Travel (Explore)

Liquorice and Lava – 3 nights in Iceland

April 29, 2016

 

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I like planning special things for my birthday and this year was no different.  When my boyfriend asked if there was something I wanted, the answer was a short get-away to a destination that’s been on my wish-list ever since seeing the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – Iceland.  Our ‘mini-break’ was so successful that I wanted to share all the details with you in case you’re thinking of a short stay there yourself.

I had been thinking about a healthy Nordic trip for a while, but we were dissuaded by the cold weather, dark skies and potentially outrageous expenses.  We get enough of all those things in London.  However, after reading an article in Elle UK by Susan Ward called Into the Wild (which I can’t seem to locate online) that waxed lyrical about scenic drives, breathtaking sites, and delicious food, we booked plane tickets from London for a 3-night stay (all we had time for) in the land of fire and ice.

I got straight down to some research to ensure not a minute was wasted or an icelandic delicacy untasted during our short stay.  Not surprisingly, there weren’t many suggestions online for trips to Iceland of less than 10 days duration, and with good reason.  There’s A LOT to see in Iceland, ideally at a relaxed pace.  It’s a photographer’s (and geologist’s) dream.  Nevertheless, I was determined to get a good taste of what the country has to offer on a condensed schedule with a view of making my carbon footprint more validated on a longer trip in the future.

The Elle UK article (mentioned before) was helpful and served as a great guide to layout the overall itinerary.  It described two ways to venture away from the capital of Reykjavik for some nature – SouthEast towards Vik or NorthWest towards the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.  Beyond that we talked to two couples we knew who had been there, one of which had stayed in the Elle-recommended Hótel Búðir, which doubly convinced us to head in the direction of the aforementioned peninsula (a 2.5 hour drive from the capital).  Our other friends put us in touch with local mates who confirmed that my hotel and restaurant choices were sound and provided some useful links to locate thermal pools and check weather.  I had a quick browse of a few blogs and then got booking based on the final criteria: must bathe in thermal waters, must eat well, must see some stunning scenery and must stay in a hotel with a nice view.  We purposely didn’t get our hopes up about seeing the Northern Lights.  As luck would have it, there was a spectacular display the evening before we arrived (April 14th), which was unusual given the peak times of the Autumn and Spring equinoxes.

One thing that was certain was that we were going to have a great time. I heard not one negative comment about Iceland from all those approached, except to be careful when opening car doors because the wind can be so fierce it will blow your car door off (yup – it’s the first bullet in the guide to driving in Iceland that we received from the car rental company and makes you think twice about spending that extra bit on car insurance…)  We met lovely people, ate well, relaxed, felt adventuresome and drank pure Icelandic water everyday.  What more could you ask for?

I always travel with a view of getting a good taste of the local culture and learning more about the healthy habits of those who live there.  I learned a lot about healthy eating during my time living in France and Italy and I’m always reminded that travel is a great way to broaden your perspective about diet.  I recall watching a Channel 4 documentary on the World’s Best Diet and Iceland topping the list for its fresh and high quality fish, meat and dairy products.  I mention liquorice in the title of this post simply because the candy version of it is found everywhere as in most Nordic countries (perhaps the bittersweet taste is appreciated in the cold weather?), but in more abundance was nutrient-dense, healthy food that made me feel great. A lot of the food, such as their famous steamed rye bread (rugbrauð), is also cooked underground using geo-thermal energy, which is an incredible concept.  I have provided a list below of healthy Icelandic foods with links to learn more about them. There is also a plethora of local delicacies for the more adventuresome that I didn’t feel the need to sample such as fermented shark, puffin and stinky skate, rumours of which have no doubt put many people off the idea of Icelandic cuisine, but don’t be discouraged, I tasted some of the best food of my life here.  Sadly, Rick Stein’s special episode on his weekend break to Iceland on BBC2 debuted after our return, but has certainly helped me create a wish-list for next time and has got me even more interested to read up on the history of Icelandic cooking.

Here’s our itinerary:

Day One (Friday)  – Blue Lagoon and Hveragerði

Departed London Heathrow on the 8:15Am BA flight to arrive in Keflavik airport by 10:15AM (3-hour flight).  Picked up rental car (a 5-minute walk outside of the airport if you book with Go Iceland – we had to ask where to find them at the information desk).  Drove 20 minutes to the Blue Lagoon (FYI – the sign is not blue) where we pre-booked (this is a MUST) for 12 PM entry.  We booked the cheapest entry tickets (40 Euros) to the lagoon (this option does NOT include towels so we brought our own and you still have to queue up when you get there next to a lot of Americans).  We spent three hours at the lagoon and I opted for a 30-minute (65 Euros) in water massage, which was very soothing but not the world’s deepest massage (still I was thankful to shut my eyes for 30 minutes – the sun was BRIGHT – bring sunglasses and sunscreen).  This was a total highlight of our trip and a great way to relax after our flight and before journeying on.  We loved the mud mask bar (you get this as part of the basic entry, but you don’t get the algae mask unless you pay 15 Euros more.  Worth it? Probably not).  If you go with a member of the opposite sex, arrange to meet on the other side of the changing rooms to enter the lagoon together.  Once you lock up your stuff, shower naked, and slather your hair with loads of conditioner, they don’t like you to exit through the entrance.  Exit lagoon side – there’s a cafe area there where you can hang your towels (or your robe if you get the slightly more expensive package or book a treatment) and buy some overpriced food (I had the sushi) if you’re peckish.  If you’re not getting a treatment, 2 hours is probably enough time to relax in the mineral-rich water, but there’s also space to lounge indoors and read for a bit.  We left by 3:30PM feeling full of minerals, squeaky clean and thirsty (you must hydrate while here).  As far as I was concerned, my birthday mission to swim in thermal water was accomplished, but there was more to come.

We got in our KIA c’eed rental car (we chose the cheapest model, knowing we wouldn’t be driving anywhere too extreme and the weather forecast was good but I’m sure a 4×4 would be more fun) and drove 40 minutes to Hveragerði where I had booked us in to the Frost and Fire hotel (rate was 137 GBP per night on hotels.com).  I read a lovely review of the hotel in this great summary by Guide to Iceland  – they had me at ‘boil your breakfast egg in a hot spring.’  The smell of sulphur pervaded as we got out of the car, but I didn’t mind.  We loved our room with a view of the river and managed to get a 6:30PM dinner reservation at their onsite slow-food Restaurant Varma, which was our best meal of the whole trip.  I had the starter of liquorice lamb with rye croutons and anise sauce, followed by arctic char with butternut squash as a main (fish of the day).  The crowd-pleaser was the decadent dessert of hot spring cooked chocolate cake with whiskey salted caramel mousse and salted caramel ice cream.  Thanks to our 5AM start and our long soak in geothermal waters, we fell asleep (in daylight) by 9PM.  The bed was comfy.

Day Two (Saturday) – Hveragerði, The Golden Circle, and Reykjavik

We woke up around 6AM, put on our bathrobes and immediately made our way to the heated geothermal swimming pool.  It was raining outside, but the pool was oh-so-warm.  Then we had a soak in each of the two hot tubs surrounded by hot springs and misty mountains.  After showering we made our way to brunch by 8AM and spent an hour feasting on home-made sourdough fruit bread, steamed rye bread, skyr (the local yogurt) with home-made preserves, home-made muesli and many other treats.  And yes – I boiled my morning egg in a hot spring outside.  This was the best free breakfast I have ever had.  A real birthday treat.  Before checking out, we asked the hotel staff for some advice and they told us about a brisk 30-minute walk around the hotel grounds and gave us very easy to follow driving directions to make our way around the key sites of the Golden Circle and on to our final destination for the evening in Reykjavik.  This is the day we were thankful to have rainproof gear and warm layers.

