Taste and see Iona

September 21, 2011

Recently we returned from a trip to the United Kingdom, including a five-day visit to the island of Iona in western Scotland, a mecca of Celtic Christianity. At first glance, it was difficult to square our expectations with the modest village and simple landscape we found there. But soon we noticed that something was very different there — beginning with the food.

The food on Iona was delicious, simple and artfully prepared. But good food can be had in many places. Something more than the aesthetic aspects of the food was affecting us in a powerful way.

We explored the north, south, east, and west of this human-scaled place, only one mile wide and 3.5 miles long. The spiritual charisma of the raw nature was palpable. Our leisurely days were filled with wind and waves, rocks and relics, long walks and talks. We watched tidal pools come and go with the tide. Since sheep outnumber cars, walking anywhere involves feet hitting the earth, not pavement.

These outdoor adventures in cool and rainy weather generated quite an appetite. As we refueled at our hotel and other eating spots, we began to notice certain patterns. Vegan options were abundant, and they were not predictable choices but yummy surprises such as a huge roast beet stuffed with barley "risotto" and hazelnuts paired with asparagus and a spot of lemon sauce.

Lighter, gluten-free grains such as oats, barley, and rye often replaced heavier grains such as wheat and rice. Soups such as carrot and coriander or potato leek were made with vegetable broth and no dairy. Breads were coarse and grainy, served with creamy butter. Green salads were piled high — and you could see the very garden they were grown in while you ate them. Herbs and spices were used in subtle ways. Nothing tasted sweet except fruit and dessert.

Meat and seafood menu options typically indicated where the food came from — the location and farm for meat and farmed seafood or the sea where fish was caught. A local businessman advertised that he would butcher animals at his place or yours, a far cry from the large-scale meat factories we hear about in the U.S. Watching chicken, sheep and cattle frolicking on the hills didn't put me in the mood for meat, but I had a bite of my husband's local steak a couple of times. The taste and quality were superb.

We had to giggle at one menu, which described how the farmed salmon being served was raised with the best interests of the fish in mind! Even so, we appreciated the attentive concern for the fish prior to the frying pan.

At our hotel, the kitchen door was often open and you could see the staff wrangling large piles of vegetables and preparing meals. One day they offered a tour of the organic garden. The gardener, a young woman from eastern Germany, knew when the plants would be ready for harvest, and how likely the plants were to make it through the winter. We saw where her shed used to be until a monstrous storm blew it away last May. She explained how the garden supplied only a modest part of the hotel's enormous demand for fruits and vegetables. She introduced us to a green plant similar to arugula called "rocket," which we found on our salad that evening. The raspberries had been picked the day before, so we knew where the berries came from for the fruit crisp and raspberry muffins we ate.

The ancient Celts called Iona a "thin place," a place where the seen and unseen worlds come closely together so we can sense the divine more readily. Today this is still the case, not only because of the magnificent scenery but a way of life that integrates faith, nature, work, and community into a healthy lifestyle, meaningful worship, and a society without mcmansions or slums.

Respect and gratitude for God's creation are manifested in the faces, food, farms, and prayers of Iona. Every day, we were eating food infused with the hope that comes from the rising sun, thriving plants, the cross of Christ, and the love of God. We were consuming the richest of fare, a feast for body, mind, and soul — and we could feel the difference.

Taste and see that the LORD is good;
blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.
Psalm 34:8

To view pictures from Iona visit Faith and Nature on Facebook.