Weekend Getaway at the New Life Retreat Centre Dishes Up a Raw Food Smorgasbord

The driveway up to New Life Retreat is so long that the main building looks small at first. But by the time I’ve pulled up to the front door I can see that it’s actually quite large. This is a good sign. I was concerned that the raw vegetarian cuisine (a trend for 2003 said the Globe and Mail) I had signed on to encounter this weekend might be too meager for my taste. But everything here speaks of substance.

I got the same feeling inside the foyer with its view of the living room: giant cedar beams from the days of yore lovingly restored to look like tomorrow, immaculately chinked in white. It was wide open and spacious with views of fields. The kitchen was impressively large with an L-shaped island in the middle. Care, attention, and detail could be seen at a glance.

Upstairs in our immaculate and fresh room Elizabeth and I unpacked, took a peek out the French doors to the balcony, popped clothes in the antique dresser, primped a little and went downstairs to luxuriate in front of the wood stove. Not that it was cold, but a wood stove has that comfort quality, and we wanted to spend a little time with our host Chas (pronounced “Chaz”) Dietrich. Chas is an unassuming guy in his early 40s walking his talk. He is following his dream of putting together a world-class retreat organized primarily around “living foods,” which means foods that have not been cooked. Raw foodists believe that heat denatures food, destroying vital enzymes needed for full digestion. Like most of the raw food enthusiasts I have met, Chas, along with the “angels” on staff, has that gentle healthy glow that speaks of taking care of oneself.

For our welcoming cocktail, Chas prepared a fresh-blended juice drink served in a tall bubbled glass. Made of sunflower and buckwheat sprouts, cucumber, celery and apple juice with a dash of ginger, the cocktail is refreshingly good. As we drink, Chas gives us a quick history of the building, a century farm that was dramatically enlarged 10 years ago with an addition as big as the original. Under his watchful eye, local craftsmen have made the place over stem to stern. Two years ago, a huge solarium was added on two sides of the house; this is where sprouts are grown during three seasons, and where guests gather to enjoy the fine raw food dining on offer. The solarium’s window-walls overlook the fields. “Nicer than I expected,” observes Elizabeth later.

We turn in early but before drifting off to sleep in the utter quiet we both note the quality of the linen, all cotton and down, adorning a just-right mattress atop a hand-made bed. (Linen quality is oft mentioned by visitors in Chas’ stack of guest comments.)

The next day, other guests aren’t scheduled to appear till noon so we have the run of the place in the morning. Well rested, we have breakfast informally by the fire — a fruit salad capped with delicate strands of coconut atop a bed of freshly-rolled rye flakes, all drenched in fresh-blended, date-sweetened almond milk and covered with bee pollen and local maple syrup. It is clear that bulk is not going to be a problem. There were also some pecan-butter on sprouted kamut buns for that dessert touch. The buns are made from sprouted kamut grains blended with olive oil, rosemary, and chopped green onion before being flattened and dehydrated. Zesty! Nothing lackin’ in the snackin’.

So with a full tummy and nothing much to do for a while I browsed through the library and tried to soak up what this raw food business is about.

The basic idea is that raw foods — uncooked, unheated, unprocessed, and usually organic — still retain their digestive enzymes, whereas cooked foods don’t. The theory goes that you can’t get full nutrition without the enzymes and the associated life force that comes from living food. Then there is the argument that I have always found compelling: throughout our evolutionary history — both as humans and proto-humans — our food was not cooked. And no other mammal cooks its food so it is hard to dispute that “raw” is a truly natural diet.

A raw foodist is one who eats at least 75% of their diet raw. (Some radical fellows say 100% raw is 1000% better.) Food choices include fruits, vegetables, sprouts, nuts, seeds, grains, sea vegetables and other unprocessed organic and natural foods. I noticed that the raw food literature is large, often scholarly when it’s not messianic, and rife in claims that eating raw will cure psychological as well as physical ailments. Advocates claim that benefits include increased energy, clearer thinking, greater attunement to the body, and a heightened susceptibility to spiritual impulses — many of the same detoxifying benefits claimed by fasters. So far I was only noticing how much I enjoyed the taste and variety of this food, not to mention how satisfied I was.

Lunch was the first total meal we had and it was over the top awesome, especially since it was spiced with lively conversation from other guests who had pulled up in time to share it. Presentation is important at New Life Retreat. The pizza, for example (one of five dishes), had a juicy and creamy avocado spread spiked with jalapeno and garlic slathered on a buckwheat crust. All was topped with a rich tomato sauce and veggie patterns in an artistic design. Very nice, though perhaps not quite to the level of raw chef Juliano, whose creations in his book Raw, The Uncook Book I drooled over in the library. Juliano’s dishes would look elegant on a Rosedale wall, whether or not anyone ate them.

In the afternoon we went for a cross-country ski and helped shovel off the skating rink. Afterwards, a lovely dinner was accompanied by lively conversation centered around food, nutrition and health. I like the way that this retreat centre harmoniously blends open space for conviviality with private room for rest and whatever.

In the evening, sitting under the stars in the outdoor jacuzzi, I had time to reflect on radical new lifestyle possibilities. Could I incorporate more of the raw lifestyle into my daily routine? It wouldn’t be hard I decided, but a commitment was required. I was quite sure there would be health benefits.

I had more time to continue my ruminations on a relaxed Sunday: great food, new discoveries, food preparation tips, reading, and good conversation. I particularly enjoyed one of their simple desserts — soaked organic apricots and almonds whizzed
in the blender.

By the time we were ready to leave, I was full, relaxed, and happy, and I had learned a bunch. Several ideas I picked up at the retreat are staples of my daily fare now. For example, my blender has pride of place on the counter now, and there are buckwheat and sunflower sprouts in the window. A lot of payoff for a weekend getaway.

In addition to regular raw food introductory weekends, New Life Retreat offers an assortment of health-related events, from sugar-bush jaunts to yoga weekends and organic beekeeping.

How to Get There: The New Life Retreat is a 4 hour drive from Toronto (en route to Ottawa) off Highway 7, not far from Perth. All details at http://www.newliferetreat.com, (613) 259-3337.

Like to try something simple yourself? How about a Tom and Av Lentil Sprout Salad…

Sprout either French or small green lentils (easy, easy — see below) and mix with equal parts of avocado and tomato, add a tetch of grated or finely-chopped red onion to heat it up, and a dressing (which could be as simple as oil and lemon). Toss and serve. It’s that simple.

To sprout lentils: soak for a half-day or more before pouring off the water. Keep in the dark at room temperature for another day or so, rinsing often to prevent drying. They will grow little tails as they sprout. Taste a few and when they are soft and sweet they are ready to eat.

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