We visited the Kerið Volcanic Crater, the Skálholt Church, then to Geysir to see Strokkur, and finally to Gullfoss waterfall (very impressive) – it was like a treasure hunt interspersed with scenic driving.  Before leaving we got into the wrong rental car (luckily we realized before buckling up), found our actual rental car, and prepared for the final 30-minute drive to the capital where our Air B’n’B awaited us.  We had some great tunes for the car ride and listened to a fair bit of Icelandic radio (favourite moment = when Solid as a Rock came on – it became our trip anthem).  The best part was stopping for tomato soup at Friðheimar in Reykholt (after the church and before Geysir) – a total gem of a place that we would not have discovered if it wasn’t for the recommendation from the receptionist at Frost and Fire hotel.  It’s a big greenhouse (farm, really) that specializes in all things tomato and was the most tasty lunch experience I’ve had in a long time.  It’s not to be missed (make sure you try the olive  bread).

Driving into Reykjavik and finding our Air B’n’B was so simple.  There were several parking lots nearby and I recognized the house from the photos on the website immediately.  It took no time to feel at home.  The other people staying at the property were warm and friendly and we were so impressed with how charming and clean the place was for such a reasonable rate (85 GBP per night).  We had a little nap and then made our way to the nearby Harpa Concert Hall for my pre-booked birthday dinner at Kolbrautin, which has affiliations with the River Cafe in London and does Icelandic food with a Mediterranean flare.  We went for the 5-course tasting menu, which was delicious, but we found that the restaurant itself felt a bit to stiff and cold (it was literally cold – we were needing our layers).  It’s a shame, because the view was spectacular but in retrospect I should have gone with the Elle-recommended Kopar, which was my gut instinct, or the highly recommended Grillmarket.  We passed out by 11PM, bellies full of scallops, burrata, lamb and more delicious sourdough bread.

Day Three – Rekyjavik, Stykkishólmur, and Hotel Búðir

After a quick internet search in bed, I mapped out a nearby venue to get some breakfast at Bergsson Mathús.  We splurged on their complete breakfast, which included a boiled egg, sourdough bread, hummus, skyr with muesli and preserves, prosciutto and fruit.  After all, we had a 2.5 hour drive in front of us.  All was sublime.  I also noted how every breakfast we had and cafe we visited offered cod liver oil with little shot glasses – the two most common brands were Lysi and Dropi (a bottle of which will set you back 35 GBP because it’s that pure).  If you’re not familiar with the health benefits of taking cod liver oil daily, then look into this, especially if you suffer from joint pain, depression or lack of sunshine – cod liver oil offers Vitamins A and D and omega-3 fatty acids.  We strolled around the capital for an hour and visited two key sites: Hallgrímskirkja church and Reykjavík Roasters for the best cup of coffee (I’m not a coffee drinker, but when in Rome…)  We found Reykjavik to be charming and cheerful but our minds were on getting into the countryside.  After a brief visit to the Tourist Information centre to get a new map and make sure we had planned the best driving route, we were on our way to hopefully drive up to Stykkishólmur (town where scenes from Walter Mitty were shot), go for a swim in one of many outdoor thermal swimming pools along our route, do a bit of seal-watching and then end up at the long-awaited Hotel Búðir.  The drive out of the capital was simple enough but we weren’t expecting the long stretch of road that was an underwater tunnel or the drastic change in weather as we went from sunny and blue skies on one side to wind and hail on the other.  However, as everyone told us, the weather is unpredictable in Iceland and can literally change from one minute to the next.  Luckily this happened several times for the better.  There was about one minute of driving through wind that created a snowstorm where we got very nervous, but before we knew it, it was calm again.  When we finally arrived at Stykkishólmur, the winds were so strong that we could barely get out of the car.  Luckily I had done some research into hotels on the peninsula and recognized Hotel Egilsen (known for its storytelling hour and cocomat beds) as we pulled in.  Despite the stormy weather outside, folks indoors were calm and cool and the hotel receptionist pointed to the only place open for lunch that late right across the street at Narfeyrarstofa where we served by the charming Gudrun who advised us on a shorter route to our final destination and looked up the wind forecast for us to assure us we would be safe.  Needless to say, more thermal pool swims and our plan to drive around the entire peninsula sadly went out the window – we had just enough time to get to where we needed to be before a snowstorm started.  Our lunch was delicious – I chose the creamy seafood soup (more like a bisque) while my boyfriend had one of five creative burger choices (apparently the ‘mafia’ burger – containing sun dried tomatoes – is the best one, but he went for their classic).  A local family next to us ordered the dessert of chocolate pots and hot chocolates, which smelled heavenly, but we were too full and ready to get on the road.  We skipped out on the library of water there but had a quick look through the window of the embroidery shop which was transformed into a pub for the scene from the Walter Mitty movie.

After a somewhat tense 1-hour journey – the landscape is both mesmerizing and intimidating to city drivers – we arrived at Hotel Búðir and it was everything we had anticipated.  Completely isolated and wonderfully cozy on the interior, with impressive views all around, this hotel is special.  Sadly the snow created a view that was more blurry than breathtaking but we didn’t let that keep us from a short wander around the grounds.  We were told the kitchen would close at 8PM so, still full up from lunch, we ordered just two small plates off the menu – the salmon tartare starter and the chocolate fondant dessert – both were a treat for the eyes and the tongue.  And there was more sourdough bread with garlic butter – impossible to resist. We stayed up late reading and watching films, hoping we might see the Northern Lights, but it didn’t happen.

Day Four – Hotel Búðir, Reykjavik and back to the airport 

We woke up early on our last day for breakfast at 8AM (another nice selection of bread, smoked salmon, skyr and of course cod liver oil) to full on sunshine and breathtaking views.  We had one more quick walk around the property and we were wishing we had more time to spend on walking and staying in this isolated corner of the world.  The friendly receptionist told us that she enjoys being at this hotel so much because she can feel a special energy coming from the nearby glacier that’s on the border of the Snæfellsjökull National Park (on a really clear day, you can see it from reception).  It’s no wonder that the hotel hosts many weddings and special events – it’s a beautiful and powerful place.  The weather was perfect for our 3-hour drive back to the capital where we were determined to have one more quick walk around and a much lauded hot dog from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – a tiny little stand by the harbor that would be easy to miss.  Our journey was smooth and easy and left us with an hour to find a dog.  I normally avoid pork, but I had a nibble.  They were so good my boyfriend went for seconds (with all the toppings).  We then got back in the car for our final 40-minute drive to the airport to catch our 3:25PM flight to Gatwick airport  (we flew Wow! on the way back because BA only has two flights per week).  Things got a little hairy when we realized we had driven by the last petrol station and needed to back-track to fill up the rental car, but things went smoothly (minus getting charged for an extra carry-on by Wow! – n.b. you can literally have ONE bag only – no extra laptop case or purse!) from there.

All in all, it was a great trip and will help to make the next one more special.  Next time I will be guided by less touristy natural lagoons and hot springs since bathing was my favourite thing and perhaps work in a bit more out-door adventure.  There are tons of tours and outings to choose from if you don’t mind group excursions, such as glacier hiking, scuba diving and helicopter rides over volcanoes, but we kept it simple.  I will also be guided by any opportunity to learn more about Icelandic cooking and food since, in my (and Rick Stein’s) opinion, Icelandic chefs have got it right!

Summary of key suggestions:

  • Rent a car.  At least get gravel insurance (the handsome man at the car rental place said that 4/10 people return cars damaged.  And yes – sometimes doors get blown off cars because of the wind…)  You don’t need a GPS – a map will do
  • Check the weather – it changes constantly and you need to be mindful of how strong the wind is before you get on the road – cars do get blown off the road in some conditions/areas.  This website was recommend to us: http://en.vedur.is
  • Book ahead for the Blue Lagoon and watch the little video on their website about the experience so there are no surprises.  Some people are surprised to find out it’s man-made.  I didn’t care – it was still a wonderful experience but next time a visit to a natural volcanic lagoon is a must
  • Bring sunglasses and a towel to the Blue Lagoon if you get the cheapest entry option
  • Don’t get your heart set on the Northern Lights – they are elusive – let it be a pleasant surprise if it happens
  • Bring a water bottle to refill continuously – the water from the tap is pure and wonderful!
  • Eat Out- the food is wonderful in Iceland, but be prepared to splurge (pretty much London prices)
  • Create a good music playlist for the car journey (maybe a little Sigur Ros?)
  • Pack for all weather conditions (especially rain) and buy one of their wonderful jumpers (regret that I didn’t!)
  • Go for 5 days minimum if you can and fly BA both ways if you can – our flight over was much nicer than the one back!

