Nuns and Sea Gypsies

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

I’m not a particularly spiritual person, but like so much else in Thailand the unassuming, yet sincere, spirituality of the Thai people really got to me and provided much food for thought.

The Thais we met were so courteous and friendly, their smiles so wide and genuine and their kindness to each other and to the animals with whom they shared their streets so apparent, that it was difficult not to think that somehow our materialistic, hyper stressed, hyper angry Western society has got things very, very wrong.

I’m not so naïve as to imagine that life in Thailand is all rainbows and unicorns, but people in general did seem more relaxed, more satisfied and more genuinely happy than in any other place I’ve ever been. It’s had me thinking ever since.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

One of our most remarkable days there was spent with Chaya NaTakuathung who leads ‘Meet the Locals’ tours in Old Phuket. I started the tour thinking that we were going on some nonsensical fake tourist-y bullshit thingy and finished several hours later feeling like I’d had a profound spiritual experience. If you ever find yourselves in Phuket, don’t hesitate even for one second before taking a tour yourselves.

Chaya is a fiercely intelligent, immensely knowledgeable, super friendly guide who speaks perfect English and is driven by a genuine desire to show tourists a side of Phuket that only the locals get to see.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

She squealed with delight when she discovered that our group was just women, as that way she could take us to visit a local Buddhist nunnery, where no men are permitted to enter.

The nunnery is an oasis of tranquillity in the middle of the noise, chaos and bustle of Old Phuket. As we walked through the carefully tended gardens, the traffic noise seemed to melt away, together with our Western preconceptions and anxieties. The rhythmic chanting of the nuns at prayer was immensely moving and contemplation seemed easy in this simple, serene environment. I understood nothing, but didn’t need to, the energy in the room was enough.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

 

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

The nuns there were a mixture of permanent nuns and women on longer term retreats – as signified by their shaven heads – and other women and girls who were just attending on a short term basis, for short retreats or for counselling, who can keep their hair as it is. Chaya herself had spent many retreats at the nunnery and you could see that there she was surrounded by friends and mentors.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

And I started to realise how smart it is, to have a place where you can just go for a few days when you need to regroup and recharge your batteries; where teenage girls can receive advice from wise older women or where you can just spend some time thinking and relaxing and contemplating and praying. I had ended up paying thousands of $$$ for that retreat experience and it still felt like a wacky and self-indulgent thing to do. Instead in Thailand it is an ordinary part of everyday life. They understand that sometimes we all need a bit of down time, simplicity and space for contemplation.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Time just to sit, hang out and finally smell the flowers.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

After a visit to a temple and an excellent meal, Chaya then took us to visit the village of the sea gypsies, or chao le (people of the sea) in Thai.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

The chao le are a nomadic people of Polynesian heritage and strikingly different in build – much taller and sturdier – than the diminuitive Thai people. They used to live out to sea and come to land only rarely but in recent times they have created one or two settlements along the coast of the Andaman Sea, though they still make their living by deep sea fishing, diving deep without scuba equipment.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Their village was destroyed by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but they didn’t lose a single member of their tribe. When their elders saw the sea draw out dangerously far from the coast,  their deep understanding of the sea meant that they recognised the warning signs and urged their people to move to higher ground.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Their rebuilt village is nothing but a shanty town, and the people are obviously heartbreakingly poor, but after a while you stopped noticing the shabbiness. What I shall remember more is how clean the kids’ clothes were, how litter was bagged up neatly for disposal, how everyone was smiling and laughing. Soccer balls were being kicked, kids of all ages were playing together and whole families lounging on their verandahs waved and smiled and invited us into their homes to share their evening meal.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

And as I watched, I started to understand that these people were rich. Rich in wisdom, in generosity, in friendships and fun, and that maybe it is we who are the poor ones.

