From this cooking session, the smell was of Ireland: wheaten soda bread crisp and hot from the oven. For Wendy, the memories were even stronger as we paid tribute to her aunt. See how we made this famous bread in minutes https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hH22ASjEeYs) and there’s a simple way to create the essential buttermilk without buying it specially.
The last time I’d cooked in Wendy’s Virginia Beach kitchen we had been madly busy producing a celebration lunch for all the women who had served in the British navy before moving to the USA. This time was more relaxed: I had the chance to talk to Wendy, enjoy her superb house and learn new recipes.
The wheaten bread was especially poignant for her: it was a legacy from her Aunt Maureen who had only recently died. Wendy was even wearing a much beloved and elderly Irish linen apron displaying symbols from the Book of Kells – another gift from her aunt and reminder of her own Celtic heritage. I hope that Aunt Maureen would have been proud of the tribute paid her and how she has contributed to the Baking Blind world tour.
I’ve often heard about soda bread and how it can be the perfect quick solution when the cupboard is bare – but have never had ready access to the buttermilk that makes it possible. Thanks to Wendy, I can now share an easy solution.
And, being a messy cook myself, I was wildly impressed that Wendy was ready to knead bread wearing most of her jewellery. But then she’s a woman of style and flare who can turn her hand to domesticity but still look ready for her high-powered job with NATO.
Next week, we will be making another traditional Irish recipe to sit alongside the bread on any supper table.
I am living proof that many people under-estimate what blind people can do.
Research published today by the Royal National Institute of Blind People found that “half of UK adults think that people with sight loss struggle to find and hold down a job, yet more than a quarter would not feel comfortable with a boss who was blind or partially sighted.”
I was still a serving Royal Navy Commander when I started losing my sight but carried on working in uniform even when I needed my white cane. I went on to start my own business helping other disabled people to get back to work – and I think that I’ve been a pretty good boss too. I’ve held Board level Government public appointments and more. There are many other people with sight-loss or other disabilities who have loads of skills and experience who can succeed at work – we just need the chance.
Through my company (Disability Dynamics Ltd) our training model emphasises that positive attitudes are the easiest, cheapest and most successful way of making life better for disabled people. Too often, people have been distracted by getting information in to Braille, lifts and ramps or writing an equality policy. All of that is useful but, first, start seeing us as people rather than focussing on our health or impairments.
I used my Holman prize of $25,000 towards my Baking Blind adventure aiming to change attitudes. Some of my co-cooks were obviously nervous about having a blind person in their kitchen but, as soon as they realised that we were just two people with the same enthusiasm, they forgot that I couldn’t see. My use of video and global travels also challenge other common misconceptions revealed by the RNIB research: “31 per cent of people think that people with sight loss can’t enjoy TV and film, whereas almost a fifth of people think that they cannot travel the world. 37 per cent of those surveyed believe people with sight loss cannot play football whilst 28 per cent did not think that blind and partially sighted people can enjoy reading books.” I confess that I can’t play football but when I have the time, I read a book every two days and also enjoy flower arranging, designing buildings and metalwork with pewter. I don’t think that I’m very different from many other blind people it is just that others expect so little from us.
You can follow my Baking Blind tour on YouTube and at http://www.bakingblind.com and my training model is in Understanding Disability at www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk. The Holman prize is run by San Francisco’s LightHouse organisation that supports blind and visually impaired people. The prize celebrates James Holman, another officer who was blinded while serving in the Royal Navy but 200 years ago.
I’m talking about celery, of course. Flamboyant TV chef Keith Floyd was an ardent peeler but Rich from Virginia Beach couldn’t see the point as you can see and hear (https://youtu.be/VjSOY1REX-A).
For my part, I prefer to peel off the “whiskers” from the outside of a stick of celery whether I’m serving raw in a Waldorf salad or cooked in a casserole or sauté.
