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!