It has taken me nearly ten years of cooking for yoga retreats here at Bromley to realize that what some of my kinder guests would say: “your food tastes so good because you cook with so much love” actually might have some truth to it.  So as I learn through my yoga practice to release and relax and trust…. to get out of my head and into my body,  I have begun to embark on this practice of cooking from my heart.  If it is true that the heart’s electromagnetic field is five thousand times stronger than the brain’s – as I am learning reading Shiva Rea’s amazing book “Tending the Heart Fire” – then maybe I should give it a whirl.   Not that this is any full proof method…  and not that there haven’t been some major mistakes….   but it sure beats rigorously following a recipe which has never been my forte.  Moreover….  trawling for vegan and vegetarian recipes online is fun but adapting them to what is available here in Jamaica adds another layer of difficulty to my existing stress trying to get three hearty meals a day  in front of hungry yogis.  Added to that, on my almost daily trips to our ONE decent local grocery store I might find spelt flour, quinoa, even Earth Balance mayonnaise,  but its as certain that the next time I go none of these things will be on offer.  So I might as well throw out all my carefully planned menus and wing it right?.  There are rules of course… mine happen to be based around color and flavor and presentation and mostly around there being ENOUGH on the table.  There is my rule of always having three vegetable sides.. or for light lunch three salads.  Soup is a godsend and I thank my friend Suzee Ackermann for telling me to serve it daily….. and its certainly a dish where I can experiment with cooking from the heart more freely.  I literally pause and listen to what I suppose is my taste buds or stomach, however silly that sounds, before I add a new seasoning.

 

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The really wonderful news is that organic farming is on the rise in Jamaica…. Kinsgtonians (in the capital) have for a while had the opportunity to have organic greens grown up in the Blue Mountains delivered to them, but here on the North Coast we havent’ had that gift till recently when Potosi Farms and Stush in the Bush, and since November, Mt. Plenty Organics, have made available the most gorgeous plentiful greens and vegetables formerly not even grown in the island… baby kale, a range of beans, radishes, endive, & baby turnips just to name a few.   Then there is the joy of each Friday morning heading off to our Farmers Market, now two years thriving, where I  have the pleasure of browsing stalls loaded with fresh greens, fruit, and herbs, not to mention making my first stop my new friend Patrick from whom I might order 2 doz or more fresh coconuts which he will cut and put in the back of my pick up before I leave with my loaded baskets.  There is a cast of characters there of course because this is Jamaica…   “Colonel” in his Fidel Castro copycat outfit and beard…. who hands out knock you out white rum shots to his buddies… and can be relied upon to have a supply of red peppers.  The Bee man who came to the house to remove an enormous hive bees had made behind a bathroom wall.

Gungo pea & Cauliflower soup

Gungo pea & Cauliflower soup

raw plantain w/curry-lemon-scallion

raw plantain w/curry-lemon-scallion

raw pak choy & grated carrot salad

raw pak choy & grated carrot salad

As I say mistakes DO happen….   distracted by a chatty guest in my kitchen, I pureed an ENTIRE scotch bonnet – fiery hot and usually removed completely – into a batch of soup I had just conjured up with fresh gungo peas (small tasty green peas) cauliflower and coconut milk.   Luckily it was a bath for 20 and absorbed the heat of the peppers without sending anybody to the hospital!   Delicious actually as these little peppers pack a heck of a lot of flavor and have become my new best cooking friend.  Cooking vegan has turned from a total fright for me into something really fun to explore.   I have learned to use nutritional yeast as a cheese replacement in pestos and on pastas and pizzas, and am building a line of desserts that satisfy even my dessert loving husband.   Again adapting an online recipe for chia coconut pudding… I added fresh coconut jelly and melted raw chocolate from the market…… and after a couple of hours in the fridge had a yummy chocolate coconut mousse which has become my husband’s favorite.  Thanks to my beloved Vitamix I have been making pumpkin seed, almond and peanut butters and raw chocolate energy balls as well as grabbing a bag of frozen mango out of the freezer, adding coconut cream and turning out a mango sorbet within minutes.