Hotels

  • Frost and Fire Hotel – our favourite (best brunch and hot tubs!) just 30 minutes outside the capital
  • Air B’n’B – a nice selection in the capital and a good alternative to corporate looking hotels…
  • Hotel Egilsen – we didn’t stay here but it’s on my list for the next time we go to Stykkisholmur – they have coco-mats, storytelling and brownies in the afternoon
  • Hotel Búðir – truly unique and wonderful hotel if you want to feel what it’s like to be at the edge of the world (2.5 hours from capital)
  • ION Luxury Hotel – we didn’t stay here but it was recommended in Elle – views and spa look amazing, but reviews suggest it’s a little stuffy
  • Reykjavik Marina Hotel – Rick Stein stayed here – lovely views of the harbor

Restaurants

  • Restaurant Varma – our best culinary experience at the Frost and Fire hotel
  • Kolbrautin – fancy and delicious but a little stuffy at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik
  • Grillmarket – everyone recommends the tasting menu here (prepare to spend a lot) in Reykjavik
  • Kopar – Elle-recommended and looks great (wish we went here!) in Reykjavik
  • Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – the best hot-dogs in Reykjavik
  • Narfeyrarstofa – delicious wholesome food served by lovely Gudrun  in Stykkisholmur
  • Reykjavík Roasters – best coffee in Reykjavik
  • Friðheimar – tomato soup heaven in Rekyholt
  • Bergsson Mathus – best brunch in in Reykjavik
  • The Laundromat Cafe – another great brunch place in Reykjavik that we didn’t have time to try
  • Dill Restaurant – one of Rick Stein’s visits – looks amazing!
  • Maturg Og Drykkur – Rick Stein learned about cooking with butter and whey here (wish we had known about it!)
  • The Sea Baron – If you want to try some of the local (smelly) specialities or fish kebabs – on our list for next time!
  • Fjorubordid Restaurant – Rick Stein had a delicious langoustine soup here (although I bet the one I had in Styykisholmur was just as good!)

Sites We Saw

  • Blue Lagoon
  • Hallgrímskirkja
  • Snæfellsjökull National Park
  • Snæfellsnes Peninsula
  • Harpa Concert Hall
  • Kerið Volcanic Crater
  • Gullfoss waterfall
  • Skálholt
  • Strokkur
  • Library of Water

Health Food

Memory and Time

January 26, 2016

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Time itself may be inexorable, indifferent, but we can personalize our own little segment: this is where I was, this is what I did. – Penelope Lively

Every winter for the past ten years, I have returned to my hometown near Boston to spend Christmas with my family.  While the house my parents live in is not my childhood home (they moved to a bigger home when I went off to University), I am nevertheless confronted by an accumulation of relics from my past.  No matter how far I’ve traveled or how many life-changing experiences I’ve had since moving to Europe, the objects I’ve saved in my parents’ home trigger crystal clear memories of an earlier Kate and the American life that I left behind.

And while for the past few years I’ve been completely absorbed in the process of de-cluttering and reducing the amount of physical objects in my possession, I have found that there are certain objects so infused with memory that they deserve some kind of formal farewell or testimonial before sending them off to a new home.  It’s true that the memories mean more than the actual things and I do hope that my memory stays strong and clear until I die, but just in case it doesn’t or just in case future generations want to know a little about the lives that preceded them, I thought I would write a story for each object I came across that seemed to play an important role in shaping who I am today.

I don’t mean to dwell on the past.  Quite the contrary – I’m good at closing doors and moving on.  But I’ve always loved learning about people and their pasts and reading memoirs, and I thought this could be a stepping stone to a potentially larger project.  I also realized that the most valuable relics from my past that I came across were hand-written letters, poems, post-cards – things that oozed the nature and character of the person behind the pen.  Words are a powerful means of conveying a life and a time lost and I want to continue in that tradition, even if I must do so digitally.  Some of these relics I will save, but others I can write about and then let go.

I might also add that I’ve always been intrigued by how we human beings unconsciously or quite consciously document our lives.  This was the topic of my Master’s dissertation for my Media Studies course, completed just ten years ago at a time when social media and digital photography were just starting to eclipse less public forms of documentation.  Instagram didn’t exist then and neither did iPhones.  I predicted, based on ethnographic research, that people would not entirely abandon traditional self-documentation via traditional media like scrapbooks, photo albums, SLR cameras and diaries, but would continue to combine them with digital forms of self-documentation.  I was somewhat right, but I didn’t realize just how much things would change over the next decade.  I didn’t realize that nearly every photograph I took would be on my phone and shared in ‘real’ time and that photo albums would become a thing of my past.

Part of me really loves this reduction in the need to keep physical reminders of my past (so long DVDs, farewell CDs, goodbye to boxes of photo ‘doubles’ that will never be looked at) – I feel lighter and more free with every possession I shred or release back into the world for someone else to explore.  But another part of me relishes the smell of old photographs and the connection I feel to my former self when turning the pages of an old coloring book or reading poems I wrote as a confused teenager.  It is perhaps my parents’ keepsakes that are the most meaningful and precious – an anniversary card my mom wrote to my father back in the seventies when they were younger than me, a signed copy of a book of poetry by Robert Frost, black-and-white photos of my dad and his brother dressed in cowboy costumes in the late forties that my now deceased grandfather took with his cherished camera.  They give a tangible sense of a life well-lived, a journey and consistent change.

So let this be the beginning of a series of posts on the topic of memory and the past and celebrating a life well-lived (so far).  I’ll theme them ‘Objects from my Life.’  And I’ll decide what items will stay and which can go.

And before I close this post, I have provided a passage below from a book by Penelope Lively called ‘Ammonites & Leaping Fish: A Life in Time’, which found me at the new Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road one day as I was having a wander around after teaching.  I didn’t purchase the book at that moment because I was trying to reduce the number of books I own.  I nearly bought it as a Christmas gift for my parents (the book is described as a ‘view from old age’ rather than a memoir) but I didn’t want them to think I was hinting at their growing old or unknowingly gift them a depressing read.  So the book sat in my Amazon shopping cart so I wouldn’t forget the title.  Until one day (New Year’s Eve – my first day back in London), I was pulled into one of the charity shops on the way to the train station in Twickenham and low and behold, there it was sitting on the shelf in sparking new condition for 2 quid.  So I bought it.  I was meant to read it.  And I just finished reading the section on Memory and must share these brilliant words:

“The past can be conjured up by the appropriate aroma, much as supermarkets seek to induce a spending appetite with the smell of newly baked bread, and house agents urge us to woo prospective buyers with a waft of fresh coffee.

But it is not that memory is scented, rather – if the Proust phenomenon exists – that smells evoke a time, a place.  That moment has not gone, can be recovered, because an experience in the present brings it back; my London garden is tenuously linked to what was in 1942 a Palestinian hillside.  This is the sense in which memory is the mind’s triumph over time.  The same has been said of history, and I relish both concepts; it is as though individually and collectively, we succeed  in seizing hold of what is no longer there, that which should be unavailable, and making it miraculously permanent and accessible because it matters so much, because we need it.

We are robust about time, linguistically, we are positively cavalier about it – we make it, we spend it, we have it, we find it, we serve it, we mark it.  Last time, next time, in time, half-time – one of the most flexible words going, one of the most reached for, a concept for all purposes.  Time is of the essence, or it is quality, or time will tell.  We talk about it…all the time, I find myself writing.  There.  But when I think about time, I am awed.  I am more afraid of time than of death – its inexorability, its infinitude.  It is unthinkable as space – another word we tame by making every use of it.  And in old age I am time made manifest; sitting here, writing this on a summer afternoon, twelve minutes past three, the watch hand moving relentlessly round, my weathered body is the physical demonstration of passing time, of the fact that eighty years have had their way with it, that I ain’t what I used to be.  I have lived with time, in time, in this particular stretch of time, but before too long time will dump me; it has far to go, and we don’t keep up with it.  None of us, ever.

