Sunday, 15 December 2013

Flour power: gluten-free adventures in India

The frequent disappointment involved in eating out gluten-free means that when you do get a choice of food, you almost become speechless with joy. 'A salad, without croutons! Perfect, thank you so much,' coeliacs say - often without irony - in restaurants across the land.

Tower. Of. Food. Chicken, paneer (cheese) tikka, vegetable jalfrezi, pilau rice, and garlic naan
made with 100% gram flour. 
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Sometimes, just being able to have a meal out feels like an air-punching victory. So imagine being surrounded by naturally gluten-free choices, and restaurateurs who see substituting out wheat flour as a fairly reasonable request. This was the experience I had eating my way around India.

Peanuts, red onion, coriander and lime juice, perfect cocktail finger food.Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Gram (chickpea) flour is a standard thickener in a huge number of Indian recipes. Poppadums, dosas (pancakes) and batters are often made up of 100% gram flour. Rice flour and ground rice are also common bases for dumplings and pancakes. As long as you know what you're asking for, eating out in India can be a breeze. It would be easy to assume that a lot of the doughy delights in India are off-limits for coeliacs, but I chowed down on ground rice dumplings, savoury donuts, all manner of curries, pancakes stuffed with spiced potato, and desserts galore. All of them were naturally gluten-free.

Ground rice dumplings (idli) and gram flour donuts, served with coconut chutney and
spicy tomato relish. 
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
That's not to say it's a wheat-free zone. The dreaded gluten is still out there, semolina is used in some dishes, and some of the sweets are wheat pastry based. So while you'll still have to check with the staff what has gone into that steaming tureen of paneer masala, you can expect to dine extremely well. Grab a language card, go to India, and create some extra notches in your belt. I'm already planning my second trip.

Oh yeah, and rose martinis, espresso martinis and miscellaneous cocktails are
also gluten-free. Hic. 
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Gluten-free, fuss-free: food adventures around Iceland

I enjoyed some incredible travels around Iceland over the summer, and gluten-free eating was a breeze. I had visited Iceland a few years previously (before going gluten-free) and my food memories weren't very promising: anything that wasn't hot dogs fell into a pricier bracket, so I was a little nervous about what gluten-free adventures awaited me on my trip.

Gluten-free smoked lamb and berries appetiser at Geysir Restaurant in Reykjavik. Image Anita Isalska
Iceland in general didn't overflow with gluten-free goodies like biscuits, breads and other snackables. Only the large supermarkets in Reykjavik and Akureyri seemed to have a good selection of gluten-free cereals, pastas and more. If you take a road-trip starting from either of these two cities, I'd recommend stocking up at the nearest Bónus.

Succulent grilled monkfish and pepper kebab at Naustið in Husavik. Image Anita Isalska
However, pride in fresh seasonal ingredients meant that gluten-free dining out was surprisingly easy. Knowledge of the concept of gluten-free seemed widespread, even though gf substitutes didn't abound. The emphasis on grilled lamb, fish and cured meats meant that naturally wheatless cuisine was everywhere.

The world's richest gluten-free chocolate brownie at Blaa Kannan Cafe in Akureyri, Iceland.
Image Anita Isalska
I seldom saw the words "gluten-free" on a menu (aside from a gluten-free chocolate brownie at Bláa kannan café in Akureyri). But when I asked restaurants about gluten-free options, I had zero drama. Each time, I received a very matter-of-fact response ("you can eat this, this, this... or without the sauce this, this and this"). No palpitations, no eyebrows raised, no scurrying wide-eyed to the head chef - it was gluten-free, fuss-free!

Fried trout with potatoes and butter galore at Skaftfell Bistro in Seyðisfjörður. Image Anita Isalska
Anyone who knows me will have heard my peeves about the UK not being on course for any gluten-free awards. Sometimes asking for gluten-free food at a UK restaurant produces suspicion, terror or condescension. So it was refreshing to see my enquiries about food in Iceland roll like water off an Arctic puffin's back. There was no fraught menu negotiation needed, leaving more time to enjoy Icelandic favourites like fresh seafood and melt-in-the-mouth lamb cutlets.

Let's just assume this contains gluten and leave it out of the shopping basket. Gag. Image Anita Isalska
Iceland also has some pretty challenging cuisine, to palates unused to it. Fermented shark meat, sheep's heads, tripe... Whenever we encountered those, I'd 'sorrowfully' tell Wheaty it just wasn't safe for me to try jellied calf's head, you know, in case it was laced with gluten.

