Dining on happy thoughts

Why would we pretend that we want to hear (or write) about anything other than the food? Especially when I am talking about a silent meditation retreat where our days were made up of 10 hours and 45 minutes of meditation, 1 hour of video discourse, 7 hours of sleep, and the remaining 5 and a quarter hours being spent trying to get oneself out of bed after the 4am gong, showering, wandering around, taking unexpected power naps, and eating. Nobody wants to hear about my power naps, there’s only so much that can be said about the same 15-20 minute walks taken several times a day tracing figure-8s through the “female walking area” (oh I wish I had taken a photo of the signs pointing to the “female walking area”), and I’m going to assume nobody wants to hear about my showering habits… And to be honest, whether or not you want to hear about the food, I’m going to tell you.

Because it was so. damn. good.

That’s right. That is how excited I am getting about breakfasts served at 6.30am (I struggle to get up before 10am), lunch served at 11am (this week I have gone back to my regular breakfasts after 12 noon), eaten in silence (I am now timing dinners for Great British Bake Off re-runs… wait, did I just admit that?), provided for free by volunteers (no such thing as a free lunch?). I have paid – often a lot – for worse food. People will squeeze themselves into cramped and overpriced establishments in busy city centres to load their plates from vats of similar-looking soupy curry-stews bulked up with cheap root vegetables. And here I was, happily eating to the point of discomfort twice a day for the price of a train ticket to the countryside, wishing the sittings were longer and that I wasn’t about the spend the next four hours sitting and thinking about my hardworking digestive system churning away (too much information?).

As I mentioned in this post, I had managed to justify to myself the possibility of not being vegan for the ten days I was away. The more I thought about it, the more I figured the food had to be vegan. Being Indian and vegetarian, it wasn’t going to contain eggs. And when producing food for 220 people, I couldn’t imagine that it would be wise to include dairy products as so many people have allergies. I imagined the food would be entirely Indian inspired, I was even prepared for (dare I say slightly looking forward to) rice-and-curry breakfasts, and though I wouldn’t have been surprised to see paneer in there, it would have been easy enough to pick out and avoid (not throw away once in my plate, as non-vegan food in the bin is no better than non-vegan food in my mouth, in my opinion). Turns out, I didn’t have to (and needn’t have bored you with my internal debate either). Everything was vegan.

Breakfast was the most wonderful continental style spread, but without the tinned peaches and stale pastries. At 5.30pm when I was finishing my two pieces of fruit, I was already getting excited at the thought that my next meal in 13 hours would be breakfast. Every morning was the same: a big vat of porridge (it looked too creamy to not be made with milk, though, so I avoided it), a vat of steaming hot stewed raisins and prunes, a selection of cornflakes, bran flakes, and muesli, sunflower seeds, yoghurt (presumably not vegan – boo), fresh fruit (bananas which always disappeared like hotcakes if you weren’t swift to hit the queue, apples, oranges, and pears), and then a selection of toasted granary bread, some sort of dense wholemeal sliced loaf, crispbreads and rice cakes, and a selection of spreads; butter and vegan soy spread, Robertson’s marmalade and some sort of  jam (surprised not to see some sort of locally produced jam though), Meridian crunchy peanut butter and yeast extract, and Suma pear & apple spread.

Cow’s milk and soy milk were both readily available, and there was always black tea, instant coffee, Barleycup, rooibos, and two loose-leaf herbal teas; either peppermint, fennel, rosehip, marjoram, or chamomile.

We all queued up on either side of a long table along which the food was arranged, down the centre of the room – it was all so smooth and efficient, and there was always enough of everything (except bananas).

