Gluten Free Dining at Leon Restaurant

When I worked for a few months out in the Canary Wharf office, I went to Leon sometimes for lunch to pick up a gluten free salad. That branch was always crazy busy and there were never any seats free so I didn’t have the chance to eat in the restaurant. I’d simply collect my gluten free salad and head back to the office to enjoy at my desk. I always kind of wished I could eat in though, I wanted to see what other diners were eating. I’m nosey like that.

So one day when I was having a cultural afteroon at the Tate Modern I decided to nip to the Leon branch tucked behind the gallery on Bankside for lunch.

I was impressed with the menu boards over the counter which clearly displayed the allergy information for each menu option. The menu itself contained many gluten free options for lunch. There was also a separate kids menu.

On the counter in front of me were a number of sweet treats including a brownie and pecan pie which were labelled gluten free. These were not individually wrapped so you might want to check if they have wrapped versions of these if you are concerned about cross contamination.

The only downside for me was that I couldn’t actually see what any of the dishes looked like before choosing. You order from the Leon menu over the counter, pay and then your food arrives. Being a bit of a ‘visual’ person this proved a bit difficult for me.

Undeterred, I chose the BBQ Chicken. The box says grilled chicken (another menu option) but I think they used the wrong box since the description of BBQ Chicken matched what I received.

I rarely find BBQ sauce which is gluten free and it was for this reason I chose the dish. The Leon website is really informative and lists every item contained in each dish. Check out the BBQ Chicken ingredients here, for example.

So how did it taste? All of the dish’s ingredients tasted fresh and flavoursome. The BBQ sauce was deliciously smoky. I was really happy to find a little smattering of gherkins. How tastes change, eh? I can remember picking gherkins out of burgers as a kid but now I love them! Like the BBQ sauce, I rarely eat gherkins so another unexpected and rare treat.

I chose the BBQ Chicken as part of a Leon meal deal which included a fresh lemonade and a side of corn off the cob.

When I got home I spent some time reading Leon’s excellent website. I was particularly interested and impressed with the information on the Sustainability page.

Where: Leon have 9 branches in London. See website here for locations. There are also a further 2 Leons at Brent Cross and Bluewater shopping centres.

Cost: Very reasonable. I paid £ 8.10 for BBQ Chicken, a side of corn off the cob and a zingy fresh lemonade.

Gluten Free Panettone

You have to hand it to the Italians. Not only are they kings of gluten free products, they do it in some serious style. Take this gluten free panettone, for example. The panettone is a traditional Christmas cake from northern Italy. It’s a type of very light, sweet bread which is baked into a cupola shape.

I seemed such a crime to unwrap it from it’s beautiful packaging.

But I’m so glad I did. When I carefully slipped it out of its packaging, I was immediately greeted by the delicious and intense aroma of lemons and oranges. Wow, what a scent. For a moment I could have sworn I was sitting on a sunny veranda overlooking the sea with lemons trees and the sound of cicadas chirping all around. But no, wintery London it was.

This gluten free panettone had a very light and almost fluffy texture with a delicate citrus flavour and enough, but not too many, juicy raisins. Having eaten a second slice, I found myself picking up each and every crumb from the plate. I liked it. A lot.

Many thanks to Elena at K+E Fine Imports who very generously sent this to me. Next Christmas, I shall be making a bulk purchase of these fantastic panettone to share with friends and family. If I don’t eat them all first, that is.

Buon Natale!

Free From & Festive: Gluten Free Stuffing

I was really pleased to be invited by Caleigh who writes the fantastic Gluten-free(k) blog to participate in this year’s “Free From and Festive”. Christmas can be a tricky time of year for those with food allergies and intolerances as not everyone fully understands how to cook safely. Unfortunately even those who do, occasionally make mistakes when their mind and energy is being taken up on the madness that the run up to Christmas can be. Not thoroughly checking a label on an element of Christmas dinner could mean you need to miss out. However, I have a small confession to make. You see, I’m not really that keen on Christmas. This time of year always reminds me of sad times and I’ve never been able to muster much enthusiasm for it since I was a teenager. As an adult my best Christmases have been the unconventional ones; drinking too much Russian champanskoye at the National Hotel, Moscow with a big gang of mates watching the snow fall on Red Square; steak and chips at Chez Gerard, Heathrow en route to Australia (cheap flights if you’re willing to fly on Christmas Day); and last year’s amazing steak and red wine fest in Buenos Aires. Oh, and I don’t even like roasts very much!

