Sunday thoughts: post-retreat edition

Hello, and happy Summer (to those of you who count it from 1st June – I am still undecided)!

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Man, have I been looking forward to writing this blog post… Since my last post about six weeks ago, I have handed in my last assignment at uni, sat my last exam, celebrated with Icco‘s new vegan pizza offering and a long-anticipated visit to Yorica, then almost immediately got my head back down to concentrate on the final bits and pieces – kit lists, medical forms, payment receipts, playlists, shopping lists – for the first ever fitness and wellbeing retreat I have hosted (co-hosted with Ben and our yoga teacher Jay) in the south of France.

To say I’m not good at dealing with unknowns would be a vast understatement, and the retreat planning was full of them, so that last week leading up to the retreat was tinged with an undercurrent of stress. I pictured myself breathing a sign of relief when it was all over, but in reality the week went so well and – most surprisingly – I had such an amazing time running it and looking after our guests, that I had no desire for it all to end. I am so grateful that we had the opportunity to stay in the venue for a couple of days after our guests left, so that we could unwind and reflect on the week together (and enjoy the sun, and finish delicious leftovers), because it is clear that had we headed straight back to London and what has turned out to be a busy week of work, I would have struggled to take the time to slow down.

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So when this morning, after dragging myself out of bed early to get to Jay’s Sunday morning yoga class, I arrived at the train station only to find out that all trains in the direction I needed to go in had been cancelled due to emergency engineering works, I was actually quite excited to head back home through the sleepy streets with my coffee still warm in my travel mug, and enjoy some much-needed quiet time writing with no distractions. It’s the perfect grey, wet, but not cold, quiet Sunday morning for it, and I hope you’re making the most of it too.

Thought for food

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Our typical breakfast: selection of fresh bread, homemade jams (thanks Mum!), chia-oat pudding, fresh fruit, soy yoghurt, and a berry smoothie

I had imagined that prior to the retreat, we would have thoroughly tested all of the meals we planned to serve, written out the recipes, calculated exact quantities and made our shopping lists. None of that happened. And I think that’s partly why the food turned out so well: we were able to be flexible, adapt to what we had and what we could find, taste and adjust and improvise and decorate and serve with love. I also could never have anticipated what people’s favourite dishes would turn out to be:

  • Chia overnight oats: loosely based off Angela Liddon’s recipe, this breakfast staple was probably the star of the show. Ben had wanted to layer them up in individual breakfast parfaits, but I argued that people may not want any or might want to adjust components and ratios in their parfait, so we served them in a bowl as part of a spread with plain soy yoghurt, fresh fruit, and berry compote. I was a little worried that it may look a little too unappetising and outlandish for our non-vegan guests, but after the first day one guest told us he was looking forward to his chia pudding at breakfast, and by the end I think everyone had asked for the recipe!
  • Sweet potato lentil soup: we had brought a tonne of red lentils with us, and I thought what better way to enjoy France with its fresh bread and warm weather with its crunchy salads than serving them with a hearty soup, thus making it a full meal? I’m not even the biggest soup lover, but even I was more enthusiastic than Jay and Ben, who argued that our guests might feel they were being underfed if soup was served as anything more than a simple starter. Well. Holy wow were we wrong – my humble soup that has no recipe, that had its lentil content roughly double about halfway through because “it doesn’t look like enough, does it?”, was perhaps the most popular dish of the week and was even requested again! Unfortunately we did not oblige as we were committed to not serving the same dish twice, but I will try and make it again soon and note down the quantities, so I can share the recipe with the guests and on this blog.
  • Chilli (and all other tomato sauces): another unexpected star was Ben’s chilli; a humble concoction of beans in a rich tomato sauce, served with brown rice expertly cooked by Jay, and a silken tofu sour cream. To be honest, everyone raved about all of Ben’s tomato-based sauces, which were perfectly rich and tangy and filled with summery tomato flavour. I love how easy it is to make good (vegan) food!
  • Lemon drizzle cake: I was a little nervous as the last (also the first) time I made this loaf cake (from the recipe on this page), I don’t think I followed the recipe but couldn’t remember what substitutions I had made. This time, I did – and it almost all disappeared while I was round the back cleaning the coffee machine!
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Taco night: cabbage and carrot slaw, wholewheat tortillas, fajita peppers, refried beans, pulled jackfruit in homemade BBQ sauce, Violife cheese, tofu sour cream, and guac!

Frankly though, everyone seemed to really enjoy the food, talking about it amongst themselves at the dinner table, going back for seconds, going out of their way to compliment the chefs (us!), and commenting on how they could eat more vegan meals if this was what vegan food was like!

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My bowl on Day 0 (before the retreat had officially started): sautéed veggies, tricolour quinoa, green salad with avocado and cucumber, a rich tomato sauce, olives, and fresh bread

Food for thought

Everyone left the retreat with at least one “takeaway” – a loose resolution, one change they could make – for most, it seemed to be either cutting down on meat consumption or preparing a batch of chia overnight oats for easy and delicious healthy breakfasts. Turns out, I have several of my own, and this seems a good place to share them:

  • Every meal can, and should, be delicious and exciting. Too often, I think of breakfast or lunch as inferior to dinner, and not worthy of extensive thought or multiple components. While I do still enjoy my dinner being the heartiest and most complex meal to end the day, I really enjoyed piecing together breakfasts and lunches from a varied spread, and hope to continue doing so when I feel like I want a little more on my plate or when I have leftovers available.
  • Mise en place is easier and more efficient than it seems. For some meals, it is totally feasible to chop as you go and multitask – for most weeknight meals, to be honest, this works well for us as one is home ahead of the other and has a good hour to play with, which is ample time to get something chopped and in the oven to roast before tending to elements that can cook more quickly on the stovetop. However, getting into the habit of preparing at least some ingredients in advance – washing and drying a whole lettuce and storing it in an airtight container, for example, or chopping up a whole head of broccoli when you have some spare time, or pressing and marinating a block of tofu before the start of the week – can mean that you are more likely to serve your meal with a side salad, or chuck in an extra veggie, or feel that your Tuesday lunch is just as special as your Saturday night dinner (see point above).
  • Food doesn’t need rules. This is a more personal one, as I still catch myself trying to hold myself to “food rules” that even I know are meaningless. We were so busy during the retreat that frankly I didn’t have time to worry about what time it was when I was hungry and needed a snack, having enough energy to cook a meal or tidy up or teaching a class was clearly more important than a silly self-imposed rule about what and when to eat, and also cooking kills my appetite so even though I was rarely hungry I knew I needed to eat. And despite throwing all my rules out the window, everything was still fine, and I need to remember that.
  • I love mustard, and salad dressing deserves to be delicious. For years I’ve been trying to make myself like mustard: I’ve always loved the smell but never liked the taste! This happened with olives, and it’s a weirdly frustrating sensation, but since I grew to love them I knew I would with mustard, too. Since we were making a lot of salads for a lot of people I had to make decent dressings, and mustard plays a key role in a good vinaigrette. As above, going out of my way to make a vinaigrette (rather than my usual salad-dressing approach which is to drizzle some oil and some vinegar straight onto the leaves), proved ridiculously simple and so much better with the addition of mustard. I bought a jar of whole-grain mustard as soon as I went grocery shopping when we were back, and shook myself up a bottle of vinaigrette for easy salad dressing at all times (see mise en place point, above).

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I’ll leave you with those thoughts and this view of dusk setting in over the pool, hopefully I will be back soon with that soup recipe!

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