May 11, 2013

A Taste of Home

The following article was published in Latin Patty-O. Click here to view the original version.

When I think about what it means to be Dominican, a most beautiful parade of bright colors, uniquely enticing sounds, delicious aromas and mouth-watering flavors immediately overflow my senses. Dominican people love the good life and in that, we’re not particularly different from other Latino cultures. Unlike the Swiss, we’re not that bothered about keeping track of time and we certainly don’t self-flagellate like the English when we have been naughty. We like to hang out, dance, make fun of each other, arrive late, drink rum, play dominos and overly exaggerate when we retell stories. Some wear their chancletas with socks and others without, but there are two things we all share in common no matter what the color of our skin, level of education or social status: the unquestionable belief that Juan Luis Guerra is one the greatest Dominican musicians of all time, a poet and national hero, and our unconditional love of plantains.

I have never met a Dominican person who does not love their plátanos. If you want to get one excited, as long as you have plenty of time on your hands, just ask in how many ways it is possible to eat a plantain. Their eyes will light up instantly. Watch them salivate as they begin to count the ways: asado, frito, sancochado, maduro, troceado, mangú, pastelón, tostones, chelitos, platanitos, mofongo, al caldero, rellenos, en el sancocho, majao al pilón, con mantequilla o aceite de oliva, bacalao, arenque, berenjenas guisadas, chicharrón, pica pollo, con un quesito frito, longaniza, huevos, salchicón, con el aguacatico y su escabeche por encima. The list goes on and on. You might even get a call couple of weeks later talking about how they’ve just remembered another way.

We literally eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even as a snack mid morning, afternoon or late night. I would not dare exaggerate. Ever heard the saying "Dominicans Don't Play"? To put it in perspective, plantains are to us what pasta is to Italians or potatoes are to the English. They are a major food staple in most Dominican households and a fundamental component of our national identity. So it is no surprise when a foreigner has been living in the country for a while, long enough to assimilate our ways, learn the slang and in rare cases, actually move their hips to the rhythm, they are said to be aplatanao, or plantain-like, meaning they have been “dominicanized”.

Plantains are believed to have originated in Southeast Asia and their history can be traced as far back as 500 B.C., by which time they were being cultivated in India. From there they found their way into Africa through Madagascar. It is said Alexander the Great was the first to introduce them into Europe around 327 B.C.

Nearly a couple thousand years later, plantains were introduced in the Caribbean and eventually the rest of the New World. I read somewhere that a Franciscan monk, who had come in contact with the fruit in the Canary Islands, brought it to Santo Domingo for the first time in 1516. I was mind blown. Considering that plantains are so inherent to our national culture, one would be inclined to think they have been on the island for thousands of years. In a similar way as one would think Italians have been eating tomato sauce since before Christ, when in actual fact, tomatoes are native to South America and were not introduced into Italy and the rest of Europe until sometime in the 16th century.

Apparently, plantains have a high nutritional content. Go figure. They are a good source of carbohydrate and dietary fiber, as well as Vitamin A, B6 and C, potassium, magnesium and phosphate. They contain very little sugar and fat when green, but as they ripen, the starch turns into sugar. All I know is that they are really tasty, although I can imagine for someone having them for the first time, it may well take some getting used to. It is a somewhat acquired taste. The flavor and texture are not easy to describe.

Plantains are in season all year round, so they are abundant, cheap, nutritious and filling, a winning combination in a developing country. I’d say they practically fall from trees in the Dominican Republic, but that would be incorrect because contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a plantain tree. The correct classification would be “herbaceous plant”, though this particular herb can reach up to 20 feet. It multiplies like bad weed. We're one of the world’s top producers of plantains. For such a tiny island, in comparison with other big producers, that’s pretty impressive, and probably a lot of plátanos per capita.

For those of us living abroad, eating plantains helps to remind us of who we are and where we come from. It’s comfort food, a taste of home. Although, no matter how much you think you have perfected your mangú-making technique, it always tastes infinitely better when your mother makes it for you. In that respect, I’m lucky to have mine living abroad with me.

They say eating too much plantain makes people dumb. Frankly, I don’t know if there is any truth to this statement, and in fact, I’m not even sure that’s at all possible, but if it were, it’d be a small price to pay. As long as we can have our plantains.


September 21, 2012

A Morning Hike

And just like that.. She's back :)

Once more, I must apologize for not having written in such a long time. A week after I got back to Barcelona from my last little adventure in England, I got on yet another flight to go home to Dominican Republic, where I spent nearly two months surrounded by dear loved ones. It was quite challenging to write while I was there. The difficulty having less to do with finding the time, and more with actually being able to focus on it, or anything at all for that matter. As for the last two months, I've been profoundly busy planning my next moves and making some critically important decisions. Excuses? Yup, probably.

But I'm here now and have a lot to share with you all. I will get into it soon enough, but before I do and since most of you already know that I'm in Mallorca, I'd like to tell you about a most exciting little adventure I had this morning.

