Mud huts and traditional dances.

 

The dance was authentic but cooking in the Malawi village https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOu3AYr5eZA&feature=youtu.be was rather a cheat: instead of basic pots over a fire on the ground, we used a sort of field kitchen.  But I did manage to pound cassava leaves in the long-handled pestle and mortar.

Our hosts from the Latitude 13 hotel in Lilongwe www.latitudehotels.com.

had contacts in this simple rural village.  Hotel Manager, Mehul, Head Chef, Cephus,  and his sous chef, Mphatso,  made all the arrangements from the kitchen equipment and transport to the ingredients and treats for the children.  As we left, the hotel team were planning future support to make those village lives a little easier.

The houses were simple round structures: built with hand-made mud bricks and roughly rendered.  They have to be careful to avoid the carcinogens when firing the bricks over open fires.  The basic thatched rooves were perhaps cooler in the hot climate and easy to create from the local vegetation but had waterproof  liners for rainy days.  Even the communal latrine hut was immaculate.   If you spend most of the time outside, just basic airy and cool indoor sleeping spaces are probably enough.

It was the structured village culture that was so impressive.  In a place without electricity or running water, everything and everyone was neat, tidy, clean and orderly.  Everyone had turned out to watch this strange blind woman attempt their recipes.

The women and youngest children sat chatting and laughing on their own large straw mat while, alongside, the older children sat on theirs – politely patient with the proceedings.  The few chairs were set out in the shade for the elder men  as befitting their age and status.  Only the adolescent young men ranged around the edges: understandably bemused,  rather bored and dismissive of the whole spectacle.

The subsequent village dance was more to their taste.  We trundled over the rough terrain for a mile or so to a large clear space where many of the local people had gathered to celebrate their chieftain.  There were wildly exotic costumes and masks, much foot-stomping to the sound of cheers and singing.  They were all having a wonderful time   and I was the one sitting on a throne-like bench  taking in every bit of the fun.

It was all rather humbling to have been given such a very warm welcome and been admitted in to the lives of all these people.  I came away with considerable respect for and better insight in to a way of life that was so different in many ways but also so familiar in others.

 

 

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Head Chef’s top dish at Lilongwe’s best hotel

Cephus showed me his best-selling dish of prawn risotto   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_-_m3xDeqU&feature=youtu.be

at the magnificent Latitude 13 hotel in the capital of Malawi www.latitudehotels.com.

We were cooking under a huge tree alongside a swimming pool of excited children.

Fish from Lake Malawi is very popular everywhere in the country but, being otherwise land-locked, seafood such as prawns have to be imported from the African coast.

It was a great dish but, even better, was Cephus’s insight into the progress that is underway in Malawi, rightly called the “Warm heart of Africa”.

Communications are improving with the internet and mobile phones.  Construction of new roads and buildings are playing their part in increasing business and the economy of the country.  Life for everyone is easier and getting better – people are happier.

Blind people are benefiting too with Government support: learning to read and write; knitting clothes and moving towards work.

With sous chef Emily producing the de-veined prawns, our delicious dish reached its sumptuous conclusion with the final drizzle of garlic and butter.  Perfection in the warm sun alongside the fun in the pool.

 

Laboratory or Kitchen?

Potassium permanganate reminds me more of chemistry than domestic science lessons.  But Head Chef, Cephus, taught me how to make salad safe in a very hot climate. https://youtu.be/ySvfk61wL4E

I was at the wonderfully eclectic and renowned Latitude 13 Hotel www.latitudehotels.com in Lilongwe, capital of Malawi, in Africa: cooking under the shade of a huge tree beside children joyously romping in the swimming pool.  It was part of my prize-winning tour: cooking across six continents.

We were making a haloumi salad but first needed to ensure that the lettuce was bacteria-free.  Even when food is locally grown, if there isn’t enough refrigeration between the farm and hotel kitchen, the heat can create a breeding ground for bugs.  Consequently, our first step was to dissolve the potassium permanganate in water to create a purplish bath in which to soak the lettuce to kill off any bacteria.  Once rinsed, there’s no difference in taste but a much safer salad.

Cephus is a great advocate for local farmers and food producers.  He had devised his own version of polenta using “sema”: the traditional maize flour porridge-style dish that features at nearly every Malawian meal.  For this cooking session, he was using local haloumi which he fried to give a crispy coat to the cheese.   He added more texture with homemade vegetable crisps: beetroot, carrot and butternut squash.  The whole dish was topped with a magnificent cooked dressing using the pulp of passion fruit (or granadillas as they are known locally).

