Digging out dinner guests

Guests lost in the jungle and bogged down in mud was the drama of my second dinner service at Noam’s HiR restaurant in Tamarindo, Costa Rica.  Although late, dinner succeeded and you can see how I turned classic Victoria sponges in to more exotic desserts with chilli and coriander https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cyAYELsPtgo

In the rainy season, the jungle roads are treacherous with pot holes, mud and torrents of water.  Our missing dinner guests were marooned only a few hundred yards away but their car was stuck in the mud.  Chef Noam dashed out with other guests in tow.    He was as handy with a pick-axe as with his chef’s knife and, within minutes, they soggily joined the party.  This was service with a difference!  As they say in Costa Rica, Pura vida – the answer to everything.

This whole week had been wonderful for discovering new foods growing wild in the jungle:

  • Okinawa spinach – green on one side and purple on the other.
  • Mayan tree spinach – which is toxic when uncooked.
  • Turmeric plants with large leaves – just dig out some roots to use.
  • Ginger plants with thin strap leaves for a light ginger taste and the roots/bulbs of ginger emerging from underground and to be cut.

And every home needs cleaner ants.  They rid houses of other insects and animals.  But they do bite humans too.  They don’t eat our food but will get rid of cockroaches and even something as large as a scorpion.  So you need to know which ant is which and keep the good ones.

Penny

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Blind cook fails with simplest recipe!

Creating completely new dishes in Noam’s tiny original jungle kitchen was a challenge from the start: strange ingredients, unfamiliar equipment, the pressure of a seven course dinner menu for paying guests.  It was all made even trickier by the heat and deluges of rain plus the complete lack of water inside!  You can see the video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CirMoelCNVg) of my struggles.

I took the easy course with citrus tartlets using lemon mandarinos in place of the classic lemons.  Driver/trainee doctor Victor squeezed all the juice while I got on with the pastry which, of course, was baked blind using balls of kitchen foil to keep the tartlets in shape.

That first night there was a party of nine Americans celebrating a birthday at Noam’s HiR restaurant. The jungle was filled by their music and laughter while the tin roof above their heads rang with the torrents of rain.

Noam and I juggled our way through each course’s complicated elements without any obvious mishaps or delays.  The result was a very happy group of diners, clean plates and tantalised palates – few had encountered anything similar before!

But my attempt at meringues to top the tartlets was a complete disaster: every time I added the sugar, the whisked egg whites collapsed – it was probably the pervading dampness.  I did manage to produce sweet egg white pancakes which, when topped with the lemon mandarino sorbet plus the mangostan sauce and segments, just about passed muster.  The trick was to sound confident and convincing that this had been the plan all along!

Penny

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

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

The chaos of travel.

Me in my gardenHow can you make a journey of discovery nowadays?  I cast my hopes to the winds of social media and found new people around the world.

My goal with the Holman competition was to cook with new people wherever I could find them – through e-mails, social media, interviews and every other way I could think of.  My thanks go to the outstanding group of new and willing supporters spread far and wide: from Noam in Costa Rica who runs his own speciality Jungle Culinary Adventures. To Stephen in Malawi who supports local women through re-recycling projects (Our World International),  from Jo in Virginia Beach with whom I haven’t had any contacts since our paths crossed in the Women’s Royal Naval Service nearly 40 years ago to Colin in Melbourne who used to cook in the Royal Navy too; others welcoming this complete stranger such as the Rotary Club in China plus Tom and Fran in Dover (New Hampshire, USA);  Rosemary in Kiama (Australia) is the sole previous regular contact – she took me cooking in Umbria last year.

If I’m lucky enough to win, all this generosity would enable me to travel through six continents  meeting even more new people,  cooking in amazingly different places and having the adventure of a lifetime.  I couldn’t have got even this far without all the help and enthusiasm from so many distant places and many others closer to home.  Just putting together the plans has been an exhilarating whirlwind so, fingers crossed, for the future.  The prize winners are due to be announced on 1 July.

 

Penny Melville-Brown OBE

Disability Dynamics ltd www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

www.bakingblind.com