Category Archives: Reviews

Gluten Free Bakers Series part 1 – Bakes Just 4 U

Coeliac disease has not in the slightest bit curbed my love of cake – both baking it myself and sampling the culinary delights of others.

Gluten free baking can be a bit hit and miss though. I applaud the efforts of a lot of establishments that are trying to offer something for coeliacs, but there are a lot of well-intentioned mistakes. I was in a bakery the other day where they offered me a yummy looking chocolate and almond torte, but then proceeded to use the same cake slice to get it out as they’d just used to handle a gluten-containing cake. Epic fail.

With a gluten free only bakery though, no such worry. I’ve selected three to sample and to review on the blog over the next couple of months, so wherever you are in the UK, you should never be far from a decent gluten free cake!

I heard about Bakes Just 4 U on the Coeliacs in the UK Facebook group. A member posted a picture of a gluten free French fancy, and I just HAD to have one. I used to have a bit of a weakness for Mr Kipling fondant fancies, back in the days BC (Before Coeliac). Yes, I know they are mostly sugar with a bit of flavouring and colouring for good measure, but they really are good. So I was curious to see what these were like.

I chose the strawberry ones, and here they are in all their glory.

BJ4U Fondant 1

Of course, this neat little pile in the box didn’t last long…..and it wasn’t long before I cut into the mini battenberg slabs as well. Another childhood favourite that coeliac disease has robbed me of, so when I saw battenburg on the list, that was straight in my shopping cart. I also chose these items as I wouldn’t usually bake them myself, due to the fiddly processes involved, which are time consuming, and difficult when you only have a small kitchen.

fondant and battenburg cut

The French fancies were nice for a novelty. I liked that they didn’t quite look perfect, because it gave them a hand-made quality that you would never get with Mr Kipling! The sponge was fantastic – moist, with a good kick of vanilla, but the icing was not particularly pleasant. I don’t know if it was the flavouring in the fondant, but there was an almost alcoholic aftertaste to it. The buttercream filling was nice, but I could have done with a little more of it to balance the sponge and the icing. I am aware from watching Bake Off however just how difficult these little beauties are, so overall, I think these were a good job, considering they are gluten free.

The battenburg, however is a triumph of gluten free culinary art. Fantastic sponge texture and taste, marzipan not too thick, and enough jam filling for it to be satisfyingly moist. This I would definitely buy (and happily eat) again. It would be fantastic for a gluten free afternoon tea. Even my non-coeliac partner agreed this was a fine slab of cake, and that he would not have known that it was gluten free if he hadn’t been told.

Battenburg

The cakes were good value, at £6 for 6 of the mini slabs and £4.50 for a pack of 6 fondant fancies. You do have to pay for postage on top, unless you are lucky enough to live in Nottingham and be able to get them from there, but if you are willing to pay the premium to get some cake landing on your doorstep, it’s a pretty welcome surprise to find it there when you come home from work.

I would definitely order again from this bakery, and there is plenty more to try!

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Gluten free and vegetarian at the Wildmoor Oak, Bromsgrove

On Sunday, we were down in Bromsgrove visiting my partner’s mum for her 60th birthday. She had chosen the Wildmoor Oak, a local pub just outside their village of Catshill, for a Sunday lunch.

I’ve been to the Wildmoor Oak before, and knew they had some gluten free options, but eating out suddenly got a lot harder for me now I stopped eating meat. The Oak also does fantastic Caribbean food, so I was hoping that there would at least be something on there I could sample, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Tobago Medley, which is like a Caribbean bean stew with spices and cooked in coconut milk and served with rice and peas, was absolutely fantastic – they did it for me with gluten free bread instead of traditional hardo bread as well. The dish was perfectly seasoned, had a nice bite (and you can add Encona hot pepper sauce if you want to add some extra heat) and the rice and peas perfectly cooked. The only thing I would say is that it didn’t need the salad – particularly not plain, undressed lettuce leaves just stuck on the side of the plate. The Caribbean dishes speak for themselves.

As excellent as the dish was (and reasonably priced, too) it was the only dish on the menu that fitted a gluten free and vegetarian diet. There was a jerk halloumi option, but for some reason, the jerk dishes are not gluten free – I’m a little nonplussed by that, because I make jerk dishes at home myself, and the marinade recipes I use to make it from scratch use no gluten containing ingredients. I’ve also found plenty of gluten free jerk marinade and sauce options in the shops, so it is pretty easy to make or find gluten free jerk sauce. The other possibility is that the sauce contains barley malt vinegar – because this is made from barley, there is some confusion about whether coeliacs can eat it, but in fact, according to Coeliac UK, yes, we can – the fermentation process removes the gluten, making it safe to eat in the small quantities that we usually would do, such as putting vinegar on your fish and chips, or used in a condiment like sauce or pickles. A lot of restaurants don’t know this, as the information doesn’t really seem to have disseminated very well. Understandably, too, I’m sure a lot of restaurant owners would prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to coeliac guests, and there is also a legal requirement to state that the product contains barley, which can be confusing.

