restorative cookery course

altsomerset retreat

sasha harker

It was a last minute decision to join manna cuisine cookery course in Dulverton, Somerset this weekend. I decided before the snow and despite the fairly heavy snow (by UK standards) I had no trouble with transport apart from a short 20 minute delay leaving London Paddington on the Friday. Phew

festive cookery course

 

scotland retreat

our first retreat at penninghame house was a great success!  a huge thank you for all who came and the wonderful folk nestled away in beautiful galloway who made us feel so welcome  
we have some one day events coming up and other weekend get-aways in the works  

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It seemed if not a chore but a self-imposed inconvenience.  Our Intrepid travel writer friend Sarah who I had off-handily asked if she could recommend or have a quick look around for a location for a possible cooking retreat we could host, had handed me (too quickly, I might add!) a daunting list of a dozen or so lip smacking possibilities.

What had been a long-standing discussion about offering cooking lessons &/or a retreat -- in no small part because of the continual requests at the restaurant that we do so -- always dwindled it seemed into that which we had no convenient time for.

So a fantasy perhaps, but it suddenly became with this list a serious pursuit; a pursuit for which we could now at least pretend to explore!  Here before us was a great selection of probable locations for adventures we could share with our customers wanting to learn a little more about manna, vegan cookery, and healthy pursuits with a smile.

And an exotic selection it was for sure.  But for some reason we immediately opted for a practical consideration first and linked to the only serious UK venue on the list, albeit afar off in southwest Scotland.  Maybe it was only to get logic out of the equation therefore to move more into a fantasyland that would ultimately be easier to lazily dismiss, again!

However, we were abruptly stopped in our visual tracks; web page after web page of this site seemed to be heaven in the heather with everything we could possible want for our project!  But it was Scotland, it was the first one we looked at, weren't we dreaming of sunnier castles in the air?  So, we quickly dismissed this place and moved on to warmer climes and scanned all the other beautiful locations Sarah had kindly researched for us.  A vineyard here, a mountaintop spa there; a converted French abbey, a Portuguese paradise, an Italian farmhouse with more than its share of rustic bedrooms sans bathrooms; island retreats, yoga centres, et al.  But nothing seemed quite satisfactory, no matter how much we liberalised our requirements.  Why?  Because we kept returning to the Scottish site, many, many times -- we couldn't help it -- it was a benchmark, or so we thought...

But the more we learned about Penninghame House the more the question pressed: could this place really be that good, be as good as it looked?  If so, we really need look no further!

Ongoing talks with Sarah revealed her antennae already quivering as well and she was quick to offer additional help with a phone call/email or two on our behalf.  And within what seemed like minutes to our inconvenienced beings she was back with specific available dates for us to ‘go and see for our selves' and we were matching dates on our calendar.  Oh, we tried to dismiss the dates closest to us... "Next week...?  We're much too busy."  Besides, Sarah wasn't available for a month or so - and she must come with us.  Any excuse...!

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But I couldn't leave it alone... Penninghame House would not leave my screen.  Although properly bookmarked, I was very reluctant to close the page and the tantalizing promises on offer 90 minutes west of Carlisle, or even unwilling to quit my browser for the inevitable reboots required to unravel some software update misdemeanors I was experiencing.


With my procrastinations I began to think Sarah was not taking me too seriously... but neither was I!  I couldn't put it off any longer.  I grabbed for the phone and dialled, direct.  The soothing, encouraging voice of Penninghame's events coordinator and manager Chris, who after her earlier talks with Sarah was already very aware of who we were, confirmed the availability ‘'next week".  And after an affirmative shout back from Robin in the other room we were booked in, sans Sarah... but oh well!  We were committed, and very happily too.

By the time we were in the car at 5:00AM on travel day -- all excuses exposed and dismissed -- we were well immersed in the possibilities of Penninghame House, youthfully talking through and very excitedly ticking off all its attributes that seemed to suit our purpose.  Our original flexibility in firstly finding a venue that offered us a haven then matching its facilities for whatever we would offer, moulded around our inclinations, seemed now a cloud of dust given the extraordinary promises that lay ahead of us later this day.

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Not to put it too lightly... Penninghame House was offering us use of its own fully modern, multi-station cooking school!  And, what seemed like a beautiful location and accommodations, a nourishing and nutritional sensibility that matched ours, a vegan-friendly kitchen and its own walled permaculture garden (more of this later); extracurricular activities like yoga, spa treatments & a fully equipped gym, pony_ridehorse back riding, endless walks and river walks along side the property, world-class mountain bike trails, nearby lochs and glens and, and...