Fifteen minutes past three.

Impersonal, indifferent; it neither knowns nor cares .  It sweeps us along, the ever-rolling stream and all that, nothing to be done about it, but we do have this one, majestic, sustaining weapon, this small triumph over time – memory.  We know where we have been in time, and not only do we know, but we can go back, revisit.  When I was nine, I was on a Palestinian hill-side, smelling rosemary (and collecting a wild tortoise, but that is another story).  Time itself may be inexorable, indifferent, but we can personalize our own little segment: this is where I was, this is what I did.”

(pp. 157-158, ‘Ammonites & Leaping Fish: A Life in Time,’ by Penelope Lively).

Mangonana smoothie

June 12, 2015

IMG_3282Let’s get one thing straight here – I’m not a natural chef, nor would I ever boast any hidden culinary talent.  I do, however, absolutely love playing in the kitchen.  I do remarkably well when I follow a recipe, but sadly, I don’t have the same luck when improvising.  The same goes for my piano playing skills – stick a piece of sheet music in front of me (preferably Chopin) and I’ll get to work.  After days of practicing, I’ll perform something pleasant to the ear.  Ask me to let my hair down and free-style a jazz solo, and cover your ears – it won’t be pretty!  I like having a little guidance.

So I almost fell over the other day when I quickly dumped a few random ingredients from the fridge and cupboard into my blender and came up with…ONE OF THE MOST DELICIOUS SMOOTHIES I HAVE EVER TASTED.  Really – that’s how excited I was.  A fast breakfast fix on a rushed morning made both me and my boyfriend (willing to try anything) stop, savour and sigh with delight.  And then of course I had to get my iPhone out to photograph it because it was a shade of yellow I would happily paint my walls.

I’m not even a huge smoothie fan.  It’s not that I don’t think they are delicious and fun to make, it’s just that my constitution calls for warm meals and cooked foods, and cold mornings in London simply don’t leave me wanting non-local fruit and an icy belly.  It goes against everything I’ve learned studying Ayurveda and a bit of Chinese medicine through my visits to the acupuncturist to support my weak digestion.  Damp conditions in the body do not a smoothie-lover make 🙂  I normally steer clear.

But it’s officially summer now in London and in May I was abroad in Singapore and Thailand where it was actually HOT.  With the heat comes a higher tolerance and craving for cold, cooling food and fruit.  In Asia, the abundance of fresh coconuts made coconut water my jet lag fighting hydration of choice ($1 compared to £4 in London for a fresh one) and juices and smoothies from the local market (hawker centers in Singapore) had me only too overzealous to try soursop, dragon fruit and guava concoctions made fresh from local produce.  So when my boyfriend and I walked by a local green grocer in our London neighbourhood selling crates of nearly too-ripe-to-sell mangoes for £2.50 the lot, we took them straight home to wash, peel, chop and freeze for when we decided to put our new Thai cooking skills to the test.

Well ahead of a Thai cooking fest (still yet to come), there was this slightly warm, slightly rushed June morning and that’s when I accidentally created the tastiest mango-nana smoothie ever, which has become a new obsession.  And I am starting to think that it’s little accidents like this that are the catalyst for a whole lot of creativity in the kitchen.  In the past I’ve found motivation to cook healthy meals after meeting a chef during travel or falling in love with a particular cookbook/recipe I came across.   But now that I’ve created something on my very own without any guidance (but lots of indirect inspiration from travel, and other taste adventures), I have more faith in myself.  And these days full of administrative tasks, if I can do anything without being online or staring at print, I’m all over it.  Hell, I’m even thinking I’ll dust the piano off and start writing some music…

So you probably want the recipe now, right?  Ok.  Only thing is I’m going to be a little vague here because I didn’t measure out each of the ingredients and, actually, I think that’s part of the fun in making a signature smoothie to fit your tastes – there’s a lot of alchemy involved.  And I never used to think one little ingredient could make a vast difference, but this recipe proves that to be untrue.  There is one key ingredient for ME, that makes this heavenly and adds to the fragrance, which is also an element of cooking that should not be overlooked.  I didn’t want to mention any particular brand names to keep it simple but will share my favourite coconut water for this in a later post.

Firstly, this smoothie needs to be COLD.  So you’ve got to use frozen mango and ideally frozen banana (but if just one is frozen, then you are good to go).

As far as the cacao nibs go, that’s essential to me, but my boyfriend (who likens the smoothie to the creamiest vanilla ice cream…but healthy…) feels they are superfluous.  I love the combination of the sweet smoothie taste (really it should be a dessert or a treat rather than a breakfast) with the bitter nibs.

Ingredients:

1 frozen banana

1 handful of frozen mango

1 cup coconut water (preferred brand below)

1 cup almond milk

1 large spoonful of cashew butter

1 spoonful (or several of if you like bitter like me) of cacao nibs sprinkled on top

Whiz it up in a blender and maybe add more milk, mango, whatever you want to make it just right for you.  It should be nice, cold and creamy and the nibs should sit on top as in the photo.  Yum Yum Yum.

I have quite a few other inspired recipes that I’ve tweaked and will get up on my new blog (exciting!) soon but this one is really my baby.  And I’m proud of it.  There are so many incredibly talented and inspirational food bloggers out there, and I won’t ever keep up with them, but every time I repeat a recipe and find that it’s part of a healthy repertoire, I will share it on my new site as a special food post and I hope you enjoy!

*Okay so now that this post has been up for a while I am announcing my preferred coconut water brand for this recipe – it’s Go Coco.  I was slightly concerned at first because even though it won a Taste Award, there were two extra ingredients in there that I wasn’t sure of: natural flavorings and citric acid.  I wrote to them and they immediately got back to me to assure me that citric acid was lemon juice added to preserve it and that the natural flavorings were part of their secret recipe (I assume to give it that extra coconutty taste and vanilla-like fragrance) but definitely 100% natural and nothing artificial.  So I am happy to keep using this in my smoothie recipe, because it really does enhance the taste and flavour. Thanks Go Coco!

Salute the Sun

September 1, 2014

Salute the Sun

This incredible sunset is reflected on the facade of the church (and museum) of Santo Spirito in Florence.  While I do not affiliate myself with any religion, there is something special about happening upon a structure like this when aimlessly traversing city streets that stops you in your tracks and makes you look up, breathe, and notice the light.  I hope that is what resonates in this picture – a sense of sacred space illuminated by the sun.

September was a busy month and I got the sense from many of my students (not to mention myself) that it was stressful too.  In September, schedules pick up again after the summer and we get caught up in planning ahead by filling our calendars.  We quickly forget the spacious summer months and surge ahead just when nature is asking us to slow down. If that sounds familiar, then I’m giving you a few things to reflect on to keep that summer sun shining within even when skies turn grey. You’re going to need it for the winter.

It’s not always possible to simplify our schedules so we need to be creative about creating breathing space, moments to unwind, rituals to keep us grounded, and routines to keep us feeling on top, rather than buried under, our growing to-do lists.  This comes naturally to us during the summer when the weather beckons us to idle away some time but it’s an effort when the year picks up and we spend less time outdoors.

When I have a mountain to climb (figuratively or literally), I always remember the ‘one step at a time’ saying.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed when we’re looking ahead and that’s because it pulls us from the present moment.  The present moment is where we can observe, where we are attentive, where we can breathe.  The breath is the gateway to the present moment so in many ways we’re taking things ‘one breath at a time’ (to quote a student of mine who says this is how he survived a stressful flat move and prevented getting emotionally overwhelmed).  When you focus strongly on every inhale and every exhale you take, it’s hard to get distracted by much else, even anxious feelings.

This is why I slowed every flow class I was teaching right down and got everyone to really focus on their breathing.  Our natural breathing pattern can tell us a lot about how we are feeling, if we’re in a state of anxiety or depression, under too much pressure, too stressed.  And likewise we can take control of our breath to use it as a tool to counteract those feelings. There are times when it’s excellent to slow down your yoga practice (around the Autumn Equinox for example) and I always find these are the times we feel the biggest impulse to rush and run.  The yoga mat is where I cultivate a lot of patience and tame my inner White Rabbit to drop the watch and stay in the now.

