Image Piece that appears in the New Chan Forum no. 48 spring 2014


The preliminary tasks and days ahead of cooking on a retreat at the Maenll- wyd are laborious and intensive. Sourcing ingredients to cook lovely meals requires time, care and attention. My style of practice means that I do not plan a specific menu for a retreat. This allows me to awaken the creative muses, and to be playful and spontaneous whilst gauging the mood of the retreat, the changes of weather, and the call of the pantry. All the same, I have to think very carefully about quantities, produce and variety. I have frequent nightmares in which I arrive to cook a retreat in Wales without food and all the shops in the vicinity are shut.

Some of the preparations are dull, like buying loo roll and cleaning products, packing my bag for the week; but I love to source the food, particularly to pick neatly packed boxes of fresh vegetables and fruit, stack them in the boot of my chock-a-block car, and mix them with bags of sundries and condiments, bunches of seasonal flowers and herbs, like a promise of a thousand delicious feasts.

The prospect of cooking for a ten-day retreat was a bit daunting, almost hard to contemplate, but the fact that it took place in September made it more appealing. I adore early autumn: the light, the colour and the crops. Autumn has its own energy, livened up by the hyperkinesia of the migratory birds frantically fuelling up before their voyages, the leaves browning, berries bursting on branches, the pinking of apples, pumpkins and squashes splashing yellows and oranges on earth ruts. There is so much to savour, like the sharp and perfumed taste of plums, pears, quinces or sweet roots like parsnips and beets.

The day before I left, I spent the afternoon picking fruit from the orchard at the farm, a small stretch of land that oozes plenty through its ancient trees, some planted over a hundred years ago. I filled a big box with plums, anticipating them stewed in a perfect marriage with porridge, or atop a cake sprinkled with cinnamon. I found some tiny speckle pears and many old English apple varieties, which quickly filled my wooden crates. Along with the glorious feeling that I get from harvesting and foraging, I love the action of gathering that connects me, humbly, with my humanity. The orchard looked like a postcard of generosity, like the start of a sonnet; the trees offering treasure with open arms with the sun shining for short moments, the light, musical.

On my journey I realised that my summer had been plagued by worry and dread, the type of horror arising from fear of the future, which feels connected with moments of sudden uncertainty throughout my life. I am going through some fundamental transformations in my domestic life and I notice that I cling to what I know and I fear the prospect of letting go. I lose trust in my self, I become suspicious, and rapidly my mind becomes a hell realm and I have to try hard to step out of it. It makes me and those around me suffer. I know I have a lot of work to do, both literally and metaphorically, but I arrive on retreat without an agenda.

Once on retreat and after settling in on the first day, I managed a walk up the hill at tea time. The sheep were grazing and the light had the quality of September. So did the colours of the trees, the valleys below reflecting the change of season. I often try to breathe in colour, invite it in, and let it infuse me. Rain suddenly started pouring, what a drag, so I ran back.

On my way down, I heard a tree. I stopped. There was a cacophony of sound coming from it, so strident, and although I knew it was from all the birds resting and nesting in its branches, it was as if the tree was the one making the noise. I could not see the birds but the tree stood there like a party host, like a holder of fun, rumpus-filled. A few steps later I found a beautiful branch that had broken off one of the silver birches at the side of the track. It had no leaves and the wood had interesting red tints and half a dozen wispy branches. I picked it and took it with me. By the time I got back to the house I was soaked.

The kitchen at the Maenllwyd had enjoyed another round of renovations. The last rayburn was never very efficient, so it was removed and a gas range was placed in its corner. The wooden counter underneath the window, which I know most cooks really missed, had returned, The newly installed gaslights were a delight, with a light quality similar to the Tilley lamps, but without the endless fuss and leakages. In the sitting room an enormous wood-burning stove roared constantly and welcomed the giant kettles on its top, keeping them warm. For those fearful of feeling cold on retreat, like me, things were looking up. I admit that I was reluctant to accept these changes, but the task is to find beauty regardless. The same magic energy of transmission that I felt existed in that kitchen nearly ten years ago still exists in its new, modernised state if you open up to it; the heart of the kitchen beats at the rhythm of the cook’s heart, like a perfect archetype.

One morning, at 5 am, I went to retrieve some milk from the stream. The sky was dark and filled with stars, yet the rain poured heavily. Throughout the morning the sun shone and I cooked, baked, cleaned, wrote a bit. As I sat for lunch I noticed that swallows and martins were still clutching their stay. Birds and trees were connected to whatever was brewing in me. Then Simon gave out the koans. This huatou picked me:

When the tree withers and the leaves fall – what then?

I managed to find an area not too far away to make a phone call to confirm my mid week order from a Welsh Cooperative. Food was running out fast. Standing under the dense foliage of trees, I heard a woodpecker. Toc-Toc, Toc-Toc. As I lingered trying to catch a signal, I also found a sheep corpse lying on top of the roots of a giant tree hidden away from the view of the flock. I collected moss and branches. Near the hut, I picked rosebay willowherb flowers, which looked like pink fairies, for Padmasambava’s altar. I felt that I was cooking something else, something to do with that hullabaloo tree, that branch, something to do with nests and migrations, with change, as a metaphor of my circumstances and me.