At the nunnery my soul had been touched, with the sea gypsies it was my heart. In both places, and very in different ways, I had been shown the wisdom of simplicity, of community, of sharing, of smiling, and that maybe our relentless chase after the material has left us Westerners greatly impoverished as a result.

I’m still not sure quite where all these thoughts will end up, and certainly they were displaced for a bit by the materialistic orgy of Christmas, but boy, were many chords struck.

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Roasting, or Searching for a Food Writing Style

‘”I’m thoughtful when I come to class. My aim this weekend is to bring more personality and feeling to my writing and photography, to transform the sterile and soulless and help it resonate with a wider audience.

Telling stories like this doesn’t come easily to me – I’m not an emotional person – but I know that the proof of the pudding is in the story; that it’s the tale that turns the ordinary into the extraordinary, that illuminates the subject and makes it come alive.

Roasted Veggies Photography by www.paolathomas.com

The gilded smoky scent of roasted vegetables emanates from the oven. Aran has made lunch. I fix myself a plate of roasted squash, beets and carrots, perfumed with oil and herbs and speckled with spices. The tender squash is velvet smooth, the flavours nutty, complex and cosily sweet, the subtle colours running the gamut from gold to caramel by way of saffron, ochre and honey. In contrast, an uncooked squash sits on the counter with dishes of fresh raw carrots and beets. The raw vegetables are hard, knobbly – their colours almost aggressively vibrant – subtlety is clearly not their thing.

Vegetables Photography by www.paolathomas.com

I chew thoughtfully on the warm soft velvety squash. I know now what I need to do. Roast my stories to bring out their flavour and sweetness. Texture them with salt and herbs and fragrant oils to reveal their hidden subtleties and complexity. Knock off their hard edges and soften their crunch to make them palatable and sweet.

I take another bite. Food for thought indeed.”

Food Writing Workshop Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Ugh. The above is a writing exercise I did at the second workshop I took last October at Aran Goyoaga’s studio with the very lovely and inimitable Tara O’Brady (check out Luisa Brimble’s fab workshop here). All I can say is that I most definitely haven’t found my ‘voice’ yet. To me something like the above still sounds pretentious and inauthentic and I have to fight the urge to be snarky even when I’m writing about feelings and emotions that are actually genuine and real. Maybe snark is my authentic voice. I dunno. The only thing I know is that this food writing malarkey is hard, people.

Food Writing Workshop Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Tara on the other hand makes it all look easy. The author of the wonderful Seven Spoons blog, she writes with a genuine depth of emotion that I can only dream of achieving; develops all her own distinctive and tempting recipes and does all her own food styling and photography. In her house. In between looking after her kids.

She’s also an amazing teacher. We focused during the workshop on writing and photographing with intention and purpose; developing and building a connection with your audience and how to evoke atmosphere and emotions with both words and photography.

It was heady stuff and brought to us by an accomplished wordsmith, who, unlike some purely visual people, could actually explain her thought processes and ideas. If you get the chance to be taught by Tara, jump at it.

Soup - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

The above is a quick iPhone shot of the soup that Tara is styling and photographing above. Girl is a genius AND she’s bringing out her first cookbook later this year. Jump at that too. We saw galleys and it looks FABULOUS.

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Parsnip Cake with Bourbon Brown Butter Frosting

Parsnip Cake with Bourbon Brown Butter Frosting Photography by www.paolathomas.com

As promised many moons ago I can now finally reveal my recipe for the Parsnip Cake that debuted back in Edible Seattle in January of last year. Editor Tara and I wanted the cakes in this series to make the most of seasonal, local fruits and vegetables, which hugely limited our scope in January when all that seems to be available round these parts is mountains of kale.  

We started playing with the idea of root vegetables and I remembered a carrot cake I had made for the Minx’s first birthday party back in the Dark Ages. The cake I had in mind was a  moist, squidgy cake, dense with raisins, and warmed with spices and maple syrup  – a comforting wintry sort of cake, made all the more so by snowy swirls of cream cheese frosting on the top. And then we started toying with the idea of substituting parsnips for the carrots.

