The microbiome: an animistic perspective

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to catch an episode of Daniel Vitalis’ ‘Rewild Yourself’ podcast in which he interviewed Professor of Genetic Epidemiology Tim Spector, author of ‘The Diet Myth’ about the time he spent living and eating with the Hadza tribe in Africa. Professor Spector started his scientific journey as a geneticist, but gradually took more interest in the subject of nutrition after a serious illness. In this absolutely fascinating interview Spector describes how nutrition is an area of science especially ridden with dogma where advocates of one way of eating or another make highly selective choices when presenting their evidence. Spector, on the other hand, comes at the subject with a very broad mind and in fact experiments with a number of diets while at the same time carrying out his research.

But what was most striking and interesting to me about the interview was the way in which Professor Spector described the microbiome and its role in human health. The importance of this organ was underlined when he spent just a few days living a hunter-gatherer life with the Hadza people in Tanzania. While I do take a lot of care with what I eat these days, I generally don’t follow scientific research into diet and human health. It’s so easy now to fall into the habit of using the latest research to back up our own prejudices, whether it’s the notion that so-called ‘clean eating’ will lead directly to an early death for faddish Londoners or that drinking coffee will lengthen your life. Or shorten it. Instead, I generally trust my instincts and, for the most part, avoid reading any stories claiming that this food or that food will have a dramatic effect on my health.

I had been hazily aware that our bodies are filled with trillions of bacteria and that these play a really important role in our overall health, especially that of the gut. This knowledge dovetailed neatly into my own interest in fermentation, an interest based equally on the enjoyment of the tastes as well as a fascination for the hidden world of yeasts and bacteria. I instinctively felt that these foods and drinks were also good for me (and are, in fact, and important part of a macrobiotic diet). Foods such as miso, koji and natto are all good examples of this.

We love looking after our kombucha microbiomes

During the interview, Spector does an incredible job of describing the scale and importance of the microbiome, a community of something like 100 trillion fungi, yeasts, viruses and bacteria, together weighing about two kilograms. To put this into context, the microbiome contains more cells than the rest of the entire human body and, at two kilos, weighs more than our brain or indeed most of our other organs. This discovery has led many in the area to ask us to think of the microbiome as a human organ in its own right, alongside the kidneys, heart, liver and lungs. And, like these other major organs we know so well, we could not live for very long without the microbiome.

Professor Spector then describes in some detail his stay in Tanzania eating a very healthy foraged diet for a few days with the Hadza. Being an astute scientist, Spector carefully takes stool samples on his trip and later analysis reveals that in just three days of living a hunter and gatherer life the health and diversity of his microbiome increased by 20%. He primarily puts this down to the wide range of foods he ate, as well as the time spent outdoors and without modern sanitation.

Which is a very long way to bring me back to the title of this post: animism. As a child growing up in the 1970s, I read a lot of Dr. Seuss. Listening to this interview brought back memories of ‘Horton Hears a Who’, the story of an observant and kind-hearted elephant who suddenly becomes aware of tiny people living on a speck of dust. The Whos cannot be seen by Horton’s friends, and so Horton is ridiculed for trying to protect this tiny community. But, as Horton reminds us in the story, “a person’s a person, no matter how small”.

Indigenous beliefs are often centred around notions of animism, or, in other words, the perspective that everything in the world is alive and is interacting with us. Even though these forces maybe invisible to us, they are powerful and interact with us in important ways. Professor Spector makes it clear that the microbiome is affected and nourished by everything around us, down to the air we breathe, the landscape we live in and our direct and indirect contact with the other living beings around us. Let’s have the humility to accept that the tiny citizens of Whoville in our microbiome have the power to make us well or unwell and that we should all do what we can to nourish them.

Mitakuye Oyasin – We Are All Related

 

 

 

A day in Edale

Last weekend I attended the level 1 plant-based macrobiotic cooking course, presented by Macrobioticshop.co.uk, at Mam Tor House (aka The Old Winery) in the beautiful Hope Valley in the Peak District.

Our small group of just seven students was welcomed with tea and raw home-made chocolate brownies and lemon verbena raw crisps (delicious!) while we introduced ourselves in the warm September sunshine. Course leader Georgina then talked us through some of the ingredients we would be working with, their importance in a macrobiotic diet and what we could expect from the day.

The first part of the morning consisted of a couple of demonstrations by Georgina during which she created our dessert of amazake, kuzu & foraged blackberries and a vegetable miso soup. One of my specific hopes from the day was to learn to work with ingredients I’d not used before and the amazake dessert fulfilled this objective perfectly.

After the demos it was our turn to don the aprons and get cooking. We were presented with a selection of beautiful ingredients – fresh, locally grown organic vegetables, macrobiotic staples from the shop and some items foraged locally that morning. Each of us was given a recipe (or two, depending on complexity) to work with to prepare our dishes, the intention being that between us we would create a banquet that we’d share for lunch.

