Baking Blind in Melbourne.

Years ago, I was in Melbourne for one of the World Blind Union conferences and I’ve got lots of great memories of this city that still retained the charm of a much smaller town.     Now I’m on my way back with my Baking Blind adventure .

I particularly remember a whole series of water features along the popular river bank area that is the centre of social life.  Each water feature seemed at least 10 foot tall with water running down the outside and, at night, great gas jets lit up from their tops with amazing whooshes.  It wasn’t just one quick burn off but the whole line of water features would come to light in series and patterns of burns – it was just magical for someone who couldn’t see to get a sense through the sound and heat.  And there was another water feature of jets that sprang from the pavement – and the children could be occupied for hours dodging between the sporadic spouts.

I remember taking a boat down the river to the sea for a visit to the tiny island crammed with little penguins.

This new visit promises another wonderful series of memories.  I’m being hosted by Colin, another former royal Navy Commander, who is arranging for me to cook with Australian Defence Force trainees.  Maribel has been championing Baking Blind with local professional chefs so that, between the pair of them, I’ll have a whole variety of cooking experiences.

You can keep in touch with my adventures on YouTube.

And all of this has happened because San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired selected me as one of three winners of their inaugural international Holman prize for blind people.

Penny

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Chongqing – probably the biggest and most exciting city on Earth!

For richness of experience, this is the place: bustling, teeming, throbbing with life, developing, exploding, cutting edge, fascinating, stimulating and so much more!  Thank goodness for the vision of the rotary Club of Chongqing for making this latest Baking blind visit possible over the last nine days.  And, particular thanks are due to the indomitable Julia who organised every event.

Forget any myths about life being grey, the people being unfriendly or the culture being stifled.  Here life, like the thrum of the traffic and the 24 hour construction workers, never stops.  I’ve experienced everything from the woman sitting alongside her pavement display of antique coins to the dynamic optimism of high rise living.  Even at night, the city sparkles with drama: vast collections of buildings lit up:  the mystery of Chinese calligraphy to fish darting from tower to tower.

I’ve explored miniature garden landscapes (complete with waterfalls) in the flower market, haggled over sales, chorused improvised songs in an air-raid shelter cave, tramped along alleys carved in to rock complete with huge tree roots, negotiated steps galore, talked to everyone from local school children to Consuls general, just about managed some basic Mandarin and had one of the most memorable weeks of my life.

And cooking, of course, has been at the heart of it all.  Chongqing is famous (or notorious for some) for hot spicy food – they just love chillies.   Everyone needs to try their renowned “hot pot” at least once: a dish of hot oil redolent with chillies in which everyone cooks different delicate slices of meat, mushrooms, vegetables and seafood.  Each diner mixes their own dipping sauce: a personal ring-pull can of sesame oil poured over slithers of garlic, fresh coriander and, perhaps, soy and oyster sauces.  It’s like a fondue on acid – and only the bravest will attempt the option of offal slices – a gland too far?  I was lucky enough to share an authentic hot pot high in the mountains with the key chefs from the Intercontinental Hotel – Corporate Chef Julie Donaghue plus her Chinese colleagues Chefs Jack, Dylan and Frank plus the magnificent general Manager, Sharon.  If this team couldn’t find the best place, no-one could.   After a couple of the chilli-oil cooked delicacies, it felt as if I’d developed a Botox trout-pout of numb lips so I cravenly resorted to food cooked in hot chicken stock – delicious when my taste buds had returned to consciousness.

This city has already gained international credibility and must be one of the best places for business opportunities.  But I focused on Chinese cooking and have barely touched the enormous range of styles and diversity of fabulous ingredients.  There was chicken, wonderful braised pork and tofu with Chef Dylan, yellow fish and prawns with Chef Dong, sweet and sour pork plus braised beef with Charlie and a lunchtime feast with May.    There will be videos and recipes next year – and you can watch six of us struggling to make the traditional steamed dumplings so expertly demonstrated by Wangyi’s aunt.  I did knock up some rather unadventurous raspberry sponges for the International women’s group – but mainly as they were simple and time was tight.

You’ll be able to get a real insight in to how and where people cook: from the wild and noisy commercial kitchens to the sleek modernism of high rise apartments with the hippie chic of Charlie’s hillside backpacker hostel.

When I started this Baking Blind venture, it was all about how sharing a great enthusiasm might bring people together, regardless of disability or blindness.    This week has proved that a common passion for cooking can transcend cultural differences, language difficulties and so much more.  The best example is how the Intercontinental chefs and I worked alongside two young blind women.    Both had trained to provide Chinese medicinal massage but had virtually no kitchen experience – even handling a knife!  So they are utterly dependant on others feeding them – whether the cook in the massage centre or street food.  It was poignant to take part as they gained in confidence: together we made dishes that used all our senses, learned how to feel how meat is cooking, taste for balance of flavours, feel temperatures and consistencies, smell and listen as food cooks.   What was magical was how something as simple as food worked to create the bonds of humanity and empathy – transcending differences in culture and capacity, relegating preconceptions about disability and blindness to the bin.