If you’ve ever attended a yoga class, you’re likely to have practiced a Sun Salutation.  Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar) are composed of 8 postures sequenced together and joined by the thread of the breath.  They are an excellent place to start when developing a home practice, especially one that you can incorporate into a morning routine to greet the first rays of sun (depending on when you wake up that is).  They are fantastic because once your body learns them, you don’t have to think about or get overwhelmed by choice of what to do on your mat.  They start with a strong standing pose, then an inhale to raise your arms to the sun, and you’re off, gracefully moving your body to your breath in a series of simple poses that get your blood flowing, your energy soaring and your being soaking up each inhale and exhale as nourishment for the day (read below for an instructional link).

This is my simple go-to practice when I have an overactive mind and am looking to slow things down, when I need a block of time to myself to soften my pace and feel at peace.  And this is why I love mornings – you’re much less likely to be distracted during the morning hours by people, tasks, and the general busy energy that increases as we approach noon.  Sun Salutations together with restorative yoga poses have been an essential part of my Autumn cleanse (more below).

Digital media can also pull us away from the present moment.  I was asked to write a blog last month about disconnecting from our mobile phones and computers and the timing was perfect.  We know when we’re being productive at the computer and when we’re using it as a distraction.  How many times do you actually pick up your smart phone to make a call? How does that compare to checking emails, playing games, and trawling the internet when you’re bored on a commute?  Do you ever leave your phone behind so you have no distractions?

Just the other day I was in a gym class and a woman answered her phone!  She didn’t even bother to leave the room or dismiss herself – it was assumed we would accept this as normal and that she could talk at a volume louder than the teacher regarding business affairs.  I felt less bad for the rest of us and more sorry for her not allowing herself even 45 minutes to be phone free and just in her body.  I put together some thoughts on this and 5 simple ways to have a digital timeout should you be addicted to your digital device in this blog.

Currently my iPhone serves two major purposes: photography (using the camera to capture moments of gratitude for lovely things in my life) and texting (to communicate with loved ones when I can’t see them in person).  Otherwise I try to save emails for designated work time at my desktop computer, don’t play games, remember to read books, and generally keep track of my phone use, cutting myself off when I know I am using it out of boredom and my vision starts to get blurry.  It’s an effort and I often fail, but I know it pays off in terms of creating space for my mind to breathe and obtaining mental clarity.

My suggestion this month would be to be a little soft with yourself.  Allow for some down time.  Even though the mornings are darker, allow yourself to wake up earlier to steal a few of those tranquil morning minutes when everything is a blank canvas and most of the city still sleeps (leave your phone in the other room).  Incorporate contemplative activities, such as wandering around an art exhibit (I thoroughly enjoyed the vibrant colours and shapes at the Tate’s Matisse cut-out show) or photographing nature and the Autumn foliage. Connect with your spiritual side – the side that takes you inward to reflect by taking long walks, creating a sacred space in your home or finding one in the city somewhere where the sun is shining.  Practice yoga in slow motion.

Finally, I am on day three of a 4-day Ayurvedic food-based cleanse.  The cleanse consists of a mono-diet of kitchadi (warm, cooked moong daal).  This is the fourth time I’ve done this cleanse and it never ceases to amaze me how much we resist foods that make us feel calmer and more centered, always reaching for a stimulant like caffeine or chocolate to keep us going, even in the evening when we’re meant to wind down.  This cleanse is all about balancing and training the body to have a set routine of eating for nourishment only.  It’s an incredible experience that teaches you a lot about how we often try to distract ourselves from the present moment by reaching for a mood-enhancing food and snacking.  No snacks allowed – just three set meals and over time you learn to dismiss the false hunger and allow yourself to be tired and rest.  You learn to surrender and hang up the towel before you over exhaust yourself.  It’s something that should come naturally so listen for those signals and be aware of when you’re ignoring the need to rest your body, your mind, your digestive system, you name it.

Summary (and links):

I love this video for a gentle sun salutation sequence.  Give them a try.  I teach this in my Beginners Yoga Courses, so sign up if you’re interested in more…

Tips and thoughts on digital overload – Surrender to Simplification and take timeouts from your phone (I’ll be taking my own advice)

And just for fun, here’s last year’s Autumn blog on why I love Autumn colours

If you want to learn more about kitchadi and cleansing in the Autumn, send me an email.

If you need a song to get you into that slow down space, try Devi Prayer from 108 Sacred Names (many thanks to Romee for recommending this peaceful chant that smoothed out my September)

Enjoy the sun when it shines.

Take a break

July 5, 2014

Take A Break

This summer I hope you’ve given yourself permission to have a treat, take a break, do something totally indulgent and unproductive.  That’s right, I’m encouraging you to idle away some time.

Maybe it’s a holiday you’ve planned by the beach.  Maybe it’s wrapping up work before 6PM so you can take advantage of happy hour al fresco or catch a World Cup match.  Maybe it’s taking a longer lunch or a longer walk or a bit of a nap in the grass when you have a spare moment because it really would be a crime not to with such nice weather.

Now I’m a hard worker by nature and far from what anyone would call lazy, but if there is one time of year that I don’t need a reminder to play, it’s most certainly July and August.

Behaving any differently would just feel wrong, disrespectful even, to mother nature and the generous gifts she is handing us: an opportunity to connect more with nature by getting your feet in the grass, submerging them in sand and salt water and letting your hair dance in the breeze.  July and August are open invitations to surrender your senses to the sweetness of summer and let go.  So will you accept?

If the idea of letting go already has you nervous and twitchy, then maybe you need to book yourself a trip to Italy.  Seriously.

Italy – land that I love.  I studied Italian and French at University in hopes that learning the languages would one day take me to these foreign countries so often depicted in glorious films about summer.  There were the adaptations of Marcel Pagnol novels – Chateau de ma mère (My Mother’s Castle) and La Gloire do mon père (My Father’s Glory) to make me dream of Southern France, and then Stealing Beauty (and more recently I am love) that left me wanting to run through wild grass and flowers in the Italian countryside.

I’ve spent many summer weeks in Italy since then when my dreams were realised.  One summer I spent studying art history in Florence and another I spent two months living in the Abruzzo region of Italy volunteering on different organic farms.  One taste of Italy in the summer and I knew it would become an ongoing love affair.  Returning to Italy whenever possible would become a priority to remind myself of the importance of la dolce vita the Italians live so well.  To remind me (a juggling to-do lister) to slow down and enjoy life.

Motorbikes are fast in Italy.  But life is slow.  Italians speak at high velocity, but linger over a meal for hours.  A day in Italy is full of unknowns and ‘possiblies’, but never void of some kind of pleasure.  You must be patient, playful and passive and that’s when you see the beauty (same rules often apply to yoga…).

I remember there was a gelateria in Florence called Perche non? (Why not?) and it’s an expression I think of a lot when I’m muddled with indecision – most often confronted with an opportunity to treat myself, indulge in something ‘naughty’, let go a little but I feel too guilty.  Then I hear it in my head – why not?  And my excuses are usually pretty lame.  This is a great way of eliminating the fears, the worries, the what-ifs that accompany my impatience to complete a project and embracing the ‘live a little’ attitude Italians demonstrate so well.

Over time I have learned that taking a break and spending time ‘idle’ can actually yield huge benefits.  It makes me more productive when I return to work, more focused and able to prioritise, and more present to all those and all things around me.  It makes me more human, less self-centered and simply healthier.  This is also why I meditate.

I’m not the only one who has caught on to this marvel.  Just this week an article in the Evening Standard magazine highlighted changes happening in the workplace to allow people more freedom with their work schedules in an effort to prevent ‘workaholics’ and increase motivation.  New legislation around this could mean more flexible work hours, nap rooms in office buildings and company pets in the future.

Some people have no issues with ‘not doing’.  And they may take it too far to the opposite extreme.  As with anything, it’s all about balance.  There is time to rest and time to work and both feed off each other.  But definitely take time to rest.  Ideally away from a screen.  And look around.  Notice the man who plays accordion by the train station every day on your commute and thank him; hold doors open and give your seat up because you notice people around you.  Be part of the world, not just your world.