Practice has helped me to re acquaint myself with nature, finding beauty and meaning in that which surrounds me: plants and insects, the sky, the soil, the mountain. Cooking is training and it is practice, it is training in bodhicitta practice. As the retreat progresses a very strong sense of joy in the simple tasks arises, and I notice how I begin to open up to my fundamental goodness. My mind quietens but the kitchen remains tempestuous and active, with everything that needs to be done plus all my conflicting emotions that arise unexpectedly, as I stir a pot, or line a baking tray, as I find myself sobbing whilst I decant the chocolate cake batter, as I smudge the edges with a spatula. But there is a sense of trust in the practice and in the process that expands, enabling me to experience myself in a state of happiness that is blissful because it is connected to my nature.

This is a hungry group with a high male: female ratio and there is a sense of intense hard work in the Chan Hall. The more I cook the more they eat. The kitchen feels energetic, pure action meditation. Outside the ground is slicked by rain, and in that tiny space I am cooking and roasting, baking, chop- ping, toasting, grinding, salting, steaming, I am stir frying, stirring, smelling, watching, waiting, kneeling, standing, trotting backwards and forwards to the refectory. I am testing and tasting and watching people savour, I am setting, re-arranging, cleaning. I make teas and stocks, I boil kettles, I am resting and reading and jotting down notes. I feel joyful. I inhabit the kitchen and each moment. It feels beautiful.

The abundant bread plates have to be replenished sometimes during a meal, the jars of preserves and condiments are scraped clean and replaced on a daily basis. I hardly have any left overs and have to put signs on the cake for people not to take more than one (generous) slice. For a cook there is no better compliment than people eating and appreciating the cooking, I love to provide delicious and abundant food whilst I gauge their process. If people need to eat, you provide the food; you begin each dish with an offer and a wish, for it to be beneficial to those who eat it. I remember a monk once saying to me that if you take food as a medicine, no matter what it is, it cannot harm you. This retreat needs fuel. I make brownies that have magic restorative qualities. Each soup has a vegetable as the star. The spice rack is working alongside me.

I took a walk to the hilltop; the wind had a retching quality, like sea spasms. The flocks of birds seem to have gone; the landscape is rapidly yellowing. I took a trip to both Rhayader and Llanidloes to collect the midweek order. I brought back brown paper bags filled with fresh bread, and boxes of veg- etables grown in the Welsh valleys. A proper autumn harvest: I had a box of oddly shape carrots and different coloured beets, swede, cabbages, wonderful mucky celeriac with wriggly tails. I was eager to cook it all and devised a plan for the new arrivals. Lentil cottage pie with pink root mash, lemony baby courgette pasta, carrot cake with cardamom icing, stuffed aubergines with North African flavours…

I began to create nests for the silver birch branch with moss and wool I found on my walks. The rosebay willowherb flowers were turning to seeds that looked furry, like the feathers of a young baby bird. I placed the nests on the branch, which stood by the fireplace in the refectory, each a ritual of setting up a home, of providing warmth and shelter, of comfort. I hung little twigs and seeds held by cotton string. Feathers. Each walk was part of a creative process of recreating that tumultuous tree-home, in silence. My concerns and worries for the future had begun to dissipate; the huatou had begun to question What then? In an almost angry tone, as if saying, why are you asking that now? Stop worrying about then. Be now.

The work periods were a real community effort; the kitchen crew helped me so much in the production of meals and in the general keeping of the different parts of the house. The garden was slowly being transformed. Beautifully dug earth furrows, raked grasses and roots transplantations, mulched flowerbeds. The woodpile in the sitting room was relentlessly replenished, up to the ceiling; the logs lined up and ready to feed the hungry stove. The loos sparkled. There was also a lot of spontaneous laughter from a retreatant; it felt contagious. On one of my journeys back from the stream, I noticed the window of the tool shed with the rows of redundant paraffin lamps. They were lined up and left out, and I could hear them say, we want to play too. It made me sad.

The last full day was one of glory, sunshine, warmth, and that sense to- wards the end of a retreat when faces are glowing and people are beginning to come down, yet the intensity lingered. I had stewed the speckle pears the night before, pears the size of a soupspoon; I had decided to stew them just sliced in half. No peeling and no coring, I also left the stalk. I stewed them in a medium size pot with a bit of water and sugar, a cinnamon stick, all on a light boil. They were so delicious but above all, they were enchanting to look at and taste. I also made another plum cake with ground almonds and spices. The back kitchen felt barren. Things began to go back to their storage places, and as I felt that I was getting ready to go home, I realised that practice makes me feel comfortable with uncertainty, with the uncertainty of my future, with the not knowing where am I going next. The prospect of future becomes flexible and fearless because the future is not distant, it is the next second and it feels continuous, it is here, it is now.


Plum and Almond cake.

250 grams of butter
250 grams of brown sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon of good quality vanilla
4 eggs
125 grams wholemeal self raising flour 175 grams of ground almonds
pinch of baking powder

100 grams of almonds
15 plums
Mixed spice
1 tablespoon of muscovado sugar. A pinch of sea salt

First heat the oven at 180C. Place the almonds on a tray and toast lightly. Chop them roughly and set them in a bowl. Add the muscovado sugar, the mixed spice and pinch of sea salt and mix together. Cut the plums in half and remove the stones. Turn the oven up to 220C.

Line a rectangular baking tray. I used a 16’ by 12’. In a big bowl mix the butter and sugar until soft and sugar has been dissolved. Add vanilla and eggs and beat the batter until homogeneous. Add the ground almonds and sift in the flour and a pinch of baking powder. Mix well. Decant onto the baking tray and arrange the plums face down evenly and close to each other. Sprinkle with the almonds, muscovado sugar, mixed spice and salt mix. Bake in the oven for at least 30 min. You might need to turn the oven down slightly. The almond topping will brown and caramelise the plums. You can make it with pears, apricots, or peaches.