Uh, so why do they call this restaurant the Cow Shed? A sign in Mývatn. Image Anita Isalska
Travellers to Iceland might not come up with a dazzling array of gluten-free options when they start researching for their trip. I was certainly prepared for a lot of in-car rice cracker picnics. But don't be daunted by the apparent lack of a prominent gluten-free food culture. Iceland's passion for organic produce, fresh enough to leap off your plate, brings with it a knowledge of food and a care in its preparation that makes it perfect for gluten-free diners. So if you get the chance to visit this geological wonderland, seize it with both hands and prepare to let your belt out by a couple of notches - verði þér að góðu (bon appetit)!

Ohhh, so that's why. Image Anita Isalska

My favourite gluten-free pit-stops in Iceland

Geysir, Reykjavik. Their staff knew their stuff, and all it took was a few tweaks of the menu and I was tucking into a delicious multi-course Icelandic feast including towers of fish, smoked lamb, buttery potatoes and lobster (

Vogafjos, Mývatn. This farmhouse restaurant took enormous pride in its food. The waiting staff were only too happy to help a gluten-free diner fill her belly. I dined on homemade mozzarella salad and a main course of superbly grilled lamb. (

Lamb Inn, Ongulsstadir. This is a place to stay more than a restaurant. But the family feel of this guesthouse meant the staff were courteous, warm and more than happy to leave wheaty contaminants away from their mouthwatering all-you-can-eat roast dinners.

Rub23, Akureyri. This high-end restaurant served up criminally delicious fish dishes, massaged with a variety of oils, dressings and spice blends. There was no problem in weeding out the gluteny options - and to my delight, the vast majority of choices on their menu were a wheat-free zone. (

Monday, 9 September 2013

Gluten-free afternoon cream tea at Brown's, London

I'm not usually found anywhere near silver teaspoons. In fact, anyone who knows me would assume that if I were to partake in a traditional English afternoon tea, there would have to be more to it. A hip flask of gin sloshing underneath the table, or Halloween-themed cupcakes.

Behold the gluten-free sarnies galore. Out of shot - eager hands reaching
for the last smoked salmon sandwich. Image by Anita Isalska
Nonetheless, special occasions and visiting family led me to book a table at Brown's in Mayfair, London for an afternoon cream tea. I had employed my best Sherlock Holmes instincts (ok, Google) to sniff out a few cream tea options in London that could cater for gluten-free and found Brown's referenced in a couple of blogs. Nothing on their website even gave a whiff of gluten-free so I emailed them sceptically and remained a little cynical when they confirmed that they could do it.

Fancy teapots. A temptation for smudgy fingers.
Image by Anita Isalska.

There's a big gulf in the world of gluten-free catering: there's paying lip-service (those restaurateurs who grudgingly hold the croutons from a salad and declare themselves winning at the special diets game). And then there's those who go above and beyond, providing delicious gluten-free food that doesn't feel like a limp-lettuced compromise. I was wondering where a gluten-free afternoon tea would lie on the scale.

But Brown's delivered. Boy, did they deliver. Dainty gluten-free sandwiches in flavours from coronation chicken to the Windsors' fave, cucumber. A healthy plateful of tarts and gateaux: chocolate brownies, blueberry cake, zesty orange and cream cheese cake, chocolate, cream and berry cup... Gently warmed gluten-free scones followed, served with the gloopiest clotted cream imaginable, and strawberry preserve so sticky you could lose your spoon in it.

Scones, cream, jam and tangy raspberry sorbet. Image by Anita Isalska.
And of course, there was tea. Every infusion from white tea to jasmine was lovingly inscribed on a menu that would make a French wine list look a little thin. The waiting staff zoomed around the period tearoom refilling teacups with their arsenal of pots, strainers and rattling tea trays.

Best of all, they kept it coming. Now I'm not advocating that you treat these rarefied surroundings like an all-you-can-eat-buffet, but we certainly nodded (mouths too full to actually say yes) each time a waiter asked if we needed our sandwiches replenishing.

Start from the top down. Or just grab madly at the scones. Image by Anita Isalska.
After such plenty, I had to ask: why weren't they shouting their gluten-free offering from the rooftops? "All part of the service," our waiter told me. Catering for gluten-free is nothing, he added, considering they can put on an afternoon tea for avoiders of multiple food types: gluten, dairy, sugar. "We rely on positive reviews to spread the word."

Looks like it's working.

What: Afternoon tea
Where: Brown's hotel in Mayfair, London
How much: a wallet-singeing £39.50 per person (but worth every penny). 

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

What's it like having a gluten-free girlfriend?

We haven't heard much on this blog lately from my fellow gourmet adventurer, Wheaty.

