Naval connections: nearly a cure for our blindness?

probationery third officer melville brown WRNSFellow naval officer James Holman and I both lost our sight due to uveitis.  But he became blind some 200 years ago when women stayed at home while their menfolk were at sea – often for years.  Could he have imagined that the Women’s royal Naval Service would be formed some 100 years later?  And we have gone from strength to strength: last October I celebrated 100 years of Wrens with an outstanding lunch in Virginia Beach (USA) and you can share those great party food recipes (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WmTqhC6N7Q&t=8s).

But, back to that shared eye condition.  The cause seems to be that our immune systems attack our own bodies causing the inflammation and damage.  But now there’s possible hope on the way.  This week I was at Moorfield’s eye hospital in London as, potentially, the only UK patient that might be able to take part in the first stage of research by the French Eyevensys biotech company.

They are investigating whether their gene-therapy can cause cells in the eye to produce an anti-inflammatory protein to fight the disease.  I learned that it has already achieved positive pre-clinical results. The medication is delivered in to the eye through a fine needle   but a key innovation is the use of tiny electrical impulses (electro transfer) which, although evaluated for other treatments, hasn’t yet been used on the eye.  The idea is that the treatment stimulates the body to become its own factory creating the answer to the condition.

For me, there was no prospect of any improvement to my sight but perhaps I could help others with the condition by testing whether this process could reduce doses and frequency of injections.  I wasn’t worried whether I would see again or not – but more about the practical implications of taking part in the trial.  It would have been good to support the hospital after they have cared for me for over 20 years.

But I was too optimistic: both my eyes have too much damage to their structure.  It would be impossible to monitor any consequences of the treatment – it would truly be a blind study!  I was sad not to be able to help but glad that my needle-phobia wouldn’t be put to the test!

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful, having won the prize commemorating James Holman, to have contributed to an answer to the condition that blinded him?  There’s more about him and the prize run by San Francisco’s LightHouse organisation at (www.lighthouse-sf.org).

Meanwhile, lack of sight didn’t hold him back -or me so you can enjoy the salmon recipe on my website: www.bakingblind.com.

Penny

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Wrens know how to organise.

The volume climbed at the WRNS 100 centenary lunch party while it took minimum effort to put together a great chicken dish to feed the crowd– see how we did it (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMp_N573JSA).

Jo, my old naval colleague, took our week in Virginia Beach, USA, by the scruff of the neck and shook it until every minute was completely occupied.  She produced a programme with military precision having co-opted a corps of collaborative cooks all ready to create their culinary magic on camera.

During one short week we managed to pack in four different sorts of bread, soup, three different fish dishes, party chicken, two desserts and the most peculiar “overnight casserole” that turned out to be a strange savoury bread-and-butter pudding!  Amidst all of this, we caught a glimpse of Virginia Beach and the huge naval base at Norfolk, managed another lunch party and a great Mexican welcome dinner.  It took all my stamina to keep up with the tight schedule but it was superb to meet so many other enthusiastic cooks.  But there was no stopping Jo: she kept teaching her Pilates classes, taking her exercise sessions and even managed to pack in a country music concert – I just tried to catch up on sleep!

Penny

Wrens know how to party!

We celebrated the 2017 centenary of the Women’s royal Naval Service (WRNS) with lunch for former Wrens and women still serving in the Royal Navy in Virginia Beach, USA.  This was an impressive group of women who upheld the very best traditions of the navy by throwing a fabulous party.  Catch a glimpse of the fun (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9k2mN2ea7oA).

Virginia Beach is just a stone’s throw from Norfolk, the largest naval base in the world, and lots of the former wrens had met their husbands while serving in NATO – especially in Naples, Italy.

With a naval guard of honourThat was the story of Jo who was hosting Toby and I throughout the stay.  She and I had originally done our WRNS officer training at the Britannia royal Naval College in Dartmouth back in the dark ages of 1978.  I went out to work in Naples and when I left (exceptionally, without husband), she took over from me three years later  and met Nick who whisked her out of the WRNS and back to the States.

