First taste of China

Flying in to Chongqing was an adventure in itself: first I’d felt very jet-setter by briefly stopping in Helsinki and then flying over the North Pole; landing in the huge and ultra-modern city airport.  A limousine whisked us off to the Intercontinental Hotel: huge and impressive with a great welcome from the staff and Rotary contacts.  Toby was thrilled by the view over the city from our rooms on the 29th floor while I was more entranced by being able to open the windows and hear the noise of busy life so far below.  Its surprising how well sound travels upwards and meant that I had a real sense of the city’s life and pace – night and day.

Jet-lag meant that the next 36 hours are still a blur of welcome lunches and dinners – and somehow I managed to give a presentation to our Rotary Club sponsors.  Meeting masses of new people is always a challenge when you can’t see: no visual clues so it’s all a matter of recognising different voices and being able to tie each to a name.  Not easy when there are lots of them all talking at once in different languages – so you’ll understand if I make mistakes.  And, adding to the confusion, most of the local people I met have adopted English names to overcome our poor pronunciation of their proper Chinese names.

Sam, the Food and Beverages Manager at the hotel had done just this – and he is a very memorable character for his energetic enthusiasm and tireless good humour in the face of coping with this strange blind woman.  Not only was he the prime mover in arranging all the cooking sessions there but he madly took me shopping too – I’ll save that for another day and stick with the cooking now.

Chef Dillon comes from a family of professional cooks – both his father and brother are in the industry.  His Cantonese style is more fragrant and subtle than the hot and spicy flavours usually associated with Chongqing cuisine.  He taught me his Sichuan-style Kung Pao chicken https://youtu.be/Sruq3G5VymE

One of my most precious gifts from the visit is the bottle of his special mix of vinegar, sugar and soy sauce used in the recipe – and which is so typical of Chinese cuisine.     That bottle has travelled the world, been mistaken for shower gel and is, at last, safely ensconced in my own kitchen ready to re-create Dillon’s magical flavours.

Special thanks go to Sharon, the General Manager of the Intercontinental, and all her team plus Julia, the local architect from the Rotary Club who dedicated a whole week of her life as my translator for the visit.  She was indomitable amidst the sometimes chaotic kitchen dramas I created.

Next week, my first attempt at sweet and sour pork – and there are two more versions to come as different cooks gave their own interpretations of this classic delicious dish.

Penny

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China starts the New Year.

Chongqing is the largest city in the world – and the most exhilarating.  Rather than me trying to describe it without sight, my intrepid videographer and nephew, Toby, explored the excitement, dynamism and visual magic in his video (https://youtu.be/s8Y7PXLpmvM) cityscape.  This marks the start of the second leg of our Holman adventure: China, Australia and Malawi all coming over the next few months.

Helped by local architects Julia and Matthew, we learned to appreciate the delicate balance between past millennia of civilisation and the surge of current building.  The ancient mudstone conceals a labyrinth of caves and tunnels where the population sheltered from Japanese bombing in the 1940s while the city became the temporary capital of China during the hostilities.  Now, that bedrock also supports glittering glass and steel towers alongside more traditional homes and businesses.

With some 37 million inhabitants (more than half the total population of the UK), the city is a magnet for those who want to work and share in the benefits of modern growth.  Like any other city, there is tension between the demands for excellent work and living conditions and the preservation of authentic local character.   We managed to experience both:  singing to the echo of the mudstone caves; the dazzling night-time light displays; the traditional flower market with exotic plants and miniature gardens; the superb modern apartments and eclectic backpacker hostel.

Most importantly, of course, were all the wonderful people from the International Women’s Group, the Rotary Club that sponsored our visit and everyone who took part in our cooking videos – professional chefs and home-cooks.  Each and every one of them gave us hospitality, kindness and invaluable enthusiasm that we continue to treasure.

And Toby was inspired to add more fabulous drawings to his freelance architectural illustrator portfolio – images rich in detail and atmosphere (www.Tobymelvillebrown.com ).

Next time, see me cooking at the prestigious Intercontinental Hotel with one of their top chefs: an authentic Chinese chicken dish that you can try at home too.

Penny

Baking Blind: good, bad and ugly experiences.

Can you believe that just cooking brings so many new, good experiences, broadens the horizon and introduces new people?  Here’s a video (https://youtu.be/zdEIFJwLzjs) that will give you a sense of the second leg of my Baking Blind world tour: Chongqing in China, Kiama, Sydney and Melbourne in Australia; Lilongwe in Malawi.  It would be eye-opening if I could see!

Meanwhile, I’m still mulling over the huge contrasts of my week in San Francisco: staggering poverty   amongst huge affluence – bad and ugly.    It is supposed to be the most expensive place to live in America –paying $35 for a single plate of scallop risotto brought that home to me.  And don’t forget the tip: one server wouldn’t leave until she’d got her’s and our usual 10% wasn’t enough.  It was even worse because the £/$ exchange rate is so bad at the moment.  But local people are also being hit hard ($45 for two cups of coffee and one hot chocolate) and none hit so much as those who live on the street.  The number of homeless people was shocking: sleeping along the pavements of a main road through the city.  But, worse still, was the plight of disabled people: over less than a mile, we spotted at least half a dozen homeless people in wheelchairs.

The most striking was the man who shared our bus: he seemed to have cut a shopping trolley in two and attached one half to the back of his wheelchair to store his cooking equipment.  His sleeping mattress was folded behind his back like a great buffer to the world while the other trolley half, with his little dog and other belongings , was fastened to the front of his chair.  He had a begging box and carefully seeded it with dollar bills to clearly indicate that small change wasn’t welcome.  I would have been uncomfortable using his image except for his sign: his own political statement and he’s entitled to be heard.  It was all rather distressing after fussing about the price of a meal and, perhaps, even more so when other Americans seemed to accept his situation as normal – the consequences of limited health and social security safety nets.

It would have been easy to scoff at the tourist side of the city but it all really worked for me.  I literally rode the famous cable car by the seat of my pants: clanging up the steep inclines of Nob Hill on wooden benches so smooth with varnish that I was slipping from one end to the other (one way of amusing the other passengers).   The pontoons of sea lions next to Pier 39 were multi-sensory: the sounds of their barks and sea plunges plus their salty animal smell.  And, of course, I didn’t forget to try the famous clam chowder served in a sourdough loaf at the Boudin bakery – surprisingly satisfying. On the general food front, setting aside the cost, we learned that soups, salads and appetizers were more than enough – a starter of calamari turned out to be a huge plateful.

Two of the high spots were meeting up with people I’d met a year earlier.  Luis, the super chef of seagrass sponge (https://youtu.be/uqRx8cGznGs) is shortly to appear in the sort of TV cooking show that’s only possible in California: competing to create the best dessert using marijuana!  He didn’t win that time but I was able, at last, to give him a Baking Blind “medal”.

And it was a delight to share news with Ben and Blanche (saviours of our previous hotel hell) in a ferry trip to Sausalito.  We passed the Golden Gate Bridge (apparently looking rather red and rusty) and Alcatraz Island (reportedly quite small with a tiny block building).  This little town was a haven of tranquil Colonial style after the constant hustle and bustle of San Francisco where there are buildings so tall and thin that it seems a puff of wind would bring them down, let alone an earthquake.

A city of contrasts.  You can see how it compares with Chongqing in China in the New Year.

 

Penny

Blind baker turns pewter-smith

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.

Penny

Handling death and grief.

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.

Penny

Wrens re-united.

Inspection on paradeWhen 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.

Penny

Classic baking – how a blind cook manages.

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/

Penny