Gluten-free, gluten-containing... Wheaty is indifferent to
the components of pasta provided it's slathered in cheese.
Here he's enjoying a gf variety at Bruschetta in London.
Image (c) Anita Isalska
No prizes for guessing from his nickname that the Wheaty Eater is my non-gluten-avoiding partner in food. He and I live together, cook together and dine out together. His perspective on the gluten-free world is a little different to that of a coeliac - he's a reluctant expert on ingredients lists, a connoisseur of gf pasta and shares my whoops of glee when we spy a menu with gluten-less pizza.

But is it hard work being on my gluten-free team? Let's find out.

Madame Free-From asks: What did you think when I first broke the news that I was gluten-free? 

Wheaty replies: I'd heard of gluten before as it was pretty common to see it mentioned on Australian menus [Wheaty's an Aussie]. I originally thought it was one of those 'hippie' lifestyle-choice type things, like being a vegetarian. But I didn't think of gluten-free eating as abnormal. 

Q. What's the most annoying thing about dating someone who eats gluten-free? 

A. It's generally not very annoying at all. It can sometimes be a bit difficult to find something to eat in a hurry if we're out and about, especially as London seems to struggle with gf food unless you know where you're going. Also, the lack of gf Chinese food!

Q. Are there any advantages to being part of the gluten-free world? 

A. There are some great restaurants that really care about everything that goes into their food that I don't think I'd have found without this connection to the gluten-free world. I think I'm more aware of what goes into my food and probably eat better because of it.

Q. How do you manage sharing a kitchen with a gluten-free girlfriend? 

A. The kitchen is gluten-free – though a croissant might sneak through to the lounge on a weekend. The 'substitutes' are usually just as good as anything they're replacing, and it's much easier than trying to remember whether I've used a particular surface for anything non-gf recently.

Wheaty's natural habitat, the snow.
Image (c) Anita Isalska
Q. What's your best gluten-free recipe? 

A. I find gluten-free pasta a pretty good option, and have a favourite smoked salmon, yoghurt, tiny tomatoes and dill pasta combo that I like to whip up every now and again.

Q. Do you eat more gluten-filled food outside of the house, to make up for not having it at home?

A. When I'm outside the house I don't really think about finding gluten-free stuff on my own, but I don't think that I try to make up for it all. What would be the point? :) I sometimes buy the gluten-free sandwiches from M&S just to make sure they don't stop selling them, but then feel guilty about potentially depriving an actual coeliac of their sandwich!

Q. From a wheat-eater's perspective - in that you can still compare gf and non-gf food directly - what would you say is the best gluten-free food out there? 

A. If we're talking about substitutes, I think that there are some amazing gluten-free pizzas from places like Bruschetta in Kingston and Bake at Home in Fulham. Otherwise, brownies, which are frequently gluten-free anyway! [Madame Free-From notes that certain gluten-free brownie wrappers mysteriously appear at home]

Berry and chocolate cake in Wheaty's home state,
Tasmania. Gluten-free of course.
Image (c) Anita Isalska
Q. And the worst? 

A. Pizzas again... some of the frozen-base options are just really awful.

Q. Which type of cuisine or item of food do you wish would up its game in the gluten-free stakes? 

A. Chinese food is particularly disappointing, when I don't think that there'd need to be many changes to support gluten-free eaters. Change the soy and maybe the thickening agent and that would be it?

Q. Which country that you've travelled to has the best to offer gluten-free travellers? 

A gluten-free frozen aisle in Australia,
putting the UK to shame.
Image (c) Anita Isalska
A. Without wanting to sound like some raving nationalist I think Australia is the best place for gluten-free eaters.

Practically every restaurant will list the items which are gluten-free and they are almost guaranteed to have at least one and usually many more dishes. Staff are usually educated in and aware of gluten-free issues.

Q. Any final thoughts or words of wisdom for anyone reading this who is wondering how to be supportive towards a newly diagnosed coeliac friend or family member? 

A. Can I say, 'toughen up, princess'? :) In seriousness, there are great replacement options out there, and part of the fun of being the partner of a coeliac is trying to find new places to eat that cater for gluten-free. It takes you places you might not ordinarily go. Go out and explore!

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Five phrases that changed their meaning when I went gluten-free

What a difference a few years and a whole load of gluten-free pizza makes. Your perspective is bound to change when you go gluten-free - these are just a few phrases that have acquired a completely different meaning.

Mmm, let me at that gluten-free breakfast buffet!
Image by Kai Hendry, CC BY 2.0

1. "Breakfast is included."

Sounds delicious. Or indigestible.

Being offered a free breakfast with a hotel reservation is always accompanied by a cynical whisper in my head. 'It's a trap, don't raise your hopes for their toast!' If it's a budget hotel, it'll be baskets of bread rolls flanked by one of those torture-chamber-like toasting machines. The only way to quell the demon doubt is by sending the hotel their least-favourite kind of guest query: nitpicking the free breakfast. Begging for yoghurt is so undignified.

