Naval history still inspires.

James Holman was a truly remarkable man:  he was just a young Royal Navy Lieutenant aged 22 when he lost his sight.  Undaunted, he used his personal charm, charisma and determination to travel the world alone and become the most renowned travel writer of his generation.  Even more remarkable, he was doing all of this about 200 years ago and when blindness carried massive social stigma – our modern concerns with accessibility, discrimination and equality pale in to insignificance.

Visiting the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard gave me some clues to what his life would have been like.    I heard the waterfront and the sea shanties, the shouts and cries of bustling people, the creak of wood and rope in the wind.  The smells of hot coals on the brazier and food cooking mixed with the sea salt and ozone.  Underfoot, the cobbles were hard and the weather was icy cold with sea winds.  I could touch the hard metal of the cannons, the roughness of rope and the swing of the hammock.

James would have known HMS VICTORY as Nelson’s flagship (he’d joined the Navy around the time of the Battle of Trafalgar) even though the ship was already decades old and getting out of date.  During his life, conditions at sea would have gradually improved and HMS WARRIOR, the new iron-clad warship, was launched soon after James’ death.

He had joined the Royal Navy through the academy in Gosport – just across the Solent from Portsmouth – and the chances are high that he too knew many of the buildings that were also familiar to me from my own years of serving in the Naval Base.  So this visit was doubly poignant: echoing his own footsteps and re-treading some of the paths I’d trod nearly 20 years ago – all in this year of the Women’s Royal Naval Service centenary.

Both of us had careers that were cut short by blindness but we went on to carve out new futures – his was magnificently illustrious and I have just tried to follow his example.  But neither of us gave up to disability – perhaps our naval training gave us the competences, self-confidence and people skills to carry on?

You can see the adventures I’ve had as a winner of the international Holman prize run by San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind on my YouTube channel.

Penny

Penny with HMS Victory in the background

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Deadly discrimination: because your skin is the wrong colour.

Our equality concerns in the UK pale in to insignificance compared with the terrors that some have faced in Africa due to their colour.

Last week in Malawi, I learned a little about the dangers that people with albinism have faced.  There are about 4,000 of them in a population of about 70 million.    Their lack of skin or hair pigmentation means that they stand out from others, often have visual impairments and have much higher risk of skin cancer.  But these are only part of the problems they face: women giving birth to a child with albinism have been accused of infidelity and abandoned by their husbands making life and finances even more difficult; people with the condition have struggled to be integrated in to their communities with disastrous consequences on their education and employment prospects.  Most sinister are the physical attacks – I was told that over 20 people with albinism have been killed over recent years –and three so far this year.  But death isn’t the end of it: some bodies are dug up and there is trade in their bones for ritual use in other countries.

I had an inspiring time with three people with albinism and some who support them as we all cooked local food together for a great feast.  The Government in Malawi is making progress: they are now making the special sun-screen available that will help give some cancer protection and have made the penal code tougher on such violence.  The Association of People with Albinism in Malawi  is supporting their members to create local self-support groups and is receiving help from overseas: you could donate glasses to correct short-sight to them for distribution.

Many people in Malawi are still close to their cultural and rural roots – I had an amazing experience cooking traditional food in one of the local villages and being invited to their dance celebration.  All this was arranged by Cephus Kadewere, the amazing head chef of the Latitude 13 hotel that hosted us.  He and General Manager, Mehul, were unstinting in their support and enthusiasm for the Baking Blind project:   we had some very special times together under the trees next to the hotel pool where Cephus shared some of his most popular recipes with me.

The Remembrance memorial in the centre of the capital, Lilongwe, is a massive construction marking all those who died in the two World Wars and other conflicts.  Perhaps we don’t pay enough attention to all those who fought alongside us in the past?  But it did strike the chord of how military service binds us together, from those who were commemorated there through James Holman who inspired the prize that funded my visit to my own time in the WRNS and Royal Navy.

Alongside all the progress and development being part-fuelled by overseas businesses and Governments, the sheer friendliness of the people of Malawi was the delight of the visit.  The people themselves make Malawi the true “warm heart of Africa”.

Now I’ve completed the second leg of my Baking Blind world tour thanks to the Holman prize run by San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind but there is still lots to do.  Over the next month or so, there are hundreds of hours of video to be edited, recipes to be written (www.bakingblind.com), more experiences to be shared and new cooking opportunities to be planned here in the UK and Europe.  Please keep watching and following to get the full story of my adventure.

Penny

Homecoming Thanksgiving.

Over two months travelling, flying, cooking and chasing around the world has ended with the total luxury of being home again, the comfort of my own bed and the joyous familiarity of  knowing where everything is (rather than living out of two far too full suitcases).

