Imagine your very first cookery demonstration: not even in a kitchen; supported by a chef who barely speaks English; an audience of the most powerful women in the world’s largest city. Daunting or what? I desperately fell back on the tried-and-tested Victoria sponge but with a little twist to make it my own (https://youtu.be/0H0jPBwpD1M).
I was in Chongqing in China with one of the top chefs, Frank, at the prestigious InterContinental Hotel. We were providing the entertainment for the regular lunch of the International Women’s Group. This was a truly impressive gathering of the key female influencers in this vast city of 37 million people: Consuls general heading up the local representation of their national embassies; leaders in business and academia; my Rotary Club sponsors; movers and shakers in heels. And this was my initiation audience so I chose something hopefully foolproof and quintessentially English.
Frank and super-Beverages and Food Manager, Sam, did all the hard work. All I had to do was crack the eggs and turn on the mixer. I just tossed raspberries in to the mix and let Frank carry it away to the oven. Hardly testing or high cuisine!
My mini-sponges looked suitably simple alongside the accompaniment Frank had produced: a delectable chocolate stiletto shoe each garnished with fruit. He was just showing off and definitely caught the attention of the whole group. It was clearly the difference between a truly professional chef and yours truly – but did he have to rub it in so hard?
Frank and I had a great time working together – I just wish we had been able to do more. But the lunch was another chance to spread the word that disability needn’t be the end of the world – just give us a chance to show what we can do.
Cooking alongside another young blind woman in China, together we learned a classic chocolate Mousse during a session with Intercontinental chef, frank (https://youtu.be/wwNtojsbuuU ).
Lisa was intrigued by the talking thermometer and I was too by the practical demonstration as to how altitude makes such a difference to the boiling temperature of liquids. Once the milk had boiled, it was cooled by adding chocolate and then eggs until the whipped cream could be folded through when the mix was at 30 degrees centigrade. Once cooled and set, the mousse can be served with our very easy strawberries steeped in orange juice, a little sugar and a splash of optional orange liqueur.
We had been trying to use very simple processes with a few ingredients that weren’t too expensive or strange for these two young women with virtually no kitchen experience. And the Intercontinental team put together a parcel of other western dishes for them to take home, share and learn more flavours.
Lisa was very tiny and, although trained as a medical masseuse, is just too small to practice her skill. Instead, she is trying to generate income through her handicrafts. She has some limited residual vision so doesn’t use a white cane and is wildly independent.
It was a time to treasure: the two blind women had been with us at the Intercontinental for lunch and then cooking in to the early evening. They were enthusiastic and self-confident – great examples of how education and training could equip them for life. Alongside the Intercontinental chefs were wonderful in their support, patience and empathy. It seemed to me that both the chefs and young women were having a completely new experience cooking together: finding that food was a force for breaking down barriers. I tried to stand back and give them time to learn about each other’s lives.
Two young blind masseuses spent an afternoon with the top Intercontinental chefs and me in Chongqing, China. We were all trying to learn from each other: some basic cooking, Chinese medical massage and living with blindness. Head chef Jack taught us to use our sense of touch to test how well a beef steak is cooked (https://youtu.be/BvIuYBQwehI). This very simple professional tip is perfect for blind people anywhere – and anyone else too.
During our time in the city, I learned that other blind people weren’t very obvious. Perhaps they don’t get out much or perhaps they tend not to use white canes. Either way, my videographer Toby didn’t spot many during our stay in the world’s largest city with a population of about 37 million. There would have been many citizens with different levels of visual impairment arising from all the conditions that are recognised world-wide: many would be age-related, others linked to past malnutrition in this country of massive economic growth.
Medical massage is a key work opportunity for young people who attend the local blind school to gain the necessary qualifications. They then practice in a massage clinic that is also their home. The patient couches become their beds at night and an “auntie” comes in to cook their meals. Living and working in the same place obviously has lots of advantages but possibly less chance of learning how to cook. My thanks to the Rotary Club of Chongqing for bringing us all together as part of their initiative to support local visually impaired people.
Like me, the blind girls probably hadn’t had much time in a professional kitchen in a prestigious hotel but we all managed to enjoy the opportunity together rather than being over-awed by the location.
The two girls quickly learned from Jack. He’d probably also had very little experience of blind people in his kitchen but was wonderful with all three of us: patient and empathetic, caring and courteous. I just stood back while the rapport developed between him and the blind girls: they were all completely immersed with their experience of each other.
For the beef dish, Jack showed Wan Lin a safer way of handling her knife and how to toss the pan of vegetables. Alongside, we had Julia and food and Beverages Manager, Sam, both translating plus Toby shooting video and a small audience. From this chaos Jack still managed to produce an excellent dish – what a professional!
And the trick with steak: the muscle at the base of your thumb becomes harder as you fold your thumb and fingers: thumb only – rare; two fingers folded- medium; three – well-done – but the video explanation is probably easier!
Next time, we use taste to refine a simple salad.
For years/decades, I’ve yearned for one of those pointed oval tins for raised game pies (the type with clips at either end). Just one of those longings for a classic piece of cooking equipment that carries breaths of nostalgia and tradition. When I had the chance, I’ve scoured antique fairs without success but my longing was finally more than satisfied this Christmas by friends Sue and Joan. Heaven knows why these tins are so wildly expensive!
My own version of hot water pastry to make the game raised pie included: strong white bread flour added to the ordinary plain; rubbing in butter; adding lard dissolved in hot water. A quarter of the pastry was set aside for the pie lid and the rest went in the tin. I pressed it out and gradually raise it up the sides. Just like trying to mould hot greasy and slithery plasticine! It kept oozing back down the sides of the tin and gathering at the bottom –it would have been better allowing it to cool more so it didn’t sag like Nora batty tights!
Pork gave bulk to the filling: sausage meat and mince seasoned with mustard powder and ground allspice. Pork is also important in adding a little fat to keep the game moist – in this case, partridge (skinned and bones removed) marinaded with a little white wine.
By the time I’d struggled with the pastry, rather roughly layered in the meat and topped off with the lid, I was running out of cooking time. But, even though I had to switch the oven off 30 minutes early, leaving it in the residual heat did the trick. I confess that one side was a bit scorched (too near the gas), I failed to do the egg glaze and the jellied stock added later didn’t reach all the parts required or set firmly enough – it sounds like a series of disasters. But the pastry was the best I’ve ever made and the filling was deliciously moist. Definitely an experiment to be repeated in rather slower time to do more justice to that excellent tin.
Meanwhile, if you are looking for another classic pork dish, look no further than this week’s video (https://youtu.be/s9ssUcVIIto) which features the first of three versions of sweet and sour spare ribs from my time in Chongqing in China. This was the recipe from the professional chef with two more homely versions to come.