It seems obvious that carrots can be added to cake – their flavour is delicate, sweet and clean and they are delightful eaten raw. Raw parsnips on the other hand are not so obviously appealing – the flavour is woody, less sweet and just deeply, deeply vegetably. So it was with some trepidation that I lifted that first test cake out of the oven. I needn’t have worried, the alchemy of baking had worked again. The parsnips had roasted within the cake to become soft, sweet and totally unrecognisable as parsnips, just adding an intriguing smoky undertone. Make this cake and I defy anyone to identify the secret ingredient. (The Minx adores this cake BTW).

I made a couple of other changes and substitutions, most notably replacing the raisins with tart dried cranberries, as they seemed more seasonal, and I liked the idea of cutting the rich sweetness a little.  A cream cheese frosting, as is usual with carrot cake, seemed to be the way to go, adding another little tang to cut the sweetness, but this time I experimented with browning the butter and adding some bourbon to bring out the smoky woodsiness the parsnips had added to the cake. I warn you now, this frosting is like crack on a spoon.

Parsnip Cake with Bourbon Brown Butter Frosting Photography by www.paolathomas.com

The photography process was interesting too.

Following Tara’s art direction I started experimenting with something fashionably moody and almost Rembrandt-y in its lighting, but that seemed too spare and gloomy for this simple cake with its dark interior and plain white frosting. I decided instead to go for a lighter, cool blue grey palette instead, which would contrast with the rich browns of the cake, but seemed wintry in a more hopeful way and layered on the textures – weatherbeaten wood, rough burlap, vintage lace and hard glass to contrast with the soft sumptuous swirls of the icing.

Parsnip Cake with Bourbon Brown Butter Frosting Photography by www.paolathomas.com

 We decided to slice the cake to make it more interesting and so it didn’t end up being just a giant white blob, but getting the slice positioned correctly was a challenge. Too far forward and the slice was in focus but the cake looked like a heap of mashed potato, too far back and the cake looked lovely, but the slice looked unappetising. It took me many shots before I realised that both cake and slice had to be on the same plane of focus and that I had to position something WAAAAYYYYYY at the back to take the eye through the photo and get enough blur that it wasn’t distracting to the main event.

They both took some experimenting, but I ended up being delighted with how both cake and image ended up. And I suggest you root around (ha!) in your vegetable bin, find some parsnips and get baking. And without further ado, here is the recipe you need.

Parsnip Cake with Bourbon Brown Butter Frosting
Serves 8
A rich moist parsnip cake with a decadent take on a cream cheese frosting
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Prep Time
45 min
Cook Time
1 hr
Total Time
1 hr 45 min
Prep Time
45 min
Cook Time
1 hr
Total Time
1 hr 45 min
For the cake
  1. 1 1/3 cups grated parsnip (woody cores removed)
  2. 1 cup dried cranberries, roughly chopped
  3. 6 tablespoons olive oil
  4. 1 cup light brown sugar
  5. 1 2/3 cups wholewheat flour
  6. 1 teaspoon baking soda
  7. 1 teaspoon baking powder
  8. 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  9. 1/2 teaspoon powdered cinnamon
  10. 8 tablespoons maple syrup
  11. 4 tablespoons orange juice
For the frosting
  1. 1 stick of butter
  2. 8 oz pack of cream cheese
  3. 1 cup powdered (icing) sugar (sieved)
  4. 2 tablespoons bourbon, or to taste (optional)
For the cake
  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit (190 degrees Celsius)
  2. Grease and line the bottom of an 8 inch springform cake pan
  3. Combine the parsnip, cranberries, oil and sugar in a large bowl.
  4. Add the flour, baking soda and powder, nutmeg and cinnamon, maple syrup and orange juice. Stir until everything is combined in a sticky, wet batter.
  5. Spoon into the prepared cake pan, level the top and bake for an hour, or until a skewer, knitting needle or stick of spaghetti stuck into the cake come out clean. The top of the cake should be firm.
  6. Let the cake cool in the pan before removing.
For the frosting
  1. Melt half the butter in a small pan over a low heat, stirring occasionally, until the milky solids turn medium brown and give off a nutty aroma (3-5 minutes).
  2. Remove from the heat immediately and set aside.
  3. Cool for about three minutes.
  4. Beat together the cream cheese and remaining butter.
  5. Pour on the browned butter and mix on a low speed until the mixture is cooled.
  6. Add the sugar a little at a time until fully combined and then increase the speed and beat the frosting until it is light and fluffy (about 3-5 minutes)
  7. Add bourbon to taste and mix until fully combined
  8. Use a knife or offset spatula to spread a thin 'crumb coat' of frosting over the fully cooled cake
  9. Add another generous layer of frosting and craft swirls with the back of a spoon.
Notes
  1. The recipe makes an 8 inch cake with frosting. For the large cake in the photograph I used one and half times the cake recipe and a double batch of frosting.The larger cake can be baked in the same 8 inch springform tin, but add around 15 minutes to the baking time and make sure you check for doneness with a skewer. Split the larger cake into two separate layers before icing.
Adapted from my own recipe that was originally published in Edible Seattle
Adapted from my own recipe that was originally published in Edible Seattle
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That Was the Year That Was–2014

