Free From Food Festival, London

Yesterday I visited the inaugural Free From Food Festival on London’s Southbank.  The festival was organised by Caroline Aherne who owns the Sugargrain Bakehouse, makers of award winning gluten & wheat free cakes and confectionery. Caroline and I have met a couple of times before. The first time I met her we were both on our way to the annual Free From Food Awards which were being held this year in Kew. A suicide on the line had resulted in no trains going to Kew and we were both stranded at Clapham Junction station. I tweeted to see if anyone else was caught up in the chaos. Caroline (who was nominated in 3 categories in this year’s awards) replied to say she was also stuck there and offered to go home, collect her car and drive back to pick me up and we’d go to the awards together. What a generous thing to do for someone she’d never met before. I’m not sure how many visitors realised that the Free From Festival was not organised by a full time exhibition organiser, but by Caroline who organised this festival in addition to baking her wonderful cakes and manning her Sugargrain stall. Very impressive.

Although I was excited to visit the various free from food producers who were at the festival, I was also very much looking forward to seeing some demonstrations and talks from members of the free from community.

I arrived just in time for Molly Robson’s engaging demo.

Molly is a Nutrition Advisor and writes the Particular Kitchen blog. Molly demonstrated a cranberry orange bread which was vegan, gluten free, dairy free, egg free, soy free and made without refined sugars. Although I do eat eggs I found it interesting that ground flax seed can be used in place of eggs. We got to try some of the cake at the end of her demo and it was delicious. She very kindly handed out recipe cards and I’d like to try this recipe myself.

A short talk followed by Alanna Lawley who will soon be launching the interesting sounding Foodadit, a community website seeking to connect people with similar food preferences with food substitutes.

It was then definitely time for lunch. Having taken a quick tour around the various food options, I settled on gluten free fish and chips. What a treat! They were made by Olley’s, a fish and chip restaurant in Brockwell Park, south London.

The gluten free batter was very light and crispy. Unfortunately in my haste to tuck in, I didn’t get a chance to find out who the supplier of the batter was. However it was lovely to have many choices of gluten free lunch options from the various exhibitors.

I enjoyed my gluten free fish and chips while listening to Grace Cheetham’s demonstration of raspberry and rosewater gluten and dairy free cupcakes. I thought it was great that Grace requested some audience participation and invited people to the front to decorate their own cupcakes. It was great to meet Grace, albeit briefly, and I hope we can catch up properly some time soon.

The next talk was one quite close to my Russophile heart. Katrina Kollegaeva is a Russian who runs an underground supper club trying to revolutionise the image of Russian / Soviet Food. As I’ve spent a number of years living in Russia, I know that people hold very stereotypical views of food in Russia and former Soviet Republics which are almost always wide of the reality. Since my student days in Moscow I’ve had a love of Georgian food in particular. One day I will make a gluten free version of khatchipuri, the Georgian cheese bread. Forget about the perfect seeded gluten free loaf, khatchipuri is the bread I’d love to be able to eat again. Katrina was demonstrating a very interesting dish of cabbage flower stuffed with buckwheat and wild mushrooms. Buckwheat is used in Russian homes almost as widely as we use potatoes, pasta or rice. Buckwheat is nutty and extremely nutritious as well as being naturally gluten free. Sadly, Katrina (who isn’t a gluten free chef) had prepared the dish with mushroom ketchup and Worcestershire sauce which were not gluten free so I couldn’t eat it. The mushroom mixture smelt amazing though and I just got to admire instead.

Katrina will be posting the recipe on her website and I’d urge you to try it for an interesting vegetarian dish which would be impressive to serve at a dinner party.

Last – but certainly not least! – was a talk by Annie of Annie’s SupperClub on the uses of various gluten free flours. Annie has a wealth of knowledge on gluten free flours and her talk was packed with interesting facts. Did you know, for example, that there are more non-gluten flours in the world than gluten-containing flours? No, me either. You can check out the gluten free flours Annie uses how these flours can be used in gluten free cooking here. Another great tip was to keep the ends of your gluten free bread loaves and whizz them up to become breadcrumbs and freeze. So simple yet I’d never thought of that before. Normally I just chuck out the end pieces.

I thought the demos and talks were extremely interesting and covered a number of different food intolerances, not just gluten free. I can’t think of an occasion where such a variety of different subjects within the free from food arena has been on offer.

I think one area which could be improved for the (hopefully!) next festival is that the demos and talks could be better promoted by placing larger boards around the festival site with the schedule and description of the talks for the visitors who stumbled across the festival, as well as advertising them in advance on a dedicated Free From festival website. Oh, and next time I will bring a warm scarf!