2. "All-you-can-eat buffet."

All-I-can't-eat, more like.

My former student self whooped with glee at a glimpse of a banquet table loaded with (usually Chinese) food. I remember riding high on MSG as I gorged on lunch specials, and knowing I probably wouldn't need to eat again for another 24 hours. But today, those neon lunch buffet signs leave me cold. Wheaty won-tons, gluten-packed sesame toast and deadly noodles. I'd have to eat an awful lot of (tapioca-based) prawn crackers to get my money's worth. Nope.

3. "Birthday cake."

I'll just come for the singing...

It's not about the actual cake (goodness knows I eat my fair share of the gf stuff on my own time). But when the cry rings out across the office, to wish someone a happy birthday and share a slice of gateau, I know there's an awkward cake-avoidance dance on the cards. Like Cinderella at midnight, I flee back to my desk as soon as the singing is over.
This is what I think of your crappy cake. Uh, I mean, many happy returns.
Image by Daniel Oldfield, CC BY 2.0

4. "Dinner party."

Sounds delightful, I'll bring a bottle of red and some inconvenience.

This is a painful one for a food-lover like me. It's a fine art, politely pitching dietary restrictions with your RSVP, while giving your host a wide enough berth to back out of inviting you if they feel too daunted to cook without wheat. I personally am happy to cook for friends with diets from vegan to kosher and everything in between, but not everyone wants to do that. If someone's intention was a hands-off chuck-a-lasagne-in-the-oven dinner party, it's probably a bummer to find out you have a special dieter on your hands. Awkward all round.

5. "Lunch will be provided."

Crystal ball tells me it's a Pret sandwich platter.

It's a shame when a nice gesture from an employer, client or event generates an extra layer of admin, and it's worse still to feel like an inconvenience. There are two warring sides in my brain: I don't want to apologise for a health problem I can't control, or undermine my issue by joking that I am 'fussy' or 'causing trouble'. But I do understand that my requirements might mean extra work for someone, even if it's just a couple of emails to a caterer.

Stay with me, there's an upside...

Dodging cakes, missing out on free sandwiches and creating extra work for that nice chap in HR... there'd better be a silver lining.

Well, I believe there is. Being aware of the difficulties of navigating life with your own limitations makes you an awful lot nicer about other people's. My diagnosis as coeliac came utterly out of the blue, and ever since I had to change my own lifestyle, the penny dropped and I thought a lot more about the variety of human stories and individual struggles happening all around me (if I cared to notice).

It's all too easy to make glib assumptions, and we all do it. That person pushed in front of you to get the last seat on the train? Rude. The guy who never comes for a drink after work? Antisocial. Someone refusing to share your offer of birthday cake? Probably following one of those carb-free diet fads.

All of people blocking your way are unique and wonderful individuals with
problems of their own... Ah nuts, did I just miss the 159? F%$&ers!
Image by C. G. P. Grey (, CC BY 2.0
But you learn to question your own snap judgements when you have to tread a tightrope in your own life. Coeliacs and other navigators of special diets work hard at being true to their own health, while still being as sociable as possible and trying to cause minimal inconvenience to those around them. So maybe, just maybe that woman pushed in front of me to get the last seat because she's pregnant, or sick, or has vertigo. Maybe that guy never comes for drinks because he has money worries, or is teetotal, or gets nervous in crowds. Maybe that cake-refuser is a coeliac.

When life deals you an awkward hand, you tend to give other people the benefit of the doubt too.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

The celery argument

In contrast to my recent gourmet gluten-free musings, some dispiriting events have put me in a bleaker frame of mind lately. Picture the scene: I'm three (or four) ciders in to a summer evening in the pub, with similarly sozzled revellers around me. One of them, drooling into his pint, says: "I really love beer. If I were coeliac, I'd kill myself."

It almost seems like a sitcom set-up, hearing someone tell me, a propos of nothing, that suicide is preferable to coeliac. Rather than backing down from a politically incorrect bad joke with the least appropriate audience imaginable, this chap persists in pushing his point. Even when alerted to the fact that he's telling a coeliac he'd rather kill himself than share her fate, he blathers on to the tune of the gluten-free lifestyle being beyond tolerable, finishing with the following leafy green analogy:

"I mean, imagine if you could only eat celery for the rest of your life. It's just WORSE."

This is your life, and it's ending one celery at a time.
Image by wikioticsIan, CC BY-SA 2.0
Leaving aside this chilly vision of an all-salad dystopia, hearing people gasp about the horrendous limitations of the gluten-free diet is usually the point where I jump in to extol the virtues of gluten-free beers, bread and baked goods. As all free-from folks know, all of these have come in leaps and bounds over the past few years, meaning coeliacs aren't denied the pleasures of cookies, cakes and donuts (provided they know where to look).

