#1138. Introducing Epicurious Photography (Aubrac Road-Trip Part 1)

By pascaljappy | How-To

Sep 15

Epicurean + curious. How about photographing more than landscapes or street, while travelling ?

Open air bales

I was going to call this “Terroir Photography”. Terroir is a French word that describes an area of common culture and environmental factors (such as terrain and weather) that determine the quality of local produce. In many ways, Terroir denotes a kind of unity in agricultural practices that usually leads to interesting visual commonalities as well as pleasant tasting sessions. It is what we found in Aubrac and Aveyron, during a recent road trip / hiking holiday.

But “Terroir” somehow felt a little too restrictive. A little too French, a little too foodie.

So how about an alternative term indicating a sensorial experience, but not necessarily related to vine or cattle? What I wanted is a blend of sensuous enjoyment and a bit of background on the local culture, customs, know-how, traditions … that all create a very specific experience. Hence … Epicurious πŸ™‚

Here’s my first attempt at epicurious photography, then. It’s revealed quite a few shortcomings in my technique, if I’m honest, but also provided a tremendous amount of fun and satisfaction. So let’s dig in …

Waypoint 1: Pont de Millau

Introducing Aubrac and Aveyron

Before digging deeper into the concept of epicurious photography, let’s set the scene for this first attempt.

Averyron is a French department (roughly equivalent to a county in the UK and in the US ?) in South Central France. The Aubrac, on the other hand isn’t a department or region. It’s a rural area that straddles parts of 3 departments (Aveyron, Cantal and LozΓ¨re) over a surface of about 1 500 square kilometers. It is plateau sitting at an altitude of approximately 1 200 m (4 000 feet) and made largely of volcanic granite eroded by glaciers over the centuries prior to global warming and surrounded by deep gorges.

Coming from the South East of France, via Lozere and Aveyron, we’ll call the beginning of our little adventure the pont de Millau (see above) a Norman Foster cable-stayed bridge opened to great fanfare in 2004 and for which you are charged more than 11 €, each way πŸ˜‰ It does make for quite a sight, particularly in the golden evening light, as illustrated by my b&w shot πŸ˜‰

Aubrac cattle

But, back to the Aubrac, and to what is epicurean about it, and what makes it a worthy photographic destination.

In a word, cattle. That means farms, meat and cheese, and we could end the post right there, with a couple of links to food websites. But let’s get back to that idea of terroir for a while. First of all, the words evokes quality. It’s not always the case but, more often that not, it signifies more natural farming practices and more respect for the environment than the heavily subsidised and destructive mass farming seen elsewhere. The Aubrac is part of the Natura 2000 EU habitats and wildlife protection program. And it shows. In the astounding richness of bird life, in the loveliness of the landscapes and in the general quality of life – and doing business, for farmers – we experienced during an all too short 7 days. Not to mention the night sky, or the scrumptiousness of food. All of which we’ll get back to later, in greater detail.

What can Epicurious photography be, then ?

MordorFest – Cascade du Deroc

I like to think that, everywhere a strong sense of quality lifestyle – including the food and drink potentially at the center of the epicurean part – exists, a positive ecosystem has developed around it. Or, more often, it has developed around a positive ecosystem, the terroir. And the photographic exploration of that ecosystem is what is of interest to me here.

In this instance, cattle is the main resource in the Aubrac and the whole area has a strong consistency that made me want to describe it as a whole rather than photograph only the landscapes and famous landmarks. But you could be interested in any other type of sensorial experience – say, a music festival – and photograph all that revolves around that.

We’ve written about undestinations before : places unknown to the general public but conducive to great photography. We’ve written about backyard gems : locations, famous or not, close to our homes and again very likely to lead to great shots. Epicurious photography is all about trying to photograph an ecosystem rather than just a specific aspect of it. It’s about trying to discover a bit more than meets the eye and communicating it to others so they can benefit from more than pretty photographs of nice buildings or forests. But it’s still all a budding idea in my mind. So, not only would I like you to post your own Epicurious Photo articles, I’d love it if you helped us all understand how to best convey the ecosystem to others πŸ™‚ Who’s in?

Aubrac hiking path

The perfect vehicle πŸ˜‰

While our visit was essentially a hiking holliday, there was also a fair bit of to and thro-ing between locations, as well as a long-ish (4h) drive in and out.

So, our vehicle was a large part of the holiday. And, if there’s something useful to be remembered from Top Gear, it’s that every perfect road trip requires a specific type of vehicle to become truly memorable πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ After all, most of us find epicurean qualities in automobiles, trucks and vans.

So let me start the description of this inaugural Epicurious Photography post with a brief presentation of our proud steed of the week: The Millenium Dodo.

California Dreamin’

This requires double clarification. First of all, why a van at all, rather than a car and hotels? Secondly, why this particular van?

The first part is easy. Just a few photographs will explain it all. The second, well, has nothing to do with me. In fact, I fought it all the way (and lost, what else is new? πŸ˜‰ )

So, why would you consider a van rather than comfy hotels, while visiting a new area? Here’s why πŸ™‚ (Health Warning: mostly smartphone pics ahead)

Go West and Photograph

For a photographer, a van can be a dream come true. While the closest hotels were a long drive away, we were just there, where the sunset was, where the cattle was. Where the stone walls were. Most of the photographs on this page were made on this first evening or the next morning, from or very near a grassy car park at Cascade Deroc. It’s just a heck of a lot easier. And someone as lazy as me wouldn’t get up at sparrow and drive 40 minutes from the hotel to make that sort of images.

Also, it’s fun! Over the past 2 decades, I have spent almost 3 years in hotels for my work! 3 years! One thousand nights, two or three a week, in Paris, for many, many years. Cheap rooms, expensive rooms, modern rooms, historical rooms, depending on the client paying for them. Today, I’m all to happy to consider any other option πŸ™‚

What hotel room, whatever its price, gives you this much fun and freedom? None that I recall. I’ve seen the Higashiyama hills of Kyoto blaze up in the morning sun from an 8 meter wall to wall bay window, suffered the neighbours’ TV in Amelie Poulain type bedrooms with paper thin walls, I’ve been driven potty by the noise of cicadas around the pools of luxurious ProvenΓ§al lodges, banged my head on the amazing, centuries old, beams of huge rooms in the Marais, marvelled at snowy peaks from chalet spas in the Alps, enjoyed the simplicity and quiet of monastic bedrooms in convents, nothing quite matches the raw existential thrill of this sort of “accomodation”. It’s almost like wild camping in a tent, but with the luxury and comfort of a nice hotel.

Room with a view
Happy Camper

Now, the ugly truth is I didn’t want to … T’was my wife’s idea. Those little vans have so much that went against the grain of my biased opinion. First, I’ll be honest, VW is far from my fave brand. It has little to do with the brand itself, but in my neck of the woods, they are mostly driven dangerously by arrogant yobs (to make my point, 2 previous temporary owners had rammed the car, this summer only, driving at insane speeds in what is basically a tent on wheels. The rear was still damaged when we took “ownership”). In other parts of France, that’s absolutely not the case, so it’s purely a local thing but has tainted my opinion to the point that when any rental turns out to be a VW, it’s hard for me to hide my disappointment. Not this time.

Secondly, I’m used to larger vans, the sort delivery guys belt down narrow lanes mowing down kittens (R.I.P. Biskit). Those are tough, will take any reasonable terrain with ease and I feel very safe sleeping in one. Compared to those, this Barbie Girl toy seemed claustrophobic, fragile and exposed. It’s just because my wife’s been through a lot recently (as a doctor) that I wanted to be nice to her. But I really really wasn’t looking forward to it. How wrong can you be? πŸ˜‰

That thing is as luxurious inside as 90% of the rooms I’ve slept in (as well it should, costing 90% of the price of the hotel …) It’s jam-packed with fun little features such as an overhead panel displaying all sorts of menus and diagrams such as pitch & yaw. Very fun. And the quality of the lifting roof mechanism floored me. We slept in very strong winds that rocked the van harder than a pornstar audition, and it didn’t bat an eyelid. The rental guy told me manual roofs are nowhere near as strong, but this electric one would probably qualify as a 4-season tent. Truly amazing! Battery autonomy was excellent, allowing 3 straight days off the grid without driving easily (with a fridge and a laptop running) and possibly more. Add the lifting roof that eliminated all risk of claustrophobia in a package that’s small enough to park as a car in tight spaces, the extraordinary packaging hiding tables, chairs and much more in places you’d never think of, without so much as a squeak or rattle, and the remarkable 40mpg we got from it in spite of a ton of steep climbing … it’s a brilliant package, really. Now, if only it had true 4WD and larger tanks, that would be quite the overlander for Europe !!

