Alongside cooking, pewter is one of my passions. Throughout the first leg of my Baking Blind world tour (https://youtu.be/peNM8VqWjgE), I gave special hand-made “medals” to everyone who cooked with me. I tried to capture my trademark stripey apron with a pocketful of kitchen utensils in the original model. Once I’d created the rubber mould, molten pewter was poured in. It took hours of filing, trimming and finishing before each medal could be polished and struck with my personal mark. There are just 41 in the whole world.
I’m lucky enough to be helped by outstanding pewter Master Craftswoman Fleur (http://www.fleurgrenier.co.uk/) in her workshop in Angmering. Not only does she create amazing works of art but she shares her skills with beginners like me.
For this Christmas, I wanted to make a trio of seasonal little bowls for nibbles: each flat disc was repeatedly etched with images of snowflakes, holly or mistletoe before I beat them in to shape. And I managed to complete the second of my dragon bowls.
Fleur wisely doesn’t let me near the molten metal or the electrically charged etching tank but, otherwise, I can do nearly everything else myself. It is all a matter of touch so not being able to see matters less.
This week’s video is a record of the key moments in San Francisco, Costa rica and Virginia Beach – my travels had taken me to both south and North America with China, Australia and Africa next.
Motor neuron disease (MND) is a death sentence. I talked to Jo (https://youtu.be/uk80b99Ttmk) in Virginia Beach about how she and her husband, Nick, managed before and after his death. This is a story of courage, practical action and lasting love. Hopefully, this interview might help anyone who is facing a similar situation.
Jo talked about how brutally the fatal news was broken to them, the realisation that nothing could prevent Nick’s death but that they could make his last years as good as possible. And even as his body progressively closed down, Nick was still the same man: lovable and loving; irritating and irritable; active and still a driving force in his family’s life. His body may have been dying but his character was undiminished.
I’d actually met US Navy Commander Nick when I was serving in the Women’s royal Naval Service in Naples, Italy, back in the late Seventies. Jo then arrived to take over my job and carry off the most eligible bachelor. I was staggered to learn that MND or Amyotrophic Lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig Disease (ALS) is closely linked to military service in America.
As part of last year’s Baking Blind world tour, I’d spent a week in her home while I was cooking around Virginia Beach – she even gave up her own bedroom for me as it had a more accessible bathroom. She’d beavered away for months finding other great cooks to take part in the videos that have been playing over the last few weeks.
Jo is constantly active: running her Pilates and other physical fitness classes, supporting her children, travelling and getting the best from life. But she readily admits that she is no cook. She’d had to have her oven checked out before I arrived as it had sat dormant for so long and she barely knew how the buttons worked. Yet, this self-declared non-cook was generous enough to organise a brunch party so her friends could meet me. While I made a giant frittata, she had borrowed this recipe for overnight egg casserole. Completely strange to me: bread, cooked sausage and cheese all sitting in raw eggs and milk overnight before being cooked. It sounds like that typical vintage Sixties Americana cooking that relied on tins of condensed mushroom soup! But it turned out to be perfect and was polished off by her guests.
The main drama of our visit was discovering a snake trapped in a patio planter. I could hear the snake frantically thrashing to escape the bird-netting around the pot of sunflowers – it sounded huge and no-one was brave enough to try to disentangle it. The only solution was to call an Animal Rescue team that had all the right protective gear. They declared it a harmless black rat snake and, with nonchalant professionalism, extracted the wriggling bundle to return it to the wild. Coming from the UK, where snakes are not a common occurrence, it was all a bit daunting – especially when one can’t see. I’ve decided that my desert island luxury is to have all creepy crawlies and slithery wildlife removed before I’m marooned with my music choices.
When I was asking for help with my Baking Blind tour (https://youtu.be/Fhqz-h0ESag), Jo popped up. We had last had contact nearly 40 years ago when I waved goodbye to my first naval job in Naples, Italy, and to her too as she was taking over from me. After all those years, we re-kindled our friendship when she hosted me in Virginia Beach, USA.
We first met at the Royal Navy College at Dartmouth in the UK back in 1978. We were training to become Women’s Royal Naval Service officers. There were about 12 of us on the course and we knew that not everyone would get through.
It was a typical “boot camp” atmosphere: lots of being up very early and working until midnight, spit and polishing shoes, cleaning anything that didn’t move and continually ironing all our uniforms.
It was freezing at times and we spent many frantic minutes putting on and peeling off thermal underwear, chattering with cold while getting lost on Dartmoor and wailing in the dark of tents pitched on the soggy moor. Lots of the others went running, swimming and more while I discovered the delights of the shooting range: a soft mat to lie on and an electric heater. No wonder I became an ardent shooter with both pistol and rifle. Even more amazing, I ended up shooting for the college and was the only Wren to win “colours”. But in those days, when Wrens had only been at the college for four terms, they still hadn’t adapted to having women amongst the men. So I was the proud recipient of a “colours” tie – heaven only knows when they thought I’d wear it.
Jo and I didn’t meet again until three years later when she came to take over my job with the NATO naval intelligence section in Naples. She settled in so quickly that she met and married US Navy Commander Nick while she was there – hence her move to Virginia Beach. We had whole lives to catch up when we met again all those decades later.