Former US Navy Beachmaster Rich presented us with his “treasure of the sea” rockfish that is popular in Virginia Beach, on the Atlantic East coast of America. We cooked the 1.68 lb whole fish on his Webber barbecue for 14 minutes – times will vary with different barbecues and different sized fish. Keeping the flavouring simple meant that the flavour of the fish shone through but was also perfumed by the apple wood smoke.
Meanwhile, we had the whole celery debate, much to the delight of his non-cooking wife, Cathy. The vegetable sauté featured the multi-coloured heirloom carrots and the yellow Yukon potatoes, flecked with green spinach and the golden chicken stock. Rich had made his own stock from chicken carcases and was rather more receptive to my idea of roasting the bones before making the stock.
We were two true enthusiasts sharing our passion for kitchen gadgets: rich showed me his garlic slicer, lemon squeezer, two types of peelers, his knife sharpener, the glass loaf pans and his superb sauté pan. Each item had been carefully considered and practically tested – not just the latest fad that sits at the back of the kitchen drawer for years!
It was a real delight to find someone as passionate about cooking who really knew what he was doing from practical experience and not just reading recipe books.
The prize that helped fund my Baking Blind world tour commemorates James Holman who, like me, was blinded while serving in the royal Navy – but about 200 years apart. So the naval theme has been important throughout and meeting up with a retired Commanding Officer from the US Navy was a special treat. Even more so as he proved to be a passionate cook, mine of information and kitchen gadget enthusiast. We started with his home sourdough bread (https://youtu.be/pXMZD1vU2ls).
Retired beach master, Rich, resplendent in his own commemorative apron, had started his bread at the ungodly hour of 0500 but it had already risen enough to split the plastic wrap cover by the time I joined him. While he’s enthusiastic about using glass bread pans to reduce cooking temperatures, he was less happy when that day’s outstanding rise proved just too much for the pans: once cooked, removal without major surgery was impossible. It just shows how temperature and atmospheric variations completely change how bread responds.
Rich was also a champion of the King Arthur flour recipes for bread (https://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/walter-sands-basic-white-bread-recipe) and shared some excellent tips with me: bread needs to reach 190C (375F) to be cooked through. And I’ll try adding dried milk to my own favourite bread recipe. He cooked his bread at 400F in a fan oven or 400F conventional oven for 28 minutes.
He had been perfecting his own sourdough starter recipe (http://www.bakingblind.com/bread.htm) for over seven months and it was good to try out this bread in a domestic setting after the somewhat daunting professional approach of the Cheeseboard Collective (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zv817PSnH6s).
I am even keener to try sourdough at home now that I know that you don’t have to waste all the spare starter every time it is fed (https://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/scallion-sourdough-pancakes-recipe)
My only disappointment from our time together was the knife sharpener. Rich had shown me an amazing example of springs and sharpening edges that was more suited to a Bowie knife or machete than humble kitchen utensils. I was rather inspired by its obvious links to the American backwoods man life style but the company was in administration so no chance of buying. Probably safer! Before it seemed just such a waste of good flour (https://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/sourdough-crackers-recipe).
The comfortable companionship of cooking together can be the perfect ingredient for sharing life stories. Amidst potato peeling and pan stirring in Virginia Beach (USA), I heard all about Kate’s love story and more (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jDpWGy_FYpo&t=1s ).
While we struggled to skin recalcitrant puppydrum fish for our classic English fish pie, Kate told me about re-discovering her childhood sweetheart after years of separation and her boldness in moving across the Atlantic to create a new future with him. You can hear her happiness and enthusiasm for her completely new life. Not just a new country and relationship but she’s also created a new business too. Having developed a range of natural skin-care treatments to manage her own sensitivity to commercial products, she has a growing market for her range of hand-crafted preparations. See more on her Facebook page Simple Luxury Skin Care and you can contact her for a menu of products.
