December 20, 2012

Recipe: Preserved Lemons

For one jar of preserved lemons:

(canning jar with plastic or rubber lid covering is best)
5 - 6 small organic or meyer lemons
sea salt (enough for stuffing a few T into each quartered lemon)
Cut the lemon from top to bottom in quarters, but not all the way through. Basically a cross at the top, all the way down, but not through. Stuff each quadrant with approx. 1 tablespoon of salt.
Put 5 – 6 lemons (however many will fit) into the jar and seal jar tightly.
Leave lemons on the kitchen counter for 3 weeks. Turn them upside down, then right side up every day. Can keep for up to one year in pantry or refrigerator.

After opening the jar, use a wooden spoon to scoop them out. (Avoid metal.)

December 10, 2012

Reasons to Visit India.

Everyone, including me has had reservations about India. It’s large. Daunting and Deep. It’s one of those places that intrepid travelers go. Those of us that are strong, curious, and unaffected by the extreme.

We have heard stories from our friends, and friends friends, about coming home with their lives forever changed. Perhaps they have even had a taste of enlightenment from studying with a guru or yoga master. Lost weight. Become vegetarian. Started wearing patchouli. I have nothing against patchouli. I like the smell and used it as a teenager, emulating those my sister’s age, who had made the great trek in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

When I think back to the that time, it was revolutionary. Our minds did change. We got a glimpse of how the other side approached life, what they ate, how they behaved and related to each other in a completely different culture from our own. Yet, it seemed further than far… east. A place if you went, you would not come back the same.

In 2004, I had the great pleasure of visiting India for the first time. I did not go as a back-packer. I did not go to study with a spiritual master. I went at the invitation of a friend of a friend, who wanted to set me straight about India.

Mohan, I later realized, is a man of power. A young, vivacious entrepreneur, with insight and finesse in the travel business. From the start, I realized that I was not only in good hands, but I was going to see a different India than I had heard of from my friends.

As a constant traveler, I am used to roughing it. I have grown accustomed to changes, transitions and the unpredictable. What was not used to, is the level of attention that I got from Mohan and his staff. No one likes to end up in a foreign country, jet lagged, in a time zone eight hours different than your own, not speaking the language or knowing where to go. I was met at the gate, taken to the baggage counter, then consequently taken to be dropped off with a private driver who took me to my hotel, where I was greeted by the manager. No matter who you are, tell me, is there anyone who wouldn't appreciate this?

A smartly dressed door man greeted me with a salute. His plume fluffed in the air. From then on, everything in India seemed to glide as if skiing down a perfectly long and gentle slope in the afternoon sunlight. The first stop: The Imperial Hotel, a lovely place to lay one’s head after a revitalizing ayurvedic treatment from the spa. It sniffs of the old Raj, but in modern days boasts a time gone by, still available in present time. This was only the beginning.

When I mention India, most people express reservations like, “I’m afraid of the poverty.” Or the other extreme, “I don’t want to stay in a hotel that might cut me off from reality.” My answer to these questions are quite elaborate. From my experience, I can tell you, that neither is a reason not to visit India.

Poverty is a big subject. It exists in the world in a grave way, and more than likely right in our backyards. There are people that live with very little, people that live in horrid conditions, and people that are compromised. It is our right to know how our fellow humans are living. In a country of 1.2 billion people in the 7th largest country in the world at 1, 269,000 square miles, there is more than a fine number of people that also live well. Their simple or sophisticated lives no different that what you see in our own country.

India has a climate variation from the Himalayas, almost to the equator. It is a country of contrasts and extremes. It is also elegant, regal, inspirational and mystical. The country is also having a heyday in technology. The cities are large and filled with an educated and sophisticated lot.

As I look forward to my next trip, I feel goose bumps. There is a way of life, not unlike Europe, that centers around a rhythm of the day. Family is golden and meals are the glue. I can smell the spices tempering in oil, see a lovely table set with various bowls of goodness and look forward to getting my hands washed, ready to gather rice with dahl, mixing in a tasty vegetable with a touch of mango pickle and popping it into my mouth. Noticing the intimate contact of finger to mouth. There is a softness and gentleness to the people in general, and a sense of humor that keeps you on your toes. As a nation, 75% of Indian people believe in karma, the law of cause and effect. This keeps them mindful of their actions. A greeting is a warm "Namaste" (I see the God within you) with folded hands in prayer position, in the marketplace and on the street. Not just after a yoga class.

India has something special. A religious melting pot that shows us that people can live together with diversity. A Muslim, Hindu and Christian can work in small quarters because at heart, they are Indian. Their sense of hospitality is legendary. “We treat our guests like a God.” There does seem to be something over and above the general “in service to.” There is not too much in the way when making contact. Not based on ceremony, their presence is open and intelligent. They are curious and kind.