I haven't been able to sleep much in the past couple of months. During certain periods in my life, and these come and go from time to time, my mind is so congested with thoughts that sleeping is just not an option unfortunately. Normally what keeps me up at night is stress caused by daily predicaments and then of course, the habitual and ever-present existencial concerns. But this particular episode has been surprisingly different. These days, it is mainly excitement that keeps my brain in overdrive. Much going on, plenty to do, and as usual, so little time. No matter how late I go to bed, I manage to be up and about just a few hours later; Doing, thinking, calling, planning, reading. It is during these times more than ever, that I secretly wish there were more than 24 hours in the day.

So I woke up at the crack of dawn this morning with one very special purpose. The other day while cycling into the nearby town of Pollença, I noticed a sign by the road that pointed to an organic farm shop. You all know how much I love my organic free-range eggs, whenever possible straight out of the hen's ass and into my kitchen. And so, I set off on some sort of a quest to buy a dozen eggs from this local shop. It would have been quicker to take the bicycle but I thought why not go for a nice walk instead. Turned out to be an undoubtedly long one but in the end, every minute of it was worth the effort.

It took me about one and a half hours to get there. Apart from a couple of cars, the odd truck and a few enthusiastic cyclists, I had the road pretty much to myself, which gave me the opportunity to fully appreciate the exquisite surroundings. I felt a bit like a Chinese tourist in New York City with camera in hand, except I was taking pictures of orange groves, olive trees and stray sheep.

It happens more often than not these days, that I suddenly realize I'm smiling like a five-year old in a candy shop, sometimes for no apparent reason at all. On this particular occasion though, as it turned out, I had plenty to be blissful about. And in this brief moment, utterly and completely captivated by the grandiosity of nature, just little ol' me and the empty road ahead, I realized what life is all about, and for me, that was precisely it. At least in that very moment, which then was “now”. A most inexplicable and overwhelming feeling of gratitude took over my entire being and brought tears to my eyes. Not once or twice, but actually a few times during the walk. I've been having that feeling a lot in the past couple of years but even more so during the last one. My grandfather once said to me that when one begins to develop this virtue called “gratitude” it probably means that they are somewhat advanced in their spiritual journey and personal development process. This must be confirmation, I hope, that I am, at worse, on the right path.

Once I arrived at the shop, it all went pretty damn quick. There were barely a dozen eggs left and they were tiny, but I took them all anyway. I started my walk back home and not five minutes had passed when I saw a car approaching from behind me. I didn't even think about it twice and put my thumb out. A very nice German gentleman by the name of Gabriel, who turned out to be the owner of the agriturismo next door (Can Guillo), brought me all the way back, even though I insisted it was not necessary since we passed his place on the way to mine. It was amazing to see how much two people can talk about in such a short period of time. He gave me his son's number who runs the agriturismo and I promised to call tomorrow so that I can arrange a visit over there. Pretty much my first hitchhiking experience and considering where I am and the fact that I do not plan to buy a car anytime soon, it will probably not be my last. Yes father, I promise to be careful.

I'll leave you with a few pictures from the excursion taken with my shitty camera, and so, they only do a half decent job in capturing the majestic scenery I was able and grateful to experience with my very own eyes.

Until next time..!

Not a cloud in the sky.

Just me and the empty road ahead..

Would not mind living in one of these

Orange groves and olive fields

More orange groves and olive trees.. Can we say Mediterranean?

Finally arrived at my destination!

My 11 organic free-range straight-out-the-hen's-ass eggs :)


March 25, 2012

The Good, the Bad and the Dirty

After reading my last post about a typical day at the farm, you should now have a basic understanding of how I spend my days here. I nearly included descriptions of some of the specific projects I’ve been working on but the post was getting a bit lengthy so I decided to give them a post of their own.

There is always so much work to do here and half the fun is not really knowing what will be thrown my way in any given day. I've collected a few examples of some of the jobs I did this last week.

Cows on the Move

Every so often, the cows need to be moved from one field to another basically because they have depleted their food supply. Apart from grass and forage, cows are usually allowed to eat a certain amount of leftover crops that remain after previous harvest. The only way to make sure they don’t eat it all in a matter of hours is to use a lightly electrified fence to restrict the area they can graze on. So one of the main jobs is to take down the fencing in one field and put it back up in the other one. The fence will need to be moved over a couple of feet twice a day, and that goes on until they munch through the entire field and need to be moved on to the next one. As we arrived at the field, Big Boss warned us to be really quiet so as not to draw too much attention and even had to shush us a few times. I thought he was being a bit over dramatic but as soon as the cows noticed the activity going on, they got all happy and worked up. They knew they were being moved and in anticipation of new pastures, could not hide their excitement. All thirty cows crowded around the gate, pushing and shoving each other out the way. All elbows and knees at this point. As soon as we opened the gate, they stormed off. Quite a lot of prep work involved, but the actual moving process took less than a minute. Cows are hard work but they taste so delicious.