 

Distance is a consideration, but for us makes it a commitment, a plus!  It is approximately 7 hours from Central London by road, or rail to the nearby station; considerably less by rail to Carlise then road (5 hours total, maybe).  Glasgow Preswick Airport is only 54 miles away for those flying in from the continent (don't ask me why UK flights don't land there anymore?); Glasgow International Airport for UK travellers and for those romantics further across the oceans is 77 miles away.  For the adventurous and budget minded, National Express coaches take barely under 10 hours from Central London, but at a fare of only £50 return, a bargain!  Trains, buses and shuttles are available from and to all terminals.

We drove all the way from London.  And once through a nasty horizontal rain storm swamping the whole Lancashire industrial belt, the drive was magnificent, especially as our Sat Nav decided to take us ‘as the crow flies' through the Galloway National Park rather than by the faster main roads.  We were in Galloway by midday.  Stunning, stunning, stunning!

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To be honest, by this time we thought we were heading into the deepest wilderness where we would find Penninghame House in the remotest of locations.  Very exciting!  Although we wondered already whether this would be too impractical for to bring in a course, of any kind.  But we were determined to enjoy a few days away anyway, and the adventure for whatever it brought.

Imagine our surprise (disappointment?) when suddenly emerging out of the forest/'wilderness' we came upon row after row of not particularly attractive houses and a town something less than we had hoped for.  And what happened to our remote adventures?  But again, we were out of town with nothing to do but enjoy ourselves so we quickly shrugged it all off and opened up our minds again as far as possible. We picked up and crossed a beautiful river, but the quietness in the car spoke volumes.  Deciding at last to deep six the Sat Nav and pull out the printed directions off the web site we were immediately out of town again, within minutes of Penninghame, in beautiful sun-drenched countryside, and on the right track.

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We turned into an expansive, well-marked driveway and our heartbeats returned to (very) excited levels, immediately.  The whole world hushed and any and all clouds lifted, the beauty was palpable; we were in heaven after all!  We could not believe what we were seeing, acre after acre of magnificent, manicured grounds, mature forests, twisting narrow roads with a surprise around every slight bend, intriguing granite buildings (rentable lodges as it turned out).

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We followed the signs, as you do, and there was the house, a wondrous Victorian, turreted mansion not looking at all ponderous or darkened by mid 19th century austerity, but ‘lit-up' by its gorgeous surroundings - sweeping lawns, a mature bowling green (and helipad as it also turns out!), even a fully equipped modern child's playground in its own park setting.

 

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Jaws agape, within moments we were parked and crunching across the gravel then ringing the bell; within minutes we were absorbed into all things ‘Penninghame' and meeting the greatest people welcoming us like friends; we felt we knew everybody already.  Not long thereafter we were standing in one of those granite lodges, our home for a couple of nights.

 

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Added on to the original lodge structures are a glorious modern extension with deeply restfull bedrooms, modern bathrooms and a state-of the-art kitchen.  We had entered a dream that I don't think we will ever leave.  This is a special place.

 

Of course there is this endless list of attributes and top class facilities here, and within those first few minutes - if not a long time before - we knew this was perfect for us, and that we were very lucky indeed to have found this place.  Thank you Sarah!

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I will defer this ‘list' to the accompanying photographs and urge you to explore the website. But suffice to quickly say, this is the place where we will offer our cooking courses, beginning this autumn with a 3 full day, 4 night, long weekend course on feasting vegan for the upcoming holidays and baking ‘gifts' for family and friends.  And we are confident that should you join us you will enjoy a very special time with special people - and have some great fun cooking with us too in the greatest of places with top class facilities!

 

I will save a special mention here for (again) Chris Hanna, events coordinator and manager; head chef Jack Lambeth; property manager Frank Taylor; owners and visionaries Ray & Marie Butler (of course); and Permaculture Project gardener Ludwig Appeltans.

Chris welcomed us like family and made sure all amenities were available to us as needed.  She was as professional and as knowledgeable as one would expect to find at the finest of resorts, and quick to offer us ‘the tour' in order to quickly familiarize us with everything on offer, so to speak.  We were just as quickly exchanging family histories and stories, and what I thought was as much as I could retain about the history of the house.  But that was before we met Frank!