Quick peak
Uplifting Riverside solitude
Toyz for boyz
By the rivers of Aveyron, There we sat down …
Laying the table, and the chairs.
Sleeping in a farm
Parked on the village square

Enough with the free advertising and propaganda πŸ˜‰ I consider the previous paragraphs and photographs an ample apology to VW that more than makes up for any previous criticisms πŸ˜‰ This is a smashing car for what it was designed for. One of the memorable drives of my life, if not in a sporty or fashionable manner.

I’ll get back to vehicles later, as they do make up an important part of any human ecosystem and occupy a large portion of the male fantasy when it comes to travelling. Since cars are damageable to the planet, we should all strive to drive much less and drive much funner!

And the next posts in this series will also take a look at local food, local architecture, local art, local geology and local wildlife. Stay tuned! And please let me know if you’d like to share your experiences of a similar area what you feel the best way of presenting such topics is: sequentially, as a travelogue, as documentary … ? All ideas are welcome πŸ™‚


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  • Frank Field says:

    Pascal —

    Every serious travel / landscape / nature photographer needs a “camera car.” I’m envious that VW sells the California in Europe. It’s a very maneuverable vehicle compared to larger RVs that not fun to drive, allowing you to behave as you would were you driving a passenger car. There is a lot to be said for being able to be “there” at sunset, at sunrise, etc.. Too often when staying even in nice B&Bs, the B&B breakfast hours preclude much morning photography. With a Cali, you can brew your own coffee and tea and so on while awaiting the perfect light.

    VW stopped selling their Westfalia conversions in North America 15 to 20 years ago. Sure wish they would bring them back. VW is not my favorite brand but I surely would overlook that for the ability to have Cali in California.


    • pascaljappy says:

      Frank, yes vehicles in the US tend to be much larger and thirsty. That makes them less suitable for this sort of use. To my knowledge, the Sportsmobile is a lovely “macho” alternative to this sort of camper, but it is still quite large.

      Some people have the willpower to get up early, skip breakfast and be there at the right time. I just don’t πŸ˜‰ So, a car like this helps tremendously, without compromising seriously on the quality of sleeping. It has been eye opening for me.


  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    When you feel like really letting your hair down, I saw a review recently of a “motor home” with a compartment underneath it to stow your Bugatti Veyron! The ultimate in luxury camping.

    I’m jealous has hell – Norman Foster’s bridge is one of the finest bridges in the world. And the stone bridge behind your unwashed dishes is also a fantastic find.

    I’m afraid that while you are absolutely correct about the “convenience” thing, by the time you reach my age comfort beats convenience hands down. OK for you young people – enjoy it while you can! Twelve years ago a friend of mine explained why he had switched his “travel” to excursions like a cruise on the Alaskan coast followed by one of those luxury rail trips to Banff & Vancouver, or going to England with the proviso that the local pub had to be no more than 100 metres from the hotel, wherever he & his wife went. He was simply too old, and no longer enjoyed long walks. I couldn’t really understand at the time – I sure do now! For him and for me, approaching/passing 80 has proven to be a kind of cut-off. Never mind – I can still “hitch a ride” on the back of younger, more active photographers, as they share their work. And focus mine on other things.

    You’re lucky in your choice of location. Friends of ours have just done a couple of trips in a van like this, here in Oz. The first was in a VW van – crossing the continent from here in Perth, to Brisbane, to see their daughter. After about 350 Km, it broke down – they were stuck at Southern Cross till parts arrived from the other side of the country. They got as far as the south west corner of New south Wales – another breakdown. Even worse delays – spent 3 weeks waiting for repairs to be carried out. Total cost of repairs – around $10,000, for both break downs. Total delay – way over a month.

