Fish – Aboriginal style

Meet the fabulous Fred – bush tucker cook and expert forager as he showed me how to make this superb and simple dish near Seven Mile Beach in Australia

This was one of the most memorable days during the whole of my time cooking around the world – entirely due to Fred, his knowledge, humour and great food.  His whole sense of place and history brought all those generations of the indigenous people of Australia alive for us  He even had a perfect way of catching fish with leaves from the wattle tree.

But, being modern folk, we’d come equipped with a fresh snapper fish from just an ordinary supermarket while Fred had brought the rest of the ingredients and his barbecue to a local wildlife area.  He too has some disability – along term back injury – but he used his bushcraft to find and make his own walking cane.

This was nearly the same as cooking en papilotte (in a paper parcel) and even his bush equivalent had a similar name.  He’d gathered the paper bark from trees near the Wolagong steel works so they came impregnated with their own Smokey flavour.

The bark was thoroughly soaked while we filled the fish cavity with river mint and lemon myrtle gathered fresh from the wild.

The fish was wrapped in the bark with a knot that would embarrass any Boy Scout. Paper bark is very waterproof so it has many uses from thatching to being aboriginal greaseproof paper for us.  The final touch was to enclose the whole parcel within two huge lily leaves.  They are enormous, thick and succulent  with the perfect shape to enclose a whole fish.  They needed trimming with an axe – I did the chopping while he kept his fingers clear.  The whole plant-made package went straight on to the barbecue for about half an hour and the end result was succulent soft fish scented with the herbs – delicious.



Meet the CWA and their scones   –  down-under equivalents to our British WIs and their Victoria sponges.   I was learning from the very best in Kiama, Australia

Jo, one of the renowned champions of the Country Women’s Association was generous enough to share her amazing recipe for lemonade scones: just self-raising flour, cream and the fizzy drink of your choice.  She and others make over 50,000 for just one local show so I knew she was a top expert.

This was my first cooking session after landing in Australia following a long and day-late flight from China.  The warm Spring weather and the charm of this little seaside town nestled in the countryside was a complete change from the teeming metropolis of Chongqing.

It was a real privilege to start with a lesson from Jo, an award-winning cook who has turned her skill in to a thriving business (Sweetwood cakes).  We spent a sunny morning in the bright kitchen of Ken and Rosemary, long-term friends who were generously hosting me in their Kiama home.  Gemma, herself a professional pastry chef, and fellow CWA-member, Jennifer, were there too – making sure that my attempts wouldn’t utterly disgrace their exacting standards.

Cooking alongside Jo was a delight: her passion, knowledge and great sense of humour were just what I’d expect from a completely confident and super-competent cook.  We laughed all morning and invented new recipes on the spot: how about beer in place of lemonade to make scones for a ploughman’s lunch; perhaps even a cream tea would be more luxurious with a champagne scone? The variations could be as endless as there are carbonated drinks in the world!

When I got back to the UK, sparkling wine was the perfect alternative and I added horseradish sauce to half the mixture for savoury scones to serve with a smoked salmon mousse.    Definitely one for the recipe book!




Humbling – Living with blindness in China

If I grumble about coping with life without sight, beat me over the head and remind me of the two young blind women in China.    You can watch (or just listen to) our conversation in Chongqing

Wan Lin and Lisa had spent a few hours cooking with me and the Head Chefs of the Intercontinental Hotel – together we’d explored using touch to cook steak, taste in a salad and sheer naughtiness with chocolate mousse.  They both had very little experience of cooking as, at the massage clinic where they live, an “auntie” prepares all their meals.

They were both in their early twenties and seemed tiny to me – I felt like a giant looming over them.  China was starting to develop when they were born but there were still difficulties for some people in getting all the food and medical care they needed – with the consequences upon their health.

But Chinese progress is very swift: they had been educated at the local school for blind children and progressed to training in medical massage – an intrinsic element of Chinese medicine and health therapies.  But for Lisa, her small stature added further difficulty to her work: she only has the strength to massage very young children.