So in case you ignored the first invitation, summer and I (and Italy too) would like to invite you again to let your hair down a little.  Run around a bit.  Eat some gelato (there’s a fantastic place in Richmond if you want to stay local Londoners – even with dairy free varieties 🙂 Do ‘nothing’ for at least 30 minutes every day and stop checking your iphone so darn much.

If you can’t get to Italy or are minding your carbon footprint, then do rent a film on Italy (or some other glorious and warm location).  It might be just what you need to finally convince yourself you need a break, that a break will yield good things and that life is simply too short to keep fixating on work that could get done, problems that could get solved, money that could be made.

Meditation plays a big role in my life and when summer weather comes, I take my meditation outdoors by taking meditation walks, pottering in a garden, staring at a body of water, shelling broad beans in the kitchen, etc.  There are so many ways to meditate that don’t require sitting still (see more inspiration below).  Can you think of your way?

Ways I slowed down, treated myself and enjoyed summer in June:

  • Row row row your boat – Moving flat a lot in one city can be a big nuisance, but it also means discovering more, exploring more and getting to know all of London’s little nooks and crannies more intimately.  Since moving out towards Richmond nearly a year ago, I have been determined to get myself out on a row boat for a paddle down the Thames.  And in June I finally did. What did it feel like?  Being hugged my nature and sunshine – idling time away in the most pleasant way possible.  A synonym for ‘idle’ is to ‘rest on one’s oars’ so if you need an activity to help you slow down and take in summer, get yourself to Richmond ‘beach’ for a bit of paddling (beware potential blisters and summer breezes offering your hat to the swans).
  • Got snapping – photography has always been a hobby of mine.  I was inspired my my father who always had a camera in hand, always lagged behind us on walks in Maine to capture scenery through a lens.  My first camera was a yellow Kodak kids camera and then I eventually graduated to a high-tech Canon SLR and assorted appariti; I started using a Polaroid and then even a twin-lens reflex camera before transitioning to digital. Nowadays my photography is mostly limited to the trillion shots I take and store on my iphone, but nonetheless, it still delivers the kind of satisfaction I crave from ‘taking pictures’: capturing beauty I see to revisit again later, looking for beauty, colour and light all around me and then curating my creations.  It’s my favourite ‘do nothing’ activity that results in something. This June I wanted to fully return to my photography hobby so enrolled in yet another beautiful e-course by Susannah Conway called Photo Meditations– you’ll see some photos in this post (from my short trip to Italy).
  • Made some kitchen creations  – I’m always rolling up my sleeves and making a mess in the kitchen in one way or another.  This month, inspired by London-based raw chocolatiere Amy Levin and her many free and friendly resources, I got back into making raw chocolate at home for two reasons: 1) to cut down on the cost of buying raw chocolate and 2) to make the EXACT texture, shape and size of chocolate I want.  Raw chocolate is highly nutritious, has the perfect bitter/sweet balance and because of its potency, should be moderated.  Raw chocolate has helped me cut down on store bought chocolate (sugar) consumption and save it for a special post-meal treat. There are 3 simple ingredients for a base: raw cacao butter, raw cacao powder and a non-refined sweetener like coconut palm sugar.  For more info on raw chocolate, how to make it, and it’s benefits, visit her website Oosha.
  • Had a cuppa  – a World Cuppa that is.  Now I am NOT a spectator sport fan (see note above re: upbringing by photographer/musician father who was not into sport).  BUT, since moving to Europe 10 years ago, I have made it a point to try new things, to get involved in the local culture and see what happens when you embrace the things you want to resist the most.  I have fond memories of the first World Cup I experienced in London – I was studying with an internationally diverse group of students at the LSE and countries playing against each other took on real significance and meaning. There was so much lively, communal energy in the streets.  So now with a boyfriend who is a major football fanatic, I have surrendered again to the charm of a good old cuppa football.  Best brew yet was the U.S. vs. Belgium game – not only did it keep me on the edge of my sofa, it also had me tearing up at the display of good sportmanship, camaraderie and pure passion often unseen in England matches.  As I type this I am also half-watching the Wimbledon Men’s Final – when in Rome…:)

Take A Break 2

Pastures New

January 1, 2014

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Every year at Christmas I migrate back to the East Coast of America to spend time with my family.  Every year I find it hard to leave my home and friends in London when the city is so festive but feel equally excited to wrap my arms around my loving parents.  While the house I return to is not my childhood home, it still holds many relics from my adolescent and teenage years, tangible reminders that who I am is no longer who I used to be.

Sometimes these reminders trigger humorous embarrassment or regret.  Oh man – was I really that obsessed with dolphins and dinosaurs?  What on earth convinced me Joey from New Kids on the Block was special enough to merit a mention in my diary (and once a place on my wall)?  Sometimes they are painfully embarrassing – photographs of a less vibrant version of myself (recalling those awkward years when I lacked self-esteem) or disappointing test scores and rejection letters from universities that once made me feel inadequate.

But they are also reminders that things change.  And that is hugely powerful and comforting knowledge. Accepting that nothing is permanent can make us feel vulnerable, but if you look at it on the flip-side it’s hallelujah refreshing.  Why?  Because it means we’re never stuck.  There is always an opportunity for a new beginning on the horizon.  There is always time for growth and cultivating a sense of ourselves and the roles we’re meant to fulfill in life.

The past was merely a dress rehearsal for the future, which is the present (the pre-sent), which tomorrow will be the past and so on and so forth.

Along with that is the understanding that life is a journey of learning and sometimes we take wrong turns or have to test the waters in one pond before we realize we’re more suited to the ocean.  I have to laugh when I look at a collection of softball trophies (the kind you get just for participating), my old neglected and dented saxophone, and horse-back riding gear I used less than ten times. To the person I am now, it’s no wonder these hobbies were short-lived or abandoned as soon as I became an adult.  And while I could regret the time ‘wasted’ pursuing avenues not suited to my personality, strengths or more importantly my true passions, I know this foggy, confused time existed for a reason.

You wouldn’t start a trek at the top of a mountain, would you?  I suppose you could parachute from a helicopter to catch the view and start your descent, but what would happen to the adventure of getting there?  What of the bumps and bruises, the callused feet, the pitfalls that nearly made you quit but that you overcame with persistence?  While we can admire the view of what we see from the top, it hardly has any meaning if we don’t look behind us and acknowledge where we came from.

So as much as I cringe at the sight of those old photos, embarrassing diary entries, things I wish I never said or did, it’s important that I acknowledge them, forgive myself for not knowing better and feel blessed for what life has taught me along the way to bring me to where I am now.

To pass on just a fraction of these valuable learnings:

  • Do what you love and not what you feel you should do or everyone else is doing 
  • Get out and see the world – you will find yourself in the most strange places
  • Move your body – it’s the best way to get unstuck and fit!
  • Don’t buy so many souvenirs – you don’t always need physical reminders from every experience you’ve had (and you’ll save money)!

Which brings me back to the theme of ‘de-cluttering.’  Just like personal growth (there’s never really a summit to that mountain), it seems my mission to de-clutter is also never ending.  I am, however, a great deal closer to that ending than I was at the beginning of the year!  And now I am ready to shred those old test scores, give away the riding helmet and boots to my nieces, perhaps save one softball trophy for my mother’s sake.

The more technology advances, the easier it is to deem things redundant.  I’ve held on to a collection of CDs thinking I might want save them to show my grandchildren one day, but I haven’t played them for years and doubt I will in the next ten, so they go in the charity box. Music fulfills a different purpose for me and now I am mostly interested in finding transportable tracks I can play in my yoga classes.  The classical music CDs? Those stay. New Year’s resolution? More live music, more creating music, less plastic cases.

So on this occasion of the New Year (or whenever you might read this), I invite you to embrace even just the concept of the possibility for renewal and change and give thanks to 2013 (or the past 12 months) for what it taught you.  I’m sure you can already think of a few positive changes you made this year that have left you somewhere different than you began.

