French life more so than the sacred lunch hour – work comes to a standstill and families and friends get together to eat a delicious leisurely lunch. While the tradition might be changing slightly in Paris, it’s still very much alive in the south of France and someone who knows all about it is photographer Rachael McKenna who has spent the past two years capturing every aspect of this daily ritual, from market to table, for her new book Lunch in Provence.
New Zealander Rachael made the move to France in spring 2009 to start a new adventure with her English husband Andy and their baby Charlize, who turns three in December.
A trip to Europe as a student left a lasting impression on Rachael and since then she’s had a particular fondness for France. “I travelled through France and Italy about 12 years ago and absolutely fell in love with it. I’d always thought that if I was ever going to live somewhere else I would choose France, probably because it’s a bit more laid-back than Italy,” says Rachael. When she returned to Auckland she threw herself into her career as an animal and baby photographer, publishing several books under her maiden name Rachael Hale and creating images for calendars, cards and posters. While the seed of moving to France had been planted many years previously, it wasn’t until Rachael met her now husband Andy in 2007 that it began to take root. With a shared love of France, it seemed a natural progression for the couple to make a cross-continent move when looking for a new challenge.
When it came to deciding where to base themselves, they opted for Languedoc as it’s an area that Andy knows well having spent three years working there before the couple met. But for Rachael, her heart has always been in Provence: “My favourite area of France when I was travelling was Provence, particularly around Arlès and Avignon, which is potentially somewhere we’ll move to in the future when we can afford to buy property there. That’s the other reason why we went for Languedoc. It’s the up-and-coming Provence but not as expensive.”
The couple had already bought a house in the pretty village of Causses-et-Veyran in Hérault when Rachael was commissioned to photograph her book The French Cat which took them all over France: “Had we realised that we were going to be on the road we probably wouldn’t have bought a house because it sat empty for nearly two years. It’s a lovely house and Andy’s a builder so in the time that we have been at home he has done some great renovation work,” says Rachael. The couple have just enjoyed their first summer at their home in Languedoc but after spending so much time travelling, it’s taken a bit of adjustment to get used to the change in lifestyle.
“I miss the excitement of doing something different and seeing somewhere new everyday but it’s nice to be settled and now our daughter is a bit older and started school in September, it’s nice for her to have a bit more of a routine in her life,” adds Rachael.
The McKennas have fond memories of life on the road and Rachael says being able to travel as a family made the adventure all the more enjoyable. “We basically covered every nook and cranny of France together. Charlize was six months old when we started, which was a brilliant age to be travelling, and it was great to experience it as a family.”
But not only did it give Rachael the chance to discover more of the country that she so loves, it also enabled her to fulfil her dream of creating beautiful photographic portraits of animals in their natural environment for her book The French Cat, which was swiftly followed by The French Dog.
The idea for Rachael’s latest book, Lunch in Provence, came about while she was travelling through France. Having more than proved herself capable of taking stunning landscape shots, she wanted to pursue a project that encompassed French food and lifestyle. “The ritual of lunchtime is a huge part of French life so I think allocating a book to it is perfect. Across France, everybody breaks from 12-2 daily and often people go home and have a proper meal with their families and even children come home from school for lunch,” enthuses Rachael.
The plan was initially to cover all of France in the book but Rachael and her publishers decided it made more sense to focus on the beautiful scenery, delicious gastronomy and laid-back way of life that Provence is so famed for.
With the project taking shape, Rachael and her family set out on the road once again, spending several weeks in different locations around the region to ensure that she captured the essence of Provence. “I spent every day getting up early and photographing the areas in which we travelled through. There wasn’t a moment of the day, except when I was asleep, that I didn’t have my camera with me. Even if we were driving from one location to another if I saw something I would stop and take a photo,” says Rachael.
From the beginning, Rachael knew that she wanted to include recipes in the book but it was a case of finding the right man for the job. Having photographed the beautiful village of Baux-de-Provence for The French Cat she knew of the Michelin-starred restaurant Oustau de Baumanière and approached head chef Jean-André Charial, who was more than delighted to be involved in the project. Once Jean-André was on board the publishers got in touch with American cookery writer Patricia Wells, who splits her time between Provence and Paris and has written the introduction to the book about her memories of lunching in the south of France.
When it came to taking pictures of food, Rachael was delighted to be able to photograph Jean-André’s creations in situ rather than in a studio: “I’ve always wanted to capture food photography in natural light. I think it’s the best way to showcase food because it makes it look alive and it almost feels like you could dig your spoon in and eat the food.” The blistering heat of summer in Provence meant that Rachael had to be very quick when photographing some of the dishes, especially desserts, with literally seconds to take a picture before the food melted. But it was a challenge that she relished.
While Rachael enjoys taking pictures of and eating delicious food, it’s her husband Andy who loves being in the kitchen. “Honestly I’m not a big cook myself. I love to eat food but I’m much more interested in photographing exquisite food rather than actually preparing it.
“Andy was ecstatic to be part of this project because he’s a really good amateur chef. He just couldn’t believe his luck when we landed this job and of course working with a Michelin-starred chef and seeing the ways the food is prepared was amazing. He definitely took everything to heart and was really excited to learn new things,” says Rachael, who featured images of some of Andy’s dishes in the book.
Spending time in Provence cemented Rachael’s love for the south of France, which she says has fantastic light that is brilliant for photographers. Her favourite spots are St-Rémy-de-Provence and Baux-de-Provence which became their second home during the project.
But although Rachael has a soft spot for the south, she also loves the heart of France which reminds her of her homeland: “Coming from New Zealand and living in the south of France, I miss the green grass so I really love the centre of France and Dordogne but whether it’s an area that I could live in I’m not so sure.”
While Rachael admits that she would like to move to Provence one day, with the dream of having more land to keep horses, for now the family is happy living in their village house in Hérault which is in a beautiful location in the St-Chinon wine region. And after so long on the road they are looking forward to settling into life in Languedoc, ready for the next chapter in their lives. LF
Image © Rachael McKenna