Above all, the aesthetic of the old palaces reek of another époque. We are escorted everywhere with the utmost respect. We rub shoulders with royalty and find them quite approachable and no different that ourselves. We are bathed in a sea of colorful sari’s from the street sweeper to the sweet seller. Every woman carries herself with dignity. The children’s eyes are flashes of light. We absorb buckets of love from walking around such a place and give back by receiving and bearing witness.

This trip is an opportunity not only to see the Taj Mahal, painted elephants, lake palaces and lotuses floating in a pond. It’s an opportunity to see through our concepts and feel the depth of your heart in a way that only India can open.

November 25, 2012

Down Home

Even during a crisp November, the Alabama air was cool and humid. The skies were often grey and the ground, a wet looking brown. A sense of melancholy hung on the bare trees like something was missing.

Sitting on Aunt Siddy's porch 1980's

It took two hours to drive from Albertville to Ashland in Clay county.

Every Sunday we hitched the wagon and off we would go. (Well, at least that's what it felt like.) It was a given and the thought of it made me nauseous. A small child's love-hate of something that had to be done: curvy roads, travel away from home, but knowing that love and good food was at the end.

Highway 77 is a two-lane road, running through rural countryside and small towns. We stopped in Rainbow City religiously for a soft swirl ice cream. We passed church after church with billboards professing the second coming and often hilarious quotes like, "Gossip is like an old shoe, everything wears out except for the tongue", and "America needs a faith lift." We passed large land holdings with cattle and played cow poker. Coca-cola was my drink du jour and kept the carsickness at bay. So did listening to country music and gospel on the radio.

November 6, 2012

Where do you find Ordinary Magic?

The Chhatra Sagar luxury tent village, India: Tasting Royal Rajasthan

"Another incredible place! They took Ann Coffaro and I on a guided bird walk. I saw one hundred and twenty new birds in India. My favorite was the Bee-eater. Talk about birding in style! A porter to carry the scope and refreshing drinks on a tray at the end of the trail." 
~ Tara O'Leary, India 2012.

Each time I visit India, I find myself slipping between the veils of past and present, of luxury and the ordinary. I am reminded how thin the line is between the extraordinary and the everyday. 

Devi Garh is my favorite hotel of the program, an 18th century palace fort that royally commands the valley and looks out over the Aravalli hills. Bo-chic in style, its modern interiors are minimalist, austere five-star elegance, a bit "Indian Zen."
The surrounding natural landscape offers solace. The colorful village below, with intermittent baby blue houses, offers charm. I learned the motive for this brilliant color is two-fold: the paint keeps insects away and also praises lord Krishna. On my first visit to this divine place, I left the fairy tale world of the palace hotel, the bathtubs filled with rose petals and airy verandas, and went for a walk in the village down the hill. 

Barefoot shop owners sat before scales on old wooden counters or on the floor. Some were turbaned, some not. We nodded hello to each other as I passed. W
omen carried food or water jugs on their heads, gliding gracefully in their saris, as vibrantly colored as the fruits and vegetables spread out on blankets and carts. The village astrologer sat on the corner, dressed in red next to a sky-blue wall, waiting for a consultation. Carts of vegetables displayed local varieties with names like "Lady Fingers" and "Gentleman's Thumbs."

I followed some of the women through a doorway and found an old man making the
terra cotta pots used to store cool water. With white hair and beard, he stooped and twirled his wheel with a stick. Once it got going to the speed he was happy with, he threw some clay in the middle and started molding. Three small pots were produced within minutes:
Devi Ghar Village Potter
Devi Ghar Village Potter

These are the moments I cherish. Easing into the pace of local life and discovering the artfulness of a simple, age-old skill. Watching an old man's hands shape clay into pots, or the hands of the women easing the pots onto their heads, calling their little ones to follow down the road. So often travel to a faraway spot reminds us to appreciate the magic of everyday life. The finer elements of this particular program always bring me back to the simple pleasures that lend soulfulness. 

We invite you to join us, in Rajasthan this February

With love, 


September 15, 2012

Afternoon Apertivo at Cibreo.

At Cibreo Caffe, alcohol is served in varying degrees of strength throughout the day, but never without food, and rarely does a Florentine order more than one drink.

There are morning aperitivi before lunch and evening aperitivi before dinner. The Italians are modest when it comes to drinking, as if there are unspoken cultural rules. There’s only one thing worse than wine for the liver…and that’s the wind.
‘Il vento fa male il fegato!’ A mother yells to her children to button up, "The wind is bad for the liver!" 

 But the Aperitivo? Io adoro! It is my early evening meditation.  A crisp divine white wine, poured into a tall crystalline glass. It comes to the table, not with pattatine (Italian potato chips cooked in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt), which I love, but with pizzette, tiny pizzas only big enough for a bit of sauce and a few capers. They come on a long plate with shiny black olives, and thin fried crisps of chick pea crackers laced with garlic. Bright yellow pepper pickles show up occasionally in a small white bowl, looking like a present from someone’s affectionate aunt.