However, what really made the day extra special for me was that I had the opportunity to meet up with some amazing fellow gluten free-rs (and an honorary one!). Whilst I really enjoy our regular chats and gluten free “tweet ups” on twitter, nothing beats meeting up with like-minded people. Many thanks to Charlotte, Alex, Annie, Molly, Pippa, Mel and Roarke for the company yesterday. I had such a great time chatting and enjoying all the gluten free food on offer together. I think it’s fantastic that our online gluten free community has happily moved into the real world! I hope we all get to meet up again soon.

Finally, thank you to Caroline for all your hard work in making the Free From Food Festival happen. I hope this will be the start of a regular Free From Food festival.

The Free From Food Festival is being held 25 – 27 November 2011 on London’s Southbank (behind the Royal Festival Hall

Saf Restaurant: Gluten Free & Raw Food

When I asked my usual dining partners in crime if they fancied trying a raw food restaurant for an adventurous dining experience, I got the following responses:

“No way”

“I’m sorry but RAW FOOD? Absolutely not. Nope”

“You’re on your own, lady”

So that would be a pretty emphatic no, then. Still, never normally deterred by anything I decided to take a table for one at Saf Shoreditch.

There’s something quite pleasing about eating alone in a restaurant. Although I wouldn’t want to eat out by myself in restaurants all the time, I do find it a release to take time over your food by yourself. On that particular day I had a very busy mind and my “I vant to be alone” Greta Garbo-esque lunch was exactly what I needed.

I’d heard about Saf from a friend who did a raw food course earlier this year. Saf stands for “simple authentic food” and also means “pure” in Turkish. Since I know she reads this blog, a big thank you to her for introducing me to it! The theory behind the raw food movement is that raw foods are more nutritious than those which have been cooked and consequently lost their nutrients. Raw foodists believe that the digestive enzymes in raw food aid digestion. Heating food is OK as long as the temperature stays below around 46C although the specific upper temperature varied in the research I made on raw foods. On the Saf menu all items heated to over 48C are marked.

The décor of Saf Shoreditch is clean and modern. I was particularly taken with the light fittings, not something I would perhaps ever notice if I was chatting away with friends but I guess dining alone forces you to take in your surroundings a little more. The restaurant extended back some way and I could see a pleasant looking courtyard garden out at the rear. I bet this is exactly the kind of place Gwyneth Paltrow would try to eat out incognito.

The waiter advised a new menu had been introduced the day before my visit. In 2010 Saf Shoreditch won the Evening Standard award for best vegetarian restaurant in London. They do not use any animal products, dairy, refined or processed ingredients in their cooking. There was a good range of starters, salads, sandwiches and main courses and the gluten free items (of which there were many) were clearly noted on the menu.

Four of the six main courses were gluten free and these ranged in price from £10.50 to £14.50. At the lower cost scale of the menu, all of the salads (which came in medium or main course size, all gluten free) and a wrap under the sandwiches menu was made with a rice wrap and gluten free. The main size salads each cost £8.10 and the rice wrap was £7.90.

I chose the Thai red curry which included butternut squash, aubergine, okra and tofu in a spiced coconut curry sauce served with black rice on the side.

The coconut sauce tasted deliciously clean and zingily lime fresh. It was a chilly day and the sauce was quite spicy and certainly warmed me up. But I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed. Not at the taste because it was genuinely delicious. But I just didn’t find it very filling, it was more of a spicy soup with a few veggies and some rice. At £14.45 I thought this was pretty pricey, especially considering its lack of many vegetables or much protein.

Would I go back? Yes, the food was delicious. The atmosphere was friendly and relaxed; I felt totally at ease dining there alone. However next time I would choose something more filling and not go on a day when I needed fuel for a high impact aerobics class later that evening!

Saf Shoreditch, 152-154 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3AT

Saf Kensington, 63 Kensington High Street, London W8 5SE


Eating Gluten Free in France

The subject of dining out gluten free in France has been raised a couple of times recently, notably during the gluten free “tweetup” last week. Many people seem to have had a particularly poor time eating gluten free in France.

Yes it’s true, France sans gluten is a challenge but I don’t think it’s that bad. It’s certainly not Italy with its waiters and chefs who take Coeliac disease seriously and are normally fully aware of the condition and cross contamination issues. But with preparation it is possible to eat out safely in France. Previous posts on eating out gluten free France can be found here and here.

