Plum Village

Having just returned from a monastic retreat in Plum Village over Christmas and New Year with my wife Georgina I have since felt the need to write up my notes.


Plum village is a monastery situated in South West of France. The community is run by Vietnamese monks (brothers) and nuns (sisters) and was initially founded by the Zen Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh in 1982.

The Community run annual meditation retreats for up to 700 people from all over the world.

Typical schedule

5:15 am – Wake Up, get dressed

6:00 am – meditation (45 minutes) + readings and recitations from the Plum Village texts (mainly containing Buddhist Suttras, discourses and allegorical insights)

7:00 am – breakfast (in noble silence)

9:00 am – working meditation (1 hour)

11:30 am – walking meditation (30 minutes)

12:30 pm – lunch (in noble silence)

2:00 pm – (optional Dharma sharing)

3:00 pm – Dharma talk by one of the sisters

6:00 pm – Supper (in noble silence)

7:45 pm – meditation – with readings from the Plum Village daily chanting book

9:00 pm – Rest (noble silence until 9:00 am the next morning)

Christmas and New Year celebrations

We enjoyed Christmas and New Year with around 700 people – including Buddhist monks, nuns and lay people.

20151224_142820 20151227_131709 20160103_092836

The Food

20151223_125703I felt so energised by the quality of the food. The vegetables (broccoli, beetroot, carrots) were especially well cooked, vibrant in colour and texture and there were masses of tofu/bean curd, spring rolls and sticky rice or noodles in keeping with Vietnamese cuisine.

We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner in Noble Silence – including until the washing up had been done – allowing us to truly appreciate the eating experience. I always enjoyed sitting close to some of the monastic sisters during breakfast – just observing the care which they applied to every. single. mouthful. I feel so much love and gratitude to the sisters and especially the cooking staff. Plum Village is extremely well run and there are lots going on behind the scenes.

Breakfast would offer a choice of oat or rice based porridge, brown bread, sliced baguettes with an array of toppings and adornments; from pumpkin 20160103_180919_resizedseeds and crunchy almonds to dates, kiwi fruit, sliced apple, banana, lashings of tahini dressing (pureed sesame seed paste) and powdered nutritional yeast.

Lunch would typically be tofu, vegetables and salad leaves. Supper was often soup or broth with leftovers from lunchtime.

It seems strange, however, that I’ve returned from France without having had any wine or cheese (Plum Village being a stritly vegan and non-alcoholic retreat community)

Dharma Talks and discourses

For me, the Dharma talks (or Buddhist sermons, if you will) were one of the highlights of the retreat. I found the messages to be very subtle but extremely profound. The talks were attended by people from different nationalities and were held in either French or English (and translated accordingly).

It was brilliantly organised and the translations were seamless.

I do not profess to know a lot about Buddhist texts and am not officially a Buddhist, but I felt a deep resonance and meaning from every talk, reading and recitation. From the Buddha’s perspective the 3 things that matter most in life are:

“How well did you love?

“How deeply (into life) did you go?

“How fully did you Let Go?

Surely this is a guide to living for anyone; no matter their background, race or religion. The Dharma Talks at were given by the monks and nuns themselves and ranged in theme:

  • Understanding the nature of craving, impermanence and desire;
  • How to cultivate gratitude, patience, equanimity, compassion, imagination and awareness;
  • Being mindful and fully aware by living in the present moment as fully as possible;
  • Being open, taking a walk every day, remembering to breath;
  • Appreciating other people (the ‘otherness’ of the other) by seeing them exactly for who they are and not who we want them to be.

The images below, “Discourse on Love”, were taken from one of the textbooks of discourses.

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The atmosphere of the community was very amiable and the French countryside got more picturesque as the days went by. I think the influence of the environment and the relaxed vibe of Plum Village allowed me to absorb the messages from the teachings

31st December 2015 (New Year’s eve)

The talk was offered by brother monastic Thầy Pháp Đăng who opened with the message,

“This is the time to be with loved ones and to calm our minds and our hearts”

The main theme of the Dharma talk was, “Why is there often so much Darkness in life? And how do we awaken from this darkness?”

We were given the following five steps towards cultivating an enlightened mind:

1) Beginner’s mindset – cultivate a mind that is open, fresh, curious and therefore can creatively adapt to circumstances;

2) Mind of gratitude – cultivate praise for our parents, farmers, society, our food, our teachers, friends and other loved ones.