Images: Impatiently waiting and on the move

Leeks Underground

This was one of the most strenuous jobs I’ve done so far here, and possibly even anywhere. It was also one of the most fulfilling at the end of the day. The soil in this polytunnel had been prepared nearly a month ago but no one had gotten around to planting anything yet. Weed was starting to grow everywhere so the land needed preparing again. First, I hand-ploughed the entire plot in order to move the soil around and get rid of the pesky weed, and then I evened out the surface with a rake. The next day, my whole body felt like a truck had run over it. Next, I measured out and marked where the rows needed to be, about one foot apart so that seeds have plenty of space to grow and we have enough room to work. Using the edge of a wooden plank, I ploughed shallow trenches into which I planted the seeds and then covered the trenches again using the same soil. Finally, I gave them a good soaking. I was exhausted when I finished but felt a deep satisfaction. It might have been one of those days in which I could not even bother to shower before passing out in bed. Does happen sometimes out here. Last I checked, my leeks were starting to come up. I have yet to harvest anything that I’ve planted but I can only imagine the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment I would get from eating the fruits of my labor.

Images: Before and after land preparation

Capitalizing on Oregano

One of the polytunnels has oregano growing wildly around one of its sides and as a result there are lots of “satellite” shoots popping out of the ground everywhere. Last Friday we undertook a little experiment to try digging out some of the shoots and replanting them into pots to see whether they survived. I checked them today and they seem to be bouncing back nicely. In a matter of weeks, we’ll have a bunch of oregano plants that can be sold to clients in cute little pots for at least one pound fifty. Alternatively, the little fellas would have become part of the soil after plowing when we prepare the earth for the next crops.

My Fragrant Babies

This is what it all boils down to, the reason why I’m here in the first place. I realize that I may not put a dent on world hunger with a few trays of basil, coriander and dill but I’m learning the basic notions of growing food, one of the most important aspects in the quest to becoming self-sufficient. I haven’t found out why yet, but many seeds need to be sown in trays until they produce the first few real leaves before they are planted. Others need larger individual pots and some can be sown straight in the ground. Seeding is not rocket science. The trays are filled to about three quarters with sterile compost, which basically means there is nothing growing in it that might compete with the seedlings for soil and nutrients. The compost is pushed down gently to make it nice and even. The best way to do this is by placing another tray of the same size on top and pushing down. Some seeds need their own compartment, while others are sown in bunches, especially when they are old or have been hanging out inside an open packet for too long. Another inch of soil goes on top and then it is pushed down again to compact it. Probably best to do this with the backs of the fingers. Finally, the seeds need to be watered, which is often the trickiest part because they require just the right amount. Too little or too much will kill them. A good method is to sprinkle water until the soil looks shiny. Other seeds I’ve sown so far include lettuce, cucumber, aubergines, courgettes, tomatoes, beet, peppers, nasturtiums and runner beans.

Images: Seeds going in trays and the first of the babies

Not all jobs are fun and games. Yesterday, there was a rodent-killing bonanza here at the farm. It was time to move the chicken houses. Apart from laying eggs all day, chicken manure (nice word for shit really) is a natural fertilizer so they are often used in small farms to prepare the land before cultivating. Chickens help move the soil around, and also aid in weed and pest control, as they continuously scratch the ground in search for worms and insects to eat. Having done their job in one field, they were ready to be moved on to the next. Three out of four of the chicken houses are old trailers that have been converted into chicken coups, so they were quite easy to move. The fourth one however was a proper wooden shed, which was sitting on the ground. Apparently, a large number of rats had decided to build a nest underneath it. The same rats that had a feast a couple of weeks ago with the mizuna (a Japanese salad herb) I planted in one of the polytunnels near by, so I suppose you can understand what needed to be done.

Big Boss came around asking for volunteers but I did not have the heart to step up to the plate on this occasion. I went outside as they were all walking off; Shovels, spades, pitch forks and pick axes slung over their shoulders. It looked like a scene from an old western movie. I watched them until they disappeared from sight and went back inside to carry on with my work cleaning eggs. Somebody had to do it. The next part of the story is a compilation of bits and bobs I gathered from their exciting post-war accounts. This is how it all went down. They surrounded the chicken house with netting all the way down to the floor, except for where the tractor was attached to the coup. As soon as the tractor pulled it out of the way, the netting was closed into a tight circle. Perhaps the word arena would be more appropriate in this case. On the ground below, there was an intricate maze of holes that were obviously interconnected because as soon as they began digging out some of these holes, rats started popping up everywhere only to find they had no where to go.

I was told the massacre lasted a matter of minutes. Big Boss got the most, with 8 out of a total body count of 23, including 7 or 8 younglings. He really hates rats and I suppose he would be the one most worried about the damage they were causing to his property. Apparently he got so excited at one point, while trying to murder one of the big rats desperately weaving around his feet, that he nearly hacked his foot off with a shovel. A narrow escape though his boot was completely destroyed. Perhaps one day if I have my own farm, I will be left with no choice but to partake in my share of rodent genocide. Not this time though. This is definitely one job I did not volunteer for.