I and Toby (videographer and nephew) have had a magical time – he’s been blogging too.  We have been made wonderfully welcome by literally hundreds of marvellous people – from all those who cared for us in the great hotels, the fellow chefs and cooks who shared their passion with me and, most importantly, those generous hosts who welcomed us in to their homes.  I feel very humbled by so much support, enthusiasm and commitment to the whole concept of Baking Blind and our efforts to show just how talented disabled people can be, wherever they are in the world.

We have gathered many hundreds of hours of video capturing our adventures – from the death-defying sea rescue in Australia through cooking in the African village to the fine-dining professional kitchen in San Francisco.  So something to interest and intrigue everyone – and you’ve only seen glimpses so far in the short composite videos posted after each leg.  Over the next few months, we will be posting around 50 more videos, blogs and, of course, all those amazing recipes

 

My thanks to every one of you who made this recent trip possible and to all of you who have followed the Baking Blind adventure so far – next you’ll be able to see and read all the details of what really happened!

And, of course, none of this would have been possible without the core funding of the Holman prize run by San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind organisation – they are starting to look for candidates for the 2018 prize.  If you know someone with a visual impairment who has a fabulous ambition, do encourage them to take part – and they can get in touch with me to talk it through.

 

Penny

+44 (0)1329 841814

penny@laylands.co.uk

Scallops the professional way.

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be taught by the BBC’s Masterchef Professionals 2013 winner, Steven Edwards.  He showed us how to deal with scallops that arrived in their shells and turn this delicacy in to an amazing starter with roasted cucumber and his own special marmite bread.

You can watch me make them on YouTube

He showed us how to prepare the scallops direct from the sea.  I found a long palette knife worked best: slip between the two shells opposite to the square hinge end of the shell and gently but firmly run down the inside of the flat shell.  This should loosen the scallop meat and enable you to separate the two shells.  Gently work the knife under the scallop away from the rounded shell.  You might be surprised at the amount of sand etc in the “skirt”.  Gently separate this from the scallop meat, pull out the “comma” shaped roe.  Throw out the sandy skirt.  Don’t let the scallops spend more than about 30 seconds in the water as you wash them – and change the water if necessary to get rid of all the sand.

Check out the scallop meat: one flat side will be larger than the other.

Penny

Chefs and cooks champion diversity.

I set out to use cooking to change attitudes towards blindness and other disabilities – and China showed me how well this works.  Last week with aboriginal Fred, simply cooking a fish together was a bridge between our very different cultures.  This week, gastronomically diverse Melbourne showed that great cooks and chefs aren’t constrained by issues of race, nationality, ethnicity, disability, gender or other false barriers: food is all about generosity, sharing, learning from each other, crossing culinary borders and using the best ideas and ingredients, whatever their source.   The Greek “Euro Bites” eatery was a prime example (www.eurobites.com.au).

It was a special treat to encounter new ingredients and equipment:  gastronome Charlene (https://www.facebook.com/charlene.trist)  used smoked fresh eggs in both the pasta and the filling of her ravioli dish – these eggs have long shelf-life and would be ideal in a savoury soufflé, kedgeree and much more.  The Chef’s Hat emporium (www.chefshat.com.au) offered every sort of cooking equipment.  Food writer Dani (www.danivalent.com) introduced me to the widely popular Thermomix to produce fluffily delicious bread rolls in under an hour.    I’d been rather sceptical about the prospect of just filling an éclair until I spent time with Dre, an amazingly entrepreneurial pastry chef who is already expanding her patisserie and restaurant empire (www.bibelot.com.au).  Maribel, who is also blind (www.maribelsteel.com), was utterly inspirational: already a published writer and travel blogger, she is a wonderful cook, singer and champion for visually impaired people – you can hear her and partner Harry (www.springstudio.com.au) on the Melbourne video.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were hosted by the Bostock family: another link to the Royal Navy and James Holman (after whom the prize that is funding me is named).  Former Royal Navy Commander Colin also arranged for me to spend a morning with the Australian Defence Force catering and hospitality trainees at Holmesglen college (www.holmesglen.edu.au) – another military reminder.  The Bostocks were unstinting in their generosity and friendship while daughter Sarah shared her knowledge on indigenous culture.

Following that trail, we moved on to Perth to meet up with Lynda, a former Women’s Royal Naval Service officer, who took us to the Maalinup aboriginal art gallery and bush tucker garden (www.www.maalinup.com.au) to meet artist PhilNarkle (www.philnarkle.com.au).  Now we have some small authentic artefacts to share with those who can only follow our adventures from afar.

And great news on the Australian equality agenda: a strong turn-out has just voted Yes to same-sex marriage: the people have spoken!

All of this is part of my adventure cooking around six continents funded by the international Holman prize run by San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind.  You can see the short composite videos we post at the end of each visit and, when we have had a chance to edit all the material back in the UK, we will be posting all the cooking sessions and recipes in the New Year.

Malawi next – if South African Airways can find an aircraft that works (we have a 24 hour delay in Perth)

Penny

Baking Blind in Africa.

