Living Gluten Free

Free From Dilemmas: How to Judge

free-from-foods-awardsIt’s ‘just’ gluten free…

I can’t tell you how many times that came up last week, as we ate our way through over 25 different vegetarian gluten free ready meals, and 55 tea-time items (cakes and biscuits).

Yes, I was in London again, on the panel of judges for two of the sessions of the Free From Food Awards 2015—and I felt I needed someone to roll me home afterwards. You may think that 55 tiny pieces of cake would be fab, but actually, it probably adds up to be the equivalent of one big birthday cake.

It’s always great to join the panel – interesting people with strong views not only about the free from world but also about each piece of cake – but I won’t be able to eat another piece of chocolate cake for a few weeks!

The ‘just’ gluten free comment came up as part of the many discussions we had during the course of the day. Here’s the thing:

  • there are many potential allergens. Which is better, a product that is delicious but ‘just’ gluten free (that is, it isn’t also dairy free, or egg free, etc), or one that is free from multiple allergens?
  • And another angle on it: which is better, a product that tries to mimic a ‘normal’ product, or one that tries to do something completely different, with unexpected and interesting results?
  • And: does the world really need another gluten free chocolate muffin (or more chocolate brownies) – and of the many chocolate cakes that already exist, which is better?

It became clear that our expectations of free from food are now very high indeed, which meant that we can now be very picky about the quality of the pastry, for example, rather than just marvelling that it had been done at all.

Having tasted some amazing products – ones that are ‘just’ gluten free, and ones that are great without any of the major allergens – we have set the bar high. Or rather, the manufacturers of these modern products are increasingly raising the bar. And some manufacturers are being left behind.

It is now much easier to find free from products that are indistinguishable from ‘normal’ – products that you could offer to guests without embarrassment or explanation, and with the expectation that they would enjoy them.

Not necessarily like-for-like replication; some ‘normal’ products rely so heavily on gluten, say, to give them their unique properties (I’m looking at you, croissants) that it is unrealistic to expect someone to recreate them exactly without it. At least, at the moment.

But the new baseline should be products that do not need any apology—this should be the new norm for gluten free products, and yet, sadly, it isn’t always so. There are still dry, gritty, taste-free biscuits available, for example.

We should insist on good food – if you don’t really like it, don’t buy it. There is better out there… and the list of products shortlisted should show you some of the many interesting new things available (the list will be out soon is out now!).

Gluten Free is the New Black

beyond bread gluten free danish pastry

Doesn’t that look delicious?

Since I was in London for the day, I thought I’d take the chance to call in at Beyond Bread for breakfast – and had a fabulous danish pastry. I asked for a muffin, but changed my mind when I saw the tray of danish pastries arrive, fresh from the oven…

I don’t think I’ve been to an entirely gluten free cafe before, and this was a good experience. They were very welcoming – to me, and to all the other customers who came in while I was there. Clearly some of the other customers were regulars, coming in to pick up a sandwich for lunch, because they were discussing what they’d had yesterday, and what they’d have today. Some had dropped in to ask specific questions, like the one who wanted to know what egg-free breads they had available. Others were there for breakfast, like me, and at least one of those had porridge.

I didn’t stay long enough for lunch, but the quiche they described (to yet another customer!) sounded delicious.

They are a completely gluten free establishment, and they use their own mixes of flours, with different constituents for different products. Preparing the mix and dough for the danish pastries apparently takes two days…

The cafe is small and sleek, and the level of enthusiasm is clearly high: there was a new member of staff on the front desk while I was there, being walked through the ingredients/allergens handbook, and being shown some of the more unusual items.

I sent coeliac daughter the photo above, and her response was: ‘THAT’S SO COOL!’

I’m obviously going to have to take her to London sometime soon…

Sister of a Coeliac


I invited Non-Coeliac Daughter to tell you how it was – and is – to be the sister of a coeliac…

Being the sister of a coeliac was definitely difficult for me at times, especially as a child. Not nearly as difficult as it was for her of course, but it had small effects on me and my brother. Why does she get special food? How come her food gets a separate cupboard? Why aren’t I allowed to eat that? But it became normal as I grew up with it. We’re best friends of course, but sometimes I was jealous of her. I wished I had coeliac disease. She got all this different food, she got to go out to ‘gluten free food tasting things’ with my mother, she got more attention because she was ‘special’.

I often got told off for asking her why she couldn’t take one bite – not even a crumb? – because I didn’t understand the effect it would have on her or how little it takes to make a coeliac ill. Now I’m a teenager, I know why she gets different food, and often more of it, but it was hard to grasp this concept as a young child who couldn’t quite understand invisible illnesses.

Each time someone at school said the word ‘gluten’ or ‘coeliac’, I’d jump at the chance to tell everyone about my sister and her ‘special tummy’. She’d feel embarrassed sometimes when she had to bring her own food to a party, and everyone ‘watched’ her. It was even worse when people offered her food and, feeling rude, she had to decline, simply because she couldn’t eat it. These people would almost always have a moment of realisation a few seconds later and fuss around her, offering her this and that and she’d try to hide from all the attention.

I can see why she gets so excited when she discovers a new occurrence in the gluten free world – Warburtons making gluten free bread, or new discoveries such as gingerbread men, or even, more recently, puff pastry. And I can understand her disappointment when supermarkets make the gluten free section smaller at Christmas to make room for all the gluten filled produce on their shelves.