Fabio, the owner of Cibreo, loves the advanci. He never throws anything away. Whatever is left over is used brilliantly, or at least pickled.

During the summer I acquiesce to gin and tonic or to the negroni, a strong alcolico forte! ma buonissimo. "Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker." Allegria to the rescue, forcing any sense of negative emotion way beyond the front lines. Two would be deadly and most unladylike, though to me, nothing is more civilized than a proper aperitivo. It 'opens' the appetite and stimulates digestion. The monks invented strong liquors as medicine, to be taken before and after meals. I to bow to the Italian brethren for making this ritual one of the best ingredients for la dolce vita.

Florentines flow in and out of the bar. They greet each other casually, one looking more fine than the next. People-watching here is like flipping through a fashion magazine, but better. It’s alive.

Florentine style is understated, chic. This is not Hollywood. There is no bling. But there’s balance. It’s what you call "taste"—an eye for quality and detail. It also doesn’t hurt to be drop dead gorgeous with olive skin refined as Michelangelo’s sculpted marble. Though not all Florentine's are or have been good looking. One look at Dante or the Medici and you understand the gene pool, yet, it's safe to say they were intelligente da morire. The character and the way Florentines carry themselves- so confident, intelligent and interesting, comes from centuries of sophistication.

I for one, do not come from such a background, unless I was here "once before." But I do feel at home here, un Fiorentina finta, a pretend Florentine. Especially inside my "uscio e bottega."

September 8, 2012

pasta with oil-cured tuna, capers, red onions, tomatoes and basil

Feeding large parties that also include a gang of hungry Italian musicians is challenging. With one small kitchen, a few large pots and a lot of volanta..(willingness), I cook pasta for the masses with as much 'gusto' as possible. Gusto also means 'taste'. Italians are tough critics, so one can't mess around when feeding them their favorite food. I have to invent, but stay within reason.

One of the most Italianissima summer pasta dishes is pasta con tonno e capperi (tuna and capers). It's lovely to add thinly sliced red onions and cherry tomatoes as well. It's an instant one dish meal, with plenty of protein and flavor. As you can see, the sauce is uncooked and therefore, perfect for transferring from the kitchen to your table 'al fresco'.

With the overfishing of tuna, I have a moral decision to make when thinking of this dish. I choose a very good quality, specially selected tuna preserved in oil (in a large red tin) from Spain. I know the story of the Sicilian matanza. I am aware of present-day practice and over fishing that keeps certain fishes from being sustainable all over the world. Tuna was king of fishes. Smart. Plentiful and meaty. Catching and preserving it in oil has kept many island people alive for centuries. Now it's not allowed. There are quotas. It has also been a staple for Americans. That's more tuna than certain schools can generate. I don't buy tuna in America, nor do I choose it in a sushi bar against my will. Especially fresh.. I adore it in many ways..mostly raw. Here is a good article with more info on just how the Spanish are approaching the situation.  Sustainable Tuna debated on Spanish TV.

I do choose to use tuna once in a 'blue moon'; of which there was one this August. I took the liberty to make a beloved Italian favorite and the crowds jumped for joy. It's not the Italians fault that we are losing our resources. There has historically been respect and ritual in these Mediterranean waters. They took only what they needed. Tuna is nutritious and one fish can feed a family for days. The fact that it's a fish that can be preserved is another bonus.

Here is the recipe I made up in the countryside of Montifiridolfi, a tiny Tuscan town not far from San Casciano, a half hour south of Florence in the heart of Chianti. It fed 45 people amply in 95 degree weather. They took a 2 hour hike in the heat afterwards, but they weren't hungry.

On a hot day, there is nothing more satisfying that a plate of this pasta room temp with a glass of cool rose'.

Penne Ragate con Tonno, Capperi, Pomodorini, Olive, cipolla rosa e Parmigiano Reggiano

2- 8 oz   cans of good quality sustainable (Dolphin safe!) tuna preserved in oil.
1            fresh red onion, sliced in half as thin as possible
2            cups of pomodorini (cherry tomatoes) sliced in half
1/2         cup of rinsed capers in salt
1 c         of oil-cured black olives, pitted and roughly chopped (optional)
1 bunch of basil and Italian parsley, chopped fine and set aside.
1/2 c       of Parmigiano Reggiano, freshly grated

1 box    (500 grams) of Penne Ragate of your choice

Chop all ingredients separately and put in an ample bowl. Open the cans and break up the tuna and add to the bowl. Add a generous drizzle of olive oil. 

Heat a generous pot of water, add a palmful of good quality course salt. Bring to a rolling boil.
Add the pasta and cook until al dente, (where only a hairline of white can be seen).

Drain the pasta, preserving a cup of the pasta cooking water. Set aside. 