3) Lucid mind / Clear mind – appreciation for things, “as they are and not as we would like them to be; no controlling or aversion (“I hate the rain”); dropping all previous knowledge (“emptying ourselves so that we may begin anew)

4) Mind of Love – I was asking myself, what is Love? For me, love is many, many things. It is: the capacity to bring joy, happiness and peace to yourself and others; to extend ourselves towards the needs of another; to accept another person without projection, expectation or control; and to accept that to love is an intention, an action and a choice.

5) Mind of Silence – cultivating a mindset free from fear; not resorting to ‘false refuges’ when we are fearful, angry, upset or lonely (TV, mindless internet browsing and the fridge).

Dharma sharing and Q/A session

The dharma sharing allows us to come together and share whatever is in our heart at that time and to ask questions of the monastics on a range of themes.

An example of one of the questions from our group was:

Q. How do we come to know our purpose in life and find meaning – whilst living in a conditioned environment?

I thought the sisters responded very effectively to this question. They encouraged us to reflect, examine past actions and look for patterns in our behaviour.

The advice ranged from the profound to the more generic –

· Discern the “right effort” in all things and do not allow yourself to be governed by fear.

· Acknowledge your own personal authority / ability to choose

· Focus on something that truly matters

· Do not wait for permission to act.

I often think about living in our heavily conditioned environment and am reminded by C.G. Jung’s proverb that, “we walk in shoes too small for us…”

This is stating that most of the time we adapt to the voices around us, the demands of our environment, rather than being guided by an instinctual and driven internal nature which wishes embodiment through us and into the world.   20151222_142807

For me, we need to make choices every single day. Many of which are complex – meaning that we need to exercise discernment, humility and discipline. I think it’s important not to look for perfectionism in all things, something I struggle with daily, to know that options do exist in life and that we have the freedom to choose – instead of being led by the flock of opinions around us.

Back into the ‘real world’

Before leaving Plum Village – back to the real world (or the ‘Default World’ as Georgina artfully put it) – we were given the opportunity to share a reading or to sing a song as part of our contribution to the community. Georgina and I chose to read “Tripping over Joy” from Hafiz’ book of poetry, I Heard God Laughing, which seemed the most appropriate in terms of theme. It goes like this:

“What is the difference
between your experience of existence
and that of a saint?

The saint knows
that the spiritual path
is a sublime chess game with God
and that the Beloved
has just made such a fantastic move
that the saint is now continually
tripping over joy
and bursting out in laughter
and saying, “I surrender!”

Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think
you have a thousand serious moves.”

Whatever that may be I’ll leave you with the following wise words and wish everyone a Happy New Year.

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering: it will be happier” – Alfred Lord Tennyson

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Chestnut vendor When we were on holiday in Madrid a few years back I remember buying the most amazing roasted chestnuts (pictured right) – freshly roasted in vast cauldrons – from the many street vendors around the city.

They were dished out to us piping hot in small paper bags – often selling for as little as 1 Euro per 100g (a large handful).

Here in the UK, since the chestnut season is so brief (September to December) I think it’s always useful to take advantage whilst we can.

Types / availability

· Whole peeled chestnuts, canned or vacuum-packed, are available from most UK supermarkets. 450g fresh chestnuts (weighed in their shells) are equivalent to 175g dried, reconstituted chestnuts or 350g tinned or vacuum packed nuts.

· Canned chestnut purée, plain or sweetened, available in tins, is a godsend as it saves hours of preparation for use in pudding recipes.

· Chestnut flour (gluten-free and with a slight earthy smokiness) is often available from speciality food stores and delicatessens. This is useful as a substitute for flour in cakes (see below), pancakes or as a thickener for soups and stews.

Chestnuts roastedCooking with fresh chestnuts

Fresh chestnuts should be cooked and never eaten raw – due to their high acid content. I find the oven to be the most effective way of roasting them.

First, pre-heat the oven to 200 C / 390 F.

If you are using fresh chestnuts which contain the outer shell / husk then one of the most important steps before roasting is to cut an incision in the shell using the end of a sharp knife.

Alternatively you can roll your foot over them until they crack slightly. This prevents sudden explosions of chestnut shrapnel from inside the oven due to a pressure build up in the shell.

Next, place approximately 200g chestnuts on an oven tray and roast for 20-25 minutes.