Check out the Baking Blind website and the YouTube videos so far.

I’d love your feedback and perhaps you have a recipe to share: penny@bakingblind.com.

Baking Blind goes Down Under.

You might not have heard of Kiama, a delightful seaside town about two hours south of Sydney by road.  It will be my first proper stop in Australia with old friends Rosemary and Ken.

Ro and I first met many years ago when she was working at St Dunstan’s charity (now Blind Veterans UK).  She madly volunteered to accompany me to a European Blind Union conference in Athens and we had a true meeting of minds over enjoyment of good food, much shopping and great fun.  We left loaded with leather goods, shoes, crystallised fruit, jewellery, pistachio nuts and more – and still enjoyed meeting all the blind delegates from all over Europe too.

We’ve kept in touch over the years and even went on a cooking holiday in Umbria, Italy last year.  For the first time, I’ll be able to visit her new home in Kiama and get a sense of living in a small Australian town.  She’s working hard at arranging a great variety of cooking opportunities so that my Baking Blind adventure (www.bakingblind.com) includes the less well-known aspects of Australia.

And, of course, none of this could happen without the support of the Holman prize  being run by San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

You can keep up with my trip on YouTube.

Penny

Precision cooking

Roger is a gentleman of some maturity dressed in his stripey apron and with his blackboard of the cooking timings.Measuring pieces of spaghetti to the nearest half centimetre and asparagus by the inch plus using a stopwatch to time the cooking isn’t my usual style but neighbour Roger proved that more precision reaps benefits.

His chalkboard checklist for every step and timing was the crucial kitchen gadget for creating his truly excellent pasta dish – and adapted from the BBC Good Food magazine’s “101 Simple Suppers”.  Such a logical approach certainly works for anyone who isn’t confident about cooking – although I’d need to find a different way of pre-planning each step and timing.  I’ll just have to revert to my old touch, smell and taste ways and hope for the best. I confess that, as a usually rather slapdash cook, I could barely stop laughing at this way of cooking but there’s no doubt that it works: a great dish in exactly the time the recipe stipulates.  I’ll have to mend my ways.roger’s slate board with his cooking times. Roger and Penny dressed in their stripey aprons in the kitchen ready to start the dish.

You can watch us on YouTube or download the recipe here

Penny

 Roger supervising the cooking of strips of bacon in the large frying pan

When serving your country brings a death sentence.

There’s a link between the US military and a higher chance of having ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig Disease) – more familiar to us in the UK as Motor Neuron disease.  My sponsor in Virginia Beach told me that people who have served in the American military are twice as likely to get the condition – it has no cure and causes death just a few years after diagnosis.

Jo and I were at the UK naval officers’ training college together in 1978 for just three months before we popped out as brand new Third Officers in the Women’s Royal Naval Service.  We went separate ways until she relieved me in Naples three years later.  I returned to the next stage of my career in the UK while she met and married Nick, an American naval officer.  Three children and over three decades later, Nick was diagnosed with ALS.  Jo talked to me (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbMF6cLZbS0) about the family’s massive struggle with the enormous practical and emotional consequences of Nick’s progressive deterioration and inescapable death six years later.  The pain and loss is etched on their lives: Jo and her daughter, Katy, continue a daily fight to increase awareness, research and support for those affected by this deadly condition.Nick in uniform holding the infant Katie With a naval guard of honour

All of this may seem a million miles from something as seemingly trivial as my Baking blind world trip.  But, in reality, the resonance is there: Despite the extreme consequences of his disability, Nick was still making the very best of life and supporting his family right to the end.  He was laboriously using IT adaptations and then a communications board to handle the family finances and taxes; even with breathing ventilation through his trachea and literally strapped in to a wheelchair, he still had a wonderful time at music concerts and sports events.  I hadn’t anticipated my trip would bring me so close to someone who completely epitomises the message underlying my Holman project: just having a disability doesn’t limit our ambitions, aspirations and capacity to contribute to life.

In comparison, cooking all seems less important.  But it has been a wonderful time here in Virginia Beach: lots of familiar home-cooking compared with the more professional restaurant experiences of San Francisco and Costa Rica.  There were lettuce wraps (watch out for the recipe of the secret sauce) and banana bread with Kelly, fabulous sherry-laced mushroom soup and authentic Irish wheaten bread with Wendy, traditional fish pie of local puppydrum fish with Kate and more.

And the Navy theme threaded throughout: retired US Navy Commanding Officer and Beach Master Rich  showed me how to cook apple-smoked local rockfish  on the grill with his own sourdough bread and sautéed vegetables.  The highlight was creating a lunchtime feast with Royal Navy Commander David to celebrate the WRNS centenary   – delicious and straightforward dishes of chicken and salmon plus sautéed peaches in honey and lemon cream profiteroles (I’ll share the recipes later plus the great time plan written by his wife, Fran, that shows how to put together this whole lunch in just a few hours).  It is amazing how many former Wrens live here and lots, like Jo, met and married their American husbands having served in Naples.