 

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography by www.paolathomas.com

We’re back from a truly delightful break in Whistler for Christmas, staying again at the Chateau Whistler, in what is now becoming an unbreakable family tradition. This year the usual Christmas magic – gorgeous decorations, amazing food, log fires and Santa on tap – was enhanced by an abundance of crisp white snow right down in Whistler village, which made for wonderful winter walks round frozen Lost Lake (this urban girl has never walked on a frozen lake before), snowball fights and snowman building with the Minx and lots of opportunity to contemplate ‘stuff’.

Lost Lake, Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography by www.paolathomas.com

2014 was my best year in ages, for all sorts of reasons.

I started getting paid to do what I love. I now not only write and photograph regularly for Edible Seattle, but I also write and photograph a regular weekly travel and lifestyle column in local online magazine Seattle Refined. I’ve also photographed on occasion for Zagat’s Seattle and completed various paid freelance gigs. The pay is not amazing, but it is approximately eighty four gazillion times more than I was earning this time last year, and these gigs have given me the credibility I need to take on additional clients and approach other publications. Here’s hoping for oodles more interesting work in 2015 (and if you’d like to work with me, my portfolio is here, drop me a line!)

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography by www.paolathomas.com

On my big birthday in 2013 I decided to hire a life coach, and 2014 was the year I worked with the amazing Susan Hyatt. She helped set in motion all sorts of deep-seated changes which I’m still processing and working on, but which I think will bear fruit into 2015 and beyond. You know I’m not a particularly woo-woo person, but I can’t recommend life coaching highly enough if you want to squeeze the most juice out of life’s lemons and make the very, very best lemonade. One of the simple things I worked on with Susan was to try and incorporate as much JOY as possible into my everyday life and do more of the things I really love to do and which nourish my spirit. I’m still really bad at doing this – at the beginning of 2014 I found it difficult even to identify the things which bring me joy – but I’m trying hard and getting better. Sometimes we get so caught up in deferring gratification and playing on Facebook that we end up having no gratification at all.

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Having a bit more money coming in allowed me to travel more in 2014 than I had since before the Minx was born. Travel brings me JOY like nothing else, and I missed it so much when the Minx was little.  This year I was lucky enough to go to New York twice, once on an insanely wonderful BlogTour, which was a huge highlight of my year; to Tuscany for a life-changing (and I don’t use such terms lightly) workshop with Jamie Schler and Ilva Beretta of Plated Stories, where I decided I need to do more writing; to Rome and Sardinia for a lovely family holiday; and to Thailand, with Susan Hyatt, where I fell in love with a country, its people and its food.