And the kitchen revelations didn’t stop there. The local Virginian Pilot journalist covering our Baking Blind cooking session shared her own struggle with the onset of sight loss. Just as I’d had to face such a life-changing situation two decades ago, she was having to learn new ways of working using some of the special adaptations, equipment and adjustments to her professional work. She is another shining example of how determination wrapped around the right amount of help can mean that acquiring a disability needn’t be career-ending.
And, meanwhile, Kate and I continued to struggle with the local puppydrum fish. Locally caught especially for our fish pie dish, it nearly proved more than a match for us when trying to remove the exceptionally tough skin. On the other hand, it might have been so much easier if I’d realised it needed doing before cutting the fish up! Just one of those kitchen dramas that happen when you are blind. But it was still a delicious dish that, amazingly, seems very little known in America – the “old” country still has some traditional secrets to share with them. You can try the recipe too (http://www.bakingblind.com/fish%20pie.htm) for a simple home supper or vamped up with more luxurious ingredients to delight guests.
Fellow naval officer James Holman and I both lost our sight due to uveitis. But he became blind some 200 years ago when women stayed at home while their menfolk were at sea – often for years. Could he have imagined that the Women’s royal Naval Service would be formed some 100 years later? And we have gone from strength to strength: last October I celebrated 100 years of Wrens with an outstanding lunch in Virginia Beach (USA) and you can share those great party food recipes (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WmTqhC6N7Q&t=8s).
But, back to that shared eye condition. The cause seems to be that our immune systems attack our own bodies causing the inflammation and damage. But now there’s possible hope on the way. This week I was at Moorfield’s eye hospital in London as, potentially, the only UK patient that might be able to take part in the first stage of research by the French Eyevensys biotech company.
They are investigating whether their gene-therapy can cause cells in the eye to produce an anti-inflammatory protein to fight the disease. I learned that it has already achieved positive pre-clinical results. The medication is delivered in to the eye through a fine needle but a key innovation is the use of tiny electrical impulses (electro transfer) which, although evaluated for other treatments, hasn’t yet been used on the eye. The idea is that the treatment stimulates the body to become its own factory creating the answer to the condition.
For me, there was no prospect of any improvement to my sight but perhaps I could help others with the condition by testing whether this process could reduce doses and frequency of injections. I wasn’t worried whether I would see again or not – but more about the practical implications of taking part in the trial. It would have been good to support the hospital after they have cared for me for over 20 years.
But I was too optimistic: both my eyes have too much damage to their structure. It would be impossible to monitor any consequences of the treatment – it would truly be a blind study! I was sad not to be able to help but glad that my needle-phobia wouldn’t be put to the test!
Wouldn’t it have been wonderful, having won the prize commemorating James Holman, to have contributed to an answer to the condition that blinded him? There’s more about him and the prize run by San Francisco’s LightHouse organisation at (www.lighthouse-sf.org).
Meanwhile, lack of sight didn’t hold him back -or me so you can enjoy the salmon recipe on my website: www.bakingblind.com.
The volume climbed at the WRNS 100 centenary lunch party while it took minimum effort to put together a great chicken dish to feed the crowd– see how we did it (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMp_N573JSA).
Jo, my old naval colleague, took our week in Virginia Beach, USA, by the scruff of the neck and shook it until every minute was completely occupied. She produced a programme with military precision having co-opted a corps of collaborative cooks all ready to create their culinary magic on camera.
During one short week we managed to pack in four different sorts of bread, soup, three different fish dishes, party chicken, two desserts and the most peculiar “overnight casserole” that turned out to be a strange savoury bread-and-butter pudding! Amidst all of this, we caught a glimpse of Virginia Beach and the huge naval base at Norfolk, managed another lunch party and a great Mexican welcome dinner. It took all my stamina to keep up with the tight schedule but it was superb to meet so many other enthusiastic cooks. But there was no stopping Jo: she kept teaching her Pilates classes, taking her exercise sessions and even managed to pack in a country music concert – I just tried to catch up on sleep!