I’ll be posting all the great videos of my time here over the coming months so don’t miss out but subscribe to the YouTube channel – it doesn’t cost anything!

Finally, the cookery triumph of this visit is to discover that profiteroles that fail are really a type of home-made blini in disguise!  Rather than trying to griddle lots of little pancakes, in the future I’ll be developing this recipe further so that I can make whole trays of them for topping with cream cheese and smoked salmon or other delights.  Great to make mistakes and discover something completely new – as I discovered with Noam in Costa Rica.

Penny

Truly out of my comfort zone!

Cook’s nightmare? Long hours, little sleep or food, endlessly damp from the torrential rain, dog and cat underfoot, no hot water and, for hours, no water at all, biting ants and other flying insects, chaotic kitchen, unfamiliar equipment,  strange ingredients and stranger combinations (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKFHEgyP9-0).  And, for this particular blind cook, trip hazards galore plus a particularly unpleasant muddy puddle!

I’d love to say that I took all of this in my stride and turned out a stream of fabulous food.  But the tomato and avocado crumble was just boring and even my second attempt at meringues barely passed muster (the sugar and damp, I think).

Yet Noam and I somehow managed to turn out two evenings of seven course dishes for guests at his Tamarindo restaurant on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.  The first day was a challenge: starting soon after 0800 and not getting back to the hotel until nearly 2300 because the guests were late starting due to the weather and even later finishing.  We were trying to combine the ideas of some classic British dishes and techniques with some completely different ingredients.  So while the tartar sauce with the beer-battered fish included the usual capers, we also threw in slithers of watermelon skin pickled in beer and vinegar!   My mini-Victoria sponges were flavoured with chilli and coriander and topped with a tamarind and pineapple sauce – a million miles from lemon drizzle cake.  We turned the ever-popular Coronation chicken in to a cold prawn curry with mango or papaya, served on top of double-fried plantain slices to give the crunch of poppadum’s.  And the little lemon meringue tarts tasted great when made with lemon mandarinos but the meringue was just too flabby.

This week of real culinary adventure should have ended with a great cook-in with the Costa Rican organisation of blind people   (Patronato Nacional De Ciegos)but the rainy season put paid to that.  I’d got lots of support and enthusiasm from them at the start of the week and we were all set to work together at one of the best cookery schools in the capital, San Jose.  But the hair-raising six hour drive from Tamarindo gave us a sense of just how devastating the rainy season can be: roads awash and flooded, rivers breaking their banks, trees uprooted and general chaos and devastation.  The Government has been warning people to stay at home so the decision to abandon our plan was inevitable.

So not a nightmare but a true adventure, full of challenge and fresh ideas  that I hope will inspire and stimulate my thinking about food for years to come.

I’ll write more about the menu, our dishes and the ingredients in the coming months –all thanks to Noam and his friend, Victor, who kept us safe over hundreds of miles of treacherous roads

Please Like, Comment and Subscribe to my YouTube channel to keep up with the next wild adventure.

Penny

Baking Blind with a Navy theme.

I was last in Norfolk, Virginia in the USA nearly 40 years ago: a young and ambitious officer in the Women’s Royal Naval Service pretending to know something about NATO intelligence and trying not to look completely foolish at an international naval conference.    I look back at all that naivete and laugh!

This autumn, I’ll be passing through en route to Virginia Beach to meet Jo, another former WRNS officer.  We did officer training together at the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth and then she took over from me in the NATO Intelligence job in Naples.  And we haven’t been in contact since – until the WRNS centenary this year and Baking Blind came along.

It is thanks to Jo that I’ll have nearly a week of cooking opportunities with a bevy of home-cooks including another former Wren.  I’ve been researching the area and local produce and am hugely disappointed to miss the season for their wonderful local peaches.  It would have been good to try preserving them, make peach pies and cobblers and even try them with savoury dishes.  It is just difficult to get comparable fruit here in rather chillier England.

I’ll be flying from San Jose in Costa Rica via Atlanta to Norfolk and then returning to the UK via Chicago – so my sense of these famous cities are going to be limited to the airports and the helpfulness of their passenger assistance teams.  But, I’ll be able to name-drop and give the impression that I’m well-travelled in the United States – which takes me back to blagging my way through that intelligence conference all those years ago!

And all of this is thanks to James Holman, that Royal Navy officer who was blinded while serving like me but went on to travel the world about 200 years ago.  Without his inspiration, San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired wouldn’t have created the Holman prize and I would still be back in the chilly UK rather than pursuing my Baking Blind adventure across six continents.

You can keep track of my trip on YouTube.

Penny