The stars of our celebration lunch were fellow Commander David and his wife, Fran.  She had done all the organisation and devised the menu:

Prosecco

Salmon with Sundried Tomatoes & Goats Cheese

Chicken with Lemon, Garlic & Rosemary

New Potatoes

Roasted Asparagus

Green Salad

Warm Peaches with Honey and Rum

Lemon Choux Buns

Cheese & Biscuits

Port

Coffee & Mints

Originally, I was due to cook with a US Navy chef but, at the last minute, her admiral boss needed her for entertaining his own lunch party.  So David stepped in to the breach and, although not a regular cook, proved just what is possible with good preparation.

Our early task was to make the choux pastry profiteroles for dessert – and I have to confess that the first batch was an utter disaster!  They were flat and limp and totally impossible to stuff with lemon cream.  But they would have made excellent blinis (if we’d left out the sugar) topped with smoked salmon.

And, while we cooked hard, the noise level of our guests rose in proportion to the amount of Prosecco being consumed.  They were all having a wonderful time but we needed to start feeding them soon … More of the dishes next time.

Penny

Safe haven from storm violence.

Tropical Storm Nate turned a long difficult drive across Costa Rica in to a scary six hour ordeal of white-knuckled battle with flooded roads, wind-tossed debris and torrential rain.    Undaunted, and probably foolishly, we carried on to reach the capital city, San Jose, so you can see this masterclass (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BD1cHjsQogs) of home-cooked Costa Rican dishes by professional chef Mario. Finding him was tricky in the dark and awful weather and, as is usual in Costa Rica, no address: you just have to phone your host and they come to find you!

His kitchen was a haven of peace after all the hours of storm noise – and it quickly filled with the gentler sounds and smells of cooking.   It was just blissful to relax with a glass of wine and excellent simple food expertly cooked after a difficult day.

And the following morning was just as tricky.  I’d been planning a farewell kitchen session with the Costa Rican association of blind people in the capital’s top cookery school.  But we found that the city had been closed down as the government warned everyone to stay inside due to the continuing storm.  We heard from contacts in the UK that flights to San Jose were cancelled and began to wonder if we would be able to fly out the following day.

The hotel only offered a breakfast buffet so videographer toby went on a scavenging hunt to secure enough food and water for the day, in case the situation got even more risky.

Thank goodness the weather was rather calmer next day and the flight out was possible.  But, after all the drama and fabulous food of costa rica, we would have preferred our last memories to have been better  than the rather dry sandwiches and warm water of our final meal there.  If you want Western comforts mixed with life on the wild side, Costa Rica is just perfect – but perhaps better outside the rainy season!

Penny

Digging out dinner guests

Guests lost in the jungle and bogged down in mud was the drama of my second dinner service at Noam’s HiR restaurant in Tamarindo, Costa Rica.  Although late, dinner succeeded and you can see how I turned classic Victoria sponges in to more exotic desserts with chilli and coriander https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cyAYELsPtgo

In the rainy season, the jungle roads are treacherous with pot holes, mud and torrents of water.  Our missing dinner guests were marooned only a few hundred yards away but their car was stuck in the mud.  Chef Noam dashed out with other guests in tow.    He was as handy with a pick-axe as with his chef’s knife and, within minutes, they soggily joined the party.  This was service with a difference!  As they say in Costa Rica, Pura vida – the answer to everything.

This whole week had been wonderful for discovering new foods growing wild in the jungle:

  • Okinawa spinach – green on one side and purple on the other.
  • Mayan tree spinach – which is toxic when uncooked.
  • Turmeric plants with large leaves – just dig out some roots to use.
  • Ginger plants with thin strap leaves for a light ginger taste and the roots/bulbs of ginger emerging from underground and to be cut.

And every home needs cleaner ants.  They rid houses of other insects and animals.  But they do bite humans too.  They don’t eat our food but will get rid of cockroaches and even something as large as a scorpion.  So you need to know which ant is which and keep the good ones.