Toss all ingredients with the freshly cooked pasta in a large serving bowl. If it seems dry or a bit sticky, add a bit of the pasta cooking water, it loosens the pasta nicely. Add most of the parsley
and parmigiano. Distribute all chopped bits evenly. Finish by drizzling a generous amount of extra-virgin olive oil and dash the remaining parsley and parmigiano to please the eyes. 

 On a hot day, there is nothing more satisfying that a plate of this pasta room temp with a glass of cool rose'.

 It's the end of summer, but I think this dish will be a hit at least until the end of September here in 
Italia..! Buon appetito!


August 1, 2012

Photo Recap: Our 20th Anniversary Tour

Emily Markel Luebcke, Giulio Picchi, and Graham Markel. Ristorante Cibreo, Florence. June 8th, 2012

Emily and Graham were 12 and 9 when I started. Their sweet natures allowed me to travel back and forth all these years. Emily lived with the Picchi/Vitali family for a semester when she was 15 and Giulio was 13. She now has two children, 4 and 6, and he manages Cibreo as heir apparent. Graham has been under the wing of many chefs since then and happens to be a fine cook with a passion for wine making and traveling the world like his mother.
I founded La Cucina al Focolare in 1992 in Reggello, on the grounds of The Fattoria Degli Usignoli. We focus on traditional Tuscan fare, prepared with three wood-fired ovens. Florentine antiques, Fratellini tables and stone floors give an authentic feel.

July 30, 2012

Miss Peach And Her Peaches

miss peach and her peaches

The peach tree was laden down with the softest, peachiest peaches you can imagine. Although a small tree, she took the burden of the bountiful crop. It was a Sunday, a good day for making pies. Miss Peach, took her wooden bowl and filled it up with the sweet, downy fruit. It was a better idea than reading. After all, she's only six. And reading is far too serious for a summer day with school already just around the corner. Master Peach agreed.

 For one's first pie, success is important. So, grandmother Peach decided to give a go as a crumble. When one doesn't eat certain things, other things will have to do. A crumble of almond meal, butter and cinnamon will give it a Spanish flair!

 Master Peach thought it much more interesting to throw rocks in the pond. 

Getting ones hands in the crumble and spreading it around is a fine mess. 

Ms. Peach's finished product ready for the oven. 

July 26, 2012

The Country Girls' Approach to Saving Small Lives

Caroline and I are both Colorado country girls.

She lives in the mountains at 8,000 ft with a magnificent view of the Continental Divide and I live in the countryside at 5280 ft next to a creek that spills into two ponds.

She is a vegan Kundalini yogini and I am not. I eat everything that's good, all over the world, and bend my left elbow more than any other body part. Yet,  I am as interested in saving the world as she is and believe that all sentient beings deserve kindness including the most minute. It is said that even fleas and spiders experience fear and have a desire for happiness, just like the rest of us, so why not follow that creed when it comes to the small creatures that scare us?

Women have historically been afraid of mice. They bring a shrill like no other creature, other than perhaps a snake. Mice are harmless and they don't even bite, but they scurry in such a way that unnerves, darting here and there as if they were about to be baked in a pie.

They are curious creatures and like to flatten themselves and squeeze into tight spaces. They can sniff out the slightest crumb that one has left in a bag, or a suitcase, nibbling their way through expensive leather and make beds out of your favorite heirloom garments. They can pop up anywhere, out of an old hat or that worn-out basket left behind. It's safe to say, they are clever, clever creatures. And social.

I can be sitting at the kitchen table at night, and see one out of the corner of my eye have the audacity to come from some crack under the sink straight at me. Now of course, it's not me he/she wants, but the six course crumb meal I have prepared for them unknowingly under my feet. After a while, I think they pick up on the fact that we country girls perhaps are as harmless as they country mice.

What to do? For soft-hearted women, a mouse trap just won't do. It's excruciating to think of the brutal whack and then the mutilated body. One must resort to live traps. A bit of peanut butter goes in the end, the mouse follows, the little trap shuts and the rest is history. But it doesn't come without a story.

Caroline comes by for an impromptu dinner. We have a nice chat down by the creek while there is still light. We talk about the differences in living by mountains as opposed to water. We appreciate the pink clouds and the rushing stream, then head back to the house for a bite to eat. As I am preparing the meal, I keep hearing this clacking noise.

I said, "It's the mouse trap!"
She said, "go get a bucket with a lid!"
I said, "I don't have a bucket with a lid!"
"Well how do you suppose you were to keep it alive?"
I said, " You just take it like this, drive down the road and let it out."
Caroline says, "No you have to have a bucket with a lid that you poke holes into. Then you put a paper towel in there and some sunflower seeds."
"You have to be kidding me, " I said,  "I have no such thing."

I find a bucket but it has no lid. Luckily, I rummage around quickly and find a container—with a lid—and poke some holes into it, but it's small. There is nothing like the anxiety of thinking you are going to release the trap into a small space with a flimsy cover knowing that the mouse is going to bolt most likely down ones dress or around ones feet. The very thought of it sends a shrill and a dance in one spot! The very thought! "Not in the house! Please! Take it outside!" I prepared the container with slivered almonds and a paper towel. 

Valiantly, this lovely sweet lady, fearlessly and calmly releases the mouse into the container. He did not jump down her dress or escape. Even though there was a slight squeal from her lips, the lid went on fast and secure. We left our captive to brood out of doors and settle into his new temporary home. At least it was clear plastic and he could see out.

After some relief and altruistic success, we came in to have our supper. The night came on, we laughed and talked and then the time came to leave.

"Please don't make me take the mouse."
"What?" I said, "You have to take the mouse! He has to be driven 5 miles away and you are driving 5 miles away! Otherwise, you know they find their way back!"
She said. "I know, you're right. I must follow through. Get the flashlight. We have to see if he's still alive. "
"I don't have a flashlight."
"What if you have a burglar?"
"What am I going to say?? Go away! I have a flashlight!!??"

I found one curiously on my phone, and we ventured into the night to find our captive.  I was worried that perhaps I had not put enough holes in the top. Was he breathing? I shined the light. He barely moved. Oh, I thought. Not enough air. Then we picked up the container to put in the car and he looked at us sleepily. He had made a cozy bed in the paper towel just like Caroline had said. His nuts were gone and he looked at us.. shall I say... affectionately?

It was enough to want to keep him as a pet.

Goodnight Caroline! Goodnight mouse! Drive safely up the mountain!

Not only a life saved...but transformed. I hope he likes the mountains as well as the creek. I wouldn't be surprised if he follows Caroline home. She's so brave. It made me think about bravery. Bravery comes when your commitment to do the right thing is stronger than your fear. Sat Nam Karuna.

July 7, 2012

Living Between Curious Worlds

The creek is high, rushing and coffee colored. Surrounding trees are full and green, happy with a full drink of water from yesterday's rain. The Flatirons sit pretty in the distance looking down on the plains with barely a glow of early morning light coming from a vast, cloudy, yet blue Colorado sky. Birds and hidden animals take delight in the moist air and cool temperatures, and so do I.

Left hand creek after a storm. The Queendom. Longmont, Colorado. 

Rain has washed over recently burnt hills bringing with it a mix of tree ash and eroded earth down valley carrying it to who knows where. This is how the great west was formed. The Grand Canyon, the Great Sand Dunes, magnificent earth sculptures moved around, carved and pushed up against fourteen thousand foot peaks from primordial wind storms, ice, great rushing rivers and forest fires started by lightning strikes. Not far away,  parched areas of land, a veritable tinder box stretching for thousands of acres, has burned out of control for a few weeks covering 136 square miles, stripping everything in its path. Precious Rocky Mountain high air quality; poor.

But this morning, the wisdom of nature has righted itself. I sit appreciating this as I listen to the roar of the creek and all that is beautiful about Colorado and the great western United States.  It makes leaving the bosom of Italy, the quaintness of Europe, a more civilized way of living life, easier.

The center of the Universe. Cibreo Caffe'. Florence, Italy.

Just days after leaving the taste of fresh figs and just-made ricotta, my mind and palate linger in the memory of daily walks to the market. Seasonal fruit bursts with color and true taste. My basket is full of deliciousness; hearty bread, flavorful proscuitto, mozzerella di buffala, sweet pomodorini, pungent green extra-virgin olive oil, mineral rich Sicilian salt and bright yellow zucchini blossoms to stuff. I dream of the swirls of spicy oil that I will anoint a dish of fresh tomatoes and basil and ponder what crisp white wine will be good to serve at sunset. Will I choose Falanghina or Fiano to delight my guests as we hug the Amalfi coast offering up a taste of place as the wind blows?

Fresh figs and ricotta. Casa Parlascio. Florence, Italy.

Sitting just a few short days ago in my fourth floor apartment that looks at the back of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, I marveled at it's perfectly cut stones, large Renaissance windows and tall handsome tower. Swallows dance at dusk and the light pours in softly on my cheerful tablecloth. The Japanese tea pot sits empty, having poured it's last cup of tea into a grey-glazed handmade cup that fits a bit 'wabi sabi' into my hand. These are images that soothe my soul. The paintings on the wall speak. The textiles tell stories of where they came from and I feel shy that I love these inanimate things. I know I will miss them, the stone Buddha, my nest in the sky, how it holds as a place of rest and creativity for me, my friends and family.

Casa Parlascio. Florence, Italy.
Casa Parlascio. Florence, Italy. Photo Graham Markel
This home is a refuge. A place where I live half of my life, a pied a terre, to go from here to there for my culinary programs in that part of the world. I look forward to the wood-fired ovens of Tuscany. To sailing the Med, on her cobalt and aqua marine seas basking in Neapolitan goodness and island splendor. To Sicily, for mandarins, almonds, antiquity and wildness. To Morocco and the Atlas mountains for the Berber way of life and Marrakech for exotic, playful, artistic feasts.