Once cooked, peel off the tough shell and the papery thin skin underneath. Peel the nuts whilst hot – it’s impossible to peel a cold chestnut – to ensure the complete removal of the inner brown furry skin, called the ‘tan’, which is bitter.

Alternative recipes

A great cake recipe of Italian origin is Montebianco – using chestnuts, chocolate and coffee, with layers of mousse, praline and almond meringue. Who could say no to that?Chestnuts aerial view

If you prefer something a bit more homely then I cannot think of anything more inviting than steaming ladlefuls of hot chestnut soup.

First, take 1kg fresh, cooked and peeled chestnuts (or 600g pre-packaged and vacuum-packed), 1 onion, 1 garlic clove (finely chopped), 25g butter, 2 tbsp olive oil, 1 litre stock and 1 tbsp brown sugar.

Next, In a saucepan, heat a the butter with the olive oil over a medium heat, then add the garlic and onions. Cook them for about 5 minutes or until they become soft and begin to brown.

Add the stock, brown sugar and bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and blitz with a hand blender until smooth, then adjust the seasoning to taste.

The soup is naturally creamy so there is no need to add cream.

Serve into soup bowls and enjoy.

Autumn reflections – with a comforting hummus dish

I think the Autumnal time of year is a great opportunity to cosy up with friends and family and share food which is a little bit more comforting than we might do in Spring or Summer – foods like mackerel, chicken casserole, spinach, kale, beetroot, pumpkin and other root vegetables (oven-roasted).

Don’t get me wrong; I love the Autumn for what it is, especially the vibrant orange colours of the leaves on  the trees against the dusk skies – see below – and the briskness, crispness and freshness that we experience most mornings in the UK. Autumn skies

I recently posted a blog on how to make homemade falafel and I posted another blog on making your own dips for entertaining a crowd.

The purpose of this blog is to delve, once more, into Middle Eastern cuisine, with a recipe for creamy hummus – something I’ve always found to be a good accompaniment to vegetable or meat dishes.

Homemade courgette (zucchini) hummus with spices

Grilled courgette (zucchini)

Grilled courgette (zucchini)

I was fumbling around in the vegetable box receently thinking what might make a decent hummus recipe. Courgette’s (Zucchini) are one of my favourite vegetables and are pretty versatile – so I settled with that.

Grilled, fried or roasted, the courgette is blitzed in a food processor with chickpeas (garbanzo beans), aduki beans, fresh garlic, tahini (sesame paste), lemon juice, herbs, spices and extra-virgin olive oil.

It can be eaten hot or cold.

You can use it as a dip for pitta bread, spread it on a wrap or pair it with roasted vegetables and any meat dish.

Hummus complete


It’s gluten-free, low-carb and vegan friendly. Nutritionally, it also has a decent amount of protein and fibre.


Chickpeas (garnazo beans), aduki beans and tahini

Chickpeas (garnazo beans), aduki beans and tahini

  • 1 courgette (Zucchini) – grilled, fried or roasted
  • 400g can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained
  • 400g can aduki beans, drained
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 4 tbsp tahini (sesame paste)
  • ½ tsp salt, more to taste
  • ½ tsp cracked pepper

    Ingredients for hummus (clockwise from top - chickpeas and aduki beans, courgette, spices, lemon, garlic and coriander leaf)

    Ingredients for hummus (clockwise from top – chickpeas and aduki beans, courgette, spices, lemon, garlic and coriander leaf)

  • 1 tsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 4 tbsp coriander or more fresh herbs
  • 1 tbsp olive oil


  • Cut courgette into ½ inch thick strips, brush with a little olive oil and grill on medium heat until charred and tender.
  • (Alternately courgette may be roasted in the oven until tender. If you have very large zucchini with thick skin, you can half it lengthwise, roast in the oven and then scoop out the flesh, leaving the skin out, if necessary)
  • Place the grilled courgette along with the rest of the ingredients (except the oil, coriander herb and 2 tbsp of the chickpeas and aduki beans) in a food processor, and puree until relatively smooth.
  • Serve it in a bowl, making a little circular “well” using a spoon, and drizzle a little olive oil in the well.
  • Garnish with the 2 tbsp chickpeas and aduki beans and mix in the coriander herb.
  • Serve either warm or chilled.

Blitz hummus

Blitz hummus

Blitzed with coriander

Hummus blitzed with coriander


Cauliflower cous cous

It’s funny how some foods are being repurposed nowadays to appear to be something they’re clearly not. The latest such innovation to catch my eye is this “copycat” cous cous recipe.