Penny

Blind cook fails with simplest recipe!

Creating completely new dishes in Noam’s tiny original jungle kitchen was a challenge from the start: strange ingredients, unfamiliar equipment, the pressure of a seven course dinner menu for paying guests.  It was all made even trickier by the heat and deluges of rain plus the complete lack of water inside!  You can see the video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CirMoelCNVg) of my struggles.

I took the easy course with citrus tartlets using lemon mandarinos in place of the classic lemons.  Driver/trainee doctor Victor squeezed all the juice while I got on with the pastry which, of course, was baked blind using balls of kitchen foil to keep the tartlets in shape.

That first night there was a party of nine Americans celebrating a birthday at Noam’s HiR restaurant. The jungle was filled by their music and laughter while the tin roof above their heads rang with the torrents of rain.

Noam and I juggled our way through each course’s complicated elements without any obvious mishaps or delays.  The result was a very happy group of diners, clean plates and tantalised palates – few had encountered anything similar before!

But my attempt at meringues to top the tartlets was a complete disaster: every time I added the sugar, the whisked egg whites collapsed – it was probably the pervading dampness.  I did manage to produce sweet egg white pancakes which, when topped with the lemon mandarino sorbet plus the mangostan sauce and segments, just about passed muster.  The trick was to sound confident and convincing that this had been the plan all along!

Penny

Not for the faint-hearted: blind cook in South American jungle.

Pure chance and readiness to take a risk took me to Tamarindo on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.  When I’d been planning my Baking Blind tour, I’d simply asked everyone I knew for international contacts and, when one took the trouble to phone me, I just jumped at the chance to cook with him in South America.  You too can meet this truly original chef in his jungle restaurant in the latest video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PH-m1Jh0BhQ).

Driving across the country from the capital, San Jose, was not great during the rainy season.  Deluges of rain, a treacherous new single lane highway awash with water and littered with pot holes and sleeping policemen   added a frisson of hazard to the six hour journey.

But the local Tamarindo market the following day was a cook’s dream: farmers generously cut up samples of their strange and exotic fruits for me amidst the hustle and bustle of their customers.    I tried the mangostan (a small black fruit with the sepals of the original flower at the base), Chinese mamanchino, Lemon mandarino, the small Malaquina orange and Dragon fruit.

While the growers were local people, there were many others from all over the world.  Some explained that they wanted the relative freedom and anonymity of this new country, where they could follow their individual and alternative off-grid lifestyles and ambitions.  Several were selling an intriguing cross section of their artisan hand-crafted food in the market: French croissants and eclairs; bagels; fermented kimchi and more.  The sample of 95% cocoa-solids chocolate was a revelation of subtle, complex and sometimes bitter flavours that lasted on the tongue.  Afterwards, the coconut milk and lime ice-cream, spiked with lime zest and a little white sugar, was refreshing but I missed out on the peanut butter ice-cream that had sold out.  With the blare of the market music and the loud chatter of the people in the background, I was swapping charcuterie recipes with the producer of the German sausages and other preserved, smoked meats – I hadn’t imagined such a cosmopolitan mix of people and cuisines.

Then we were off-road along bumpy jungle tracks to Noam’s HIR restaurant.  First, we explored his new facilities which were in the final stage of construction before walking down to the original kitchen.  It was a simple small structure to serve his dinner guests under the corrugated iron shelter, open to the jungle on all sides.  The whole area was teeming with wildlife from the ants and insects, the birds and his own pet cat and dog.  And everything, including me having stepped in to a deep muddy puddle, was rather damp and soggy in the rain.  My spirits were low after the days of long travel, not much sleep and now this challenging environment in which to invent completely new dishes – I confess that my enthusiasm was equally damp.  You can see whether I managed to get through it all over the next few weeks.

Finally, watch out for the crocodiles near those long inviting sandy beaches on the Tamarindo Pacific coast: the locals know all about them so assume that visitors will too!

Penny