But there is one part of the Christmas dinner which I do really like, stuffing. Is this odd? Perhaps. I particularly like the taste of the herb, sage. I rarely use this herb to cook with but I love the aroma and taste of it. Just the thought of those the little stuffing balls that explode with more flavour than turkey could ever dream of is something I do look forward to about Christmas lunch.

Unfortunately finding gluten free stuffing can be quite tricky. I’ve selected three possibilities below which either you, or those catering for you, can safely include in your gluten free Christmas lunch.

1. The high street retailer – Marks & Spencer

Mark and Spencer have made great efforts over the last year or so in re-formulating many of their products which did contain gluten to be gluten free. Their packaging has also been improved, with gluten free items being clearly marked on the front of the packet with a crossed grain symbol (seen in the photo below). Top marks to M&S for providing such a huge range of gluten free sausages, stuffing etc. The whole family’s stuffing and sausage needs for your Christmas lunch could be purchased from M&S meaning no concerns about which items are suitable and avoiding cross contamination.

I tried the “Pork & Caramalised Chestnut Stuffing” priced at £1.66 to serve 4-6 people.

I chose this stuffing to try because I would never go to the effort of making this with chestnuts and pork sausage meat. I’m also sure that I could never produce a homemade version of this stuffing for the price of £1.66 either.

I enjoyed eating this meaty stuffing which tasted sweet from the chestnuts. Whilst it did have a hint of sage, I would have liked a stronger sage flavour. However this is probably just my personal preference.

2. The independent local producer – The Foodamentalists

I recently tried some of The Foodamentalists delicious Frangipane Mince Pies and was keen to try more of their products. Sadly I don’t live near to their base for me to pick up from local stockists (detailed on their website) but you can order online for nationwide delivery.

I tried the Cranberry and Herb Stuffing mix which is gluten, wheat and dairy free as well as being vegetarian. This is priced at £2.95 but you get two servings of stuffing from the packet. I made 15 stuffing balls from one serving.

These stuffing balls were very fragrant and I could really taste the sage in them. When they were cooked, the outside of the stuffing ball was a slightly crispy and I thought this was great with the soft texture of the roast chicken I was eating. I particularly liked the cranberries in the stuffing mix because they added a burst of sweetness.

3. The homemade – Vegetarian sage and onion stuffing

I decided that I’d give making my own stuffing balls a go. How hard could it be? Not very, as it turned out. I used the following:

  • 1 large knob of butter
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 100 g gluten free breadcrumbs (I used 3 Dietary Specials white ciabatta rolls)
  • 10 large fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • Salt & pepper to season

Start by gently frying the onion in the butter on a low heat until the onion is translucent.

Prepare your breadcrumbs. I don’t have a food processer (as far as I know my beautiful KitchenAid can’t do them) so I went old school….I grated them on a cheese grater. I was completely surprised by how well this worked.

Once the onions are ready, mix them in a bowl with the breadcrumbs and chopped sage leaves.

Season with salt and pepper. Add in enough egg to bind the mixture together. For me, this didn’t require the entire beaten egg.

Roll up into balls. Bake in the oven at 170C for 30 minutes for a crispy outside, slightly less if you prefer.

The punchy taste of sage, the buttery onions and the crispy outer shell of the stuffing balls made these delicious.

For more Free From and Festive recipes and Christmas ideas, please check out Caleigh’s blog here.

10 Surprising Gluten Free Facts

Just when I think I have gluten free dining cracked, something seems to pop along and surprise me. I know from Twitter that I’m not alone in being caught out sometimes.

Here are 10 surprising gluten free lessons I’ve learnt in the last 2 years since diagnosis:

1.       Food can be gluten free but not wheat free, e.g., Costa coffee chocolate brownie which contains Codex wheat starch.

2.       Gluten can be found in some coca-colas, especially those bought in supermarkets. However, ‘real’ coca-cola is gluten free. It’s better to avoid coca-cola on tap in bars if the source isn’t known. If you want a coca-cola, only order from a can or bottle where you can see it’s real coca-cola and labelled as gluten free.

3.       Malt vinegar is safe to consume in the UK according to Coeliac UK. They state that after fermentation, the end product contains a trace amount of gluten which is well below the limit considered safe for most Coeliacs. However in the US, the FDA states that malt vinegar could not be labelled gluten free under the proposed new gluten free labelling rules.

