Safe haven from storm violence.

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!

Penny

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Not for the faint-hearted: blind cook in South American jungle.

Pure chance and readiness to take a risk took me to Tamarindo on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.  When I’d been planning my Baking Blind tour, I’d simply asked everyone I knew for international contacts and, when one took the trouble to phone me, I just jumped at the chance to cook with him in South America.  You too can meet this truly original chef in his jungle restaurant in the latest video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PH-m1Jh0BhQ).

Driving across the country from the capital, San Jose, was not great during the rainy season.  Deluges of rain, a treacherous new single lane highway awash with water and littered with pot holes and sleeping policemen   added a frisson of hazard to the six hour journey.

But the local Tamarindo market the following day was a cook’s dream: farmers generously cut up samples of their strange and exotic fruits for me amidst the hustle and bustle of their customers.    I tried the mangostan (a small black fruit with the sepals of the original flower at the base), Chinese mamanchino, Lemon mandarino, the small Malaquina orange and Dragon fruit.

While the growers were local people, there were many others from all over the world.  Some explained that they wanted the relative freedom and anonymity of this new country, where they could follow their individual and alternative off-grid lifestyles and ambitions.  Several were selling an intriguing cross section of their artisan hand-crafted food in the market: French croissants and eclairs; bagels; fermented kimchi and more.  The sample of 95% cocoa-solids chocolate was a revelation of subtle, complex and sometimes bitter flavours that lasted on the tongue.  Afterwards, the coconut milk and lime ice-cream, spiked with lime zest and a little white sugar, was refreshing but I missed out on the peanut butter ice-cream that had sold out.  With the blare of the market music and the loud chatter of the people in the background, I was swapping charcuterie recipes with the producer of the German sausages and other preserved, smoked meats – I hadn’t imagined such a cosmopolitan mix of people and cuisines.

Then we were off-road along bumpy jungle tracks to Noam’s HIR restaurant.  First, we explored his new facilities which were in the final stage of construction before walking down to the original kitchen.  It was a simple small structure to serve his dinner guests under the corrugated iron shelter, open to the jungle on all sides.  The whole area was teeming with wildlife from the ants and insects, the birds and his own pet cat and dog.  And everything, including me having stepped in to a deep muddy puddle, was rather damp and soggy in the rain.  My spirits were low after the days of long travel, not much sleep and now this challenging environment in which to invent completely new dishes – I confess that my enthusiasm was equally damp.  You can see whether I managed to get through it all over the next few weeks.

Finally, watch out for the crocodiles near those long inviting sandy beaches on the Tamarindo Pacific coast: the locals know all about them so assume that visitors will too!

Penny

Blind people everywhere want their chance of success.

This week’s video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nE8OiKvVV6E) takes us to San Jose, capital of Costa Rica, in South America and different people, new food, risky places and even dangers!

Even the flight team contributed to our international recipe collection en route Costa Rica via Los Angeles.  Kate, one of the Delta flight stewards, shared her salad dressing ingredients of avocado, tomatoes, green chilli and mango – all whizzed together.

In the Costa Rica capital, San Jose, the tourist information desk saved our bacon by helping us get a taxi to the location of the National Association for Blind People.  One of the complicating factors of this developing nation is that there are no real addresses anywhere!  We had the same problem later when searching for chef Mario’s home.  The solution is to ring your destination and someone comes out to watch for your arrival.

Again, as this is a developing country, some of the everyday conveniences we take for granted were missing.  For example, it would be very unusual to have a dishwasher.  Most kitchens only have a cold water supply which makes cleaning greasy pots and pans more laborious.  And, as you’ll hear over the coming weeks, sometimes even the cold water fails at the most inconvenient moments!

It was very humbling to start my visit by addressing the association of blind people.  They wanted to hear about the Holman prize adventure and my own experience of blindness.  Their response was hugely positive: they asked lots of questions, invited me to stay with them and visit El Salvador.  The cooking theme clearly touched their enthusiasm: many were asking for their own course while others had skills and recipes to share.  The upshot was that, on the spot, we organised another group session when I would cook at the capital’s top cookery school with them in a week’s time.  Many were very keen to get back to work and wanted help to start their own businesses and become self-employed.  Our collective cheer was to encourage other people to “Give us a chance”,   whether in work or other activities, rather than just considering us as needy blind people.

As this country continues to progress, there is also a pressing need to increase support for blind and other disabled people – I’d have loved the chance to do more, share more of my experience and help others become more independent.

Next week, I start my jungle cooking adventure – really challenging!

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

Cooking in Costa Rica.

Major long-haul: departing San Francisco one day to fly up to Los Angeles, change planes and an overnight flight down to San Jose ( capital of Costa Rica) to arrive early the following morning.  I’m not quite sure what videographer, Toby, and I will do for the next few hours before I have a speaking gig with some local disability organisations and media.  I thought I might explore how good self-employment can be for disabled people using my own experience of running a business for over 17 years  (www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk) with the last seven helping others to do the same through the Work for Yourself projects.  And then before there’s a chance of shower and sleep, we have a five hour drive across the country to Tamarindo on the Pacific coast.

Over the following days, I’ll be developing some dishes with local restaurateur, Noam and trying to get a sense of the wonderful wildlife and beaches.  Perhaps even a swim in the sea?

Noam and I are then returning to San Jose to give a cookery demonstration to local blind people.  Because we aren’t sure what facilities might be available, we will go ready to be flexible and inventive.  I feel rather presumptuous trying to show people how to get the best from their local produce when they probably know very well already – but perhaps I can offer an English spin?    And some will have ideas to share too.

Noam is delighted that my adventure is helping him to work more closely with not-for-profit organisations – and he has lots of skills to share with them.  I’m hoping that, between all of us, we can generate more promotion and public interest to get stronger support for the organisations helping blind people.

With luck, we’ll have a final day to get a better sense of the country, do the washing and even sleep before jetting back to the USA.

San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired selected me as one of the three international blind winners of the Holman prize which has made all of this possible.  And there was a feature all about us in the San Francisco Chronicle!

Keep up with my travels at on YouTube.

Penny