Camel Safari with friends. Sidi Kaouki, Morocco. Photo Ashley Mulligan
And then, within a day, I take a big leap back home to the other half of my life, to purple mountain's majesty and amber waves of grain. I have family, grown children, gorgeous blonde curly headed grandchildren, a nurturing, patient boyfriend, and wonderful friends who speak the same language. I have biography here. Years of living, drama, loss, happiness, life lessons, study, and love. I come back to a country that is built on liberty and justice for all (yet spends billions in an election year rather than on what matters). The good ole U S of A.

Crestone, Colorado
Home on the range close to my house. Boulder, Colorado.

I imagine the tension, anxiousness and possible peacefulness of what it would be like to slow down to the point of staying in one place. I know that a life spent roaming around and around and around is stimulating and meaningful, but it's also addictive. I wonder sometimes how long I will keep it up as if, then what? What does it mean to stop? I can hardly imagine what old age will be like.Will I be a wise old woman who likes to tell stories. Will I take up knitting or writing. Will life become static and boring? Life is not static anyway, anywhere, as long as we are alive and engaging our minds.
 So the question remains open.

Ventotene. Italy.

It's a privilege to travel. It is my work and has become what shapes my life. Back in the Queendom of Colorado, at the home of a good friend, I find the part of me that loves high altitude living. Recently the temperatures were extreme. High and dry, the mountain air sucks every bit of moisture from your face, the ground, the creeks, even snakes climb trees looking for shade. Then it breaks into it's opposite. Flash floods. Cool. Cloudy days that bring relief. My mind turns towards shopping for food at the market and what one eats in this climate and I become nostalgic for Italy, Morocco and India. Cultures who's lives revolve around family and real food put more attention on growing good food. I love the traditional dishes that speak of locality, identity, age old wisdom of how to eat in a certain season, what spices to temper in which oil, what flavors naturally go well together. I ask myself, how will I relate to every day life in the Rockies as opposed to Rajasthan, or Sidi Kaouki, Vallelunga or Ventotene?

Tagine. Jnane Tamsna. Marrakech. Photo Ashley Mulligan

 Luckily, the fresh corn will be plentiful and the apricots and peaches native. I will have to use my senses and experience to eek out the best of what grows naturally here and prepare it in ways that I have learned to make sitting down for meal an exquisite part of the day. I am beyond grateful that I have known and been exposed to some of the more brilliant slices of the world.

There is no doubt that I experience groundlessness, a lack of settling in, moving from place to place. But in each place I find home. Home is within my perception, my experience of taking in whatever the moment is offering. The most important quality for traveling is curiosity. It implies an open mind. Patience is a close second and tolerance makes it the holy trinity.

It takes a few days to transition and in these times of change, I see myself and the world more clearly and appreciate the differences and similarities, the white tailed deer scampering across the field, the broken windshield wipers, the small irritations that have no gender or place, the opportunity to have choice and be free, the smile of an old friend, the heron on the pond, an inexpensive long talk with my sister, a peaceful place to lay my head, a beautiful landscape. It's an opportunity, right? To see through what we usually don't see when our minds are preoccupied and the landscape is only a backdrop. Getting big enough to include it all and be patient with myself in the transition process is key. And it makes life curiouser and curiouser.

photo by Ginny Jordan here at the Queendom

Photos by me, unless otherwise specified.

July 1, 2012

Undoing it in Kerala, India. Eco on the beach.

Marari Beach: CGH Earth Experience        

      There is a cow grazing outside of my door with a calf on her teet. The cows have been grazing all day with a slight tinkle to their bells, giving that bucolic sound so sweet for a nap. 

The fan spins and blows the air in my room, and I can still hear the crickets outside. It reminds me of my childhood summer holidays on the south coast of Alabama, where the day began and ended with telling stories. In between, we caught crabs for making gumbo and enjoyed long stretches of white sand beaches. We loved the heaviness of the humid air. It helped us to relax and made cutting into a watermelon that much more inviting.

Here in south India of all places, I have found a slice of the good life, like something from my childhood. A place that gives me simplicity, authenticity, good food, and the solitude I need without being totally alone. I wanted to write, commit to a meditation practice, and be near the water. And so I fell into the arms of a CGH Earth Experience, not knowing what I would find.

I found, first of all, a warm greeting and a detailed description of what I would find and what I wouldn’t. The things I would not find were a relief. CGH Earth is not your average resort hotel. Just ask the guests, of which 80 percent of them return every year.

I was taken to my thatch-roofed bungalow, complete with an open-air, yet private, shower and toilet. There are many ways to be one with nature here—it's at your fingertips at all times. 