4.       It’s not enough to read and check every label, you have to understand what the labelling means. For example the difference between “gluten free”, “very low gluten” and “no gluten containing ingredients”.

5.       Italy is a gluten free paradise. Initiatives such as a Coeliac screening programme for young Italian children means awareness amongst the general population is high. This is as close to a Coeliac paradise as I’ve experienced: Gluten free pizzas in fashionable Milan, on the Vatican’s doorstep in Rome or even in a tiny village on a tiny island; there are specialist shops for Coeliacs. You can even get gluten free cones for your gluten free gelato!

6.       Gluten free batter can be lighter, crispier and far tastier than regular batter.

7.       You can be safely catered for on an overnight 20 mile charity hike without incident so long as you’ve prepared and fully briefed the caterers in advance. For longer walking holidays there are companies who can cater for gluten free meals even when trekking to Everest base camp or climbing Kilimanjaro (possibly next year’s challenge).

8.       Dietary Specials Brown Ciabatta rolls taste better than most gluten-filled breads.

9.       Not all of your friends will be supportive of your gluten free needs, especially if you’ve been diagnosed later in life. Whilst others will amaze you with their support and the efforts they will go to in order to ensure that you eat safely.

10.   The virtual world is a fantastic source of information. From other gluten free blogs to a wonderful Twitter community, there is always someone somewhere in the world who’s happy to interact and share information. I’ve also been very lucky to meet other gluten free bloggers in real life, which I never anticipated when I started writing this blog.

I firmly believe that if you put your mind to it, nothing is impossible in a gluten free world, it just might require a little extra research, preparation and effort.

What things have you learnt along your gluten free journey that surprised you?

Dietary Specials Gluten Free Ciabatta Rolls

When I look back over the last 2 years since diagnosis, I realise there is one product that has probably made its way into my shopping basket more than any other: Dietary Specials gluten free brown ciabatta rolls.

They are sold in packs of 4:

I was in my local Waitrose the other week and stocking up on a couple of packs (they were on buy one get one free) and the lady on the till asked me about them. She said she’d been recently diagnosed with Coeliac disease and couldn’t find any gluten free breads she liked. I shared my views on the main gluten free breads on the market and told her she needed to try some of the DS rolls, particularly while they were on special offer. I’m sure she was thinking “calm down dear, they’re only bread rolls”, but to me they’re not just a gluten free replacement, they’re as good – if not better – than similar regular bread rolls. If I had one piece of feedback, I wish they could make them a little larger.

I really like the linseeds and sunflower seeds in the brown ciabatta rolls. They’re also high in fibre. I usually prefer these rolls freshly warmed in the oven because it gives the outside of the bread a lovely crusty texture so rarely found in gluten free bread. However, they have been frequent travellers with me and I’ll happily eat them straight from the pack too.

The Dietary Specials website has a handy booklet you can download here with lots of recipe ideas for the ciabatta rolls.

Here are some uses I’ve found for my DS brown ciabatta rolls:

Inspired by one of the panini recipes in the above DS booklet, I made this goat’s cheese, sundried tomato and griddled courgette panini using a white ciabatta roll. As I don’t have a panini press, I used a griddle pan and its heavy lid. This didn’t look flat as panini cooked in a proper press would but it tasted great. I’d also forgotten how much I like goat’s cheese.

The ultimate comfort food: Gluten free fish finger sandwich using Young’s gluten free fish fingers. You can tell I have a favourite type of side salad!

Sausage sandwich with lashings of ketchup. These rolls are so widely available in the UK I’ve been able to rely on finding them wherever we visit in the UK, in this case a summer BBQ by the sea.

However, when I’ve travelled overseas I’ve often taken a pack with me. Here’s my gluten free stash for our holiday in France. I should add most of this returned home with us!

Finally, I’ve taken them as emergency food on flights. In this case on the way back from Albania. As the flight was just under 3 hours, Mr D was catered for but I wasn’t.

The great thing about these rolls is that they are long life (although they don’t taste like it) and this means you can take them away on trips and if you don’t use them, they can be stored for whenever you need them. Or just keep a pack in the cupboard without having to worry about wastage!

Dietary Specials ciabatta rolls are widely available at Waitrose, The Cooperative, Tesco, Morrisons and Asda.

When Is Gluten Free Not Wheat Free & Costa Gluten Free Chocolate Brownie

When is gluten free not wheat free?

