Sunday, 24 June 2012

Introducing... the Wheaty Eater

So now you know who I am - writer, travel junkie, gluten avoider - but what about the Wheaty Eater in the title of my blog? And why is the Wheaty Eater relevant when talking about gluten-free food?

The Wheaty Eater, doing what wheat-eaters, he's eating churros in Madrid.
Photo by Anita
The Wheaty Eater is also known as Matt, my happy, ski-fanatic, Australian boyfriend. The Wheaty Eater and I met two years after my diagnosis, so I was a fully fledged coeliac by then. Our mutual love of pure unadulterated sashimi meant that it was a couple of dates before I needed to 'come out' ('Honey, I've got something to tell you... I hope you're not a Pizza Express fan...'). And his reaction was of initial confusion followed by total acceptance, one of many reasons he's so very dear to me.

The Wheaty Eater has been an important part of my journey. While naturally he still eats gluten himself, we keep a 99.9% gluten-free kitchen (I'm not going to be a Nazi about it if I have friends coming over - but keep those crumbs out of my toaster!) And he's been the major test subject for all my baking experiments. Some people say that gluten-free cake making is hard to master, so who better to be the judge than the Wheaty Eater?

Luckily I can trust him not to simply scoff down anything I put in front of him. (My chocolate crispie cakes and courgette buns got a definite thumbs-down so I'm still working on those recipes.) But he's been an appreciative eater of my gluten-free carrot cakes, Victoria sponge, corn breads, chocolate cakes, rose cupcakes and plenty more besides - and I love him for it!

So what does he have to do with this blog? Well, it's not just about giving his wheat-eating stamp of approval to my recipes (although that's useful to have when cutting down gluten-free haters - more on them down the line). It's also to cast a cynical eye at what we gluten-free eaters sometimes have to deal with at restaurants, airlines and supermarkets. Those times when wheat-eaters can dine like royalty, but coeliacs are relegated to a few lettuce leaves by a scared waitress who worries you might drop dead. On the flipside, there are plenty of occasions when the gluten-free option looks a darn sight better than the wheaty one (sometimes that sauce is hiding a multitude of sins). And who knows, we might even get a guest post from the Wheaty Eater sometime...

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Food face-off: airline food #1

Eating gluten-free can be challenging, but with a bit of forward planning it's easy to find tasty and safe sustenance. But sometimes - like at 10,000 feet - you're at someone else's mercy.

Airline food strikes fear into the heart of many gluten-free diners. Some airlines serve up a fine old feast (with the added bonus that those of us with pesky dietary requirements often get served first). Others produce some mightily strange - and underwhelming - meals when you tick that 'gluten-free' box. Since food on planes can be a fickle beast for allergy eaters, experience has taught me to cram my carry-on bag with snacks on long-haul flights.

Let's take a look at the mysterious menu on a recent flight to Malaysia I took with the Wheaty Eater...

Looks substantial: in-flight selection for the Wheaty Eater
The Wheaty Eater: sandwich, juice, 'savoury snack' and unidentifiable cookie.
First up, we have the Wheaty Eater. After a few hours into the flight, he tore open the lunch bag the air steward gave him and a medley of wheaty treats fell out. Sandwich, orange juice, bag of salty snacks, something round and biscuity...definitely enough carbs to keep the energy levels up, even a whisper-thin sliver of ham for protein. The soggy tomato slice seemed keen to escape the ensemble, but this isn't a bad line-up for the wheatily inclined.

Everything from the sandwich to the 'savoury snack' (which seemed to be nuggets of cracker sprinkled with foul-smelling cumin) was, of course, cooled to that frosty airline temperature. Nonetheless, Wheaty devoured the sandwich in about two bites.

Wheaty's rating: 6/10

The dieter's choice: dining gluten-free in the air
Madame Free-From: 500% of your recommended daily vitamin C. And nothing else.
I get it: finding an easy-to-cater replacement for the sandwich (in all its cheap, portable glory) is tricky. But could they really do no better than a platter of near-frozen fruit accompanied by a chaste bottle of water? (Seriously, no juice for the coeliac?)

One airline I flew with got creative and cling-filmed two rice crackers together in lieu of a sandwich and gave that to me. A filling between those two parched wafers would have staved off the serious feeling of dry-mouth, but I was relieved to get something. (It does happen that I'm sorrowfully told there's nothing for me to eat, even if I've informed the airline way in advance.) Some chilly fruit slices aren't much of a meal although they provided a refreshing detox prior to a week of filling my face with Kuala Lumpur's cuisine.

My rating: 3/10 (at least they remembered my meal)

The verdict...

Airline caterers, I know you're under pressure. Quick turnarounds, special diets from gluten-free to kosher to the intriguing 'bland meal' option, it's no simple matter to tick every box.