At least where I come from in the United States, the idea of green architecture, operating with sustainability in mind—recycling, organics, and so forth—was a concept developed only 30 years ago. Here, it has naturally been a way of life. Taking those ideas into a resort setting—bringing consciousness to water consumption and the unnecessary washing of sheets and towels, creating shopping bags out of recycled newspaper—fits hand in hand with the local profile of keeping Mararikalum (Malayalam for “Marari Beach”) unspoiled. Here, you will find no beach umbrellas, just a fishing boat or two, and the occasional fisherman eyeing a catch with his finely tuned intuition and skill of how to read the water.

What goes on behind the scenes is even more impressive. The entire property is sustainable. From bio-gas produced from kitchen leftovers, to recycled waste water, these practices put back what nature has given us and continues to cycle. Nothing gained (wasted) and nothing lost (re-used).

Here, signs quietly speak to me wherever I go. When I'm in the bathroom a sign might say, “If you need more amenities, tell us and we will bring them straightaway. We are trying to avoid plastic. “ Or, “we don’t spray for bugs or mosquitoes, but we do bring around ‘church smoke’, which smells quite good (frankincense). We prefer not to use chemicals.” The more exotic trees are named in English and Latin.

Only the most valiant eco-warriors in America are able to preach and practice these methods, and most people think they are extreme. To find this in a business setting is encouraging. The need to pay attention to this way of life is imperative, especially in the public sector. Our oceans are suffering immensely due to unhealthy trawling practices that wreck our reefs to the point of no return and the amount of garbage that makes it’s way to the sea is making a cesspool in the pacific. “The nature of our future depends on the future of our nature.“ This is the first sign that greets you as you walk to your bungalow. It made me stop and think, a heightened sense of awareness and appreciation arose knowing that these practices are in place.

CGH Earth holds hands with the local culture and integrates it well. Most of the staff originate from no further than 50 miles away. They call on the locals for guides and transportation and sightseeing, even though they could offer it themselves.

Sanity breathes in and out on the property. Nothing is static. A smile and a greeting by name is on every meeting. “We treat our guests like a god.” It was not necessary to tell me, as I felt it was also natural. I’m convinced the Malayali are like that: soft, gentile and sweet as jaggery. Even the breeze is gentle and the sea, warm. All was elementally ambient. 

I took a cooking class in the organic outdoor kitchen garden. Young Chef Rinto took me through the garden. He was playful and delighted in quizzing me on things that he thought that I wouldn’t know, even though I surprised him with a few. I found his questions engaging. As the night noises grew louder and darkness fell, someone came around with the ‘church smoke’ and set us up for the evening. It works, I tell you and I was grateful.  It was wonderful to get my hands on the food, as well as eat a splendid meal. 


Raw papaya and basil soup
(We picked the papaya and the basil.)

Plantain curry in a yogurt sauce
(Plantains were growing also.)

Whitefish with a ginger, green chili, coconut paste cooked on a banana leaf
(Just caught fish from the morning, green chili, coconut.)

Red spinach and cabbage thenga with grated coconut
(We picked the red spinach and cabbage, and grated the coconut. We did not however, climb the coconut tree to get the leaves.)
A steamed rice flour dumpling with jaggery and grated coconut inside, called Kozhukatta was for dessert.

It was simply delicious and not even hours old. This meal is indicative of how specialized a stay in Marari Beach can be and a good way to start my self-imposed Ayurvedic diet.

For the next five days, I surrendered to Ayurveda. There is a time and place for everything and the moment for me was now. With a traditional Ayurvedic center located just two steps from my bungalow, I raised the white flag. After eating my way through North India with a group of ten, and half of the South by myself, my body was telling me to take it easy. Here at Marari, I could unplug.

For a change, I could focus on my own mind and body. I set up a meditation alter and made a commitment to get up and practice everyday before dawn. I would do yoga, write, take walks on the beach and take a series of Ayurvedic massage treatments, and go to bed early.
What a relief. Even with a restricted diet, no meat or alcohol, coffee or black tea, I welcomed the change. I could have green tea, local Kerala rice, and a piece of steamed fish in the evenings as well as several vegetarian curries. I even forfeited the fish. A glass of freshly pressed pineapple juice came with every meal for digestion. I could eat three tablespoons of something and feel full. It was if my digestion was on holiday too. I seriously had no appetite at all, so I asked for smaller portions. When they brought me my meal they would laugh and say, “Here is your pussycat meal,” with big pearly smiles. A sense of humor goes a long way. After five days, my dosha (body type and tendencies) felt more balanced and restored. So did my appetite.

From swimming every day, walking, eating well and getting amazing ayurvedic spa treatments, my body-mind started to shift. My mind loosened up and I began losing weight naturally. It was a pleasure to meet the girls in the center everyday. Their warm smiles and hands were alchemical, and melted away hidden blues I wasn’t even aware that I had.

