The Freshness of Spring
As the world around us greens and grows, there is an explosion of vigour that we’ve been waiting for all winter. Our bodies are aching for freshness after a winter of root vegetables, pickles and preserves. Our store cupboards are emptying and as the days lengthen and the sun starts to warm, there is a desire to move away from the high-sugar comfort of the slow-cooked stews and soups that have sustained us.
Words by Kat Judge (AliKats co-Founder)
Woven by Anna Rose Hughes (Writer)
The Freshness of Spring: Celebrated on our Mindfulness Retreats in Morzine
Spring foods are delicate. Green, fragrant and refreshing with an undertone of bitterness, they seem to epitomise the essence and contrariness of the season. There’s no need for shells or husks now, plants rise up naked and brave in the new light. There is an intensity to the flavour of spring herbs, particularly as they unfurl in the early morning. They must be bold to flourish at this unpredictable time of year; their strength gives us energy in turn to throw off the heavy coats of winter.
There is a restraint to spring, despite the abundance. It is a short season, with a quick turnover. Timings are not given – they’re so dependent on the weather. The forager needs to pay attention to what’s growing, grab it when it comes and preserve it straight away. Oils, butters, pestos of wild garlic; tisanes of wild herbs and syrups of woodland violets. The more delicate the herb, the harder it is to preserve.
The seasonality of Mountain Food
Eating seasonally, embracing the terroir and local traditions, creates a healthy, wholesome authenticity of life and experience. This is a vital part of the AliKats ethos – treading lightly, living in harmony with nature. It is the lowest impact way of eating and causes the least damage to the environment. However, being in the mountains, at 1000 metres, has its own difficulties when living and eating seasonally.
A huge influence for the AliKats kitchen is the cuisine of Norbert Niederkofler, the three-Michelin-starred chef of St. Hubertus in the Dolomites. His food is “based on a profound principle of respect for the rhythms of nature and the balance of the environment and those who live in it”. His book Cook the Mountain is a bible for living, cooking and eating in a sustainable, authentic way.
For Niederkofler, this new take on mountain gastronomy is an opportunity “to create a more beautiful, cleaner and equitable world”. It celebrates the interrelationship between the land and the people who live on it. As the mountains protect and nourish us, so we must do so to them in turn. We live by this philosophy at AliKats, and it is central to our wellness retreats, too. Days immersed in the surrounding beauty are nourished by the flavours of the mountains. Lessons in foraging become the sustenance of evening meals. We gather inspiration from the wild emergence of the world around us and create nourishing, flavourful food that feeds the soul.
Dandelions, nettles, wild mint and thyme, Jack-by-the-hedge, ribwort plantain, bladder campion. There is romance in the names, excitement when stumbling upon them in the verges and forests. Wildflowers are just starting; fresh birch leaves are delicious; and the new needles of pine make wonderful infusions. Morels, the wild spring mushroom, grow on woodland paths trodden by deer and fertilised by horses.
In the garden there is asparagus and rhubarb, a joyful glut that only lasts so long. Sometimes there are early lettuces and radishes, too. The more Mediterranean herbs have (hopefully) survived the winter, in the shadow of the house. But in the kitchen we’re embracing wilder, mainly foraged things.
The middle of May is Les Saints de Glace, the festival of the ice saints and the designated period for first planting outside. It spreads over a few days, but it is a fairly safe guide to the changeable mountain weather. Things will get busy in the garden now. And as we move into summer the vegetable patch will come into its own.
But for now, nature is our garden. The ground gives forth exactly what we need to cure the ills of winter. Many of these wild plants have clever partnerships. Nettles, for example, contain both iron and Vitamin C. Good King Henry, too. We cannot absorb one without the other. We cannot pretend we do not need the wisdom of the natural world.
The traditions of the terroir
Local farmers are the guardians of this space. The indigenous cultural traditions of the mountain have not changed much over the years. They are rooted in the seasons and the place, taking care of the land while only taking what you need. Even in the hunting season, running from September to the end of January, there is respect for the taking of life, and an understanding of the balance.
As the livestock are led out to summer pastures, La Fête de la Transhumance honours this ancient tradition. In France, many local customs are passed down through food, the novelty of each season’s bounty celebrated. Les Fêtes de l’Asperge and Printemps thrill in the variety of spring produce; November brings Beaujolais Nouveau Day, when the wine is drunk fresh from the harvest and toasted with festivals and fireworks. In noting the turning of the year in this way, and eating in harmony with our environment, we are in tune with both the body and the rhythms of the locality.
All nature responds to the explosion of spring energy after the dormancy of winter. As the animals return to grazing, this new life has an impact on the dairy, too. Spring pastures give forth spring cheeses, lighter bodied and often with a floral taste: fresh and creamy goats’; Comté taking over from the Vacherin of winter; a homemade ricotta delicious with a foraged salad. The herbs we gather come from these same pastures; we ingest their freshness both directly, and indirectly through the milk. We can want for little more than this – the seasonal variety of these fresh spring offerings give us exactly what we need and crave.
Retreats in harmony with nature
The philosophy of living and eating in harmony with our environment runs throughout AliKats mountain retreats. The mindfulness that is so central to the retreat experience extends to the food. Delicious, nutritious vegetarian meals are sourced locally and inspired by the season. A salsa verde foraged on mountain walks makes asparagus, morels and hollandaise sing with freshness. Smoothies and juices of nettle – deeply cleansing and anti-inflammatory – provide the most intense version of spring goodness.
It is about using what’s there, in the most sustainable way we can. It is embracing the seasons and their offerings, and respecting all that nature gives us. As the herb supplier to St. Hubertus, Maria Teresa Bortoluzzi, explains:
“Nature is my pharmacy… The goodness you can find inside herbs and flowers is just incredible… Nature is clever. Everything is there for a reason.”
In partnership with Caitlin Cockerton of Great Heights Pathways, AliKats Mountain Holidays hosts seasonal Elevated Outlook open retreats this spring, summer and autumn.
Set in the stunning French Alps, these uplifting wellness and mindfulness retreats offer time and space for reflection in nature. Whether climbing mountains, forest bathing or practicing yoga, beautifully curated, guided experiences foster a deep sense of connection and alignment. Nurtured by the comfort of a welcoming chalet and seasonal, locally sourced vegetarian meals, these wild, soulful adventures will leave you inspired by the wisdom and energy of the natural world.
* If you’re a last-minute person and are feeling the pull of Spring Awakening, we have a limited number of spaces remaining on our Spring Awakening Retreat (24-28th May 2023) – click here to speak to us ASAP!
* Summer Flourishing Retreat // June 28 – July 2, 2023. Connect to register or find out more.
* Autumn Harvest Retreat // October 11 – 15, 2023. Connect to register or find out more.
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