But I wonder if the celery argument isn't actually coming from a place of ignorance about gluten-free food; could it be a simple as snarky belittlement? After all, it's the same species of comeback you'll hear any time a vegetarian dares to describe the enjoyment of meat-free cuisine; some joykill carnivore is bound to come along and scoff, "Well, it's still not steak, is it."

On the gluten-free side, what you'll hear is this: "You've got pasta, but it does taste a bit different, doesn't it." "You've got donuts, but you can't have Krispy Kremes." "The pizza's a little dry..." You could present a giant-sized gluten-free banquet table that stretches off into the sunset, packed with three-tier gluten-free cakes, loaves of gf bread the size of Audis, pizzas that could blot out the sun, and some naysayer would still say, "Yeah, but it's not the same." The implication being, "You're still limited. Your enjoyment of life still isn't quite as full as mine."

No one would deny that coeliac is less convenient than non-coeliac (and we gluten-freers certainly don't need reminding of that). And I don't want to derail into a discussion of whether there's any objective gauge of human pleasure (which would you prefer: 50 years of eating only celery, 10 years of eating anything you want, or a lifetime free from navel-gazing thought experiments?) With Celery Guy, it may come down to something as banal as callous oneupmanship.

In this context, it's a low blow, considering someone's permanent and uninvited health issues are at the core. It never fails to surprise me to hear people openly crowing over the coeliac lifestyle ("ugh, I couldn't do it") or insisting that our lives are just pitiable, but I do hear it repeatedly. It's hard to picture people patting themselves on the back to this extent while patronising people with other health problems (but perhaps it does happen?) Is it the norm to wax on to someone with knee problems about how marvellous it is to be able to trampoline? And how any trampolining they do just wouldn't be as much fun? Because of their knees! So even if you think you're having fun, knocky-knees, you aren't! So make sure you have that inferiority at the forefront of your mind next time you're trampolining, ha!

Because if you're not as frickin' awesome at trampolining as I am - why bother?
Image by Tours and, CC BY 2.0
It reminds me of the underbelly of snide belittling that exists in the world of travel, my other great love (besides food. And trampolining. Not celery, though.) Certain travellers seem to get their biggest kicks out of proclaiming that they've topped someone else's adventures (like in my favourite scene from Black Books - 'the tourist swamps' - below.)

The next day, Celery Guy wrote me an email apology saying that he'd spoken out of turn and regretted causing offence. I was relieved to get acknowledgement of this, but I did wonder: was he merely sorry to have unwittingly dumped his side-splitting hyperbole onto a coeliac? Or did he, on reflection, recognise the ugly implication behind his words?

I picture Celery Guy relating this story from his own point of view, maybe to a chorus of sympathisers all grunting, "Well mate, I'd kill myself as well - no beer OR bread?!" Maybe they'll wince that he was just unlucky to have spoken out of turn to the wrong audience. The unspoken core issue - the corrosive need to prove that you're winning at life over someone else, and perhaps even the lack of confidence that all this braying suggests - will sit unexamined. 

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Gluten-free feasting in Lyon, France

Gluten-free, not everything-free.

Not a hard concept, but when you dine gluten-free, your food is often free from rather a lot of other things you could happily eat.

This is an economic phenomenon in part. Let's say you invent a tasty wheat-free crispbread, and you sell it to a niche market of wheat-free eaters. Tweak the recipe to be gluten-free, and dairy-free, and entirely new markets open up.

The very lovely Place des Terreaux in Lyon, perfect place for a vin blanc. Image © Anita Isalska
In that vein, many airlines seem to have a general 'free-from' option for their airline meals. I've found that if you tick 'gluten-free', you can also expect to be denied butter, yoghurt or (most heartbreakingly) ice cream. Making one meal option free from an entire group of allergens simplifies things for the airline...even if it did once land me with a tofu pudding while Wheaty ate ice cream. Infuriatingly, the brand of ice cream even said 'gluten-free' right there on the label. But the flight attendants serenely repeated their mantra of 'no ice cream with special meal'. I sulked that day.

So menus that purport to be free from almost everything allergenic instil in me a blend of excitement (ooh gluten-free food!) and trepidation (please oh please don't skimp on the desserts). But, it turns out, with an inventive chef there is nothing to fear.

No shortage of cafes, bars and brasseries in Lyon - much of it gf-friendly. Image © Anita Isalska
My latest and greatest gluten-free find was in Lyon, France. The city is known as a gourmet paradise but with so many wheat-tastic dishes (breaded pig's trotter, anyone?) I wasn't sure how I would fare...