Please keep in mind that I’m new to farming so my explanations have been fairly simple. Then again, I imagine it is all quite foreign to you as well, so we could call this Farming 101.


March 21, 2012

A Typical Day in the Life of Little Miss Zaura

Now that I’ve explained my motives for coming out here in the first place on this introductory post and have told you a bit about the farm and surrounding area on this last one, I think it is time we get down to real business. You must still be wondering what on God’s name I do all day, so I will attempt to walk you through a typical day for me here at the farm.

On weekdays, my alarm goes off at 6:25am. At 6:30am, I reach for my journal while still laying in bed and write for 15-20 minutes. I engage a little writing exercise known as freewriting, in which the objective is to get as much of one’s thoughts down on paper during a specified amount of time. Whatever pops out. No over analyzing or thinking and certainly no editing are allowed. I might write about a dream I had the night before or some of the people I’m interacting with on a daily basis. On other days, I write about something I might be concerned about, perhaps a specific job I’ll be taking on later that day or activities I have planned and maybe look forward to doing. I’m really pleased with the results I’ve had since I started doing freewriting and highly recommend for everyone out there to try it out. Apart from being a superb writing exercise, it also helps to reduce the clutter inside the mind, because once most thoughts are down on paper, they tend to stay there.

Once I finish the freewriting, I am ready to get up, wash up and throw on my work clothes. With somewhat of a clear mind, I spend the next 10 to 15 minutes meditating. I’ve set up a special corner in my room with soft cushions especially for that purpose. My own little sanctuary. A few years ago back home, I enrolled in a Raja Yoga meditation course at the Brahma Kumaris Center that lasted several months. In a similar way to other types of meditation, Raja Yoga is about embarking on a journey inward and spending a little time with oneself, in the hopes of gaining a clearer spiritual understanding and rediscovering some of the positive qualities and virtues we already posses. It is an invaluable tool that enables us to develop our strengths of characters and create new attitudes and responses to the challenges life throws our way every day. On most days, I follow one of the BK guided meditations I’ve downloaded on the Internet. Each one deals with a specific topic. When I’m feeling adventurous, I freestyle it. Sometimes while playing soft music in the background, other times while listening to the sound of birds happily chirping away in the early morning. Feels great spending a little time getting to know oneself.

At around 7:30am I head over to the pack house, where we have the kitchen for common use and I have a cup of green tea, first of the day (don't forget, this IS England!), and a substantial healthy breakfast. Work starts at 8am and in theory finishes at 1pm when we all sit down for lunch.

The type of work varies depending on the day. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are box delivery days. For the first few hours in the morning, I’m usually responsible for preparing what we refer to as the “miscellaneous” orders. Most clients receive a standard box, which contains whatever fruit/veg we decide to send out in any given week, depending on what we have a lot of and is being harvested at the moment. However, some of the clients have particular requests that we treat as a special order. The work is enjoyable and pretty straightforward, especially once you begin to get to know specific clients’ tastes. I grab a basket and start chucking all sorts of things in there so it kind of feels like shopping.

We try to pick, weigh and bag most of the vegetables we’ll need for the week’s boxes on Mondays so I often help with that. Picking is one of the jobs I enjoy doing the most, especially on warm sunny days. Fridays I usually spend most of the morning making jams, marmalade, chutneys and other preserves. As most of you already know, cooking is one of my favorite things to do so this job doesn’t really feel like a job at all. Fridays are also good days to finish jobs that were started and not completed earlier in the week, as well as cleaning and organizing the kitchen and the other workspaces.

When I’m not picking vegetables, preparing special orders or making jam, I’m usually out in one of the fields doing whatever needs doing. There is always so much to do here and the jobs vary widely. Typical jobs range from collecting, cleaning and boxing eggs, to planting or transplanting vegetables, weeding, watering and sowing seeds in trays. If the big boss is having a particularly good day, he might even let me drive the tractor for a little while and do some ploughing on the fields.

After lunch, I usually continue to work for a couple more hours, even though the arrangement is 5 hours (8am-1pm) in exchange for food and accommodation. At around 4:30-5pm I go for a run or a bicycle ride on this lovely cycle trail near the farm. When I get back from exercising, I have a shower and then do a little more writing. Dinnertime is normally at 7:30-8pm and then I check my email, maybe catch up with various people on Skype, and do other Internet-related stuff. Internet is one of those things I am not ready to give up just yet, and quite frankly, I’m not sure that I ever will. I try to get back to my room by 10:30pm although this is not always the case, because I quite enjoy a little reading before bedtime. I finally go to sleep, after a hard day’s work, sometime around 11:30pm or midnight.

