Inspiration from a new generation

Jonathan's second report from Thailand and the story of a young woman who devotes herself to that co

Still at the Wongsanit ashram, just outside Bangkok. The two meetings that I have come here to attend, along with around 25 other ecovillagers from around the world – a mid-term review of the Gaia Education project (www.gaiaeducation.org) and a Board meeting of the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) – have just come to a close.

Now, most of the meeting participants have scheduled in a few days of sight-seeing and travels. A small group of us leave in the morning for a two-day tour of several of the villages with which the ashram is working. The ashram really is a remarkable centre of spiritual exploration and social activism. It plays home to a community of around 30 mostly young people who are devoting their lives to spiritual practice and to empowering poor and marginalised communities throughout the sub-region – including Burma, Lao and Cambodia as well as Thailand.

The entire community is rarely on site at the same time – generally, a number of the members are always out in the villages working on community development initiatives or in formal training programmes. At present, a group of grassroots leaders from Burma is being trained by ashram members in leadership skills in a training centre in Bangkok.

Let me introduce you to one of the community members, a young woman by the name of Om. Om is 27 and has lived here in the ashram for around four years. Previously, she worked as a research assistant with Japanese academics in the villages of north-east Thailand, the region where she was born.

Growing dissatisfied with the sterility of academic research, she spread her wings and began working as a volunteer for various organisations, looking for a deeper sense of meaning. When she came to work as a volunteer here at the ashram for six months in 2003, she was introduced to Buddhist meditation and became progressively happier and clearer about what she wanted to do in her life.

Now, she travels between ‘alternative’ communities in Thailand, helping them to identify and satisfy their needs and to network with each other. The alternative communities scene in Thailand covers a fascinating mix of types. There are middle-class urban folk who have left the hassle of the city to reconnect with the land and a simpler, more land-based lifestyle.

There are also traditional communities that are seeking to resist the incursions of the ‘modern’ world that dismantle their local economies and cultures and that lure their young people away. A good number of these are ‘tribal’ communities, peopled by indigenous people who have lived in forest communities for centuries. Finally, there are Buddhist monastic and other alternative education centres that are also seeking to retain what is best in traditional Thai culture.

Om spends up to a month at a time, living in these communities, building relations of trust with their inhabitants and helping empower them to resist the steam-roller of modern, urban culture. She is especially devoted to helping young people create lives for themselves that are meaningful and satisfying.

Most recently, Om has also been active in international youth networking with NextGEN, the Youth Council of GEN. She was one of 20 young people who met in mid-2006 in an ecovillage in Mexico to build global networks of solidarity and exchange among young people devoted to a shared vision of sustainability.

Om is one of a new generation that is devoting itself to a life of service in the cause of social and ecological healing. Within the ecovillage movement, a new generation of leaders is emerging, under the umbrella of NextGEN, answering the call of the tumultuous and startling times we are moving into.

All these words, of course, represent only the menu. The meal will be served over the next two days as we move among the people and the projects in the villages with which the ashram is working. How many rich and inspiring stories wait to unfold for our delight and inspiration?! More next week – watch this space.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad