Living greener as therapy: how I stumbled upon plasticless, trees and diy protein

The primordial apple tree: in bloom 2017, bore small fruit in 2018, and overcompensated in 2019.

People talk a lot about transition and friction as an opportunity for growth. I spent the last three years in more than one - a personal transition, a spiritual one, and an ecological one. Since I relocated to Brussels and got out of my warm bubble, I have been living communally with 3-4 people at a time, in a shared house in Brussels, with @alberto, @Nadia, more recently @winnieponcelet, and with many from the edgeryders network staying in our guestroom or using the office space (@Alex_levene, @bridget_mckenzie, @natalia_skoczylas, @Johncoate, @matthias, @matteo_uguzzoni). Some of us call this community house The Reef.

When I moved in I was 29, at a point in my life when I was asking myself what is out there, post-careerism and post-ambitions from my 20s. I was also nearing a textbook millenial burnout.

I actively looked for hobbies. I tried meditation and even went on a silent 10 days retreat, but the habit of sitting quietly with myself didn’t quite stick. I began practicing yoga, and to this day I am mentally healthier because of it. I took French classes intensively, volunteered for a film festival, all to keep myself busy. I was taking long walks in the city (min 3km daily), and went on a bunch of hikes with Brussels Hiking Group (night hikes highly recommended!). Cars were definitely out of my life.

I cared about food around the house as much as anyone raised in a modest household would. There, shopping extravaganzas and waste were simply unaffordable.

Back in Cluj, my hometown, @ponyo and I were organising community dinners with wasted food. So while in Brussels, I made sure the household food waste was kept at a minimum, by installing a simple rule of thumb: if you find leftover food in the fridge, just eat it!

Taking the Plastic Free July worldwide challenge was an opportunity to map places where you can buy in bulk in the city - not just food, but also detergents and cosmetics. Even if the bulky products have their own carbon footprint by the time they reach the shop containers, I figured I at least contribute to decreasing the amount of waste after buying. Some of the habits I learned that July stayed on (reusable drinking bottles, travel eating kits etc), but it continues to be a challenge.

I met and befriended @Puja, a wonderful lady who makes her own toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner! She came to visit and brought not only recipes for natural cosmetics (to my shame, I’ve yet to try them), but also the first plant at The Reef after the primordial tree: a geranium which I didn’t think would last a week in my care, but it’s been alive and kicking to this day. Over time, our courtyard which was anything but a garden got plenty of gifts: Flemish and Portuguese apple trees, strawberries, we planted mint and other herbs, and even Georgian kiwi trees! By ‘we’ I mean anyone who would be around the house and cared to join.

One of my better trials with sourdough bread.

It is from Puja that I learned how to make sourdough bread, and kept learning at a workshop at @Yannick’s Fermenthings, highly educational space. With inspiration from other friends I also started fermenting kefir, kimchi, kombucha (this one didn’t stick as a routine), and the good old Eastern European pickles. Or trying :slight_smile: The biggest surprise was stumbling upon a way to produce daily healthy protein food and become more of a vegetarian than flexitarian! Enter tempeh: magic, all-and-any fermented beans (original tempeh is just soybeans) turned into hyper versatile protein cakes. With a grain mill, a DIY incubator and other tools, my partner and I are deep into learning and producing our own good protein and staple food. Tempeh is now a major hobby, rewarding us both intellectually and practically.

Batches of fresh tempeh for the week. Still looking to somehow replace the plastic production bags [sigh]

With hindsight, I can say that a greener lifestyle came about as therapy for me. I didn’t change because I fundamentally cared about the environment, but because these small actions were contributing to my everyday sense of wellbeing.

Without Ponyo, Puja, Yannick, other activist friends like @irene_1 and @orangeon, the learning curve would be harsh. Others at The Reef house are also exercising daily, biking, eating healthy, lining up reusable glass jars in our kitchen, light electricity saving i.e. turning off the lights, or choosing land travel over flying. At no point did we start with a common plan for energy or resource saving beyond the obvious economies of scale to reduce our cost of living (1 laundry machine for all, 1 cleaning service for all, 1 shared office, and so on). But over time we are becoming collectively more ecological. This happens when you are in a crowd: it only takes one person to care about something, and if the value of it is net positive, others will jump on board.

From a drop in the ocean to the next Edge?

Many people I know do small things to contribute to the fight for the environment, even though, let’s face it, our impact is tiny tiny. Myself, I play more than I ‘work’ on this, because work is the last thing I need more of in my life. Yogis, urban gardeners, activists, no matter which bubble you are in: what can we do more, as a group, that feels healthy and fun? What’s your experience?

I am hosting a series of workshops to meet people in Brussels who want to make green urban living possible - The Reef Community workshops - join us on 14 November! Sign up here.
Or just go ahead and read more about the events before you come.

Living Greener: what actually gives?
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Some of you here know that I spent most of my young adult years on The Farm community in America. We were already vegan when we started as a group in late-60s San Francisco but we had a very incomplete idea of a correct diet.

In the early 70s we started eating soybeans on a regular basis. Soon enough we were making soy milk and tofu on a large scale for our residents. One of our more scientifically-minded members discovered fermented soy cakes from Indonesia: tempeh. We figured out how to grow the spores (grown on sterilized sweet potatoes inoculated in test tubes) well enough that we created a tempeh starter kit that we sold commercially. This was the first commercial offering of tempeh in North America. You can read more of this history on this this timeline.

One of any problems for a vegan is how to get vitamin B12. Without it you get pernicious anemia. We learned that the only way you can get it as a vegan is by eating certain kinds of yeast. But back in those early 70s days, the yeast they sold in health food stores tasted pretty bad. So we hunted through all the kinds that got sold wholesale (there are a lot of them) and we found this one made by Red Star, and I forget their number code which was all they had for a name, that tasted great. So good that we bought it in barrels, bagged it up and sold it. This is what it looks like:

Anyway, we introduced these products to the health food world. In 1975 I went with a crew to 2 major national health food conventions demonstrating tempeh and good tasting yeast to health food stores nationwide. The following year “Mother Earth News” printed a big article about tempeh and then it became much more in demand. That same yeast is now in most supermarkets.

It’s great stuff, tastes very nice. Really good for you.


1977 early – The Farm (Summertown, Tennessee) starts selling America’s first commercial tempeh starter. It is made by Cynthia Bates. In 1977 when Farm Foods was founded, it took over marketing of the tempeh starter. They also sold America’s first Tempeh Kit, made at The Farm.

It’s incredible, so your community The Farm was at yet another turning point of history! The right crowd and the right time, I guess :-). Did you sell the kit for making tempeh at home, including the spores production? Also, do you eat it to this day? From what I’ve seen, like soy, tempeh consumption has been on the rise ever since. It is not very popular in Europe outside of the Netherlands, but hoping we’ll get more of it in the near future! We bought and read The Book of Tempeh (1979), indeed a Bible :slight_smile:

The real innovation I find it to be that you can ferment not just soybeans, but all sorts of beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils, even peanuts! Others also add quinoa, sunflower seeds and other stuff in it… But you can focus on just the local produce around you, that you buy in bulk. And most beans tempehs are super yummy.

About the yeast, I will have to read more and get back to you on that… Not sure what version of it is healthy and popular today?

It was a home kit. DIdn’t sell all that well. It is an unusual food. I eat it still once in awhile. I do still eat a lot of soy though. And about the book - all those books by Bill Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi are excellent. They have a Soy Info Center they run now. Full of good info and advice.

And yes you can ferment just about any plant food.

If you go to a health food store and see about the yeast they sell, it should be yellow and mostly smallish flakes. It probably sells under a number of names. Like I said above, the company that makes it, Red Star, just gives it some number for a name. But it is true - vegans have to get vitamin B12 and this is the one vegan way to get it. The yeast is a by-product of the micro-organisms that make it, not the organisms themselves.


I think helping people be better vegans was among the best public service we did.


So nice! One of the challenges of getting your protein when you’re vegetarian, or your B12 or other stuff is doing it sustainably, as a routine, having it in your house daily. Otherwise the cost of time and attention for your health is big.
I should say, we don’t create the spores for the tempeh culture ourselves. We order big batches of freeze dried culture which last for a year or so.

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Also, if you eat beans regularly like I do, get a pressure cooker. A fully cooked bean should be soft enough that you can mash it on the roof of your mouth with your teeth. A pressure cooker (either stove top or the new electric multi-cookers) not only saves time, but insures that the beans will be fully cooked (if you soak them first, use enough water and cook them for around 20-30 minutes.

And if you want to eat soybeans straight, you have to pressure cook them or they will not ever get soft enough. Back in the earliest days of The Farm, I sometimes had to be the “all night gate man” which meant mainly sitting up in a small gate house in case someone comes through in the wee hours. One of our jobs overnight was monitoring a big pot of soybeans that cooked at a rolling boil all night long. Didn’t matter. Even after cooking all night, they still didn’t get soft enough.

Pressure cooker: every vegetarian should have one. Plus, you can cook kale in 2 minutes in one, and it is perfectly soft to eat. I do it all the time.


They can be pretty expensive. I have one that you can use @noemi - Right now I only use it as a regular pot which is a bit of a waste.

Correct: not cheap. Still worth it.

Pressure cookers are a wonderful technology! Being flexible in their diet was likely a critical factor in what makes humans stand out - and a pressure cooker just boosts that “superpower”. You can eat (and enjoy!) foods that many other mammals have a lot more trouble with.

A good thing to buy used if you have someone mechanically inclined to help you out in case you got one that needs some love and care (play it safe though!). The rubber gaskets and valves are the thing that ages / may need some cleaning, the rest of the pot usually is good for ages.

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Although I am generally a bit of a (multi use) plastic friend @noemi - we did get rid of some of the plastic with waxed fabric in the kitchen. You can also dilute the wax with oils, and voila you have the base for a cosmetic cream or lip balsam etc.

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Have you tried canning / conserving e.g. bread, jams, etc. in the kitchen?

I’ve started doing it 1-2 a year and it is a hugely satisfying affair. Pick berries (bring a stick with a fork in it) or just make a bunch of raisin bread and watch it look as good as the first day after 5 years in a jar.

I don’t have any special equipment, but I do use a microwave and a small amount of water to get my containers germ free (or the go into the over with bread or cake directly).

Might even lend itself to communal ritual making, now that I think of it…

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We have wild huckleberries in our yard that we make into syrup and then can in jars. Dark little members of the blueberry family. Native to this area. Tart but loaded with antioxidants. We have made jam with them but the stems and leaves can be hard to clean off of them. We have this Finnish-made steam juicer that steams the juice out of the berries and thus, syrup. Dresses up a breakfast like you wouldn’t believe when you pour it on pancakes such as the ones we make with freshly ground flour.

I have a flour grinder. Love that…made in Austria, runs like a little Ferrari. I grind this soft spring wheat grown in the south that is low gluten and light in colour. Makes those amazing pancakes and waffles.

And we have two productive apple trees that we can up in some years. This year I’m making pies fresh off the tree…I made my seventh pie this season this morning. Looks like there are about 4-5 more up there on the tree.

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You mean something like this? or for other objects?


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That sounds delicious!
My parents had a similar steam juicer and once I used it to juice a huge batch of apple wine out of their old tries. Quite a fun project.
Bur I preferred blackberry jam making last summer. We made some 18 jars I believe and my daughter had great fun picking the berries and giving away most of the jam in the neighborhood. It is such a primal experience to pick berries I think, but bring some really simple tools (get the berries others don’t) and entertainment (e.g. bluetooth music). Great fun and memories, and very “bite sized” activity.

Exactly like that - but obviously self made. If you like I can bring some beeswax to Valencia, I’m never going to use up all I have.

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Please do! I will be traveling by train and finally will be able to fit stuff in my luggage. Thanks, you made my day :smile:

The steam juicer is a wonderfully simple device. Could have been invented by the ancient Greeks…ours was made in Finland.

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Might be worth checking out for you

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That is a fascinating article. The fact that Japan was a dictatorship at the time I think played a heavy role in Japan being able to undertake such massively cooperative programs (which saved them from the fate of so many societies that outgrew its resources). Also, they didn’t have plastic…

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