As a frequent traveller to France, I can offer a few tips which have helped me:

1. Take the Celiac Travel cards to explain to restaurants what your dietary restrictions are

2. Learn some French phrases to explain both your dietary needs and also the words for the naturally gluten free food items you’re likely to see in French restaurants. Lookout for these items on menus. If you don’t see them and you’re feeling bold, ask if they can be cooked for you. Useful food preparation words would be:

à la vapeur– steamed, au four – baked, à l’etouffée– stewed, en daube– stew, casserole, grillé – grilled

3. Be extra polite to waiters. I think anyone who’s ever been to Paris will have experienced at some point the particular breed of Parisian waiter who is super brusque. It’s just how it is, ensure you are very polite in communicating your requests and needs and ignore any surly attitude.

4. Most restaurants I’ve visited have been able to tell me either which menu items are naturally gluten free or those which can be adapted – just as you would do anywhere in the world.

5. Visit a crêperie for a savoury galette made with naturally gluten free buckwheat flour (farine de sarrasin or blè noir). You must check that 100% buckwheat flour is being used as sometimes there can be a mix of flours.

6. Desserts including crème brûlée and meringues are naturally gluten free (but always double check).

7. Be prepared to politely walk away before ordering if you’re not happy with your chosen restaurant, it’s your health after all

8. If you’re in Paris, please note the dedicated gluten free restaurant “Des Si et Des Mets” in Montmartre has closed according to their website. I wouldn’t normally point out where not to go, but this restaurant is referenced in many places online as the only gluten free restaurant in Paris and I wouldn’t want you to make a wasted trip out there. Hopefully it will reopen again soon.

9. Instead, Paris now has its own gluten free patisserie, Helmut Newcake which is located in the 1oth arondissement near the quirky boutiques of the Canal St Martin area. Surely a must for anyone visiting the City of Light.

10. Check out this French dining out website here, which has lists of gluten free restaurants in various French cities and reviews on them. It’s in French but you could use Google translate.

11. The website for “Association Francaise des Intolerants au Gluten” (French association of the gluten intolerant) for information on gluten free France

A couple of French food photos from our recent trip to Burgundy:

Buckwheat galette containing Mediterranean vegetables and goat’s cheese, Vezelay. Utterly delicious.

Duck adjusted to be served without the gravy it was meant to be served with, Semur en Auxois

Roast chicken, Flavigny-sur-Ozerain. This beautiful little village was the location for the film Chocolat. This was eaten in a ferme auberge where all the products were sourced locally. I’d actually just wanted an omelette but the locally produced eggs had run out!

Crème brûlée, Semur en Auxois. There were raspberries lurking under here.

Do you have any good gluten free tips for eating safely in France? Have you visited a restaurant which cooked particularly good gluten free food or offered exceptionally understanding service? Please do leave a comment and let me know.

Gluten Free Bakery in France: Aux Biscuits d’Antoine

In advance of our recent holiday in France, I did (as always) a lot of internet research on gluten free options in France. Since it was our wedding anniversary I was looking for a special restaurant (Burgundy is considered a gastronomic centre in France). I didn’t find a Michelin starred restaurant within easy distance of our gîte but I did find a gluten free bakery a short drive away. Further research determined that this seemed to be the only gluten free bakery in France. What are the chances?!

Aux Biscuits d’Antoine is a traditional French organic bakery which produces gluten free biscuits made from buckwheat. I found some details of the bakery on another gluten free blog and understood this to be a bakery shop in a small village. In reading the blog, the true artisan nature of the biscuit production was not fully explained. So I shall attempt to do so.

Mr D and drove into the tiny village of Etivey. The village was so quiet without a single person to be seen but we noticed the ‘Aux Biscuits d’Antoine’ sign hanging outside a beautiful and traditional looking French shuttered house. We approached and pulled gently on the big, long metal bell outside. No response, so I yanked it hard. So hard it seemed to wake all the inhabitants of the house. Sorry!

Artisan. It’s a word often bandied around on premium goods both gluten free and not. In the case of ‘Aux Biscuits d‘Antoine’ this is genuinely the case. In advance of the visit, I’d contacted the owner (Francoise) to see if I could visit the bakery and what times they would be open. I was glad I did. The production of their biscuits is handled in a standalone facility adjacent to their house rather than a bakery shop. Fortunately for us Francoise happily invited us in to take a look at their biscuit production. This window into another world was really exciting for me, it’s about as far from my day job as it gets!

Francoise showed us how they milled the husk free buckwheat by hand themselves using a mill stone thus preventing any chance of cross contamination and ensuring her buckwheat flour is truly gluten free. Despite the name, buckwheat is naturally gluten free fruit seed. Her assistants were busy at work producing a tray of delicious smelling sesame and fig biscuits.

After chatting to Francoise about her business and the health benefits of their biscuits, Mr D and I left clutching packets of the sesame and fig biscuits, coconut and cheese straw-esque biscuits.