It turns out that Lyon has a pleasing line of health-conscious, organic and gluten-free cuisine. My best find was Mon Histoire Dans L'assiette - its entire menu is without gluten, dairy, peanuts, shellfish and other common allergens. They bake their own springily soft bread in-house (made from a blend of quinoa, rice and chestnut flours) and serve up fresh and flavoursome main courses (carnivorous and veggie options).

Snapped the sweets before they went in my belly - just. Image © Anita Isalska
But the desserts. Oh, the desserts. An all-too-generous spoonful of Wheaty's caramelised apple with citrus sablé was enough to elicit sighs. My own dessert, gingerbread loaf with poached pear in salted caramel with refreshing pear granita, was a joy. When you are served truly fantastic food, nothing is missing.

Oh delicious Lyon, I'll be back. Image © Anita Isalska

And the joy of French food is that very often, it's blissfully gluten-free by sheer purity of its ingredients. When talking to waiting staff in restaurants in France, I hear a lot of 'bien sûr, of course there's no flour in the sauce, it's 80% butter, a smidge of egg yolk and garlic by the clove!' They know what's in their food, and are often delighted to discuss it. Dining out as a free-from eater is a joy, rather than the teeth-pulling negotiation it can be here in the UK.

As if there weren't enough reasons to linger in France...

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Five things not to say to a gluten-free eater

I like to think of myself as happy-go-lucky, but sometimes you have the kind of week that demands a rant.

As ever, it's not gluten-free living that troubles me, it's the unpleasant attitudes you can sometimes encounter when navigating life on a special diet.

Image by Kristine Lewis. CC BY-SA 2.0
Most people fall somewhere on the spectrum from neutral acceptance to actively supportive when you "come out" to them as eating gluten-free, but there are always people who blurt out a response that is frustrating, condescending or just plain rude. Here is a rundown of the five least-favourite reactions I've had when explaining that I'm gluten-free.

1. "Oh my god, I'd just die if I couldn't eat pizza!"

"You must really enjoy pizza. Or not enjoy life, I can't quite tell."

Maybe the hyperbole is intended as sympathy for the inconvenience of a gluten-free diet. The implication (intended or not) that life without wheat isn't worth living may be laughably absurd, but it genuinely infuriates me. Imagine how this translates to any other health problem: "oh my god, I'd just die if I was diagnosed with diabetes; I'd just kill myself if I had to use a wheelchair; I'd hurl myself off a cliff if I suffered disfiguring burns..." Uncomfortable with how that sounds? Coeliac disease is a medical condition that is manageable through a change of diet - if someone implies, however casually, that this renders my life too awful for them to contemplate, I feel embarrassed for their lack of perspective. Not to mention how insulting this attitude is to people who battle much more painful or inconvenient health problems than coeliac.

Coeliacs: we can only eat rainbows.
'Rainbow' by Girish Gopi. CC BY-SA 2.0
2. "Is there anything you can eat?"

"I subsist purely on air and light. Gwyneth Paltrow does it too."

Sadly coeliacs all-too-often encounter mean-spirited digs, often from someone with a bee in their bonnet about "faddy eaters". Often it's the kind of person who has no knowledge of food intolerances and allergies, hates vegetarians with a passion, and prides him/herself on "eating anything", as though it's a badge of heroism. Since they're asking, I can eat fruits and vegetables, corn flour, quinoa, rice, potatoes, chicken, fish, all seafood, amazing cupcakes I bake using brown rice flour, milk, yoghurt, butter, olives, peanuts, raisins, ooh all kinds of dried fruit, wine and lots of it, cheeses - my favourite is Brie, steak, potato waffles, turkey, soups, the zillion kinds of gluten-free bread on offer, ham, bacon, pancetta, tomatoes, apples, one of many brands of gluten-free sausages, coconuts, avocados, coffee, tea, sugar, sushi, buckwheat, kebabs, polenta, smoked duck, chocolate truffles, salmon and cucumber with cream cheese, fruit smoothies, chia seeds, apricot jam, Genuis croissants, almond butter, grilled octopus, walnut and blue cheese salad, hummus, marzipan, gluten-free beers like Estrella Damm Daura, spirits like vodka and whiskey, corn tortillas, pulled pork, balsamic vinegar, sour cream, prawn and cashew nut stir-fry, Nutella, Corn Flakes, ostrich meat...

Eyes glazing over yet? Now wouldn't it just have been quicker to ask what I can't eat?

3. "So how come suddenly there are all these allergies that never used to exist?"

"It's actually part of a government conspiracy. You didn't hear this from me."