Almost every day I had muesli with plenty of soy milk, topped with some stewed fruits for warmth and juiciness, sunflower seeds for crunchiness, and occasionally a sliced banana. A couple of days I had a double breakfast, following up with a couple of slices of the sliced loaf with soy spread and the pear and apple spread. On one or two of the days I just had the bread – and I usually followed up with another piece of non-banana fruit. Sometimes people left half a piece of fruit on the chopping boards next to the fruit bowls (again, a very efficient system), so I could have multiple fruit halves. They were much bigger breakfasts than I was accustomed to, but it didn’t seem to do me any harm in the long run!

Lunches were mostly fairly straightforward and basic as you would expect, but usually well seasoned, wholesome and including more vegetables than I was expecting. Some lunches were amazing! In all, we had at various points, spaghetti with tomato-lentil saucepeanut curry with brown rice and steamed kale, tofu curry with rice and broccoli, baked potatoes with baked beans and hummus, a penne dish with some sort of tomato-vegetable sauce, some sort of nut roast slice with cabbage and apple, and plenty of other stews and curries involving lentils and chickpeas and green things. There was also always shredded iceberg lettuce, chopped tomato, chopped cucumber, sprouted lentils, and occasionally some sort of coleslaw or beetroot or carrot salad. Crispbreads and rice cakes were also available at lunchtimes, and wherever appropriate grated cheese was available though obviously not vegan.

On most days there was a dessert available – poppyseed cake, apple crumble, flapjack, what looked like millionaire’s shortbread – and though they were always things that could quite easily be vegan, seeing how readily available milk and butter were I wasn’t sure they’d have used non-dairy alternatives in their baking. I could have asked, of course, but I figured asking about dessert wasn’t a good use of a break in my vow of silence, and it was a great excuse not to eat dessert for a week. I didn’t feel like I was missing out, and always left the meal times feeling very full and satisfied, and healthy. [On the last day, I spoke to someone who had previously worked in the kitchen team, and apparently all the desserts are vegan… So I’ll know for next time!]

I actually really enjoyed eating in silence. I slowed my eating right down, enjoying every mouthful and staring into space. A couple of the days I did eat too much and spent the next 30-45 minutes pacing the grounds trying to digest before sitting still for four hours, but I always digested quite efficiently as the food was so wholesome. Plus, as we had nothing to eat past midday except for two pieces of fruit at 5pm (for those who were on the course for the first time), I never went to bed feeling full, and never woke up with a sore stomach.

Although I ate a lot more starchy carbohydrates than I normally do, I lost a bit of weight, and though that is clearly through muscle loss (my shoulders aren’t quite as shapely and my legs actually just look like they’ve melted), I don’t feel much less lean than I was before. Most importantly, I feel healthy, and while I was away I totally stopped craving sugary treats and chocolate after my meals! I don’t feel it was because they weren’t available, as I didn’t even crave them in the early days, but rather because the meals were so complete and satisfying that my body didn’t want for anything. Unfortunately, that didn’t last long on my return… creature of habit and all. It has just served to confirm, however, that food restriction is just not the way forward! Eat more when you are hungry, earlier in the day, and the rest of the day will take care of itself!

Things that surprised me? Refined sugar was available for hot drinks, that coffee was available, that desserts were served at all, that there was no inclusion of sweet potato as a carbohydrate source, that nuts were used freely in a fairly large-scale catering environment and even used as a main meal on a couple of occasions, that pasta was served and so was white rice. I have no problem with any of those myself, but I don’t feel that they fit much with the ethos of clean and minimalistic living. The only other thing that I really would have expected would have been clear labelling of ingredients or at least common allergens – obviously, most things were clearly dairy-free but I would have felt just a little bit more at ease had it been indicated – as I’m sure anyone with a dairy intolerance or sensitivity would have been!

Anyway, this is a very long post for one without any photos, but I hope it has given you some insight into the experience! Now that we have covered some overall feelings about the experience, and the food, all that is left to talk about is the actual practice of meditation, and how I feel it is applicable to everyday life and, more relevantly, health and fitness. Stay tuned for that next week!

Of course, if you have any other questions, please don’t hesitate to ask!