Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Where is London's greatest gluten-free pizza?

When you find out you have to go gluten-free, the image that immediately swims into your head is a crispy, cheese-laden pizza, spinning off into the vortex, never to be nibbled again.

Pizza is without a doubt the most adored (traditionally) gluten-packed food. When I was first diagnosed and told to cut the wheat, my tears were 80% related to pizza. And were it not for the following culinary heroes, my relationship with pizza would have been cut off way too soon (though maybe I'd fit into those old jeans).

If there was an award for innovation in flour blends, or expert pie rolling – a Dough-bel Prize if you will – the pizzerias that follow would all deserve a nomination. But where is London's absolute best gluten-free pizza? I popped a few buttons – and enlisted the help my wheat-eating taste tester – to find out.

1. Pizza Da Vinci

  • Vibe: so you miss calling up for takeaway greasy enough to soak into the box? These guys deliver. Literally.
  • Location: Battersea and around
  • Gluten-free credentials: loses points for spelling it 'gulten' in the online booking system. Come on guys, how hard is it?

So tomatoes, fresh herbs, seems nutritious right? Um, why is there mozzarella grease pooling in my lap? Image © Anita Isalska
So tomatoes, fresh herbs, seems nutritious right? Um, why is there mozzarella
grease pooling in my lap? Image © Anita Isalska
In those (drunken) moments of weakness, gluten-free folk miss the spontaneity of dialling up for a grease-laden pizza, so heavy with mozzarella that it's sinking in the middle. For south Londoners, Pizza Da Vinci to the rescue. Their gluten-free pizza has generous toppings but way overdoes the salt (or wait, is that just what junk food tastes like? Hard to know when you're a coeliac.) The base has a distinctive corn flavour and is incredible chewy. If your jaw can take the workout, this is a guilty pleasure, and a waistband-stretching one at that. No, you don't need dessert.

Wheaty says... "Very close to the standard greasy takeaway pizza. The main difference is the corny base, which can become chewy as the pizza cools down."

Final score: 5/10 – not winning on flavour or trust with this one.

2. Stingray Cafe

  • Vibe: unfussy interior, friendly staff and a huge pizza oven. Feels like home.
  • Location: oof norf London, in Tufnell Park
  • Gluten-free credentials: these guys get gluten-free, serve Celia beer and they have cake. All the points.

Look into my eggs. You are feeling sleeeeepy. No wait, that's  just the Celia taking effect. Image © Anita Isalska
Look into my eggs. You are feeling sleeeeepy. No wait, that's
just the beer taking effect. Image © Anita Isalska 

Well hello, what's this? An expertly kneaded Italian-style thin crust pizza? Stone-baked for smoky flavour, served with as many salads, gluten-free pasta options, side dishes and gluten-free drink choices as you can cram into your greedy belly? Walking into Stingray, a homey little hideaway in north London, it's hard not to feel a little bit spoiled.

Wheaty says... "Their GF pizzas are huge. I do recall them being a bit salty but that might have been from ordering the anchovy, olive and caper special..."

Final score: 8/10 – I love Stingray so much I keep trying to think of excuses to come to NW5.

3. Pizza Express

  • Vibe: the coeliac's greatest enemy turned gluten-free best friend. This chain did a total 180 after branching out into the gluten-free market last year.
  • Location: throw a ball of dough in London and you'll hit one. Really, there are that many.
  • Gluten-free credentials: these guys walk the walk, with Coeliac UK accreditation in their menus, gluten-free flour used to dust surfaces across their kitchens to prevent cross-contamination, and reassuringly competent staff. Bravo.
Images © Anita Isalska
Wheaty, nomming through Pizza Express' menu - a common sight for
Madame Free-From. So common, these pictures could be in any one
of about six branches. Images © Anita Isalska 

With so many independent restaurants moving and shaking London's gluten-free scene I'm reluctant to include chains in this round-up. But Pizza Express offering gluten-free choices is a total game-changer in the UK. Pizza Express are loud, proud and accountable when it comes to producing delicious gluten-free pizzas. The menu is clear, the staff know their stuff, the choice has stomach-stretching breadth. That said, the bases aren't the best around: they're a little dry and noticeably smaller than the wheat-based versions they serve. Which is just as well because Pizza Express have the ubiquity, the familiar brand, and now the gluten-free market; if they nail the pizza dough recipe, they pretty much own our souls.

Wheaty says... "Their GF base is quite different from their regular base, but it's also very good (although a bit small). From this line-up, it's probably the base which is the most different from standard [wheaty] pizza. But Pizza Express have embraced the whole gluten-free thing, great when you're out and need a no-fuss meal."

Final rating: 6/10 – love the choice, love the ease, don't love the pizza base.