Lots of people ask me why I don’t get more help in the kitchen…   I do have the marvelous Valerie – our housekeeper and cook who has her own dishes which I never touch like a peppery green soup made with Callaloo (our own spinach/kale type veg)….  and fish fritters and light and airy banana bread.   But working with a tight budget and with whatever is available in my pantry is another matter.   My artist friend Tukula Ntama is one of the few who I can work side by side with….. I love how she can go into my tiny but growing veg garden and return with a handful of basil, bird peppers, and parsley and adding garlic, fresh lemon juice, ginger and olive oil whip up a fresh and vibrant green dressing.   Or how she expertly graters fresh coconut and makes coconut milk which she adds to quickly sauteed bak choy and garlic.  So YES I do miss being able to run to a Whole Foods… and I do miss asparagus, mushrooms, year round avocados, and especially berries… but hey I think we are doing pretty well with what we have.

Making fresh coconut milk

Making fresh coconut milk

Ingredients for Tukula's dressing.

Ingredients for Tukula’s dressing.

Feta, marinaded tofu, & avocado salad with roasted pumpkin seeds.

Feta, marinaded tofu, & avocado salad with roasted pumpkin seeds.

 

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My favorite Danielle Hoogenboom expression during our frequent pre workshop email communication was “Woot Woot”….  Her enthusiasm was infectious.  “Spying” on her on FB and her site: lovelightyoga.com I see she has an impressive mane of dreadlocks and a rootsy/organic vibe.  She also had her own line of bamboo/cotton yoga clothes which I want to spend all day and even sleep in they are so soft.  A yogini who has business sense – a good sign!    When I pick her up in Ochi a few days before her two week retreat with us starts, its a blond dreadlocked version of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring  who steps off the bus.  But don’t let that soft dewy image fool you, Danielle is a force.  Tall and shapely, with a round intelligent face, she has a firm way about her and decided feminist views.  

As I watch how she cares for her group – all but one from her home town of Vancouver – and as she asks that we honor their Yin state of introversion, vulnerability and quiet, I come to dub her “The Lioness”.  As soon as I spend time with the group on the platform I get exactly what she is talking about.  Taking, holding and melting into poses that best express the connections between the meridian, ascribed elements and their linked emotions that she is focusing on, I fight through my anger, frustration, and pain as I surrender slowly and allow the “stuff” that comes unbidden to rise and flow. Yin to me has always been an exercise in suppressing my ego.  Let me hold one-legged plank for half an hour and I am fine….  Let me do breath of fire in Warrior three for five minutes and I am happy, but sinking into a heavily propped pigeon and telling my stressed groins to cool it…. Oh boy!  But here, emerging out of a long shivasana to the haunting accompaniment of Maxime Le Royer’s handpan I am in a similar floating state of bliss that I get out of a good acupuncture session.   I most certainly do not want to engage in idle chat. And loud voices would be anathema to me in this state. 

I also realize, attending as much of her teaching sessions as I can, that I am woefully ignorant about this world of Yin which she has delved into deeply and knowledgeably.  “Which teacher talks about the emotions in a yin class”…. She poses.  Over the next two weeks she gives us a lot of information…  this is hard stuff,  replete with Chinese terms that I find very endearing.  For instance the stomach meridian, she tells us, is called the “Minister of the Mill” or more poetically, the “Sea of Nourishment.”  

Danielle uses “relaxed learning” as an affective method of teaching.  She discourages copious note taking favoring subtle and frequent repetition.  This suits me totally as I dip in and out of class, happy to have this reinforcement.  Taking “shapes” as she calls poses… she will explain the meridians we are working and the affects when these are out of balance…   RAGE IRRITATION, loss of memory, being just some of the outcomes.   And yes I can relate.  She talks about the fascia as a plastic wrapping around all the muscles through which the meridians run.  We all have epiphanies, especially while our bodies are draped into a “shape”, muscles softening, joints releasing to allow the flow of qi.   This is when “stuff” arises unbidden, unregulated…   there is nothing we can do but to surrender.