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Frank, as it turns out has an astonishing history with the house himself, not to mention his personal story.  A grandson of an unmarried "Irish high-class floozy and a homesick Russian diplomat from St Petersburg!"  His grandmother was shuffled off, in shame I expect, to Monte Carlo to give birth to Frank's father.  Then his aunt (presented now as his mother), secretly and quietly raised him in Croydon, London.  Until he joined the services and landed in Galloway where there were numerous RAF camps, etc, established during the war years.  He was then to meet and marry a grand local lass, then settle down for the rest of his long life (still going strong) and bring Frank into the world at large...

 

An intrepid lover of all that flies and mechanical throughout his life, Frank joined the Air Force as a young man and travelled the world as an engineer.  Eventually ‘retiring' from the services decades later he returned to Galloway and was hired by the state into the Prison Service, which brought him to Penninghame when it was an open prison.*  His work there continued until the prison closed and the State let the property go.  But his services were to be retained by Ray and Marie, where upon he became the project manager throughout the total refurbishment and is now the beloved and well-respected property manager in chief!

* Yes, the authorities that purloined this amazing property ran it as a prison for 50 years before it fell vacant and was left in danger of crumbling away like so many magnificent structures around the extended British Islands built with neither care as to cost nor modest practicality.

Oh, and I should mention that Frank is a drummer too, as am I, as was my dad - named Frank (my middle name).  But so engrossed in history, we were not to talk too much of the finer art of drum rudiments and stick preferences - next time!

Then in 2000 along came London property developer Ray Butler and his restaurateur in many lands and travel consultant wife Marie who were to rescue the property.  Their determination and success in returning it all to its Victorian splendour and then to modernise the property in every workable aspect, while incorporating a lifestyle sensibility to match their own, can be witnessed at every turn.  After a life ‘transformation' and study, and a new child, Ray & Marie had decided to leave the city and fulfil their dream of offering an alternative and healthy accommodation for mind, body & spirit to those who would take advantage of the facilities they would and could now offer.  And there laid before us is their gifted opportunity essential not to miss.  Although we did miss them, they were off in Sweden arranging a move to Scandinavia where they are to educate their child.

loungeFrank gave us an exceptional, detailed 2nd, after Chris, tour of the house.  Filling us in on its great story.  These grandiose mansions of pretence and untroubled times are famous for their storied histories; Penninghame House is no different.  There was hardly a nail that Frank did not know the origin of and story behind.  After being engrossed in the details of the house for so long, and being the project manager for the whole restoration it was hard to contain his passion for the subject.  We could not have had a more satisfying and educated guide through it all.  The Victorian splendour is well restored.  Artwork and decorative pieces seem to tell a mysterious story.  Rooms of spectacular detail offer endless examination.

 

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I was most struck with the eastern deities about the place seemingly in order to bring about just that, order... presiding over all folly and idiosyncrasies inevitable in impassioned opulence like one would find in a home like this in its original times... It is not unusual to find eastern artefacts in Victorian establishments, a nod to the Empire and its 18th and 19th century collections of symbolic dominance.  But here, these beautiful deities spoke only of unification and spiritual paths.  This whole house is a meditation on passion.

 

Again, not to dwell too much on the endless, it seems, facilities at Penninghame, we must give a quick word of their dedication to its permaculture garden and kitchen well grounded in dietary considerations of Eastern cultures long devoted to balance and holistic well being, namely with macrobiotic, Toaist, Hindi and Buddhist underpinnings.  Add our traditional bent born of many long proven recipes from around the world built to sustain and entertain, and there's a perfect fit for manna!

And we'll offer one more essential word of Penninghame's permaculture garden.  There is no better synopsis of the ideals found here than in the underlying ethics found in permanent agriculture!  Surely to live lightly on this planet is absolutely essential if we are to survive the inevitable consequences and fallout from our industrial and technological adventures and narcissism, while returning to some kind of sensitivity, health and wellbeing.  We must breathe fresh air, eat nutritionally and sustainably, and drink clean water, while still thirsting after technological solutions and advancement for our imagination.  The planet provides us with an endless supply of sustenance, if not abused.  If we applied as much energy to reconciling our ambition to our wellbeing as we do to undoing the ‘damage done,' we would enjoy an ongoing human success story beyond comprehension rather than intrinsic fear for our future, both societal and individual.  Permaculture provides a clear understanding of methods and ideology for our nutritional sustainability, i.e., understanding permanence and being alive to growing consequences.

 

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Ludwig - here for a 12 month project, head gardener Ian was away - showed us around the garden regaling us with his sly wit and great stories of his adventures coming from his native Belgium and living and planting in forests and far off lands while incorporating his grand passion and understanding of the land, its energies, and redeeming its fruits with no harm done.