Lilongwe, capital of Malawi, is my last stop on this year’s Baking Blind trip (Hello Lilongwe).  I’ll be flying from Melbourne in Australia via a one day stop-over in Perth to cook with another former WRNS colleague, Lynda.  Then back in the air to Johannesburg in South Africa before reaching Malawi.

Again, I was in South Africa years ago for yet another World Blind Union conference in Cape Town.  I have some wonderful ceramics and glassware from that trip so I am looking forward to exploring the arts and crafts of Malawi.

Visiting another African country is going to be a fantastic new opportunity and experience.  I’m being hosted by the Latitude 13 hotel  where their head chef is already planning a menu of dishes to teach me.  And there will be several chances to cook with local people including those with visual impairments.  Perhaps most important of the whole trip will be the group of people with albinism (which can also affect their sight) who face many other challenges too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My impression is that many people in rural Malawi largely grow their own food.  After the last few weeks of more complicated cooking, it will be really good to get back to the basics of fresh home-grown produce.    Here, in the UK, we seem to have lost our connection with the soil and are struggling to re-capture the ethos of farm-to-table rather than flying in industrially-produced food.  There is much to learn from the approach in Malawi and the recipes will be on www.bakingblind.com

Meanwhile, Peter, who helps with my garden, has been telling me about Lake Malawi: apparently originally sea water and the home to the Malawi cichlids.  He’s been keeping tropical fish for years and these are amongst the most collectable.  They are “mouth-brooders” so the females, and sometimes the males, gather up the fertilised eggs in their mouths where they develop in a pouch near their “chin”.  When the baby fish are ready to hatch, they are blown back in to the water – but they can swim back in to the pouch if a predator is detected.  The adult fish can protect perhaps 200 babies in this way.

After Lilongwe, I’ll be back in the UK for Christmas, editing masses of videos with videographer Toby so that we can show you more of our trip.  But my time as one of the Holman prize-winners doesn’t end there: there will be more cooking in Hampshire and Europe in the new year which concludes in the autumn with a presentation to the prize organisers, San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired.  You’ll be able to see all of this on my YouTube channel.

 

Penny

Just one day: paper bark cooking plus air/sea rescue.

A few hours and life lurched from one extreme to another: a truly enlightening morning getting a glimpse of bush tucker with aboriginal Fred followed by the high drama of nephew and videographer Toby and another friend being rescued from a life-or-death sea emergency.

With Fred (www.fredsbushtucker.com.au), I felt rather foolish and thoughtless for not recognising that his ancient culture had the sophisticated development we see in our own more modern societies.  Hence, it is no more reasonable to ask him as an expert bush tucker cook about the medicinal qualities of plants than expecting a chef to know the best treatment for an illness.  Aboriginal culture, like ours, has a whole range of experts – from law and medicine to cooking and childcare.

Fred showed me the plants that can be ground in to flour for bread, the seed head that can be carried from camp to camp to light fires and much more.   He helped me wrap a snapper fish donated by the local fish market (www.shellharbourfish.com.au), stuffed with lemon myrtle, in soaked paper bark and lily leaves for smoking on a barbeque – the origin of French style “en papiloutte”.

What I most admired was his clear and close connection with nature: the scrub land that he uses as a super market; his equanimity in the face of modern hustle and bustle; his irreverent sense of humour.  It was a real privilege to be shown just a glimpse of his world – all thanks to the planning and organisation of our Kiama hosts Rosemary and Ken.  They managed a week of different experiences: cooking with the award-winning Jo (sweetwoodcakes@gmail.com) of the Country women’s Association; Martin, the blind chef in Sydney (www.enabledcooking.com); wine-tasting with Raj (www.thesilos.com); an Iranian fire-pit and barbecue meat fest with Eddie.  The generosity of spirit and enthusiasm for cooking was the essence of a magnificent week that had taken huge effort to arrange by Rosemary and Ken – huge thanks to them.

 

 

 

 

But, even the best laid plans couldn’t have prepared us for the drama that was unfolding as I was still chatting with Fred.  Toby and another friend had slipped down to the beach for a quick swim.  Within minutes, a rip tide had dragged them out 300 metres from the beach and was pulling them further out.  Thankfully, 12 year old Hannah had spotted them (not waving but drowning) and her family called the emergency services.  We arrived to find police cars massing alongside paramedics and lifeguards with two helicopters close on their heels.  Eventually a surfboard lifesaver reached them with the board providing extra flotation as they had reached critical levels of exhaustion and cold.  One-by-one, they were helped back to shore and encased in huge foil and thermal warming suits – they looked like two capons ready for roasting!  But, it was no joke at the time as they were probably less than 10 minutes from tragedy.  The emergency services did a wonderful job and I cannot be more thankful to them.  And the whole drama completely upstaged the Baking Blind activities on the local TV – you can watch the clip on YouTube.

 

 

 

There’ll be lots more videos and recipes from this latest visit as soon as we have edited them – probably early next year so please do keep tuned in.

Penny