I realise I take these things for granted and often forget that she might feel resentful that she doesn’t get to eat the same food as us. Not that she would, she’s hasn’t got a jealous bone in her body. Perhaps it’s the gluten free diet that makes her more understanding. She’d always listen politely while I complained about my brother scoffing our entire packet of biscuits and how she was so lucky to not have to share. She’d just try to convince me to go gluten free.

Beyond Bread

BB_GingerbreadMenThis looks interesting… a new, 100% gluten free bakery and café in London.

Called Beyond Bread, it’s at 2 Charlotte Place, in Fitzrovia. The official opening date is 5 January 2015, but there’s a ‘soft launch’ from next Monday, 15 December.

I’m not quite sure what makes it soft: they have an active Facebook page, Instagram account and Twitter account, so it’s not exactly secret. And now you all know too!

I’ve not visited yet – love to, but it’s just too far to get to before Christmas – but I’m told that many of the gluten free products are also vegan, wheat-free, dairy-free and egg-free, and are available to eat in or take away. This sounds like good news for those of you who have to avoid multiple foods – I know from my mailbox that this can be very frustrating.

Lemon and chia muffins, and pastries with cocoa nibs do sound delicious… they’ll be selling gluten free sandwiches, cakes, biscuits, quiches and pies, pastries and pasties and a range of gluten-free breads. So that’s lunch sorted, for anyone working nearby.

I love the idea of a dedicated gluten free café, though I do wonder how coeliac daughter would cope. We took her out for lunch on her birthday at the weekend to somewhere carefully selected to offer a choice of gluten free food, and, faced with more than one gluten free option, she found it too hard to choose. She just hasn’t had the practice! Quite what she would be like if everything in the shop was edible, I don’t know, but it might be fun to find out.

I’m looking forward to reading the reviews, and – I hope – will be able to arrange a trip to London in 2015 to check it out. If you visit Beyond Bread, please do let me know what it’s like!

Tesco: Free From and Finest

tesco-christmasHave you noticed a change in your local Tesco recently?

I have; there’s definitely an enthusiasm about getting new gluten free products out there for us to buy, and it’s made a trip to Tesco mildly exciting – what new products will have sneaked onto the shelves this week?

Yes, I know, how boring must my life be; but when you check the gluten free shelves every time, hoping for treasure and finding only same-old same-old, finding something new truly makes a difference. And inevitably I have to buy the new products to try them!

I was down in London this week for an event hosted by Tesco, where I tasted some of their new frozen party range (both savoury and sweet), and had the chance to meet some of the Tesco people behind the launch of these new products.

The Party range is good. The savoury collection is chicken goujons, mini thai fish cakes and spicy bean bites. I didn’t taste the meat ones, but I did enjoy the others. And the sweet collection is mini cakes (based on almond flour) which are also very good.

I was shown the new Christmas range – some of which is already available to me locally, but some I’ve not seen in any of our local Tesco stores, big or small. This year it includes not only the standard Christmas items of mince pies, Christmas cake, ‘chocolate’ coins and ‘chocolate’ advent calendar, but also:

  • Christmas-tree-shaped crumpets – which look fun for any child
  • a ‘Tesco Finest’ Christmas pudding – so there are 2 gluten free Christmas pudding choices in Tesco
  • and a large Yule log – big enough for an average family.

This is interesting for two reasons:

  • there are now better, and more attractive, child-friendly options than there used to be (remember the days when gluten free meant stodgy fare, sold in boring ‘good-for-you’ packaging? Children want more than dry custard creams in dull two-colour wrappers…)
  • and not only are there an increasing number of gluten free Christmas items in store, there’s a choice of range (the core range and the finest range).

We talked about:

  • The cost of living gluten free. The cost of an average shopping basket inevitably goes up after a diagnosis of coeliac disease. The Tesco team believes that creating own brand versions of items means that the cost can be kept lower. It will be interesting to see if any gluten free products can be made cheaply enough to fit in the Basics range.
  • The difficulties of finding suppliers able and willing to provide gluten free products. It is expensive for suppliers to create gluten free products, and although the demand is rising, it is still quite a niche market, and for many big suppliers, it just isn’t economic to produce gluten free products. For the smaller suppliers, of course, it can be difficult to produce them in the quantities that Tesco would need. It’s a problem…
  • And we talked about their aim, which is to provide gluten free foods that are indistinguishable from not-gluten-free, so that people eating gluten free aren’t made to feel isolated in quite the same way. So as well as extensive taste-testing, they’ve also tweaked the design of the free from packaging, to make it a bit less clinical, and a bit more ‘foodie’.

And they do seem to be having some success: the Tesco Free From Spring Onion and Cheddar Crispbake has been shortlisted against non-gluten-free foods in the Frozen Savoury Foods section of the Quality Foods Awards next week, and the Free From Pollock Fillets have made it to the Frozen Fish shortlist.

The fact that these gluten free products are competing with ‘normal’ products says a lot about how far the free from market has come. (There are some separate Free From sections, and Tesco has products in those too). I’m really looking forward to the next steps!

(Disclosure: Tesco paid my travel expenses, and gave me some Free From products).