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The group ranges in age from mid 20 to early 30’s and they are sooo sweet.   I am touched that they came all the way from Vancouver.  A dancer, a couple of yoga teachers, a heavily tattooed graphic artist, an art student, a server, and Mollie, a born performer who encouraged by us all made the decision to ‘go for it’ when she went home from this trip.   One never knew what would come out of Mollie’s mouth but it was always amusing and original!  They are all new to the concept of being looked after, Danielle explains that they are there to focus on their work, to go deep, and my role is to look after them.  Exactly!  It is therefore a pleasure to cook with love for them.  And my they are appreciative of everything I serve, all vegan, whether regular menus items or experiments.  

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This group is always hungry and most partial to desserts, oohhing and aahhing over my various experiments as well as my tried and trues. The biggest successes are:  a vegan banana cake with a peanut butter glaze, a cacao dessert mousse thickened with chia seed, raw cacao, coconut milk, and tofu.  I am grateful for my trusty Vitamix every day as it grinds up roasted almonds, makes oat flour, turns frozen mangoes into a delicious creamy sorbet,  almonds, dates, and chocolate into instant sweet and gooey raw brownies.  I make up a crust of regular wheat flour and almond meal and spread this mixture with mashed mango strips, whipping (again thank you Vitamix) a cashew coconut milk cream to drizzle on top.  Of course there are some disasters… a bland cornmeal Indian pudding…    and a pumpkin callaloo lasagne which fails to excite.  Valerie’s contributions as ever are a total hit… her pepperpot soup is spicy and creamy at the same time, her tomato sauce poured over spaghetti wins raves….   And she gets a round of applause for our vegan pumpkin fritters. As for me I am only too happy to supply a “Sea of Nourishment” and maybe I am the Minister of the Mill for these two weeks with my vice minister my new Vitamix!

Just wrapped up yet another yoga retreat here at Bromley with talented yoga teacher Sienna Creasy (her fourth retreat with us) and guest teacher TJ Mokkosian who came all the way from Salem Mass.  Together these two young passionate teachers, who met at KRIPALU this summer, have created a class they dub “Compassionate Revolution” – “a journey of breath, asana, and transformation” and as they said, after the class, this was the first time they had taught holding nothing back.

The group assembled for this Soul Rebel three day retreat was filled with warrior women.  As I glanced down the platform deep in Shivasana I saw rows of beautiful, strong Jamaican women abundant dreadlocks, testimony to their women warrior-ness, tied, loose, or wrapped, behind them on the floor.   For one lovely young woman, Empress Kitani, a teacher and devoted yogini, who had been driven to Bromley by good friends nearly four hours from deep in the interior, this was her THIRD retreat with us. “I thought of going somewhere else, but I realize that this is my home.  There is always such a diverse group of people who come here,” she said quietly just before she left on Sunday morning.   That statement for me was all I could wish for, a delicious gift at the end of the retreat.

As always with Jamaicans, I felt right at home with this group within hours.  Crowded into the kitchen, helping themselves to endless cups of chai tea and munching bananas before early morning practice, I chatted with them endlessly about their yoga path, their families and their work.   Jamaican women are strong and resourceful and beautiful, and they don’t age either!!  We had COO’s, teachers, cook book authors, engineers, a professional photographer, and students.   Their practices were at different levels.  We had one accomplished Ashtanga teacher who had left her job at a major bank to pursue her passion, and a well known Jamaican yogini and global activist Nadine McNeil “Universal Empress”, who has worked with UNICEF and is based in the Central African Republic.  We had our friend Brenda Isaac who has dedicated some of her land at her Montego Bay rental villa and home to growing organic vegetables for a local school. We had Claire, a former Peace Corps volunteer, who has been a loyal and regular part of many of our retreats.  We had women and men, some of whom had done very little yoga, some whose practice was rusty.   All of us, in that delicious dreamy thankful state after shivasana and final OMs, clapped spontaneously and loudly after the Compassionate Revolution class had ended, all of us were beaming, some of us were near to tears, none of us were untouched by this class.