My days may seem monotonous but I assure you they're not. I have not experienced one single minute of boredom since I arrived. On weekends, I usually “allow myself” a couple extra hours of sleep and quite a lot of free time to do as I please. I still do the freewriting, meditation and at least one hour of exercise during the day. Even on Sundays. Being the social butterfly that I am, I have inevitably made some local friends. Some of them quite special. So I’m never short of things to do really. This last weekend, I had the pleasure of hiking to the top of Brown Willy, Cornwall’s highest peak. Don’t get too excited now, this is England. No real mountains here. It was not terribly challenging to reach the summit at a mere 420 meters of altitude, but I cannot complain. I was surrounded by the beautiful English countryside, so deliciously green and luscious, and I do most certainly enjoy a bit of outdoor action.

As nights get shorter, days longer, and the temperature warmer, the farm seems to spring to life, and my experience gets better and better with each day that passes. Writing about my adventures and sharing it with all with you is the cherry on top. I haven’t even published this one and I’m already looking forward to writing the next one. Until then, I bid you all a fair adieu, but not before leaving you with an image of Brown Willy's majestic summit.


March 20, 2012

Cusgarne Organic Farm in Cornwall

Before I get into all the fun stuff I’ve been up to here, I thought I’d tell you all a little about the farm and the surrounding area.

Cusgarne Organic Farm is in a small village called Cusgarne, contained within a valley that shares the same name, located just about in the middle of a triangle formed by the three larger towns/cities of Falmouth, Truro and Redruth, in the heart of Cornwall. Cornwall is the furthest west of the four counties that make up the southwest region of England. A slender sliver of land, which is surrounded by coast except for the bit on the east side where it is cut off from Devon, the next county over by the River Tamar. So it is quite isolated from the rest of mainland England, which accounts for its strong cultural identity. Cornwall is well known for its breathtaking beaches, many a surfer’s paradise, and beautiful coasts full of dramatic cliffs and quaint little fishing villages, so it is no surprise that it is considered the “nation’s favorite getaway”.

The farm has been fully organic since 1988. They grow over 60 varieties of vegetables on 30 acres of land. For the last 20 years, they have been running a successful organic fruit/vegetable box scheme, currently delivering something like 150 boxes per week, in and around the surrounding area. A lot of the produce is grown in the farm but a good amount is also bought in, especially during the colder months when invariably less growing takes place. The objective is to be able to provide customers with variety all year round; otherwise they’d mostly get potatoes, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage and kale during the winter. They also have seven good-sized polytunnels, which extend the length of the growing season as well as the range of crops that can be produced. These make it possible to grow vegetables that require warmer temperatures. Some of which could almost be considered delicacies during the winter: lettuce, spinach, rainbow chard, rocket and leeks, among others. And as such, the prices sky rocket.

Still, a lot of the products are bought in to satisfy the demand for variety. We all know how we as consumers love to have choice and variety. A big effort is made to purchase as local as possible but this is not always the case. A lot of the produce is grown in the UK, in some cases much further away. I mainly see boxes with origin from Spain and Italy, like in the case of oranges, lemons, avocados, tomatoes, aubergines and courgettes. I was surprised to find out recently that the bananas come from Dominican Republic. I always assumed they came from somewhere perhaps closer like the Canary Islands or Africa, but I suppose when making such decision there are other factors to consider other than how far it must travel, one of the most important being good quality/price relation. But hey, at least the bananas are fair-trade! I can only be pleased for my Dominican campesinos back home, although one has to wonder how much actually goes into their pockets at the end of the day.

There are also about 30 free-range Angus cows that graze on 50 acres of grass and forage, more coming soon as we’ve recently found out nearly all of them are pregnant, and a little over 300 free-range hens that lay eggs. Apart from the vegetable crops and the animals, they have a mixed fruit orchard and lots of berries in the summer, from which they press apples to make into their own brand of apple juice, cider for our own consumption, and also prepare all sorts of jams, chutneys and preserves. There is a shop open to clients at the front of the pack house, where the range of products is completed with dried goods like flour, rice, oats, musli, tea, just to mention a few, as well as cleaning liquids and other household supplies. All products are organic and/or bio friendly.

The owners of the farm are a sweet hard-working English couple. I’ve never really asked their age but I estimate he is somewhere in his mid fifties and she is in her late forties. His family has been in Cusgarne for more than 200 years and although they still own quite a large amount of land, some of it has been sold off over the years. Father passed away, not sure how long ago, but Mother is still going strong at 90 something. She lives in the old Cusgarne House across the street and usually comes in on Saturdays to get her vegetables for the week. She is about as sweet and charming as they get. They have three daughters who are all in their early twenties and have gone off to university, but they come back home from time to time. Looks like the middle daughter is the only one that has decided to take on the family trade. She’s nearly finishing her degree in Agricultural Studies but I’m not sure whether she will come back home and help run things here or if she might very well prefer to do her own thing. It’s only an assumption, but I think the sort of stuff she is learning about in school will be mainly focused on intensive farming methods, very little to do with what her father has built here.