Cauliflower cous cous

Cauliflower cous cous

Cauliflower cous cous processor


OK – so it’s not actually cous-cous, which is traditionally made from steamed and dried durum wheat (and it’s not comfort food), but it is very tasty fried with a little butter or olive oil and garlic. It’s also a versatile lunch box option and the texture is almost spot on when comparing it to the real grain.

For me, cauliflower is a mainstay in our household. I love roasting it in oil and salt, which really brings out the flavour, but it’s interesting to try something different; I just never thought it would involve using a cheese grater or food processor (see right).

In the recipe below I’ve paired the cous cous with rice, quinoa and herbs into a sort of pilau.

Nuts, seeds (sesame, pumpkin, linseeds) are entirely optional, as is serving alongside a meat-based main like chicken, lamb or pork.

I hope you enjoy.


Serves 3 – 4

  • 1 head cauliflower, any size
  • 1tbsp olive oil or butter
  • 100g brown basmati rice
  • 100g quinoa
  • 500ml chicken or vegetable stock
  • 75g flat leaf parsley or coriander


  • Add the rice, quinoa and stock to a medium pan and bring to the boil. Reduce to a slight simmer and then cover with a lid and cook for 12-15 mins or until both are soft.
  • Meanwhile, cut the head of the raw cauliflower into quarters, then trim out the inner core from each quarter. Break apart the cauliflower into large Cauliflower cous cous blitzedflorets with your Cauliflower cous cous processed
    hands. If the core is tender, you can chip it into pieces and add it with the florets.
  • Transfer the cauliflower to a food processor and pulse the cauliflower until completely broken down. It’s best to do this in 1-2 second bursts until it appears “grainy” (Alternatively, grate the florets on the large holes of a box grater.)
  • Transfer the cauliflower couscous to another container and re-process any large pieces.
  • Cauliflower couscous can be used raw, which retains the texture,or it can be cooked: Cooking makes the cauliflower more tender and rice-like.
  • Warm a tablespoon of olive oil or butter in a large wide-based pan over medium heat. Stir for around 3 – 4 minutes then combine in a serving dish with the cooked rice and quinoa.




How to make homemade (baked) falafel

Falafels are a handy “store cupboard” meal for an easy weekday lunch or dinner. You can make a large batch and demolish them whenever takes your fancy – which, for me, would be for every meal.

Falafel Salad

The falafel patties will keep for several days in the fridge. Having said that, they do start to crumble and dry out the longer you leave them. If this happens just drizzle some extra oil over the patties before baking.

The recipe below is for a colourful salad – but you can easily turn the patties into mini burgers and stuff them into pitta bread with sliced tomato, rocket and fried red onion. Just a suggestion.

Serves 4


For the falafelHomemade Falafel

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 1 x 400g can chickpeas
  • 1 x 400g can mixed beans (kidney, borlotti and black eyed beans)
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp mixed herbs
  • 1 lemon, zest grated
  • 2 tbsp chopped coriander (herb)
  • Salt and pepper,
  • 1 tbsp chickpea flour OR 1 egg (for binding the ingredients together)

For the salad

  • 2 tbsp red cabbage mayonnaise
  • 1/2 red onion, sliced
  • 2 x red and yellow pepper, sliced
  • a handful of rocket
  • 1 tomato, sliced thinkly
  • 1/2 small cucumber, chopped
  • 1 tspb jalepeno peppers


  • Heat a tablespoon of oil in a small pan. Fry the onion over a medium heat for 3-4 minutes until softened. Add the garlic and fry for a further two minutes and remove from the heat.
  • Drain and rinse the chickpeas and mixed beans and transfer to a mixing bowl. Add the sautéed onion and garlic and crush together with a potato masher until the mixture is broken down.
  • Add the cumin, mixed herbs and lemon zest and mix well. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Add the flour / egg and mix together.
  • Preheat the oven to 200C. Divide the mixture into 16 walnut-sized balls and place on a non-stick baking tray.
  • Rest in the fridge for 20-30 minutes.
  • Remove the falafel from the fridge, drizzle with the remaining oil and bake for 25 minutes, or until crisp and golden-brown. Turn occasionally to ensure even cooking.
  • For the salad, arrange the ingredients on a plate with sliced (cooked) falafel placed on top.