 

While, we might add, we were all being both serenaded and a little harassed by the two pot-bellied pigs, Polly and Dottie, lent for weeding duties!  When advised of our intentions to come again professionally he (Ludwig) most kindly offered - with a couple of months notice - to grow us anything we may need.  Requests for avocados however soon gave him pause for thought, until he recognised out of the corner of his eye my silent giggle, and cottoned on!  We could never think of anything he is not already growing or readily at hand that we would lack.

 

jack_lucasNow Jack!  Head Chef and character extraordinaire ensured we never stopped smiling.  His infectious laugh and enthusiasm for his craft, and family at home and at work, gave new meaning to a ‘love of life!'  We could have never asked for more satisfying and enjoyable food.  Whether great breakfasts of brown rice porridge with plump raisons; home made steamed sprouted breads, nut butters and delicious preserves; buckwheat cakes filled with smile infested apple stews; ‘miso soups' to soothe our previously overworked but now well rested psyche, slow to wake up from our deep, deep healing sleeps - or, creative lunches and dinners that sent us out for walks and to bed with large exhales and dreams of more and more days at Penninghame, thank you very much...  Raised from birth as ‘macrobiotic' by colourful parents from all accounts - he had an interesting childhood, as you could imagine!  He kept us well entertained with stories of his childhood and growing up in a local culture not too familiar with his dietary extremes, to say the least!  His tales of school lunches taken alongside incredulous schoolmates chomping down on junk food being the most entertaining...!  His storied background eventually led him to a life of compassionate and nourishing cookery, as can be found in that enabled by macrobiotic principles.  He came to Penninghame under the tutelage of a fine chef, only to eventually replace her when she left and establish himself now as head chef of this fine kitchen.

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Hours after we left Jack also headed out, on a well deserved holiday with his beautiful Russian wife Sasha to Siberia for a couple of weeks with his in-laws and to introduce them to their new grandson Lucas.  Maybe Robin & I also having a son named Lucas pushed our smiles a little wider.

 

So you can see where we're going here.  We're going back.  Perhaps you would like to join us.  Because we want to do this rather quickly, at the end of October, we are going to keep it simple - 3 full days of cooking and activities.  The cooking school has stations for all, and the accommodations versatile enough to expand the cost range somewhat.  Singles and doubles will be welcome, and fun is ensured.

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Pricing and details to come. 
Let us know ASAP if you are interested.
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pedals and panela: colombia’s brown sugar

 by Esme McAvoy

3green_sugar_caneWe’ve been in Andrés’ home town Manizales for the last few weeks, a small city in the heart of Colombia’s coffee-growing region. Yet, on the lower slopes of the surrounding Andean mountains, where the climate cakes_stackedbecomes warmer and more tropical, the coffee bushes give way to fields of bright green sugar cane which is used to make one of Colombia’s most traditional products: panela.

organiclea

manna's supplier of organic fresh leaf & root vegetables.  locally produced, urban community project.  delivered by bicycle!

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by Esme McAvoy

It’s empowering stuff, eating food that you’ve sown, grown and picked yourself. And I’m just talking from my own limited experience aged eight, growing strawberries in the back garden. We were self-sufficient all summer long in sugar-sweet baby strawberries to the extent that my big sis once gorged on so many in a single sitting that she almost turned into one, coming out in berry-red blotches that left her out of strawberry-eating action for the remainder of the season. Lucky me.

Fast forward to summer 2011 and, back in London for a few months, I stop in at manna for a soya latte and a natter. Roger and Robin start telling about one of their newest suppliers – a food growing co-operative cultivating organic salad leaves of all colours and flavours on the edge of Epping Forest and delivering them to customers by bicycle. I’m intrigued and it’s quickly agreed that a visit is in order.

banana-rama

bananas_differentby Esme McAvoy

Bananas are bananas, right? Always yellow and always, erm, banana-shaped. Well, not always.

Here in Colombia bananas come in all shapes and sizes. Some known as plantains are a radioactive shade of yellow-green, longer and fatter than your forearm with firm, starchy flesh that needs to be cooked first. Others are short and squat with rust-red and yellow skins. In Minca, the smallest banana I’ve seen is from our neighbour’s garden. Called a ‘bocadillo’ (‘little mouthful’) or ‘bananito’, it’s a super-sweet, baby variety barely bigger than your thumb that you can eat in a single bite and easily polish off five in one sitting. Others have skins bubblegum pink.