While our dishes were cooking, Ishmael introduced us to the process of fermentation and offered us the opportunity to sample some of his home-made, flavoured kombuchas. Kombucha (fermented, sweetened tea) was a new experience for me and quite alien to anything I’d tasted before. I think it’s something of an acquired taste but perseverance brings rewards and after my initial ‘confusion’ surrounding the fizziness of the tea, I grew to really enjoy it. The beetroot-flavoured version was particularly good.

Lunch was something for us all to be proud of. It looked great and the range of new flavours, tastes and textures were delicious and inspiring. Afterwards, the theme of fermentation continued as Ishmael led a demonstration on the making of the staple Korean dish kimchi (fermented raw vegetables). After the demo, each of us was given the opportunity to select two or three of our favourite vegetables and produce our own jar of kimchi to take away with us.

The day closed with more tea and the amazake & blackberry pudding that Georgina had prepared earlier. I’m not a sweet-toothed soul and I very rarely eat desserts but I was pleasantly surprised by the amazake. It was neither too sweet nor too creamy for my taste and I’d definitely make it at home. After lingering for a while, talking and reflecting on the day, we gradually began to make our way home.

Throughout the day it was evident that Georgina & Ishmael are clearly knowledgeable & passionate about their respective subjects. The course was well-designed & structured and delivered with a lot of love & enthusiasm. Overall, the day was a great example of the sweet stuff of life – a lot of fun; new knowledge; delicious food; inspiration; art; science; meeting new, like-minded souls and healthful treats to take home.

Yurt life with the Macrobiotic Shop

A few years ago we made the mutual decision to move away from the city. It was something that had been slowly growing inside each of us. An uncomfortable feeling that the culture around us no longer provided nourishment – that our way of living was too far removed from the things that stirred us. These feelings were somewhat satiated by a move to rural Sussex. We were able to regularly see the night sky and know the cycles of the moon without checking the newspaper. We found edible wild foods on our doorstep. Yet, even so, it wasn’t a place that felt entirely right, still very close to the city and a countryside mostly devoted to the homes of the wealthy.

A year later, and a move to the Peak District, scrunched between Manchester and Sheffield, we found a new home in an area of real beauty and even glimpses of wildness: rocky cliffs, flowing rivers, big hills and simmering skies. The move north felt good. Even so, we felt ourselves drawn further north, beyond the borders of England and into Scotland. This year, to mark a special anniversary, we felt it was the right moment to briefly try out a way of life that really appealed to us. And so, a short stay at Black Isle Yurts was booked for late August. Located about 15 miles from Inverness, the yurts were hand built by the Adam family, with most of the design and build carried out by Jenny and her brother Kenneth.

Simple and effectiveWillow Yurt

We had both been anticipating the trip and the stay in a yurt, but I don’t think anything could have fully prepared us for just how special and nourishing our time there would be. Our yurt was situated about 200 metres down a wooded path, with really beautiful chanterelles there to greet us. The interior of the yurt was very simply but beautifully furnished, with a wood stove, a small table, a basic cooking area and a comfortable wooden bed. It was going to be a really peaceful and secluded several days, with  no electricity, no running water and no access by car.

The walk to Willow Yurt
Forest path
A real abundance of mushroomsChanterelles
What we hadn’t fully anticipated was the feelings and emotions which were generated by living in a round dwelling, even if only for a short time. Around the world, and for tens of thousands of years our ancestors always chose to live in circular structures. Yurts, tipis, Celtic roundhouses, African huts and wigwams are all round. As the great Lakota holy man, Black Elk, noted

“…the power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.  The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars.  The wind, in its greatest power, whirls.  Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours.  Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were.  The life of a man is a circle, from childhood to childhood…”

I feel that unless you have experienced this first hand, the words can sound idealistic at best, and mystic mumbo-jumbo at worst. But I live and work in a world of boxes and straight lines:  house, car, work, train, shop, pub. My whole environment seems to consist of nothing but straight lines.  Spending time in a circle felt very natural but also very special, even more so with the natural light pouring in from the domed ceiling. Unlike a traditional Mongolian ger (yurt being the Russian work for the Mongolian one), the fire in Willow Yurt was set to one side, next to the door. A more efficient use of space no doubt, but perhaps lacking the central role of the hearth or firepit which is the focal point of so many traditional ways of life.
The beautiful roof structure
Domed roof in the morning

A jungle-like canopy of ferns outsideLattice work walls, ferns outside our window
Preparing a few mushrooms

A yurt-dweller preparing his dinner

Indeed, so blissfully meditative was the time spent there that is was difficult to motivate ourselves to explore much further, even though the Black Isle is full of interesting places to visit. We both felt ourselves slow down in both our movement and thinking. I have personally chosen to live a little more simply than many people. I have never had a smartphone, and I have been living without TV or radio for many years. I drive only occasionally and listen to music only from time-to-time. Yet, even so, I have noticed my ability to concentrate has withered over time. In that circular space, without electricity, my powers of concentration were re-invigorated. This was most noticeable in the better reading ability I had, but overall I just felt much more focussed and able to think clearly.