She invited all her friends to meet me over brunch and, despite declaring herself to be an enthusiastic non-cook, produced an excellent pumpkin bread (http://www.bakingblind.com/pumpkin%20bread.htm) that would be perfect for anyone at Halloween.
Banana bread is one of those essentials for any baker’s repertoire and here I was learning a new version with Kelly in Virginia Beach (USA) (https://youtu.be/I47dQTqhuKY).
First, I needed to better understand the American measuring system of cups. I do have them at home but have always tended to rely on my trusty talking scales which I can switch between ounces and grams. It is good to a point but doesn’t really cope with amounts of 5 grams or less – one just has to guess!
Kelly, of course, could see when her wonderfully crunchy topping and the banana bread all looked cooked. That doesn’t work for me but a careful finger can feel whether the right amount of sponginess has been reached and I also use my speaking thermometer just to check. Bread gets to about 91C and cakes a few degrees higher because of the sugar content.
You can find the banana bread recipe (and lots more) at www.bakingbllind.com.
There is also a good cups/grams/ounces conversion chart here http://dish.allrecipes.com/cup-to-gram-conversions/
Today we are commemorating the life of Fin at his funeral. He was a wonderful neighbour, friend and mentor. With all the determination he’d learned in the Royal Marines, he proved his stamina and strength by far outlasting his medical prognosis – and managed to complete his book just in time. He achieved a remarkable career as a film-maker and is, perhaps, best known for his original version of “The Railway Man” – but his version featured the real people who had shared such traumatic torture http://www.therealrailwayman.com/mike-finlason.html
In later years he was an avid champion of people seeking work in the Jobcentre – completely focussed on giving them the best service possible. As a neighbour, Fin was a stalwart of the local community and the organiser of our Catisfield Garden Trails.
He was a superb supporter of the Baking Blind project: the referee who persuaded the LightHouse team and judges that I was up to the competition; the professional film-maker who unstintingly shared his knowledge and experience, teaching Toby our videographer some key tricks of his craft; helping us shape our approach to recording that wild adventure.
Fin was a man of great enthusiasms and passion, full of humour and charm who regaled us with his life stories and own adventures. He leaves an emptiness in our community but lives on in our memories and own lives. Our thoughts are with his family.
Many Mums (and Dads) are pulled in all directions: holding down busy jobs, managing their home lives and bringing up their children. Kelly in Virginia beach (USA) is juggling even harder than most as she has to make extra adjustments for her son’s autism. But she still generously gave up some of her precious spare time to show me how to make simple but superb Asian-style lettuce cups (https://youtu.be/CvxvP0mDWR4) with Oriental green beans and rice.
When we met, Kelly was a key member of the sales team at a busy local supermarket: a friendly and familiar help to all the shoppers with specialist expertise of wines and more. Now she has moved to on-line shopping which gives her even more knowledge of the enormous range of brands and products although she misses her old customers.
Like many busy Mums, she has a great stock of family favourite recipes that are quick and easy to put together after a long day at work. But, as Kelly explained to me, she needs to take account of her son’s reactions to certain foods. In his case, anything too crunchy is difficult whereas some others with autism don’t like certain colours or want to separate the food on their plates. It sounded as if the local support and education system were giving him excellent support to gain all the social and life skills that he doesn’t learn naturally. He is improving in handling money, talking and observing. Kelly was just delighted that he can tell her what he has been doing during the day – and he is clearly excited by being able to share his experiences. It just shows that the right support is making life-changing improvements for the whole family.
Do try this recipe – my original caution about the lettuce cups was completely mistaken: they were wonderful. http://www.bakingblind.com/kelly%20lettuce%20wraps%20vb.htm
Next time, Kelly’s banana bread …
The Avoca restaurant in Powerscourt in Ireland http://powerscourt.com/shop-dine/avoca-terrace-cafe has trans-Atlantic fans. Wendy in Virginia Beach, USA, was waxing lyrical about their delicious food, elegantly served and the memories it evokes. See how she has taken their hearty mushroom soup and given it the deluxe treatment with her personal touches https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbxlJ1OkAMw
In front of a crowd of increasingly noisy on-lookers, we chopped and stirred, sauted and liquidised to turn the simplest ingredients in to a dish that her husband, Stuart, can’t resist. And Wendy said that she didn’t even notice that I couldn’t see.
This was another example of the international influences on cooking in America. Essentially, a country full of migrants from across the globe who bring and share their own cultural and culinary histories. A rich and heady mix.
Working with NATO, both Wendy and her former Royal Navy husband reminded me of my own naval career. About 40 years ago, I too was working in NATO but in Naples, Italy, and managed to persuade others that I knew something about military intelligence. It was far more interesting than paper-pushing especially when the first Soviet aircraft carrier (Kiev) came through the Mediterranean from the Black sea. Ships and aircraft from every country possible were scrambled to observe the phenomenon, take photos and track her activities – hugely exciting and impressive. It was still the time of the Cold War when even very junior officers like me were aware of international risk and tension. We felt we were making our small contribution towards peace and stability: minor pawns in a very massive game. And it did give me my first chance to visit America: an international conference on the world’s largest naval base in Norfolk, close to Virginia Beach – and so life circles around again.