All in all, I have to say that I feel pretty at home here. Without a shadow of a doubt, I chose my farm well. In my next post, I’ll start telling you about some of the stuff I’ve done since I’ve been here. Maybe even walk you through a typical day here at the farm. If you haven’t read the last post, where I talk about the reasons for coming here, doing so would probably not be a bad idea.

Here are some images taken at the farm and around Cornwall:

The fields.

Lovely spinach and rainbow chard in one of the polytunnels.

A few of our chickens.

Myself weeding lettuce in another one of the polytunnels.

One of the beautiful beaches in Kynance Cove, Cornwall.


March 12, 2012

The Simple Life

It’s been a long time since I write. During the past couple of months, I’ve thought of a number of bullshit excuses to give but in the end decided to skip that whole thing, get right into it again as if I’ve been here the whole time. I cannot even begin to explain how liberating this decision was for me. As my dear friend Mischa will often sing to me without ever failing to put a smile on my face: Whatta feeeeeeeeling! Keep believing. Sure enough as a result, I find myself here, actually excited about writing again. If only I’d realized a little sooner it would be as easy as that. So now that the words seem to be flowing again, I can finally begin to tell you all about my latest little adventure.

I have always been a very curious soul and only just recently realized that the need to placate this insatiable curiosity has been, and will likely always be, one of the main driving forces behind most of the decisions I’ve made in life. It is a big part of the reason why I do the things I do. Whether as simple as trying a new sport, hobby, dish, meditation or philosophy course, or as life changing as moving halfway across the world or traveling to far off exotic lands. I’m also quite adventurous, which results in an interesting combination. One for which I am more often thankful than not. It makes life a hell of a lot more exciting, gives it meaning and keeps me moving towards what I like to think is forward. What the point of it all is, I’m not exactly sure. Who knows. Still trying to figure that part out, as many of us are. In the “meantime”, I’m going to make sure I experience life as fully as possibly, without consciously or intentionally harming anyone. It has been a good ride thus far and the future is looking bright on most days.

Although for the most part I’ve always been a relatively conscious human being, I only started to develop a serious interest in sustainability and self-sufficiency sometime about 5 or 6 years ago. Probably not too long after I finally began to realize that I am not, after all, the center of the universe and that my problems, as serious as they seem, are ridiculously insignificant when compared to those we face as humanity as a whole. A concept that will most likely never truly sink in. Funny enough, as soon as I started to become more interested in the world around me and to concern myself with the greater good, most of my own problems seem to have faded away.

I have no doubt my interest and concern is genuine, and that I’m not just following another celebrity trend because it’s the cool thing to do nowadays. I did begin to ask myself recently, how much did I really know about sustainable living. For a few years now, I have been trying to eat as organic as budget will allow (in part also because I care enormously about my health and well being), buy local and seasonal, and recycle at home. In general, I try to be as responsible a consumer as possible. I've also read a lot and have watched countless documentaries on the subject, so like many other “city people”, I seemed to understand very well the theory behind it all but certainly not the practicalities. For some reason, it just didn’t seem like enough. I wanted to do more.

I still felt an enormous disconnection to the land, which for some reason, increased about tenfold every time I found myself walking up and down the aisles of a supermarket. Considering that at least 8 out of 10 are filled with jars, bottles, cans, bags and boxes, with about half an aisle destined for fresh produce, a butcher and deli counter if lucky, I could not help but to ask myself when and where did it all go wrong. The answer must surely lie somewhere between the rise of industrial capitalism and the advent of the green revolution but I will save that topic for a future blog entry. I often found myself thinking about how different it must have been just a couple of generations ago and how on earth our grandparents have adapted, let alone conform. But I suppose no one is safe from the evil claws of modern-day consumerism and big corp marketing campaigns.

One day I had this crazy idea to fuck off to the middle of nowhere for a few months and try living what I like to refer to as the simple life. I was interested in learning about what it really takes to live a more sustainable and self-sufficient lifestyle, and especially keen on gaining some practical knowledge and experience out in the "real" real world. By that I mean actually get down and dirty. I thought it would be interesting to find out if I could renounce the comforts of modern living and whether this is something I would be able to do long term. The question was, would I be able to cope when push comes to shove? Very soon I realized there was only one way to find out.

On the other hand, I viewed this as an opportunity to take a nice little break from city life and the constant struggle, stress and distractions we have come to regard as normal. Who the hell said this was the only way? I was looking forward to dedicating more time to myself and doing all those things I’d always wanted to do but never really had the time to do because I was usually too busy running around. Perhaps a little writing, reading, quiet reflection or meditation, exercise no doubt, or simply exploring and enjoying the beauty Mother Nature has to offer. And who knows, with a little extra time and peace of mind, even attempt to get in touch with my inner voice, listen to what it’s been trying to tell me all these years, and then maybe one day I can start to figure it all out. Although I must admit, I have nearly reached the conclusion that there is nothing to figure out to begin with.