Why I Cleanse

May 5, 2013

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A few years ago I embarked upon my first ever detoxification programme.  I don’t recall precisely what it was that motivated me to remove all toxic substances from my diet, but perhaps it was just that – an intuitive sense that there was ‘toxic overload’ in my body and I needed a fresh start.

It never ceases to amaze me how strongly the seasons influence my mood and appetite and Spring is a season I always associate with new beginnings.  I was born in April and have vivid memories of Easter-themed birthday parties, pastel-coloured paper plates and hunting for chocolate eggs amidst the yellow forsythia bushes in our garden.  The approach of April always instilled excitement in me for my birthday celebration, but now I look forward to it as a time to refresh and renew with a juice cleanse.

When you compare indulging in foil-wrapped chocolate eggs to depriving yourself of solid food for several days, you probably think it would be mad to prefer the latter.  But having now experimented with several different kinds of cleanses, I can honestly say that ‘spring-cleaning’ my body has played an essential role in my overall health and well-being, and worked wonders to help kick bad eating and lifestyle habits.

First of all, there are many types of cleanses and detox programmes out there, and let’s not be mistaken, some are conducted poorly, using the wrong method for one’s health needs, at the wrong time of year, with misguided objectives.  The purpose of this blog is not to give you specific instructions for cleansing, but rather to highlight why one might want to motivate themselves to embark upon a cleanse in the first place.

As I mentioned earlier, cleansing is an opportunity to refresh and renew your system.  It is also TEMPORARY.  In one of my favourite resources on how to lead a healthier, cleaner lifestyle, Clean, by Alejandro Junger, he defines a cleanse as a ‘distinct programme, done for a concentrated period of time, that puts the body in a more intense detox mode.  It has a start and an end date and a specific purpose.’

When I tell people I’ve just come off a cleanse (usually this is preceded by them asking me why I am glowing), they often respond: Oh God – how can you do that!?  Food is the source of life and happiness – I couldn’t survive without it!  Well, duh, neither could I!  Cooking is one of my greatest pleasures!  But while cleaning up our diet and our lifestyles in order to support our health should be something we strive to do on a daily basis, taking more extreme measures to actually rid our bodies of toxins is a very interesting, short-term experiment to get you thinking about what it is in your life, diet and environment that is literally polluting your body and mind.  In other words, defining, what is toxic to you?

In another great resource on cleansing, The 3-Day Cleanse by Zoe Sakoutis and Erica Huss, they define a toxin as ‘a poisonous substance that is harmful to your body.  There are man-made toxins such as pesticides and gasoline, and natural toxins such as those that result from the activities of daily living.  There are also toxins in the food you eat and the water you drink…If you don’t get rid of toxins in your body, they build up and damage cells and tissue, leading to diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and heart disease.’

Junger defines a toxin as ‘something that interferes with normal physiology and negatively impacts bodily function.  Toxins are of many different kinds, with totally different qualities, from an infinite number of different sources; just as varied are the complex mechanisms by which they cause irritation and damage.’  Later he adds, ‘Toxicity irritates tissues, damages our own cells, and kills other cells that we host in harmony and need for our health.’

While it’s absolutely true that the body has a natural detoxification system involving our very intelligent organs, unfortunately these systems can become impaired by the overwhelming amount of toxins we are exposed to today compared to our predecessors.  In Barbara Wren’s incredible book Cellular Awakening, she talks about this natural process and its many stages, including: toxicity being released into the lymphatic system, then toxic lymph draining into the blood, then blood passing through the liver (which filters out the toxins), then the liver excreting toxic bile into the bowel, and then the toxins being excreted from the body through the bowel.  When a body isn’t well (and these days, most are struggling), she says ‘toxicity can get blocked at any of the above stages,’ which is why sometimes we need to take more drastic measures to restore and re-balance our body’s natural detoxification functions.

On my most recent detoxification experience at a health and healing holiday retreat centre in the Philippines, I followed a 6-day juice cleanse where I drank 5 vegetable-based juices per day, supported by natural supplements including Probiotics, Digestive Enzymes, Blue Green Algae, Cold Pressed Virgin Coconut Oil, a Natural herb formula for brain function and an Electrocolloids Drink (to restore electrolytes), as well as drinking plenty of water.  Unlike self-proctored cleanses I had done previously in my home in London based upon research online and the resources mentioned in this post, the experience at The Farm was very different.  This is primarily because I was completely removed from everyday stresses, in a secluded, hot, and beautiful environment as opposed to cold, damp London.  Instead of having to prepare my own juices (which you can read more about in my blog post on My Kitchen Family) and think about appropriate timing, they were made for me.  I never experienced hunger or fatigue and I believe this was because I never experienced stress.  My days were filled with lounging by the pool, soaking up sunshine, reading good fiction, socializing with my best friend, practicing yoga, taking walks in nature, getting plentiful rest and enjoying some of the most incredible and indulgent detoxification treatments.  I was also under medical supervision the whole time and near to support should I experience a ‘healing crisis.’ My cell phone and computer were far from sight.

Cleanses don’t necessarily have to be juice-based.  In Ayurveda (ancient Indian science of life), doctors and therapists will prescribe regular periods of detoxification known as panchakarma, where you follow a very simple food-based cleanse, consuming mostly warm, cooked kitchadi (mung daal with many healing spices such as tumeric) that is also aimed at giving our organs a break and eliminating waste materials from the body.  My Autumn cleanse (I strive to cleanse twice per year) is inspired by this method as it involves warmer, more therapeutic foods and guidelines that are easier to follow in the London climate.

The most effective cleanses will also involve complementary treatments like colonics, enemas or colemas, which help to rid the body of the toxins that get released when we slow down our digestive systems and let toxins release.  They will also encourage techniques like skin brushing, hot and cold showering, Epsom salt baths,  castor oil packing and tongue scraping.  In the Philippines we had 2 colonics and 2 coffee colemas on alternate days, as well as daily spa treatments including coconut oil scrubs, charcoal treatment on the skin, skin Kayud treatment (scraping of the body with a seashell to improve movement of the lymph), Thai massage, Salt baths and coconut milk baths.  Cleanses don’t need to be done in such luxury, but my finding is that, if you can (I was lucky to find a generous discount for this one), it’s definitely preferable and more effective to cleanse in a peaceful and supportive environment, completely removed from your normal daily routine and surroundings.  Cleansing can be quite a challenging, emotional and intense experience and should not be taken lightly.  Chances are, the money you spend on doing it right will pay off in the end in terms of not creating more stress for your body and easing up payments on medical bills in the future…

So how do you know when you’re run down or need a clean canvas?  Start by asking yourself questions like, how do I feel when I get out of bed?  Energized or groggy?   What are your thought patterns like – negative or light?  How does your skin look – glowing or dull?  How does your body feel – heavy or vibrant?  How many times have you gotten ill in the past year?  Chances are, after a long winter of comfort eating, staying indoors, and possibly working too hard, most of us are in need of a re-boot.  Common signs of toxicity in the body are: Fatigue, Headaches, Bowel Irregularities, Allergies, Weight Problems, Depression, Anxiety, Skin problems, Sinus issues, Bloating after eating, Constipation, Muscle and Joint Pain, etc.  Sound familiar?

Is a cleanse going to solve all these problems instantly and eternally?  Probably not, but some people do experience this.  Everyone will have a different experience depending on their individual conditions and the degree to which they are leading a toxic life.  Will a cleanse build my awareness of what I can be doing to be feeling better?  Absolutely.  Whether you are embarking on a short cleanse or simply trying to clean up your act in small ways every day, keep in mind that changing habits and healing illness and toxicity in the body can take time and should be a lifelong objective.  So if you’re in it for instant weight loss for example, you might experience this as an immediate result, but you are depriving yourself of noticing and possibly experiencing the more profound outcomes.  Maintaining healthy weight, good skin, high energy, etc. is down to you carrying all of your observations and good habits with you to feel good all year round.

