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

 

 

 

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

Nettle beer and elderflower champagne

There is something so satisfying about making your own foods and drinks that it can be a little hard to describe the emotions to those who have not tried it themselves. This is especially true when it comes to slow and hidden processes like fermentation, where mysterious enzymes are at work instead of more obvious things like fire and heat. Here at the Macrobiotic Shop we have fallen in love with fermentation in all its strange and wonderful ways. If you come round to visit you are likely to find at least two or three things bubbling quietly away under the stairs or in the airing cupboard.

We can’t wait to see how this turns out

Whether it’s kimchi, sauerkraut, sake, sourdough, pickles or sake, all use various forms of fermentation to turn some otherwise fairly dull foodstuffs into wonderful new things to enjoy. Our customers also understand the benefits as well as the enjoyment, as natto spores and koji are two of our most popular products, along with pickle presses.

But last week we decided to try something quite different and fun for the summer: cool and refreshing nettle beer and elderflower champagne. Nettles really are a wondrous plant, full of amazing health benefits and also perennials which are widely available, even in major cities. We have used nettles for tea, steamed with vegetables and also as part of a really excellent pesto. But they can also form part of a very good and refreshing light beer.

Nettles in the pot, ready to start forming the ‘wort’

The elder tree requires more careful observation. In spring the buds work well as part of a tempura (see our previous post – a wild stir fry). Now is the time to harvest the flowers, which also work well in a tempura but can become the central part of elderflower champagne.

Elderflowers, you’ll only need between 10 and 20!

Both drinks are very easy to make and have filled us with excitement and anticipation as we watch them evolve from wild plants we picked a few days ago into something cool and refreshing for the warm evenings to come. We kept our recipes very simple, just using some of the excellent nettle tips we harvested locally and the elderflowers which will be in abundance for the next few weeks.

In place of the cane sugar which forms part of most recipes, we suggest substituting with either maple syrup of coconut palm sugar. Sugar is essential in order to create the alcohol, but we think using coconut palm sugar gives our elderflower champagne a nice dark colour and a more robust flavour. For the nettle beer we used maple syrup, although you may need slightly more maple syrup than the sugar most recipes call for in order to get the right level of fermentation going. However other sugars such as rice syrup, spelt syrup or malt syrup should all work, we haven’t had time to try them yet!

Why not enjoy your summer evening or weekend a little more and connect with the plants in your immediate area by trying out one of these ancient British/Celtic health-giving drinks?

A wild stir fry

Mid-May and early June is the perfect time to go foraging for a little wild food here in the Peak District of Derbyshire. While there are plenty of edible greens around as early as March, May allows us to spend more time outdoors, getting close to nature and understanding our local environment better. And what better way to understand your local environment than to eat directly from the land? Eating locally and seasonally is a central part of a macrobiotic diet, and here at the Macrobiotic Shop we can often be found sampling local wild food.

At the same time, we recognise that under the current agricultural model in the UK, there is a real shortage of local ingredients to make up a healthy plant-based diet. So we tend to be pragmatic rather than purist, combining the best of local wild food with high quality organic ingredients bought from reliable sources.

There is a real abundance of wild greens around right now. Even for those of us living in cities, green spaces such as parks, hedges or even ‘wasteland’ can provide some really great ingredients for a delicious meal, such as the Elderflower buds we turned into a simple buckwheat tempura, a wild garlic and chickpea farinata and the other greens we used for a great seitan stir fry.

Elderflower buds

We started off by wandering our nearby lanes and footpaths in search of edibles. Now is a good time of year to look for tender greens, such as Elderflower buds, nettle tips, dandelion leaves, goose grass, wild garlic and white dead nettle leaves. All of these are fairly common throughout the UK, so you should be able to do the same yourself fairly easily. Unlike domesticated plants, wild plants don’t feed fertilisers to grow or pesticides to keep them from being eaten by slugs and insects. As a result, the tastes can be a little strong at first to anyone new to wild foods. But it has only been in the past few hundred years that we have relied so heavily on domesticated species. In addition to the more flavourful tastes and interesting textures, wild foods contain an abundance of nutrients. Some, such as nettles and dandelions, contain surprising amounts of iron, protein and calcium while others, such as Elderflower buds, are a very good source of antioxidants and have strong healing powers.

Nettle tea

Any good foraging trip should be accompanied by a little outdoor cooking. On such trips we always take along our Kelly Kettle which allows us to make a nice brew of nettle tea or green tea, just using small scraps of wood for fuel. With the embers you can also heat a snack if you have happened to bring one along. In our case we just had a couple of Terrasana Hazelnut Waffles to balance out the nettle tea we had just made from leaves picked along the way.

Waffles

Unlike domesticated plants, wild ones don’t thrive very long out of the soil, so it’s important to cook and eat them quickly. This also encourages less waste, which is a little counter-intuitive, considering that we pay money for domesticated plants while wild ones can be had for free.

Kelly Kettle

Our meal started with a simple buckwheat and millet flour tempura, which is a fantastic way to cook the Elderflower buds we had harvested. The buds are a little like broccoli in texture, but with a more subtle flavour. This was followed by a simple stir fry consisting of Bertyn tamari seitan, carrots, onion, wild garlic, goose grass, dandelion, nettle tips and white dead nettle leaves. This was flavoured with a touch of maple syrup, mirin and shoyu. All of this was backed up with a wild garlic and chickpea farinata.

Stir fry

Take advantage of the long summer days to get out there and explore your own local environment while also enjoying some really wonderful local food in the meantime. For anyone interested in using wild food in macrobiotic cooking, why not contact us or come along to one of our cooking classes?