When 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.
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/
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 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!
Tropical Storm Nate turned a long difficult drive across Costa Rica in to a scary six hour ordeal of white-knuckled battle with flooded roads, wind-tossed debris and torrential rain. Undaunted, and probably foolishly, we carried on to reach the capital city, San Jose, so you can see this masterclass (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BD1cHjsQogs) of home-cooked Costa Rican dishes by professional chef Mario. Finding him was tricky in the dark and awful weather and, as is usual in Costa Rica, no address: you just have to phone your host and they come to find you!
His kitchen was a haven of peace after all the hours of storm noise – and it quickly filled with the gentler sounds and smells of cooking. It was just blissful to relax with a glass of wine and excellent simple food expertly cooked after a difficult day.
And the following morning was just as tricky. I’d been planning a farewell kitchen session with the Costa Rican association of blind people in the capital’s top cookery school. But we found that the city had been closed down as the government warned everyone to stay inside due to the continuing storm. We heard from contacts in the UK that flights to San Jose were cancelled and began to wonder if we would be able to fly out the following day.
The hotel only offered a breakfast buffet so videographer toby went on a scavenging hunt to secure enough food and water for the day, in case the situation got even more risky.
Thank goodness the weather was rather calmer next day and the flight out was possible. But, after all the drama and fabulous food of costa rica, we would have preferred our last memories to have been better than the rather dry sandwiches and warm water of our final meal there. If you want Western comforts mixed with life on the wild side, Costa Rica is just perfect – but perhaps better outside the rainy season!