Before each full body treatment came a sitting-up head massage with their special oils, which I found to be as valuable as the main treatment. The head is the gatekeeper of stress and first this commander must be disarmed. In a treatment room that opened directly onto the garden, I was cared for like a baby.
The treatments are designed to bring relief to joints, nourish the skin, and eliminate toxins and stress. Their massage strokes worked up and down the body, increasing circulation to bring new blood flow to regenerate the cells. A few of the treatments included the “steam box,” which was my personal favorite. My body drank the moisture and the oils. My skin never had it so good. And then I was washed with a special plant scrub, my hair shampooed and then patted dry in a fluffy towel. The girls' bright smiles lovingly sent me on my way, and as an adult, I have never felt so young and rejuvenated. I felt radiant.

It will be hard to have other Ayurvedic treatments in other places, now that I know “the real deal.” I have already decided to come back. A lover of natural and alternative medicines to begin with, the value of this gentle way to rebalance, blows away all western reasoning that we should be filling ourselves with senseless synthetic medicines and mood stabilizers. Not only does Marari Beach grow their own food, they grow their own medicinal plants. Growing, brewing, and using the plant infused oils from the premises increases the energetic benefit. 

Most age-old systems will tell you that sickness comes from being out of balance. Treating a symptom does not get to the root. Therefore, popping pills and not changing one’s diet or lifestyle drives the problem deeper. Our organism wants to be healthy, but it needs our help.

What a good idea it would be to bring my daughter here with my two grandchildren, I thought to myself. They would have a wonderful time. I could be with them while my daughter took treatments. The staff seemed to love children, making them feel at home and giving them the ultimate positive cultural exchange. I want to bring other friends too. My sisters would benefit from this special touch. The affection and warmth of the Malayali people is healing in itself.

To have a center of this quality along with the other amenities makes me feel like I can have my cake and eat it too. Freedom to wander, spend time with others, and, most of all, not feel like a patient. I am a person choosing to have a purposeful vacation of tuning in, instead of just sitting with a relaxing drink in my hand. I can take the time to take care of myself in a different way, a way that will have lasting results.

I wanted to do everything listed on the activity list: take a country boat ride down the lagoons, getting a good look at local life. A sunset cruise would have been stunning. Never in my life have I seen sunsets like I have here over the Arabian Sea. A bike ride would have been terrific. But I couldn’t make it out of the hammock. What I want to say, is that I didn’t want to leave the property. There was enough to do here for me. I thoroughly dropped in to myself.

As a cook, what I look for is to find a balance of what is “not too much, not too little.” CGH Earth Marari Beach has offered just the right amount of something and nothing. It is a sanctuary, not only for birds and other creatures—but for all of us. We are safe here. The feeling is, we are more than welcomed and we belong in balance with nature. There is a resonance when nature recognizes itself. When there is no fear, there is nothing to be afraid of. 

At one point, I wanted to make a daily flower offering to my altar, but I was shy to take a flower off the tree, so I didn’t. But when I left the room for breakfast and came back, there was a new flower in my bowl. The girl looking after my room understood right away that she could also refresh the altar. This sensitivity and attention to detail is unique. 

Sunset on the beach is a party for sand crabs and spindly-legged sand pipers. There is life, movement and rhythm as the waves roll gently up on the beach.

The sun sinks behind the horizon leaving me with a rare sense of equanimity. Peace is more precious than pearls and the moment is to be savored. 

June 6, 2012

Join us in Spain this October!

October 20-28, 2012
October 19-27, 2013

In this distinct region of southern Spain, we will find almond groves and lush valleys bearing figs, pomegranates, kakis and apricots. As we drive from the city of Malaga, higher in the Alpujarras, we will look down on to green gorges, gushing streams, and the white dots of villages.
Near to our home away from home, the small village of Ferreirola, we will find the fuenta, the ancient fountains that let us know we are truly off the beaten path.

Here we will breathe the freshest air and taste the countryside. 
The Alpujarras region is known to be a different kind of Spain. Muslim-influenced, it was occupied by the Moors for 700 years. Even after the Moors were expelled from Granada in 1492, they fled to these then-inaccessible hills, and remained hidden in their last stronghold for a further 70 years.

It was the Moors who introduced many of the ingredients that are central to Mediterranean cooking: almonds, oranges, rice, aubergines, quinces, pomegranates, artichokes and spinach. The local cuisine is uncomplicated and delicious. 

In October, we will take full advantage of the harvest. 


Program includes:

- Cozy accommodations in the mountain village of Ferreirola, and in the city of Granada.
- Group transportation between Malaga, the Alpujarras, and Granada.
- All cooking classes and most meals & beverages.
- Visits to local artisans, producers, bodegas and restaurants.
- Exploration of the famed Al Hambra Palace in Granada.
- Recipes, poems, conversation, and inspiration. 

Email us or call our booking coordinator, Merete, directly at 303-910-0897 for more information or to reserve your room.