Overall though, I applaud the Wildmoor Oak for providing good, clear menu information, giving different types of options (Caribbean as well as normal pub fare) and having staff who were able to explain how a dish is adapted for a gluten-free diner. Keep up the good work!

BBC Food and Drink – you’ve got gluten free all wrong

Well, I was quite excited yesterday when I found out that BBC Food and Drink were going to do a section on food allergies and intolerances. I switched on, eager to see some coverage of the issue in the mainstream foodie media.

What greeted me, however, was William Sitwell inflating a bunch of helium balloons, presumably to illustrate the associated “bloated” feeling about which those with food intolerances often complain. He then went on to proclaim “as a child, I was intolerant of carrots” and proceeded to pose the view that the majority of food intolerances are akin to a kid disliking vegetables, i.e. plain old fashioned fussy eating. “We are awash with faddy diets and phony science” he states, in a tone that can only be described as patronisingly sardonic.

Now, I won’t deny that there are some people who will take up the latest dietary fads as readily as Kim Kardashian takes a selfie, but the assertions made on the programme were worryingly ill-informed, from the perspective of someone who has a genuine illness that means a gluten-free diet is not some kind of passing fad or weight loss craze, but a medical need. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again, the only treatment for coeliac disease is a lifelong gluten free diet.

I was disappointed to hear such high profile chefs and journalists making such sweeping generalisations of such a complex issue. According to Sitwell, the only “genuine” cause for avoiding a certain food is an allergy, to which the reaction would be evident within minutes. No mention of coeliac disease whatsoever, which affects up to 1 in 100 people in the UK. A coeliac may not react to gluten immediately – in fact, it is rare for someone who has ingested gluten to react like that. The reaction may come within hours, or a day later, when the offending proteins have lodged their way into the digestive system. You might not be choking, fishing for your epi-pen and ringing 999, but you can be pretty darn sick with it – for me, it’s like a bad case of food poisoning. Some people have no reaction, but the damage is still being done even though you can’t see it. Gluten damages the lining of the small intestine, thereby impeding the ability to absorb nutrients from food. So you can see why this might be a little bit of a problem.

I have had varying reactions in eating establishments to requests for gluten free food, from the eye-roll (usually results in them losing my custom pretty quickly) to the completely clueless, to the amazingly helpful and can’t do enough to help. I am aware that it’s an inconvenience for restaurants to have to cater for those of us who can’t always just eat what’s on the menu without question, and therefore I’m super grateful to those who are accommodating. But to hear a top chef like Michel Roux Jr. saying that it “gets his back up” and Monica Galetti chiming in about the inconvenience of getting lists of gluten free people as well as vegetarians to cater for, well, it makes me feel more reticent about dining out and asking for my dietary needs to be met. It makes me less trusting of chefs and restauranteurs – if that’s how they feel about their customers with special dietary needs, how can I trust them to be careful with my food and understand what needs to be done so I can eat there safely and not get sick? When there is such misinformation as this being peddled, how can I get it through to people that I have a real, medical condition that requires a gluten free diet and I’m not just another fussy eater? Should we be required to prove at the door that we’re the real deal? Do I need to graphically describe to skeptical servers and chefs exactly what will happen if they give me gluten, and come back to camp out in their facilities if I get sick to prove a point?

Food and Drink completely missed a trick here, because just because you have a food allergy, medical condition or yes, intolerance (some of them are real, yes indeed – lactase deficiency, anyone?) that you can’t be a foodie and you don’t enjoy food. Most of us want to enjoy the experience of dining out and eating nice food – we don’t go out stalking restaurants in groups to make a hobby out of making the life of restauranteurs harder. How about discussing how restaurants can provide varied menus, that mean that fewer adaptations are needed in the kitchen when someone comes in with an allergy or intolerance, thereby making it easier for busy chefs? How about clear allergen labelling on menus, so people know what they can order and don’t take up the waiting staff’s time having to ask about what they can eat? There are a whole host of ingredients out there that are naturally gluten free, no expensive specialist ingredients required. Would you believe it, there’s more to making great gluten-free food than costly pale packaged-Frankenfood imitations as low on nutrients as they are on taste. You’d think a couple of Michelin-star chefs would be able to knock something up without too much bother, wouldn’t you?

Maybe it’s time for them to retire from the restaurant trade if it’s that upsetting to have to cater for, you know, paying customers. Because if everybody with any sort of different dietary need had to stop eating out, as did their friends, colleagues and families, there wouldn’t be too many of those left to keep the restaurants afloat, would there? After watching this piece of crass and ill-informed television, I can only hold on to the good restaurants that I have visited over the years since my diagnosis, the ones who have welcomed me with open arms and never made me feel like an inconvenience or like I’ve “got their back up”.

As for William Sitwell, I just hope his iron constitution holds up as long as he wants his career in the foodie media to last. And don’t book me a table at Le Gavroche any time soon.

Series 2, Episode 9 of BBC Food and Drink can be seen on BBC iPlayer