Here are just a few wonderful outcomes I have experienced from cleansing:

  • A massive awakening and renewal of my sense of smell, taste, sight, hearing and touch (you become more sensitive to both the bad and good stuff – and thus more aware of sounds (like traffic) that are stressful to the system and textures (like cotton as opposed to polyester) that are more loving to your skin
  • A new awareness of toxic chemicals that sneak into our food and beauty products.  You  might taste the pesticides on your produce or be disgusted by the chemical scent of your body lotion for example.  I spring-cleaned my bathroom cabinets of all unnatural, non-organic products after my first cleanse and it made a huge difference to how I felt.  You might even start to make your own (check out my friend Amanda’s blog for a great recipe for home-made deodorant) as you increase your awareness of how the skin itself is a detoxing organ
  • A greater affinity for the fresh, alkaline, naturally cleansing foods that become abundant in the Spring and less cravings for the foods that you know slow you down (processed and refined carbohydrates, sugar, alcohol, coffee, etc.)
  • Better portion control – when you remove solid foods from your diet for a period of time, you realize how little we savour and chew our foods and also how little we require to survive.  Transitioning from warm weather and the country back into colder, city environments, will naturally have you wanting more food and possibly warm foods, but you are unlikely to binge after a cleanse if administered correctly
  • You realize  how much of your day (and energy) can be spent thinking about, preparing and digesting food – suddenly your days become longer and less complicated when you remove this from your routine for a short while!  You might simplify your cooking moving forward
  • Your ability to listen and be compassionate might increase – my eyes and ears actually feel bigger after a cleanse and my mind less cluttered with toxic thoughts about myself
  • You feel more centered calm because you are forced to slow down and hit the pause button; you realizing taking things slow feels good
  • You start to really comprehend how the digestive system and our bowels work (miracle system!), which can result in you treating your body with more kindness by feeding it foods that digest easily and make you feel good – once you’ve finished a cleanse, you’ll be more likely to make better choices so as not to un-do all the good you’ve done
  • You realize how much we turn to food for comfort and how we use it to sustain ourselves through stressful situations and might start to explore other methods of de-stressing like yoga and meditation, exercising or partaking in more cultural activities
  • A higher appreciation and more focus on getting good rest and sleep, watching less television and exposing yourself to less toxic media!

And here are my key pieces of advice when considering a cleanse:

  • Do your research!  Don’t just jump on the cleansing bandwagon because someone told you they lost a lot of weight from a cleanse and you want to lose a few extra pounds fast.  Define your motivation and objectives and make them meaningful and lasting ones.
  • If you are doing a juice cleanse, ideally do it in the Spring months and somewhere warm – it will be less shocking on your system and you’ll be less inclined to dream about comfort foods!  Although keep in mind that a long-haul flight somewhere can be toxic and dehydrating to your body, so work in extra days on either end to ease back home and into the detox environment
  • Think about the right cleanse for your body and your needs – there are many different approaches out there and you need to choose the one that resonates with you the most.  Trust your own instincts in terms of level of severity, timing and length
  • Do your first cleanse under supervision of someone experienced and knowledgeable on the topic

Kimchi, Jujubes and Citron Tea

May 5, 2013

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Recently my eight-year-old niece Alex had to complete a homework assignment on the topic of her heritage.  Auntie Kate, she asked me, am I a little bit Korean?   You might wonder how on earth my ginger-haired, blue-eyed niece of Irish/Italian-American descent could be mistaken to believe her roots traced all the way to the Far East, but her intuition was not so naive.  Her Auntie Mandy (my sister) was adopted from Seoul, South Korea.

I recall that when I was Alex’s age, I was also curious about my sister’s origins and how that might play a role in shaping my own ethnic identity.  I was intensely proud of my talented and beautiful older sister Amanda (lovingly nick-named Mandy) and took every opportunity to boast my knowledge of her first nationality.  Silly school kids would assume she was of Chinese descent (the most ethnic restaurant we had in our small, American hometown was a Chinese-food restaurant run by a family with her same hair colour) and ask me if she spoke English.  She’s NOT Chinese! I would exclaim.  She is from South Korea and duh – of course she speaks English!  She’s American!   The only confidence I lacked was in knowing – where am I from?  And how can she be two nationalities and I only one?

Growing up in a family that has little knowledge of its ethnic origins (I blame this partially on my father who, despite his alabaster complexion, has stood by a belief  his late Auntie Hitty planted in him that we are exotically part Abenaki Indian and feared finding out that we were actually of standard Irish descent like most inhabitants of my town), I was far more interested in my sister’s background.  I too wanted to be linked to a place far far away and recall my parents inventing the possibility that I was actually Dutch to appease me.  This was after watching a film at Epcot centre in Florida about the nations of Europe in which I spotted a little blondie like myself in wooden clogs who could have been my distant cousin.

That worked for a little while until my 7th grade homework assignment came around (I was 12): prepare a dish linked to your cultural heritage and bring it into class to share with everyone.  No doubt the assignment was meant to inspire and remind all of us Americans that we are, in fact, descendants of Europeans, Asians, Indians, you name it.  A ‘melting pot’ or what was more politically corrected to be a ‘salad bowl’ of nationalities and ethnicities.  Unfortunately, all my mother and I could come up with based on our limited knowledge (or assumption we were of English descent) was fruitcake.  I was terribly disappointed by my rather dull contribution – no one touched it and it didn’t touch me – how could I be from a culture that put fruit in cake that didn’t really taste like cake?

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not like I had some kind of advanced, refined palette for exotic and spicy foods at a young age.  Quite the contrary.  I was an extremely unadventurous and picky eater and spent the better part of my childhood oscillating between hamburgers, pizza, bagels, cereal and cake.  My father still reminds me of the embarrassing time my friend’s mother had to pick the peanuts out of their chunky (as opposed to smooth) style peanut butter in order to get me to eat lunch at their house – oh for shame.  But I do remember a curiosity about other foods, particularly the ominous jar of kimchi (fermented Korean vegetables – usually cabbage) that sat idle inside our refrigerator…

You see my mom used to organize little presentations at our school to teach my sisters’ and my classmates a little bit about Korean culture, since it was a very special thing in our town to have this kind of diversity and it would have been silly not to recognize it.  My sister would come dressed in a traditional Korean hanbok with beautiful embroidery and colours that had all the girls jealous and all the boys instantly in love.  You see, because aside from my sister, South Korea produces many beautiful and awe-inspiring things.  My understanding of the scope of this beauty, however, was minimal up until recently when I finally got to visit Seoul for the first time three years ago to see Mandy who has been living there for the past five years.

I was so struck by the beauty of Seoul and its rich culinary and artistic culture the first time I visited, that I planned another trip just this past April, this time bringing my best friend and fellow cohort when it comes to all things foodie.   Over the past two decades of my life, I started following in my sister’s footsteps by letting go of my fear to try new foods and becoming an adventurous eater.   This was aided hugely by living abroad in Italy and France and being forced out of my food comfort zone.  I also completely changed my diet to eat healthier, digestion-friendly foods after realizing the negative effect refined foods were having on my gut.  So by the time I got to Seoul, I was prepared to sample all of the many incredible dishes and treats that Korean cuisine has to offer (many of which boast health benefits), including all of the fermented (and initially off-putting items) like kimchi, as well as bibimbap, sambap, bulgogi, red bean paste, juk, duk, mugwort tea, citron tea, omija tea, jujubes and bingsu.  Suffice it say, there are few food items from South Korea that I don’t like and many things about Korean culture that I absolutely love.  My photo album from this trip consists mainly of photographs of food, a love affair gone wild and only just begun.

Just as my parents adopted my sister from South Korea over thirty years ago, I have adopted Korea through love for my sister and the enjoyment of Korean culture and food.  So in some way, it definitely feels like I’m a little bit Korean…and maybe my niece hasn’t got it so wrong.  If there is one thing that is for sure, it’s that food is a powerful mechanism through which you can learn more about a distant culture and country, but also yourself.  Even places criticized for their lack of fine cuisine such as Great Britain, where I have recently become an official citizen, have food culture.  There is certainly more to Britain than fruitcake (which I have grown to appreciate), but if my heart belongs to Europe and my passports to the U.S. and the U.K., then my tastebuds might always belong to Korea and I can only hope my parents are proud for growing a family with no boundaries for degustation even if they prefer to watch from the sidelines.

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