I have to admit my purchase of coconut biscuits was a slight accident. I don’t know what I was thinking, I usually avoid coconut. It turned out to be a very happy mistake which I was glad I’d made. The biscuits were fabulously light in texture, slightly salty and not too sweet. The buckwheat gave the biscuits an earthy, nutty flavour and they had a nice crunch to them on the bite. Delicious.

The cheese flutes tasted of pleasantly strong cheese mixed with the nutty taste of the buckwheat. They were perfect as an apéritif.

I’m saving the sesame and fig biscuits for Christmas to try with some lovely stinky cheese such as my favourite, Epoisses, which was also local to the area of Burgundy in which we were staying.

It was a genuine honour for me to take a look around this type of small scale production and I thoroughly enjoyed the unique opportunity. Many thanks to Francoise for taking the time to show us around Aux Biscuits d’Antoine and the chance for me to chat with her in my (somewhat rusty!) French.

Aux Biscuits d’Antoine products are currently sold in France through organic stores and via online retailers both in France and selected European countries. I hope that these biscuits become available here soon so I can buy some more, they are truly delicious.

Gluten Free France: Supermarkets

Mr D and I recently took a trip to Burgundy in France to celebrate our wedding anniversary. I was looking forward to a week of walking, cycling, reading with plenty of delicious food and seriously good red wine from the region. Since Mr D and I were staying in a gîte we had to get quite acquainted with supermarkets and gluten free shopping in France. I absolutely love exploring supermarkets on our travels abroad so I was very much looking forward to this.

The gorgeous Burgundy village in which we were staying had 2 supermarkets which were of a similar size, an Intermarché and an ATAC. Having tried both we preferred the Intermarché but that was not food driven: The wine section was better in the Intermarché!

 Both supermarkets had gluten free sections. In the Intermarché the section was larger:

In the ATAC supermarket the gluten free goods were in an aisle with other free from goods. The gluten free items are those in blue packets on the left hand side:

We went into bustling Dijon and came across this Le Marché Bio supermarket. They had a good range of both French and international gluten free brands.

The Dijon Bio store did have it’s own gluten free section but I found some of the goods on offer quite pricey. For example I paid EUR 7 for a loaf of long life bread.

Most of the products I found in France were gluten free versions of biscuits, cakes and pasta. There were several varieties of flour and ready to bake bread mixes which might be useful to know if you wanted to bake your own bread while on holiday (hmmm well you might!). Although if you are self catering, I think you would want to bring your own loaf tins and other gluten free baking ingredients.

Some French gluten free products I bought:

These were meant to be for breakfast to get over not being able to have a pain au chocolat but I didn’t like them very much. They tasted to me like they were full of additives:

 Now these I did like!

I bought some great gluten free Madeleines the last time I was in Italy and one of these is a perfect breakfast with a good coffee. The taste of these Madeleines was good, but not as good as the ones I bought in Italy.

What I found really surprising about shopping for allergies and intolerances in France is that the labelling of food items in France is very inconsistent. Some items (notably those which are explicitly marketed as gluten free) have clear labelling on them which can be seen in the photos above and this example from the Madeleines:

Conversely, food items which we would expect to be labelled in the UK such as sausages, crisps, pâté often had no labelling whatsoever. I don’t understand why this is. In the UK new EU regulations on gluten free labelling will come into force in January 2012. If food manufacturers in France are going to comply with these new rules, they’ve got a lot to do in the next few months. 

It is possible to shop and eat gluten free in France although it’s not as Coeliac friendly as other European nations. In my view the gluten free sector is much more developed in the UK than in France and so the products available in France are not as sophisticated as those we find in the UK. Many of the items I saw in France were fairly synthetic and certainly none of the higher quality gluten free brands we see in the UK, or Italy for that matter. I didn’t see any fresh loaves such as Genius while I was in France nor I didn’t find any gluten free croissants or baguettes although I’ve heard they exist!

My tips for gluten free shopping in France:

  • Gluten free goods are available in French supermarkets but the variety and quality of the range may not be the same as available in the UK
  • Seek out health stores, such as the Bio chain which sells brands including Schär as well as French gluten free goods. Other health food stores include Naturalia and La Vie Claire 
  • For negotiating ingredients on labels where allergy information may not be explicitly stated, use the French version of these excellent Allergy wordlists.
  • When purchasing items in stores (e.g., the delicastessen), use these Coeliac Travel language cards in French
  • Check out the website for the French Assocatiation of Gluten Intolerants. Details of gluten free food manufacturers are in the left hand menu.

Most importantly enjoy all of the wonderful naturally gluten free food and wine which France offers!