Call me a cynic, but whenever I hear this, it doesn't exactly seem to be in the spirit of genuine scientific enquiry. The genuine answer is that food intolerances and allergies have always been around, but their correct diagnosis has only dawned along with the long, slow progress of medical science. Old Aunt Agatha with her "digestion troubles" a few generations ago might have had an undiagnosed dairy intolerance or coeliac disease. A couple of decades ago, IBS was used as a diagnosis for a cluster of conditions - nowadays we're discovering that people diagnosed with this may have a specific food intolerance. And it's only recently that coeliac disease is being diagnosed via a blood test for antibodies, sometimes in people who feel mild or zero symptoms. The implication that there is a crazy fad or fashion for dietary intolerances is a huge insult to those who don't choose to follow a special diet, but who do so for essential health reasons.

Biscuits in wheat flour shocker!
'Biscuits' by Emilian Robert Vicol. CC BY 2.0

4. "Wait, so you can't eat chocolate biscuits? What about custard creams? You can't eat Jammie Dodgers either? What about KitKats? No KitKats?!"

"The truth is, I have a phobia of the crunching sound biscuits make. Please respect this and don't offer them to me again."

Not everyone is au fait with what gluten means, nor do they need to be. But how dull it is to have to explain that yes, the main component of mass-produced biscuits and cookies tends to be wheat flour, so yes, I will be turning down the offer of a ginger biscuit, just as readily as the offer of a chocolate digestive, bourbon, chocolate chip cookie and Jaffa cake. I don't mind people forgetting, but I do so loathe interacting with people with whom you can't have a single conversation about food without them going into theatrics of astonishment that the biscuit they hold in their hand contains wheat flour. Thanks for offering me the treat; no thank you I'm afraid I can't eat that; let's move the conversation on without yet another discussion about whether or not biscuits contain wheat. Spoiler alert: they probably do. Curb your amazement and move on.

 5. "What's the point of going to Italy if you can't eat pasta?"

"You can eat pasta at home, so why would you bother going to Italy?"

Florence. It isn't made of wheat.
'Florence, Italy' by Bob Hall. CC BY-SA 2.0
As a frequent traveller, this used to offend me but now it makes me laugh. I have answered this deadpan in the past, saying that coeliac disease pretty much kills the enjoyment of Florence's dazzling Uffizi Gallery, breathing in the scent of a delicious Chianti in Tuscany, or the feeling of the warm waters of the Amalfi Coast lapping against my toes. Without my mouth being crammed with wheaty pasta, roaming around the ruins of Pompeii is without wonder, and staring up at Milan's Duomo is joyless and empty. Nowadays I gently inform people that while I'm delighted they find pasta their principal reason for visiting Italy, they might be surprised to find out that food is one of the reasons I love the country too. Quite apart from the naturally gluten-free cuisine (truffle cheeses, fresh seafood, risottos, steaks, mozzarella, wine, gelato...), Italy has a higher diagnosis rate of coeliac disease than my own country, the UK, so gluten-free pizzas and pastas aren't hard to find. And even if they weren't, do I really need to spell out Italy's many other charms.

What's the worst reaction you've ever had to telling someone you're gluten-free?

Sunday, 24 March 2013

In defence of Instagramming your meals

You've placed your order, fragrant steam is wafting from the kitchen, and finally the waiting staff set your meal in front of you. What's the first thing you do: tuck in to your first forkful, or reach for your camera?

The Big Buddha on Lantau Island. Photo by Anita Isalska
Whether you've sat impatiently as your dining companion Instagrammed or tweeted their meal, or whether you're the one tagging your friends at that bar or restaurant, social media and meals have been cosying up for quite some time. The trend hasn't just exasperated diners, some chefs have gone as far banning their customers from photographing their food. Perhaps it's because the camera flashes detract from the carefully choreographed ambiance (maybe less of a problem in your local greasy spoon), but some find it an affront to the food to let your souffle sag while you choose the perfect Instagram filter to bring out its creamy undertones. For plenty of people though, it's more about the annoyance of a distracted dining companion than an issue with social media sharing.

Well, with all apologies to friends who will have to wait while I snap a picture of my gluten-free cupcakes, I'm not going to stop Instagramming my food any time soon. Do I think the world is genuinely interested in what I fill my face with day to day? Probably not, but being a gluten-free eater, and part of the net's gf community, I know what a difference all those Instagram pic, tweets and blog posts can make.

Finding MANA! in Hong Kong. Photo by Anita Isalska
Take my recent trip to Hong Kong. I spent a few days stopping over in Hong Kong on my way to Australia (more on my food adventures there later) and while I was beyond excited to see the sights, spending time in a city known for noodles and soy sauce-laced cuisine made my stomach flutter with worry. I might be standing awe-struck in beautiful temples and enjoying ferry rides, but would I be doing so on an empty stomach?