What was so impressive was the determined independence and motivation of them both.  With very little sight, they were travelling across this huge city – and not a white cane or guide dog between them.  I tried to offer them a taxi home that evening  as dusk would reduce their vision even more but they refused :wary of becoming car-sick.  They were delighted to have new experiences, meet new people and learn cooking skills.

The chefs were fabulous: caring and kind, patient and empathetic.  They had probably never encountered someone with disabilities in their work place but were naturally generous and inclusive.  They put together a mini-hamper of the dishes we had all made together so that the girls could share their experiences and success with their colleagues at the clinic.

It was extraordinarily poignant to see how big hearty Head Chef Jack warmed to these young women – there was no need for me at all so I stepped back and let them enjoy their cooking together.


Veteran is more than just a blind baker

On top of my Baking Blind adventures: cooking around the world I’ve also been running my business, Disability Dynamics since I left the Royal Navy in 1999 after losing my sight.     The business has been devoted to helping other disabled people to work.

“When blindness forced me to leave the Royal Navy, I was in despair as I couldn’t see how I’d manage: no income; unable to pay my mortgage; losing my home.  All of this gave me immense motivation to try to assist other people facing the same situation so I set myself up as a disability consultant and then started my business “Disability Dynamics”.  Over nearly twenty years, with a team of colleagues, I’ve worked to change employer attitudes, influence Government policy and deliver practical support for other people with disabilities.   Probably the most satisfying activities have been enabling people to become self-employed and start their own businesses through the Work for Yourself projects.  Building on my personal experience, I know that often people facing the most challenges can be highly imaginative and entrepreneurial – and  running our own ventures means we are in control of where, how and when we work too.”

As my “second retirement” potentially appears on the horizon, I’m just thrilled to have been selected as a finalist in the category of “Inspiration of the Year” in the British Ex-Forces in Business awards

It is less about me and more about all those other men and women veterans who have left the Armed Services with life-changing injuries and illnesses but still gone on to succeed.  “I know that there are many other men and women whose military careers have been cut short through injury or illness – but they still want to be independent, successful and fulfilled.    I’m trying to be their standard-bearer and show others that we can still play our part in work, in our communities and in wider society.,    Just having a health condition doesn’t limit our talents, potential or ambitions – we just need more employers to see the  people we are rather than be distracted by misunderstandings about disability.”


Aria with sweet and sour

There’s a feast of home-cooked Chinese food topped with a song from opera singer, Mei, for you to see and hear at

Imagine a warm sunny day in Chongqing, China.  Wide expanses of lawn and gardens surrounded by apartment blocks – tall but not overwhelming.  It’s easy to forget that China is a huge country where they still have the luxury of space.

We’d been invited in to the home of Rotary Club leader, Michael, and his Chinese former opera singer wife, Mei.  Like other homes I’d visited in this fast developing city, their apartment is spacious and modern with a huge balcony overlooking the gardens – I could hear the peace and calm outside that comes with wide, open space.

By the time we arrived, Mei had clearly been cooking for hours and her kitchen was alive with pots and dishes at different stages of readiness.  Like anyone preparing for a big lunch, she just wanted to get on so we tiptoed around in the background and asked questions – there was no chance of helping!

At the end of a frantic morning, she was welcoming guests to a table crowded with home-cooked Chinese treats: duck and pork, fish, mushrooms and much more.    And, wood-ear mushrooms are exactly like their name: eating them feels like nibbling someone’s ear – slightly soft, a bit chewy and a little damp!

On top of it all, she completed her feast with a song.  It was a very special way to end our time in China amidst strangers who’d become friends, with real home hospitality and authentic home-cooking.  A chance to thank just some who had made the whole trip possible and had arranged all the visits and experiences.    Julia was our stand-out champion having tirelessly undertaken translation duties all week.  Toby and I have very special memories of those exceptional days in China.

But, those two blind women who cooked with me alongside the chefs from the Intercontinental hotel made the strongest impact – next week, there’s a video of us talking together when I learned more about living with blindness in China.