4. Rossopomodoro 


  • Vibe: classic Neapolitan pizzas served to a backdrop of murals with sexy Italian quotes. Oh dio!
  • Location: this chain has outlets in Camden, Covent Garden, Wandsworth, Notting Hill...
  • Gluten-free credentials: this place is an Italian export, Italians are great at gluten-free, yet only few of the pizzas have toppings they trust to be fully senza glutine. Does not compute.

Gluten-free pizza at Rossopomodoro in Wandsworth, Greater London. Mozzarella, tomato, basil...sometimes, simple is best. Pooling saliva: not pictured.  Image © Anita Isalska
Mozzarella, tomato, basil...sometimes, simple is best. Pooling saliva: not pictured.
Image © Anita Isalska
When I gazed on those little islands of buffalo mozzarella, bobbing stickily on a fresh tomato passata, my mouth watered. The first bite tasted so authentic, it was like Italy had wandered up to my table, naked but for a red white and green flag, warbling O Sole Mio. The pizza bases are as delicious as you'd expect (you can taste the musky zing of virgin olive oil in the base) and the only gluten-free clue is that the inside of the base looks a brighter white than their wheaty offerings. That said, the range of pizzas offered to gluten-free diners is very  limited, only a handful from their extensive menu. Seriously Rossopomodoro, what are you putting on that Quattro Formaggio to make it glutenous?

Wheaty says... "I had high hopes but I was slightly disappointed. I can't remember why. The base was good, with only a very slight corn flavour, to the point where I wasn't sure whether it was GF or not!"

Final score: 7/10 – great base, but a real missed opportunity with the limited menu.

5. Pappa Ciccia

  • Vibe: romantic Italian eatery that just so happens to do all its pizzas gluten-free. Sorry, I just drooled.
  • Location: Fulham, south London
  • Gluten-free credentials: GF pastas and pizzas, cautious staff but no desserts? Pappa, you're breaking my heart.
Not just because of the Campari, this has to be the best.
Image © Anita Isalska

Where did you come from, Pappa Ciccia? All bedecked with flowers, quaint Italian touches and cosy restaurant fittings, this place is quite the charmer. But on to the pizzas: the staff seem accustomed to reassuring their customers that yep, there's no mistake, this is genuinely gluten-free. Everything from the tomato sauce to the just-crunchy-enough artichokes is beautifully prepared, and the stone-baked pizza bases have all the volcanic charring and yielding chewiness you'd hope for from an authentic Italian pizza.

Wheaty says... "I really did wonder if the base was gluten free! Lovely and very authentic feel."

Final rating: 9/10 – judging purely by the pizza, this is head and shoulders above the rest.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Gluten-free in Greenland: tips for coeliac travellers at the edge of the world

Of all the titles I thought I'd be writing on this blog, I never thought 'gluten-free' and 'Greenland' would go together - but here we are.

I am back from a trip to Greenland's west coast where I sailed among icebergs, gawped at glaciers and swatted a lot of mosquitoes. I also ate plenty, so I have gluten-free tips galore for fellow coeliac travellers.

Colourful houses in Ilulissat, western Greenland - gluten-free travellers should make their way here for icebergs, sailing and delicious seafood
Colourful houses in Ilulissat, one of the must-sees on any Greenland trip.
Image by Anita Isalska

Travelling in Greenland gluten-free: come prepared

Whether you're gluten-free or not, Greenland is the kind of place where you need to have a rucksack stuffed with emergency snacks. Supermarkets and food shops aren't as plentiful as back home, especially in smaller towns, and depending on your arrival time in a new place you might find your food options really limited.

For example, in Kangerlussuaq, gateway to some of Greenland's best hiking, the town is dispersed over a big area and places to eat are spread out. I stayed in the Polar Lodge, which doesn't have an attached restaurant. After the only supermarket in walking distance was shut, my options were the airport cafe or an expensive taxi ride to an equally expensive restaurant 5km away. In situations like that, it really pays to have a couple of tins of tuna, crackers or granola stashed in your bag (the airport cafe was predictably all sandwiches, by the way).

Greenlandic food: meat, fish and more meat

The good news is that the Greenlandic food I experienced was heavily meaty, fishy, and didn't tend to be crumbed or battered. Drying, preserving in salt and grilling are the preparation methods of preference and muskox, fish, shrimp and fish roe were the norm. Aside from Danish open sandwiches, a lot of the cuisine seemed to be made of naturally gluten-free ingredients. Halibut, seaweed, potatoes and berries were all staples.

Halibut with parsnip puree, spring onions and angelica salt, at Restaurant Ulo in Ilulissat.
Image by Anita Isalska

And all kinds of meats were on offer, usually grilled (some of which you might feel squeamish about trying: seal, whale and narwhal for starters). Often they're prepared simply so briefing in your gluten-free request doesn't require more than cross-contamination measures on their part - a language card can help here, especially for sensitive coeliacs.