This question started in the highly salubrious location of a dark car park of the Watford Gap service station (northbound) on the M1 on a Friday night. We were on our way to Yorkshire for the weekend to see family. Having had a long, slow trundle through central London we stopped at the Watford Gap for a quick pit stop. Having stopped on a previous trip in another motorway service station for a gluten free lunch where my only option was a forlorn salad consisting of a few pieces of limp Iceberg lettuce and tiny grating of Cheddar cheese for £5, I didn’t plan on eating until we reached our destination.

Watford Gap Macdonald’s was packed with 4 coach loads of school kids on their way home from a school trip. Costa Coffee, meanwhile, was empty. We wandered in to see if there might be anything for me. Lo and behold, a round sticker on the front of the biscuit stand by the till pronounced that the Costa chocolate brownie was gluten free. Yippee, I thought. Yippee, thought Mr D who now had an excuse to have one too. We walked back to the car and as I opened the plastic wrapper of the brownie, I turned it over to see how many calories were in it. Who knows why I bothered, let’s face it, it wasn’t going to be good news. But it wasn’t the calorific value that stopped me, it was that in the allergy section I saw it contained “wheat”.

So I’m standing in a dark car park and I can’t read the small print of the ingredients (or the calorie value for that matter), I can only see “wheat” in the allergy box because it was in a bigger font size. Should I eat it?

How can a brownie be gluten free but not wheat free, I wondered?

I checked with 2011’s answer to Encyclopaedia Britannica…..and took to Twitter! “Gluten free wheat starch” came the (many) responses. Then the conversation moved on to whether it contained new (20 ppm) or old (200 ppm) Codex wheat starch. By this point my internet reception had more or less evaporated, the brownie had been jettisoned and I’d dug out an Eat Natural bar from the emergency gluten free travel stash.

But I was intrigued. I knew from the Twitter responses that I wasn’t alone in being confused about the Costa brownie along with the wider questions of Codex wheat starch and gluten free labelling. If you would like to read more about gluten free wheat starch you can read here and for more information on new gluten free labelling rules please click here.

I wrote to Costa who kindly provided the following response.

“Thank you for your email regarding our Chocolate Brownie. I do apologise for any confusion we may have caused regarding this product.

I can confirm that this product contains gluten-reduced wheat, which is specially formulated to remove the gluten to an acceptable level, which meets the current requirement for the codex standards. . The wheat starch used within the product is a gluten-reduced wheat specially formulated to remove the gluten to an acceptable level to meet the requirements of the codex standards. The amount used in the product is less than 2% and less than 200 parts per million. The final product is tested to ensure it meets the correct guidelines and one sample is tested from each batch and if the values are over 200 parts per million the batch will not be sent to Costa.

As an update we have reprinted the packaging to state the product contains ‘gluten free wheat starch’ so it is clearer that the product is definitely gluten free but it will still not be wheat free for those customers who are intolerant to wheat.

Your feedback is important to us and I have also passed your comments onto our Marketing Team who will be closely monitoring all feedback on this product.”

I then replied to Costa Coffee and asked them to confirm whether they planned to change the recipe of the brownie to meet the new Codex wheat starch standard of 20 ppm. I received the following reply:

“The Costa Gluten Free Chocolate Brownie was originally designed with the new legislation in mind. And each finished batch is tested and contains less than 20 ppm gluten.

The gluten free wheat starch used in the Costa Gluten Free Chocolate Brownie contains less than 200ppm gluten. The gluten free wheat starch is used in the mix at around 1% so the final amount of gluten in the finished product is less than the new limit of 20 ppm gluten, this is verified by testing each batch before its release from the manufacturing bakery.

I hope this information is helpful.“

Therefore the Costa Coffee brownie IS correctly labelled as gluten free and the product is in line with the new 20 ppm Codex gluten limit.

In summary, can you eat the Costa coffee gluten free brownie?

I am Coeliac or gluten intolerant:

Yes, unless you are unable to tolerate Codex gluten free wheat starch (some Coeliacs can’t). This product is correctly labelled as gluten free and each batch is tested to confirm it contains less than 20 ppm of gluten.

I have a wheat allergy or intolerance:

No, this product contains wheat and you cannot eat it

Do you find gluten free labelling confusing? How do you think gluten free and other allergy labelling could be improved by food producers? Please do feel free to leave comments and let me know your thoughts on gluten free labelling.