In stark contrast to the Peak District, the Black Isle had a real abundance of wild food, especially mushrooms, which we gathered in good number to cook some really wonderful food on a two-ring camping stove. I was able to identify at least a dozen different species of mushroom within three or four miles of the yurt, including some really excellent ones such as chanterelles, shaggy parasols, boletes and one really exquisite porcini.
Chanterelles again!
Preparing wild mushrooms for dinner

Kuksa with a wee dramThe foragers return to a wee dram
Beautiful!
A special Porcini

As well as spending time in our circle and eating amazingly well, we also managed some short trips away, including a long walk along the deserted coastline which lies just below the cliffs which bordered our yurt. Looking towards Inverness we could see the city just a few miles away, along with the airport traffic. Even though this area is relatively unspoilt, this is something that cannot be taken for granted. Locals spoke to us of their worries about plans to allow large transfers of crude oil just a few miles offshore in the Inner Moray Firth near a large dolphin habitat. Cromarty Rising, an environmental group opposing government plans to devastate the local area by bringing large oil tankers into the area, has a lot of support but their struggle is a reminder of just how vigilant and fiercely protective we must be in order to safeguard the habitat we share.
Beach flower
The Black Isle coast
Sea, sky and rocks
Looking towards Inverness

Leaving the Black Isle was something of a struggle, having so thoroughly enjoyed and deeply appreciated our time there. Since then we have been looking into the notion of living more simply in a round space with much more seriousness. Whatever happens, the warmth, inner peace and quiet we enjoyed will stay with us.

Fire

Course report: Plant-Based Macrobiotics Cooking Class, September 2nd

Last Saturday we hosted our first  Plant-Based Macrobiotics Cooking Class at our new venue in in Edale, Derbyshire. We’d hosted several classes before on a slightly smaller scale, but we’d decided to get a little more professional about it, and The Old Winery was the perfect setting on a perfect September day.

Cooking in a new kitchen is always a little daunting, especially when you are planning a 16-course meal for 10 people! So there were several late nights in the days leading up to the course while we tried to work out how many pans, knives, chopping boards and mixing spoons we would need. Thankfully The Old Winery was also quite well equipped, so even though we forgot one or two things on the the day, the clean and spacious kitchen had pretty much everything we needed.

The day started off with tea and home-made lemon verbena crisp breads in the warm autumn sunshine, while the students introduced themselves and I then talked about how the day would be structured and started explaining a little about some of the ingredients we would be using. I also talked about the benefits of the ingredients and the importance of preparing balanced meals using a range of tastes and cooking techniques, ideas that are really important in macrobiotics.

The students were all remarkably knowledgeable in different areas, and we had a nice mixture of ages, backgrounds and genders, a really interesting and lovely group to work with!

After the warm-up, I demoed an amazake dessert and a quick miso soup before the cooking really began in earnest. Each student was assigned two dishes to prepare, one relatively quick and simple one, and another slower to prepare and more difficult one to make. The idea was that everything would be finished at about the same time, which nearly worked out.


Cooking demo

While we were waiting for one of the bean dishes to finish cooking, The Fermentation Master did a quick kombucha demo, fascinating the class with the eerie mothers he had floating on a maté tea sweetened with apple syrup. We also tried a few of his other fermented concoctions, but no students were brave enough to try the sour kimchi juice.

 

Kombucha

Lunch was finally served, an amazing array of tastes, colours and textures. Again, I was really impressed at how well everything had been cooked by the students, all of whom showed a flair for cooking and a passion for what they were about to eat.

 

Lunch!

After lunch The Fermentation Master concluded the day’s teaching with a fully hands-on session in raw kimchi making. First a  basic kimchi paste was prepared and then each student worked on their own to produce their unique batch to take home.

 

Kimchi

Before setting off for at the end of the day, we finished off with tea and the chilled amazake pudding. It was great to meet so many amazing and like-minded people, and I am hoping to stay in touch with everyone.

The next course will be held on October 14th in Edale.

Some comments from the students:

“I had a lovely day. Lots to think about, new people to meet, great food and your expertise. What more could I ask for? The venue was superb and I look forward to another class in the future. The whole day was so well planned and executed.”

Great day, gorgeous food. Really enjoyed the cooking and delicious meal.

Really enjoyable & knowledge-filled day. Really impressed by the variety of dishes & flavours we cooked together. I’m inspired to continue the journey. Thanks all!

 

Macrobiotic Shop featured in The Sheffield Star

Last Friday The Sheffield Star published an article entitled ‘Macrobiotic cookery class bids to improve Yorkshire’s health‘. The article reports on the health crises facing much of today’s population and how a wholefoods, plant-based diet can combat many of these issues. Here is an excerpt:

“Japan underwent rapid change at the start of the 20th century when the country’s diet changed because of western influences. This brought with it many illnesses and social problems,” said Georgina.

“George Ohsawa observed the rapid decline in health and set about creating a popular movement for health.” It was based on whole grains, such as millet, brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa and pearled barley, and fermented products such as miso, tempeh, sauerkraut and pickles. He called it the macrobiotic diet.

Read more at: http://www.thestar.co.uk/news/health/macrobiotic-cookery-class-bids-to-improve-yorkshire-s-health-1-8662455