It was social media that saved me. In the days leading up to the trip, I trawled Instagram hashtags for clues on gluten-free eats in Hong Kong. I scoured Twitter and blogs for tips on eating gf and before too long I was bursting with leads on places to eat safely and happily in HK. This blog entry from Sassy Hong Kong was one of the best finds -- I munched on takeaway coconut cake from MANA! in Kowloon Park, and even had gluten-free chicken spring rolls from Noodlemi based on its tips.

Spicy rice noodles with grilled king prawns at Noodlemi.
Photo by Anita Isalska
I ate extremely well in the city, and it's all because of people photographing, tagging and writing about their food online (the actual websites of some of the places I dined at didn't come up in a simple Google search, I only found them via blogs, comments on blogs, forums and other social media).

So when I find a fantastic gluten-free treat, my compulsion to Instagram or tweet isn't founded on some insane belief that the world needs to know what's going into my belly. Or a conviction that the internet needs more pictures of red velvet cupcakes. I know other gluten-free diners, like me, have a keen eye for the gluten-free clues strewn around the internet, so I won't be stopping snapping, tweeting or (over)sharing my food anytime soon. And I hope no one else does either.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Straight from the horse's mouth: why gluten-free eaters should be troubled by the British meat scandal

I'm so hungry I could eat a horse... no wait, I just did.

If you've been following the British horse meat scandal in the news, you've had your fill of equine jokes by now. For those new to the drama, supermarkets in the United Kingdom are under scrutiny after discoveries that horse DNA has been found in budget mincemeat and that in some products, it made up 30% to 100% of the supposed beef mince. And that's not a neigh-gligible proportion (sorry).

Honestly, fellas - it wasn't personal. Don't give me that look!
'Horses' by David Feltcamp. CC BY 2.0
Horse isn't something that graces the British dinner table often, and we can put that down to culture and geography. Personally, I don't believe there's even a smidgen of superiority to be enjoyed in eating one animal and not another (barring endangered species). You won't find me decrying dogs being eaten in China, or weeping over poor old dobbin as I peruse the donkey meat sausages in a French supermarket. Ultimately, eating meat involves participation in an industry that farms, kills and eats living creatures en masse; if we're meat eaters, we aren't in a position to tut at a different nation's cuisine because an animal we personally find endearing is being eaten. (Especially if you are - like me - a consumer of pork. I mean, just look at these guys. It's a moral nightmare.) 'Normality' in a cuisine depends on what is available. And that might well be horse (of course).

Let's hope these aren't from a British supermarket.
'Burgers and Kebabs' by Jem Stone. CC BY 2.0
So if I'm not squeamish about horse meat per se, why am I writing about it? Well, this isn't a matter of delicate British palates being offended by an unexpected newcomer to their tried-and-trusted diets. It's that through incompetence or cost-cutting, consumers were deceived about the contents of their food. People were eating one thing, thinking it was another. And as a gluten-free eater, you know where I'm going with this: if your health depends on non-consumption of certain foods, hearing that the labelling of food can't be trusted is rotten news.

Gluten-free eaters (and followers of other special diets) put a good amount of trust in products labelled specifically as free-from. But plenty of us also eat products outside the specifically labelled free-from section (although I know plenty of coeliacs are sensitive enough to steer clear). For me, if chocolate doesn't list gluteny products in its ingredients, I will probably feel safe eating it. For me, it doesn't have to come from a specifically gluten-free brand; if you say there's no wheat in there, my best guess would be that there is no wheat in there. Because why on earth would you lie about that?

One of you better be gluten-free.
'Chocolate treats' by Robyn Jay. CC BY-SA 2.0
One of the more unpleasant opinions being aired about the horse meat scandal is that anyone who buys ultra-budget meat products shouldn't really expect better. We all make tasteless jokes about value-branded sausages containing rat, pigeon or chicken feet - but in reality, the idea that we should pay higher prices for the privilege of being told what is in the very food that we eat is a repugnant one. (Not to mention a kick in the teeth for gluten-free eaters, who already pay premium prices for food they can safely eat.) If traceability of the contents of food products would add an extra cost that some consumers are unwilling or unable to absorb, then at least give a disclaimer ('may contain wheat'; or 'may contain other kinds of red meat').

So what's next for the gluten-free eater, whose food paranoia has been ignited by the scandal? Do I spend my days firing concerned letters off to food manufacturers, to ask if there's any stealth wheat in their supposedly gluten-less chocolate? Do I avoid mass-produced brands where there's more potential for supplier or factory failures in the long chain between when their food is made and when it reaches my plate? I can only hope that the breaking of this scandal in the UK is a warning klaxon for food manufacturers to up their game and be accountable for what they dish up - basically, to stop horsing around.

Do you trust the labels on your food? Let me know in the comments!