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography by www.paolathomas.com

I also spent a lot of time working on my photography, with is something else that brings me JOY. One of the things I love most about photography is how I learn something new every single time I pick up my camera, how every shoot brings a different set of challenges to overcome and puzzles to figure out. I’m still very, very far from where I want to be as a photographer, but having something to work towards is half the fun. Aside from the Plated Stories workshop, the two workshops I attended in October at Aran Goyoaga’s studio in Seattle were both spectacularly thought-provoking and useful and I hope to do more in 2015.

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography by www.paolathomas.com

It seems I managed to pick up one or two good health habits along the way too. I received a free Barre3 class on my birthday in September (after half-heartedly attending one or two classes earlier in the year) and for some reason it struck a chord that time and I have since been going 4-5 times a week. It’s not exactly fun, and I haven’t lost much weight, but I feel immeasurably stronger, more toned and more flexible and my body feels so much better. I’ve just bought a year’s unlimited pass at vast expense, so I’m going to have to keep this up in 2015.

Over the last two years I’ve been battling adrenal fatigue and ever-worsening insomnia, which came to a head over the summer when I could hardly sleep at all. My health was depressing the hell out of me and we discussed it at length on the Thailand retreat, when one of my fellow retreaters mentioned that I might want to look at a therapy called TRE. It’s deeply weird, involving exercises that fatigue your core muscles and trigger off a natural instinctual shaking throughout the body, but it’s meant to bring deep relaxation and release deep-seated tension. I started doing the exercises and immediately started sleeping better and within two weeks I was sleeping through the night, something I have not done in years and I’ve been sleeping well ever since, with only a handful of bad nights. Not feeling tired during the day has been a revelation - I honestly couldn’t remember what that felt like – and recent bloodwork has shown that various hormonal imbalances I’ve had are starting to correct themselves. I’m working with a naturopath and a health coach to continue improving things through diet and am doing a Whole 30 for the duration of January.

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Finally, and I know a ton of other bloggers have mentioned this, but at the tail end of last year I read a book entitled The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up which I think will actually be life-changing. It’s a charming book and an easy read and essentially encourages you to only keep the stuff around you that brings you JOY and let go of the stuff that doesn’t so it can bring joy to someone else. For some reason that really resonated with me – I now have ‘permission’ to keep that threadbare sweater which is so very comfortable and cosy and to let go of  expensive stuff I bought online which just doesn’t suit me, even though I’ve hardly ever worn it. Already many bags of stuff have gone to Goodwill and I want to continue this process slowly but surely in 2015 . I’m sure that freeing up space and the time spent in ‘stuff management’ will make room for other, more joyful, stuff to come into my life.

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography by www.paolathomas.com

So my resolutions for 2015 are really to keep doing more of the same:

- Keep going with the TRE and hopefully keep on sleeping (honestly, if I can just keep this resolution I will be happy).

- Attend barre class regularly for a whole year

- Eat  nourishing food to rebalance my hormones

- Continue working on my photography (and writing) as much as I can

- Travel more (and to that end the year has already got off to a fabulous start with an invitation to go on another BlogTour to the Ambiente consumer goods fair in Frankfurt this February).

- Keep going with the magical tidying up

- Keep on using the fancy planner. It has hugely improved my productivity and focus.

- Refocus this blog as a living portfolio and blog at least once a week (as the lovely Luisa Brimble advised me to do during her workshop).

 

And my word of the year? Well, if you haven’t guessed already, it’s JOY – to continue focusing on activities which bring me joy; to squeeze as much JOY as I can out of the boring stuff that has to be done; and to surround myself with the people and objects which bring me JOY and let go of those that don’t.

Are you making resolutions this year? Or choosing to focus on a specific word? What are you doing and what word have you chosen?

 

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography by www.paolathomas.com

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