After the very last class of the retreat – TJ Mokkosian offered that Jamaica had surprised, challenged and changed him, he had received constructive and ready feed-back for the first time for years, he had been accepted and welcomed by the group, teased for his attempts to learn patois, and, most important of all, given respect during class.  Jamaicans are notorious for smelling out any hint of BS – he had been warned – they can be vocal in their disapproval – they are vocal in general.  During much of the practices they were quiet, busy giving it their all.  No better sign of respect can be given.

Of course there was laughter, for above all Jamaicans love to laugh.  I laugh all day in the kitchen with my crew, I laugh on the yoga platform, and we had many many moments of pure joy during this retreat.   I was also under my own stress knowing that the author of a recently published Jamaican Vegan cookbook was going to be with us.   I thanked God for finally biting the bullet and purchasing a Vitamix and experimented daily making fresh peanut & sunflower seed butter, cashew and banana ice cream, raw chocolate, date, and almond brownies, and endless rounds of hummous.  Vegan pumpkin pancakes, zucchinni bread, and Cuban black bean soup were all received enthusiastically by this group.  Where else would the most delicious, freshly picked organic baby lettuces, kale and arugula be hand delivered minutes before dinner from POTOSI FARMS and ZIONITES FARMS.   This stuff is like crack and dressed simply with a lemon, garlic, honey vinagrette, and matched with thinly sliced red onion and buttery avocados is all one needs for dinner!

Once again I give thanks for the wonderful people who come through the doors at Bromley, the new friends, the chance to constantly improve and perfect what we have to offer here.  Indeed I am blessed, and despite feeling I cannot prepare another meal for at least a week, I am grateful.Image

For four days in August – Bromley was filled with southern tones and charm in the form of 16 participants all hailing from charlotte N. Carolina down for a workshop with Dr. Matt Lyon and his beautiful wife Lyn.  Matt, an energetic, (he is a former Ironman triathalete) is a charismatic network chiropractor who specializes in  “Re-Organizational Healing”, which consists of Network Spinal Analysis and Somato Respiratory Integration, (SRI).

So what on earth is all that ….well,  SRI basically facilitates “healthy reorganization of the nervous system”.  Quoting from his website:  “Imagine a “quantum” tool kit of simple, easy to practice exercises that helped you heal pain, transform stress, get “in the zone”, feel great, and have more energy than you thought possible?”  We are talking major Mind Body Spirit connection here.

On the first afternoon I wandered down to the platform hearing loud groans, moans,  and exclamations of either ecstasy or pain I couldn’t tell…..   I felt as if I had trespassed on something very intense and raw, Dr. Lyon, sweating profusely was going from table to table, (he had four going at once) putting hands directly on his patients or working in their energetic field.   I crept away quietly.  Later,  he explained the work in understandable articulate scientific terms, I really liked Matt and his wife and wanted to be convinced of the truth of his work.   I was.  Some of the group talked to me about their relief from pain and their whole new approach to life through his teachings.  His strongest advocate was a big, loud, ex marine called Vern – “When are you going to get on the table”, he would say looming over me cup of coffee at the ready for his umpteenth refill.

There were SIX guys in this group…. .a delightful change for us….   Challenging me, not always successfully, to produce enough food.   My husband would wander up to the kitchen after we had served a meal asking if there was anything for him.  “NO actually there is absolutely nothing,” we would tell the poor man.

The group threw themselves into everything we offered them, lingering in the water at the beach for hours in ever reforming groups exclaiming their joy and swimming up and down endlessly.   They leapt into the cold rushing clear waters of the White River on one of our fave excursions exclaiming at the beauty of the place and chowed down cucumber sandwiches and gooey ginger bread back at my artist friend Laura’s house.  Thank God I thought mistakenly….  Maybe supper will be enough now.  They loved my jerk chicken BBQ and they danced like crazy people to our  troupe of Rastafarian drummers who were inspired to deliver their best gig ever.  Fingers crossed I think we will do it all over again next April… maybe then I will be ready to ‘go on the table” myself!!