    Gazing longingly at french pasture land, dreaming of things like a cheese I used to be able to buy here that came from the south west (a mix of goat & sheep milk) if I bought at least half a round of it at a time, and a bourbon I’ve now managed to source, here, is all part and parcel of this lust for quality. I’ve no idea whether such lush farming and old world charm are largely the result of subsidies for agriculture. But it reminded me instantly of an article on a recent development in America – where I’d HATE to be a cow or a pig or chicken! – they’ve decided they can train cows to “go to the toilet”. I think if I was a cow I’d much prefer to be one, in one of the paddocks in your photos!

    The “quality” tag you mention is a bit of a give away. A while back somebody did a survey in France, trying to establish the most common criteria that the french apply when selecting food. Simple – it wasn’t “price”, or “convenience”, as it is a for a lot of people in other countries. It was “quality”. The result of their survey was that for 87% of the french, the most important criterion when selecting food is “quality”. I suspect that cruising a supermarket here in Oz would fog their brains. Fortunately, if you ignore “convenience” there are alternatives.

    It’s never before, in the whole of human history, been more true than it is, today – “you are what you eat”. It’s not about “price”. It’s not about “quantity”. It’s not about “convenience” shopping. It’s about “quality”. The EU parliament had an exhibition when I passed through there on our last trip, of things that were being done to improve food quality – and the purpose of this effort was quite simple. Lowering the levels of ingredients that had crept into a lot of things we eat would raise the health of everyone in the EU, and lower the costs to the health budget of unnecessary and avoidable levels of complications like morbid obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, etc later on.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Aha, a Veyron in the boot, pretty fancy. You will see a French alternative in the next installment. Not as jetset-y, but so very FranΓ§ais πŸ˜‰

      Your friends ignored the only one rule in Australian overlanding: if you’re crossing Australia, you’re doing it in a Land Cruiser. Preferably a 70s model. They are lucky to be alive πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰

      France tends to have two populations. Those who focus on ‘cheap’ and who will put any kind of crap in their bodies. And those who focus on enjoying their meals and doing good. The latter tends to be gaining, which is nice πŸ™‚

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        LOL – the overall cost of their breakdowns was apparently over AUD$20 grand – which would have been more than 13,000 Euros!

        Footnote: I’m afraid I’ve quite enough health problems now, without eating things like a Big Mac. I read labels on supermarket food – but most of it is “untouchable” as far as I’m concerned. I found an instant soup once, that had 3,975mg of sodium per serve. Multiply by 2.55 (the standard conversion factor) and that’s over 10 grams of salt in a single bowl of soup! The National Heart Foundation would have them banned, if they found out!

        PS – someone around here is driving a veteran black & maroon Citroen – but I can’t find it again, to get you a photo. Bugga!

        • pascaljappy says:

          Ouch, that’s a lot of money … I feel for them!

          Yes instant food is terrible. Most ready prepared food is pretty bad as well. Do you have access to an App called Yuka? You basically scan any label bar code and it gives the product a ranking out of 100 based on how healthy it is. It was a rude awakening that losts of stuff I like and thought was clean really wasn’t. Like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream that have ratings close to zero. Ugh … πŸ˜‰

          A citroen in WA. Lucky sod. Actually, I’ll take any car, if I’m in WA πŸ˜‰

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    I’m definitely β€œepicurious” about your trip, Pascal, especially since it concerns beautiful France! I like the idea of presenting travel photography in this format; however, my last road trip did not include photos of the local food or wildlife, although it did include local geology…..oh well, guess it’ll have to be submitted in a different category. Thanks for sharing!

  • Sean says:

    Wow, pascal. What a great and refreshing article.
    You ask, and I quote “What can Epicurious photography be, then ?”. Could it be the sum of its parts?
    That is, when circumstances, stimuli and other ‘alignment of the stars’ bits occur and exist at the time an ‘Epicurious’ photographic endeavour is pursued, undertaken, realised and savoured.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Sean. I think you are absolutely correct. It’s really when all the starts align. And I’m now working on finding a way of presenting this visually πŸ™‚ Cheers

  • Dallas says:

    Pascal, love that you and Lees are getting out and about in total luxury in rural France. If I were to propose similar DS would have one less reader/contributor. Look forward to reading about your further adventures.