I became more and more excited with this idea and, as a wise man -or woman- once said, where there is a will there is a way. Two weeks after the decision was made, I arrived at an organic farm in Cornwall, by far the most beautiful part of England and one of the most stunning areas I’ve ever come across.

There are no words to describe how amazing this experience has been so far, and it seems to only get better as the days pass. I’m learning so much and on so many different levels, but most importantly, I am terribly enjoying myself. Every day is a new adventure. I can only compare this feeling to that of growing up as a child. It almost feels like I’m having a second childhood. To be honest, I don’t recall having been this happy in a really long time and for the first time ever, I feel like I’m exactly where I need to be.

Most of you will have seen some of the pictures I’ve posted on Facebook, and have maybe even left a comment or two on there, so you can’t really accuse me of being a complete stranger. The idea was always to share my experiences on here and that is exactly what I intend to do in the next few entries. If you haven’t done so already, make sure you like the fan page for my blog on Facebook so that you get the updates.

I’m really hoping that you enjoy reading about my little adventures as much as I’m enjoying the experience myself. Perhaps you might even be inspired one day to consider setting off on your own amazing little adventure. As an aspiring writer and a fellow human being, I could not ask for more. But until you are ready to do that, I will gladly and happily allow you to see and explore the world through the eyes of Little Miss Zaura. For whatever it’s worth.

It feels good to be back. I’ve said it before and I’ll say over and over again. Writing makes me happy.


November 22, 2011

Discovering Belgium

If you read my last post, then you know this one is some sort of continuation, or better put, the first of many more to come on the subjects of my travel and culinary adventures at home and around the world.

I thought why not start with my latest adventure while still fresh in my mind. A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit Belgium for the first time. Few things in life get me so excited as the prospect of visiting a new country. Combine that with some culinary firsts and I'm quite literally in heaven. Although I must admit Belgium wasn't in my top 10 list of countries to visit in the near future. Not that I had anything against Belgium per se, but because there were probably 10 other countries I would have been more inclined to visit before. No offense intended to my dear Belgian friends. In retrospect, I knew very little about the country and its people. Had I known what I know now, I would have surely made more of an effort to visit sooner, especially as it is a very short flight away.

My trip to Belgium was centered around a potential business project but allowed plenty of time for leisure. As a matter of fact, my host was going to make sure I saw as much as possible during my short stay, so to ensure we made good use of my time there, the itinerary was more or less organized beforehand and sounded very promising. Like any good host, he was happy and more than willing to share with me what his country has to offer, especially as far as gastronomy, which I must admit I was extremely skeptical about. Even with its famously delicious chocolate and waffles, I would have never thought of Belgium as a top culinary destination in Europe. The thought doesn't seem so far fetched now considering Belgium is heavily influenced by French culture, which would have invariably rubbed off on its cuisine, and like it or not, French cuisine is one of the best in the world. Nevertheless, I was excited, relatively open-minded and looking forward to this new experience.

After a couple of unfortunate mishaps at the Barcelona airport, my flight finally arrived at Brussels airport a little over two hours after the scheduled time of arrival. We drove straight to Bruges, where we had a table booked at the 2-star Michelin restaurant of chef Gert De Mangeleer called Hertog Jan, which between the date of eating and the date of writing this article actually received a third star, the highest number of stars the guide can bestow on a restaurant. Some kick-off huh? If that's not considered a good start, I'm not sure what would be. Filled with anticipation, the one hour it took to get from Brussels to Bruges flew by, and the two hours it would take later that night to go from Bruges back to Mol, which is where I was staying, would be well worth it.

No matter what people say, the first (physical) impression counts, and this restaurant certainly passed, or more like aced the test. Just to begin setting the mood, imagine a charming, little old house out in the middle of nowhere, which apparently was originally built as a small inn, providing food and accommodation for travelers between the cities of Bruges and Zevenkerken. The first wow moment I remember was looking straight into the kitchen through big glass windows. I have a soft spot for those restaurants that offer a glimpse into the reality of a working kitchen, which they usually do through a glass window that separates it from the dining area. But this particular restaurant not only offered kitchen view from inside but also from outside the building. From at least 3 angles that I could see, inside and outside, if not a complete 360°. I forgot to go check around the back.

As soon as we walked in, we were greeted at the door by the charming hostess with a big bright smile who escorted us through the main dining area and to a more private table in a secluded corner. The inside of the restaurant had a very zen-like, elegant and minimalistic decor yet it felt amazingly warm and cozy. Probably a lot to do with the lighting as well, which in my opinion, was just right. The wooden floor was a dark shade of brown and done in a very interesting antique style that complimented perfectly the warm tones of beige on the walls and ceiling, and the crispy white linen on the tables, while offering a slight contrast to the stylish, more modern-looking brown leather chairs.