In some countries, knowing the word for 'gluten-free' is the key to good, safe eating. But in Greenland I found it more useful to have a conversation about how a dish was put together, working in my requirements along the way. I spelled out what I could eat, what I couldn't eat, and asked questions about the dish - where I kept the tone interested and excited to try the food but concerned for my own limitations, people were very happy to help.

Pescetarian paradise: this plateful aboard the boat from Ilulissat to Eqi has shrimp, cod,
pearly pink fish roe, pickled cucumbers, lashings of mayo and some dried
muskox salami. Image by Anita Isalska

The bad news is that vegetarian gluten-free travellers will have a trickier time, and probably become immensely tired of imported Danish cheeses. Extra rucksack-stuffing for you lot.

Breakfast buffets were really variable. When they were good, they were piled high with naturally gluten-free fuel (yoghurt, cheeses, smoked fish, fruit). When they were bad, they were a few slices of bread and a jar of Nutella (which made me glad to have made room for a pack of Udi's granola in my bag).

Enemy biscuits

When travelling in Greenland you'll find coffee served at almost every opportunity. If you're waiting for a boat, eyeing up souvenirs or chatting to a tour operator, it's likely that a small stimulating cup will find its way into your hands. Cookies and cakes are often brought out in these situations, to be met with shrugs by us coeliacs, but there didn't seem to be an cultural awkwardness about turning them down. The important social cement seemed to be drinking the java, so if you're a caffeine-head you'll have no trouble enjoying this Greenlandic custom while saying no to the wheaty stuff.

Dried muskox with slivers of radish and cucumber, with basil oil and hazelnuts.
Image by Anita Isalska

The Danish connection: a boost for gluten-free travellers to Greenland

In a country of low population density, the power of numbers means it takes far longer for understanding of gluten-free diets to gain traction. So it follows that in as remote a country as Greenland, the word 'gluten-free' isn't exactly on the tips of tongues.

Is there any point, then, in dropping the 'gluten-free diet' bomb explicitly, in a place like Greenland where many people won't have the faintest idea what you mean? Actually, yes.

Plenty of hotels and tours in Greenland are run by visiting Danes or half-Danish half-Greenlandic people, who tend to have absorbed a fair bit of understanding about the gluten-free diet back in Denmark where it's much, much better known.

I did an internal dance of glee when I found great gluten-free provision at Glacier Camp Eqi (a five-hour boat ride from Ilulissat, one of Greenland's top destinations for travellers). The immensely friendly staff knew what gluten-free was, and having been forewarned they were able to pre-order some gluten-free bread for my breakfasts. I hadn't expected this at all, but they told me that they could cater provided they had plenty of advance warning. All of the food to Camp Eqi arrives on a once-daily boat, so a few days' warning is essential. Given the slow rhythms by which places in Greenland stock and re-stock their food, I'd advise all gluten-free travellers to Greenland to give a few days' notice.

Nice one, Camp Eqi! Gluten-free bread, eggs, caraway-studded cheese,
yoghurt and berry compote plus the obligatory coffee. Image by Anita Isalska

Air Greenland does a pretty good gluten-free meal

And what about the transport? It was the first time I'd flown with Air Greenland and I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the gluten-free meal. I had feared a frosty fruit salad but my meal travelling from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq included gluten-free bread, a pretty hearty breakfast, fruit, all clearly labelled as gluten-free. And it was distinctively different to all the other meals (which is always reassuring to my paranoid brain).

Actual cheese! Air Greenland gluten-free meal without the 'free from everything' vibe. This breakfast
had gluten-free sausage, egg, gfree bread and all the trimmings. Image by Anita Isalska

Flying back from Greenland my meal lacked the gluten-free bread, but I put this down to the relative availability of gluten-free produce in Greenland vs Denmark. It was still good noshin'.

In conclusion... your gluten-free Greenlandic adventure will be a breeze

Well, maybe not a breeze. You'll need a bit of prep, you'll say no to biscuits, rustle up your stash of crackers at breakfasts, and do a fair few supermarket runs during your travels to Greenland. But in such a meat-protein-fixated place, veggies might actually have a tougher time than coeliacs. In the land of whale blubber snacks and fish at every meal, eating paleo style (and hence gluten-free) was more than manageable.

And overall, arming myself with a few Eat Natural bars is a small price to stare out at the Ilulissat icefjord, spot wild muskoxen and hear the grumble of glaciers. If you get the chance to visit Greenland, don't be daunted by dietary requirements and jump on that plane.

Blue skies at the Eqi glacier. Mosquitoes not pictured - they're probably eating
my hand as I take the photo. Image by Anita Isalska

If I've tweaked your interest and you want to read more about my adventures in Greenland, check out my feature on Lonely Planet and take a look at my journey to Greenland on Storify.