  • Frank Field says:

    Beyond my envy over the availability of the VW California in Europe but not in California, I think that one of the major challenges of travel photography is that of getting to know an area. One needs to pick a village, pick a part of the countryside and really immerse to begin to understand the story one might want to capture with his or her camera. Back in the day, National Geographic photographers used to spend months in the field capturing a story and that supported by lots of research before travel. Obviously, one will not know the new area as one does a home area, but even a few days spent in the new area can enable far better photography than one would achieve with a “run and gun” approach. Having a vehicle such as the Cali is an immense aid to that end.

    • pascaljappy says:

      You raise a very interesting point. I remember Michael Reichman writing he didn’t research a location (at least not photographs by others) to keep an open mind and an element of surprise when he arrived on location. I understand that, if you’re going for “purely visual” photographs. But I agree with you. To make more meaningful photographs, you need to live and breathe the place and know it deeply. We didn’t stay nearly long enough to get to know people or farms or companies … But, I’ll still try to convey more than just pretty landscapes.

  • I call my Tundra my mobile bird blind. I’ve photographed many seasons of bird migration from the side window. I put a cab-high topper on the back and rigged it out for camping. When I had a dog she used to be my camp buddy. We would go for several days at a time. I’ve enjoyed the images in this post. I like to see what you see when you’re traveling.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Cliff, you would have loved the area! I’ll talk about the birdlife next time, but it was one of the best I have ever encountered. I would love a Tundra. Over here, we have the HiLux, but it’s been altered over the years and is nnow far less robust and reliable than in the heyday of Toyota. I think the Tundra retains a good portion of that.

      I think we should send more posts of “what we see during our travels”. They tend to be simpler posts and they are interesting to almost anyone who’s not been there a lot. Food for thought, I’ll do more of them and will invite others to do so as well!

  • Boris says:

    The California is a great car especially for two people and trips in Europe. You can even get it with 4WD and rear diff locks (but a larger tank is not easy to integrate). If you modify it with some Seikel components (lift, gear reduction, AT tyres, protection plates, raised air intake) it’s quite capable offroad. As you probably know I had one (with Seikel modification) in the past. I’ve used it for example on some really difficult offroad tracks in Corsica with great success. It’s just not well suited for more than two people and storage space is a bit limited. Therefore it wouldn’t be my first choice for long-distance overlanding trips outside of Europe.
    Regarding the title: I think I would have preferred Terroir Photography. It just fits better in my opinion to what you describe in the post.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Boris, we sometimes see families in Californias and I just wonder how they do it. It was cosy for 2 but more than that would have been very cramped. We found all the well exploited nooks and crannies very convenient as storage space for 2 for a week. It’s not something we’d want to live in for months πŸ˜‰

      I wans’t aware of the Seikel modifications. That sounds really cool. It’s possible that we don’t get those in France, the country is quite restrictive about what we can or can’t do to cars. But it’s worth investigating.

      Thanks for the feedback about the title. I’ll keep that in mind as nothing is set in stone. Terroir photography feels more accurate. I don’t want to restrict it to food oriented travel, though. So it still needs a bit of thinking πŸ˜‰

      • Boris says:

        Considering all the highly modified 4×4 from France I’ve met last month in Iceland it seems that doing this in France is rather easier than in Germany (the official regulations should be EU-wide the same, but of course the interpretation could be somewhat different). I’m pretty sure all the Seikel modifications will be no problem in France, they even have the full approvement of VW (meaning they have absolutely no impact on the VW warranty of the car). Take a look at the Seikel website. Good stuff, just a bit expensive.

        For me Terroir Photography is not only about food it’s more about all the good things in the countryside.

        • pascaljappy says:

          I’ve just looked at their website. Yum!!! Very nice, and not just for the California. I think the rules here are typically French: very complex and restrictive but not enforced. Bull bars are illegal, but every 4×4 has them. So long as you don’t have an accident, you’re fine. If you do, insurances can get very tricky. But I haven’t looked it up closely recently, so maybe it’s not as bad as I think! I’ve been waiting for the Ineos Grenadier to be released, following its development from day 1. Carbon tax will probably make it much too expensive for me. If not, or if they release a hybrid, that could well be my next car. For a long long time.

          Interesting note on Terroir Photography. It does have a more purposeful ring than the play on words Epicurious. I’ll defintely think about it.

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