China starts the New Year.

Chongqing is the largest city in the world – and the most exhilarating.  Rather than me trying to describe it without sight, my intrepid videographer and nephew, Toby, explored the excitement, dynamism and visual magic in his video (https://youtu.be/s8Y7PXLpmvM) cityscape.  This marks the start of the second leg of our Holman adventure: China, Australia and Malawi all coming over the next few months.

Helped by local architects Julia and Matthew, we learned to appreciate the delicate balance between past millennia of civilisation and the surge of current building.  The ancient mudstone conceals a labyrinth of caves and tunnels where the population sheltered from Japanese bombing in the 1940s while the city became the temporary capital of China during the hostilities.  Now, that bedrock also supports glittering glass and steel towers alongside more traditional homes and businesses.

With some 37 million inhabitants (more than half the total population of the UK), the city is a magnet for those who want to work and share in the benefits of modern growth.  Like any other city, there is tension between the demands for excellent work and living conditions and the preservation of authentic local character.   We managed to experience both:  singing to the echo of the mudstone caves; the dazzling night-time light displays; the traditional flower market with exotic plants and miniature gardens; the superb modern apartments and eclectic backpacker hostel.

Most importantly, of course, were all the wonderful people from the International Women’s Group, the Rotary Club that sponsored our visit and everyone who took part in our cooking videos – professional chefs and home-cooks.  Each and every one of them gave us hospitality, kindness and invaluable enthusiasm that we continue to treasure.

And Toby was inspired to add more fabulous drawings to his freelance architectural illustrator portfolio – images rich in detail and atmosphere (www.Tobymelvillebrown.com ).

Next time, see me cooking at the prestigious Intercontinental Hotel with one of their top chefs: an authentic Chinese chicken dish that you can try at home too.

Penny

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Baking Blind: good, bad and ugly experiences.

Can you believe that just cooking brings so many new, good experiences, broadens the horizon and introduces new people?  Here’s a video (https://youtu.be/zdEIFJwLzjs) that will give you a sense of the second leg of my Baking Blind world tour: Chongqing in China, Kiama, Sydney and Melbourne in Australia; Lilongwe in Malawi.  It would be eye-opening if I could see!

Meanwhile, I’m still mulling over the huge contrasts of my week in San Francisco: staggering poverty   amongst huge affluence – bad and ugly.    It is supposed to be the most expensive place to live in America –paying $35 for a single plate of scallop risotto brought that home to me.  And don’t forget the tip: one server wouldn’t leave until she’d got her’s and our usual 10% wasn’t enough.  It was even worse because the £/$ exchange rate is so bad at the moment.  But local people are also being hit hard ($45 for two cups of coffee and one hot chocolate) and none hit so much as those who live on the street.  The number of homeless people was shocking: sleeping along the pavements of a main road through the city.  But, worse still, was the plight of disabled people: over less than a mile, we spotted at least half a dozen homeless people in wheelchairs.

The most striking was the man who shared our bus: he seemed to have cut a shopping trolley in two and attached one half to the back of his wheelchair to store his cooking equipment.  His sleeping mattress was folded behind his back like a great buffer to the world while the other trolley half, with his little dog and other belongings , was fastened to the front of his chair.  He had a begging box and carefully seeded it with dollar bills to clearly indicate that small change wasn’t welcome.  I would have been uncomfortable using his image except for his sign: his own political statement and he’s entitled to be heard.  It was all rather distressing after fussing about the price of a meal and, perhaps, even more so when other Americans seemed to accept his situation as normal – the consequences of limited health and social security safety nets.

It would have been easy to scoff at the tourist side of the city but it all really worked for me.  I literally rode the famous cable car by the seat of my pants: clanging up the steep inclines of Nob Hill on wooden benches so smooth with varnish that I was slipping from one end to the other (one way of amusing the other passengers).   The pontoons of sea lions next to Pier 39 were multi-sensory: the sounds of their barks and sea plunges plus their salty animal smell.  And, of course, I didn’t forget to try the famous clam chowder served in a sourdough loaf at the Boudin bakery – surprisingly satisfying. On the general food front, setting aside the cost, we learned that soups, salads and appetizers were more than enough – a starter of calamari turned out to be a huge plateful.

Two of the high spots were meeting up with people I’d met a year earlier.  Luis, the super chef of seagrass sponge (https://youtu.be/uqRx8cGznGs) is shortly to appear in the sort of TV cooking show that’s only possible in California: competing to create the best dessert using marijuana!  He didn’t win that time but I was able, at last, to give him a Baking Blind “medal”.

And it was a delight to share news with Ben and Blanche (saviours of our previous hotel hell) in a ferry trip to Sausalito.  We passed the Golden Gate Bridge (apparently looking rather red and rusty) and Alcatraz Island (reportedly quite small with a tiny block building).  This little town was a haven of tranquil Colonial style after the constant hustle and bustle of San Francisco where there are buildings so tall and thin that it seems a puff of wind would bring them down, let alone an earthquake.

A city of contrasts.  You can see how it compares with Chongqing in China in the New Year.

 

Penny

Blind baker turns pewter-smith

Alongside cooking, pewter is one of my passions.  Throughout the first leg of my Baking Blind world tour (https://youtu.be/peNM8VqWjgE), I gave special hand-made “medals” to everyone who cooked with me.  I tried to capture my trademark stripey apron with a pocketful of kitchen utensils in the original model.  Once I’d created the rubber mould, molten pewter was poured in.  It took hours of filing, trimming and finishing before each medal could be polished and struck with my personal mark.  There are just 41 in the whole world.

I’m lucky enough to be helped by outstanding pewter Master Craftswoman Fleur (http://www.fleurgrenier.co.uk/) in her workshop in Angmering.  Not only does she create amazing works of art but she shares her skills with beginners like me.

For this Christmas, I wanted to make a trio of seasonal little bowls for nibbles: each flat disc was repeatedly etched with images of snowflakes, holly or mistletoe before I beat them in to shape. And I managed to complete the second of my dragon bowls.

Fleur wisely doesn’t let me near the molten metal or the electrically charged etching tank but, otherwise, I can do nearly everything else myself.  It is all a matter of touch so not being able to see matters less.

This week’s video is a record of the key moments in San Francisco, Costa rica and Virginia Beach – my travels had taken me to both south and North America with China, Australia and Africa next.

Penny

Wrens re-united.

Inspection on paradeWhen 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.

Penny

Classic baking – how a blind cook manages.

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/

Penny

To peel or not to peel?

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.

Penny

 

Long distance love.

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.

Penny