For more on Dr. Lyon check out his website:  http://www.networkwellnesscharlotte.com/about-dr-lyon/

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Into the last week of Jamaica’s own Yogini extraordinaire – Gaia Budhai’s Synergy Yoga Teacher Training, a month long residential course here at Bromley.  Gaia has run her own Synergy training in Miami for the last fifteen years, but her dream has been to bring it to Jamaica.  In between stints in the kitchen I have been able to dip in on Iyengar training – as well as Ashtanga and Sivananda – a marvelous taste of all three disciplines.  How lucky I have been to have made new friends in each teacher – a petite Latina spitfire of an Iyengar teacher from Miami demanding that I “descend my thigh, descend my thigh” – Vasu a gentle German giant of a Sivananda teacher whose quick wit and sense of humor delighted us all and a soft spoken Chilean – Marisa Gallardo also from Miami, whose demonstration of Astanga promised if the students could surprise Gaia with what they had learned – was delivered with the soundtrack of the singing birds and her strong ujaii breath and our utter respectful silence.  It brought tears to my eyes. “Like a prayer,” I said…. “Like a sutra,” she responded smiling.  I joined in whenever there was asana practice but with one eye on my watch and half my mind on menus.  Of course when I was in a demanding pose I could always leap up, whisper apologetically that I needed to check on dinner, and leave the yoga platform – not so the students whose journey has been remarkable to observe.  I leave them for a day and find myself in awe at their progress when next I join them, especially as the majority of them are new to yoga.  From my post in the kitchen I hear their Om’s – now in perfect vibrating harmony – their laughter – their groans – their silence in shavasana.  They come trooping into the kitchen three times a day like clockwork filling their water bottles ready for each meal – sometimes they are exhausted, sometimes elated, always they are hungry for their day starts at 6:30 with a three hour session including asana.  They have also been exposed to so much it makes my head reel.  Yesterday the principles of Ayurveda by Dr. Devi – who drove from Kingston with her family, gave a three hour lecture then had them practice massage techniques.  Last week the powerful Subharda Bowen – from Yoga Angels in Kingston – came for the day with her partner to talk about teaching kids and then did intense deep body work on two of the students, one for nearly three hours – at lunch Subhadra regaled us with tales of her own extraordinary life raising four children and starting Yoga Angels in Kingston – her passion for teacher training and for yoga for kids.

Cooking three meals a day for a MONTH has been a challenge but I am now seeing it as an opportunity to explore – have fun – and learn new dishes.  Once a week we go to the new farmers market in Ocho Rios – such a delight.  I race around picking up fresh organic Kale and arugula, purple pak choy and juicy mangoes, sour sop from which I make decadent ice cream or put into smoothies.  I buy from multiple vendors drunk with the choices… fresh flats of eggs, herbs grown at a farm close to us, romaine lettuce from Colonel who runs a tourist stall at the top of Fern Gully and from whom we get fresh coconuts.  My three baskets are soon brimming with produce.  But however organized I try to be, planning my menus for the week, I still have to remain flexible for there inevitably is an ingredient I cannot find.  I cannot run out to Whole Foods at all hours of the day – the road down to town is still being worked on and the drive is challenging.  I pop down into the village to Diane’s little shop for fresh eggs, packets of coconut powder, and possibly some onions.  I always stop at the corner at Herbie’s little falling down wooden stand to check if he has any cho cho (chayote) or grapefruit for me.  It is summer and the citrus is dry and disappointing but avocados are beginning to appear and are always a welcome addition to salads.   I can always rely too on the excellent Valerie whose delicious pepperpot soup never fails to delight and who bails me out on a regular basis when I get distracted and forget that I have a new batch of home made granola in the oven or a pot of rice on the stove.

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