Salad sounds simple but this was far more sophisticated.

 

Painstaking patisserie

 

Dre in Melbourne, Australia, showed me how to make her caramel éclair https://youtu.be/TqD9bEJz5y0 with the same level of spectacular professionalism that I discovered in pastry chef, Luis, in san Francisco. Are these a special breed of people? 

Certainly, being able to work in distinctly chilly pastry kitchens is a significant advantage.  Dre told me that she is always so cold that chocolate will harden on her skin.  Clearly, I’m never going to achieve her level of skill as chocolate just melts off me (if it isn’t licked up first!).

 

This éclair is the stuff of sucrose-induced dreams: even the choux pastry is embellished with shortbread that, horror of horrors, is then cut away.  There are three layers of filling: a bavarois custard, a butter cream and the final mousse set with chocolate –all having different mouth-feels of temperature, ooziness and flavour of caramel.  Nestling in the centre is a crunchy scattering of rice krispies individually coated in caramel and chocolate.  And   the unadulterated luxury and indulgence doesn’t stop there: the whole magnificent confection is topped with shards of dark chocolate and  a fluttering of real gold leaf.  This is a serious pastry that demands uninterrupted attention from first sight to the final crumb plucked from the plate.

 

Dre has specifically designed her patisserie shop www.chezdre.com.au to give the ambiance, sophistication and focus that her delectable creations deserve.  She is a woman at the height of her profession and anyone visiting Melbourne would reap the rewards of visiting this emporium of delights.

You can tell that I’m quite enthusiastic!  But her approach to employing a superb diversity of staff was just as admirable – and she benefits from the equal diversity of skills they bring from all over the world and every part of the community.  It must be so satisfying to make wonderful food amidst such an environment of skill and enthusiasm.

I’m just horribly sad that our video coverage was marred by the loss of a wallet containing the vital footage.  The police correctly didn’t anticipate any prospect of recovery but we did manage to capture the essential elements of Dre’s éclair – watch and drool!

!

 

Ravioli masterclass

Gastronomic expert, Charlene www.charlenetrist.com, not only showed me how to make pumpkin and smoked egg ravioli but had worked out how to make every step accessible for a blind person https://youtu.be/M_pvfHgJB3w.

In her Melbourne home-kitchen, she whizzed increasingly thin sheets of pasta through a classic pasta mini-mangle machine while I plugged on with my hand-rolling method.  She achieved uniform perfection while my distinctly uneven efforts had that hand-crafted  authenticity .

But rolling was the easy bit: piping mashed pumpkin around a pastry cutter was a major challenge but even that paled with the prospect  of separating an egg and placing the delicate raw yolk inside the cutter ring.  Then I had to gently lift the ring without breaking the yolk.  This was a masterclass of using touch in the kitchen.  The final stage was to cover the filling with another piece of the pasta dough and press out all the air, keeping that pesky yolk intact and without  squeezing out the pumpkin mash.  I just about managed one ravilolo without disaster but it took a very long time.  I’d probably only attempt this dish for an intimate supper for two – struggling to make more than six of the ravioli  at a time would be too much a labour of love.

And the final test when you can’t see is to eat it.  If cooked to perfection as by Charlene, those tricky egg yolks will still be runny and destined to spill.  So, that sophisticated intimate supper becomes rather more domestic when you wisely eat with a spoon wearing your apron.

 

But it was excellent to try the most complex and difficult type of ravioli – now any other version will be dead simple in comparison!  All thanks to Charlene’s patience and expertise.  Keep up with her gastronomic adventures through her social media: https://www.facebook.com/charlene.trist andhttps://www.instagram.com/onthetable_withcharlene/

Beyond price

Kefir is a fermenting organism that you probably can’t buy.  You can discover it with Dani and me https://youtu.be/RutzBskV9hY in Melbourne, Australia.

Not only is she a published food writer and author www.danivalent.com specialising in recipes with the Thermamix, Dani seeks out the food specialities of the diverse multi-cultural inhabitants of Melbourne.

She described kefir grains to me as like “little pieces of cauliflower”.  They are added to milk to create those fermented drinks that are so popular now.  Dani, of course, went one better and fermented cream which, with her ubiquitous machine, was churned in to butter to serve with her homemade bread and fig jam.

She told me tales of how the grains are brought in to the country by migrants and refugees so that they can continue their food cultures and heritage – often secretly fermenting under beds or sinks.  Rather than money changing hands, getting hold of this precious ingredient may depend more on seeking out and befriending someone who counts kefir as part of their culinary identity.  And it probably helps to have an equally precious ingredient or cooking secret to share in return.