As soon as we sat down, they brought us water. But obviously not just any regular water because that would have been too boring and not 2-star worthy. This water had been purified using these special imported Japanese stones, which we could still see at the bottom of the water pitcher. Also on the table, a freshly baked loaf of bread, creamy homemade butter, delicious olive oil imported from the Motherland (Spain), maldon salt, and freshly ground pepper.

Funny how well I remember everything up to this point but once the procession began, producing one amazing dish after the next, my senses were overwhelmed in such a way that it would be difficult to remember specifics, not that I would even want to. I do remember the odd flavor, smell, texture, presentation and combination of ingredients, all perfectly arranged and harmonized like a Beethoven symphony, but most importantly, I remember how I felt during the meal. The great chefs like Ferran Adria understand that good food is all about evoking emotion and stimulating the senses. Let us not underestimate the importance of a careful selection of wines to compliment each dish perfectly, which the sommelier-manager-partner, Joachim Boudens, did beautifully.

As any true foodie would, I obviously took notes, pictures, and even asked for a copy of the menu and the wine list at the end of the meal. I could try to reconstruct it all for you but I would probably not be able to do the food, and therefore the restaurant, any justice. By the way, this was one of the longest meals of my life. We were at the restaurant for a little over four and a half hours and by the third dessert I could not bare to look at any more food. Not surprisingly, I still managed to eat the sweets they brought with our teas.

I had been particularly eager to try the cuisine at this restaurant after the waiter explained most of the products were sourced locally and in fact, most of the produce used was grown organically in their own vegetable garden out back. I'm a sucker for these things because I love eating organic fresh foods, like to know where my food comes from, and often favor sustainable, local and fair-trade. I'm one of those people who strongly belief that good-quality ingredients are the base for making amazing dishes. I was surprised to hear from my friend that a lot of restaurants in Belgium have their own vegetable gardens and that most people also grow fruits and vegetables in their home gardens. Belgium earned quite a few points for that in my book.

For some reason, I was inspired to dig deeper and find statistics about Michelin stars in Belgium. What can I say. Turns out Belgium is among the European countries with the most Michelin stars per capita. There are 133 restaurants in the Michelin Benelux 2012 Bib Gourmand List (Benelux is Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxemburg), out of which 22 were awarded their first star this year. Consider that Belgium is a tiny country with a total area of 30,528 km2 (about 20 km2 less than Dominican Republic!) and an estimated population of 11 million. That's a whole lot of good food per capita! According to an article on, Belgium has two cities in the list of top 20 most Michelin-stared cities in the world, which are Bruges and Namur. This is a great accomplishment considering that most Michelin stars are awarded in France and Japan. In this same list, France has the most cities with 6 in total and Japan is second with 4. To put it in perspective, Belgium has just as many cities in this top 20 as Spain and Italy, the US has only one (San Francisco), and the UK surprisingly has none. I can go on forever so let me stop myself now.

Of course, I didn't just eat in Michelin star restaurants while in Belgium, nor would I have wanted to. None of the other restaurants had much to envy their Michelin-stared cousins, in terms of quality of the food, menu composition, decor and service. In fact, the next night we ate at a restaurant called Helsen and at some point I complimented the waitress by saying if I was a Michelin star critic, they would surely get one star. For whatever it's worth. I was quite drunk by that point but I did mean it. She smiled, slightly bowed and thanked me.

On my last night there, we had the most amazing 6 or 8 course dinner (lost count at some point) cooked by a private chef. Again, one delicious dish after the other, superb wines and great company. What more can one ask for? The experience was even more special for me because the chef let me in the kitchen every time he was about to prepare a dish so that I could watch and potentially learn a few tricks. By now I'm sure you can imagine how much I'd enjoy something like that.

In general, I must say that I was astonished with the overall quality of food in Belgium. It could have been just luck, or my friend knew all the right spots, but basically every restaurant we walked into, even the sandwich shop on saturday for lunch, was of excellent quality.

Besides eating, it was nice to do a little sightseeing in the three major cities I visited: Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp. Just walking, enjoying the stunning and oh so charming architecture, and getting a feel for what it would be like to live there. Talking about architecture, apparently Brussels was at the forefront of the European Art Nouveau movement (referred to as Modernism in Catalonia) back when it all started in the early 1890s.

In the end, I would give my trip to Belgium two thumbs up. Wish I had two pairs of hands so I could give it four thumbs up! Sorry I just had to. Charlie Murphy skit with Rick James on the Dave Chappelle Show :) Definitely don't take my word for it and as I recommended in my last post, go and experience all this for yourself. I learned many wonderful things during my short stay there about the country and its people, the architecture and culture, political situation and of course, its gastronomy. But most importantly, this brief introduction on Belgium has inspired me to want to learn more about it so I'll definitely be going back. Besides, I still have to get to the bottom of the "french" fries conundrum, which according to local legend and just about anyone you ask there, were invented in Belgium, not France.