But it's hard not to feel short-changed when you book an expensive flight months in advance and are treated to a meagre fruit salad while the rest of the plane chows down. Rice cakes, dried fruit and nuts, the zillions of gluten-free carbs out there... they all have long shelf-lives and make great substitutes for wheaty meals if you can't cater something gf from scratch. 'Free from gluten' doesn't mean 'free from everything, just in case': why no orange juice? Why do I have to fight to get that yoghurt? And why so often a vegetarian meal? Lumping together everyone's dietary requirements and witholding your dairy, meat and nuts is, well, nuts.  

Airline catering remains a lucky dip, so for the foreseeable future, my carry-on bag will continue to overflow with bags of M&Ms. And no Wheaty, I won't be sharing.

Which airlines do you think are the best for gluten-free diners? And what is the most meagre gluten-free meal you've had on a flight?

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Introducing...Madame Free-From

Once upon a time, an ill wind blew across the kingdom of chefs, waiting staff and caterers. An ancient curse  arose to strike fear into the hearts of anyone who cooks or serves food. A sudden horde of hungry people swept across the lands, all of them hungry, and all of them armed with a magic spell crafted to chill the very blood of those who fry, saute or grill:

The words, 'Is there wheat flour in the sauce?'

I'm Madame Free-From. I'm an editor and writer, I like sunsets, heavy metal, and I just so happen to eat gluten-free. Unfortunately, despite having no choice in following a gluten-free diet, some people see me and other gluten-free diners in a very unkind light. Suspicious waiters, patronising co-workers, and those charming folk who say food intolerances are all natural selection (may they choke on their next croissant). 

This is me, Madame Free-from, eating one of
many berry flavoured ice creams I would have
on this particular Spanish weekend away.
Inevitably, following a special diet becomes a significant part of your life so I've decided to embrace the love for all things gf, and join the wonderful community of gluten-free bloggers. Room for another voice, right?

My gluten-free story is rather different to many coeliacs. I was diagnosed a few years ago, almost completely by chance. I know plenty of coeliacs suffer terribly with a whole spectrum of symptoms, but this wasn't the case for me. Essentially, my doctor had a hunch: I had fallen ill and needed an eyebrow-raisingly high level of medication to set me right. My doc told me that this could mean I wasn't absorbing nutrients properly, which is a red flag for internal damage caused by coeliac disease - would I mind having some tests run?

I was fairly confident that nothing would be found: surely I'd be doubled over in pain after every plate of pasta if I couldn't tolerate gluten? But your body doesn't always know best, because I tested positive for high levels of anti-transglutaminase antibodies, a sure sign that my body reacts against gluten, and my body thrived and healed after a period gluten-free. There was no turning back.

I was hugely sceptical. It took me a long time to get my head around this 'silent condition' and even longer to figure out the nuances of the diet. What the heck is spelt? Looks like I'll never get to find out, as it's a form of wheat. Quinoa? Can't pronounce it, can eat it. I eventually got there, despite the occasional 'WTF' moment ('There's wheat in certain kinds of soy sauce? Oh come on...').

Boar sausage, chilli and broccoli pizza from the
Bake at Home pizza company - gluten-free!
The biggest breakthrough was realising that yes, there is gluten-free pizza out there, and while some of it tastes of cardboard and tears, there are plenty of others that make you weep from joy (please take a bow, Bake at Home pizza, Otto pizza and Cotto restaurant).

But now I'm over the initial hurdles of the diet itself, the trickiest part of the gluten-free lifestyle is navigating people's attitudes: the often bizarre reactions of waiting staff in restaurants (is it that hard to hold the croutons?) and those tricky people who will always just label you a 'fussy eater'. So there'll be photo blogs, food tips, thoughts from the Wheaty Eater and but also a bit of blowing off steam. And for some reason, I'm looking forward to the last one the most!

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Welcome to my brand-new gluten-free blog

Thanks for clicking my way. I'm a writer, editor, travel blogger and - as it happens - I eat gluten-free. Rather than limiting my contribution to the gluten-free community to the occasional snarky tweet about that one salad in the supermarket that isn't slathered in wheaty dressing, I've decided to join the formidable ranks of the gluten-free bloggers. Strength in numbers, right?

I love to travel, and while travelling I'm often struck by the contrast between what I'm eating and what my travel buddy, the Wheaty Eater, has on his plate. Sometimes there's barely a difference, and at other times the contrast is plain hilarious. Take the time Wheaty was handed a soft bacon sandwich, orange juice, strawberry yoghurt and bag of nuts on an aeroplane, and I was given... a shrink-wrapped apple. Sometimes, we gluten-free folk have to have a sense of humour.

And if you have no idea what gluten is (I didn't before I was diagnosed as a coeliac) then have a quick glance here or here. But either way, do join me for photo blogs, food dreams, gluten-free travel tips and yes - the occasional eye-rolling frustrated rant.

Madame Free-From