Wednesday, 8 January 2014

2013. The Best Bits

Happy new year! I do hope you're all getting used to writing 2014, instead of 2013. I'll still be getting it wrong in April, but that's nothing new! Before I rush, head first, into the brand new year ahead, I thought I'd take a moment to look back at the highlights of 2013. Predictably, my favourite bits are all food related.

The absolute best bit of 2013, for me, was my trip to River Cottage for their gluten free cookery course. As well as completely changing the way I approach my baking, it showed me how removing the gluten from something doesn't automatically require me to add loads of rubbish in its place. I've embraced many more grains and different gluten free flours than before, and I've even made my own sourdough starter! I'm dropping serious hints to my family about the advanced course that's running in August (coincidentally, just after my birthday)!

The most moreish cake of the year was Honeyrose Bakery's Banana Cake. They sent me a sample back in April and I'd eaten the entire thing before I had a chance to photograph it! In fact, I've bought many more banana cakes since then, and they all seem to magically disappear in a matter of minutes. The Husband doesn't even like banana, so I can't blame him - this cake really is good! Actually, all of the free from products I've tried from Honeyrose Bakery are excellent. I particularly love their individually wrapped brownies and macaroons, I can pop a couple in my bag for peckish moments when I'm out and about!

Back in Spring, I started to notice that Asda's distinctive yellow and black free from packaging was being used for non-gluten-free products, and wondered what was going on. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I work for Asda, but until 2013 I had very little in the way of praise for their gluten free offerings.) I was delighted to discover, however, that they were phasing out the old packaging to make way for an extended range of free from products, in new purple packaging! As well as their own-brand products (of which, the cheese sauce mix and cous cous are my personal favourites) they have introduced an increased range of products from other producers, like Isabel's and The Good Little Sausage Company. Well done, Asda! Now when people ask me what I think about my employers' own gluten free effort, I don't have to change the subject.

Eating pizza has never been better for us gluten free types, has it? Pizza Express and Pizza Hut showed the rest how it should be done, and Dominos did all they could to encourage us to eat our pizza at home! I don't know what 2014 holds for Coeliacs eating out, but the brand new Free From Eating Out Awards are sure to reveal a few gems.

Speaking of the Free From Food Awards (at least, indirectly), one of the highlights of last year's awards ceremony was the opportunity to try the Indian Coeliac's fabulous parathas. They are available to order, and I really do recommend you try them too. As the judging starts soon for this year's awards, I'm excited about what brilliant products I'm going to discover this time!

So, what were your free from highlights of 2013? Was it the chance to eat a decent bagel again? Maybe it was gluten free pasta turning up in the fresh food aisle of the supermarket? Could it have been the much discussed quarter final of The Great British Bake Off and its free from elements? Or, was it something else altogether? Let me know in the comments section!

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Coeliacs! Should We Lighten Up?

Ok, I realise that I might get an angry backlash from some about this post, but bear with me. Quite recently, I came to the conclusion that we Coeliacs take ourselves a bit too seriously.

Before you jump straight to the comments section, let me explain.

I'm all for getting mad when Coeliac Disease is misrepresented in the media. A recent Telegraph article called the GF diet a "scam", while The Daily Mail prefered the term "con" (because it doesn't help you lose weight). Caught up in pedantry, tell us that "nobody is actually "allergic" to gluten". Actually, we take a bit of a beating in the press, mostly because ill-informed journalists like to lump people with diagnosed Coeliac Disease and NCGI and faddy gluten free toe-dippers (and everyone in between) together and mock our dietary choices (or not-a-choices, in the case of CD).

What with the bashing we take in the press, you'd think that celebrity chefs might at least have a better understanding of our condition thanks to their training in food. Alas, no. When Coeliac chef Anthony Demetre admitted to gorging on gluten every few months the BBC refused to issue any kind of correction because, "in discussing his eating habits Anthony was expressing his own personal way of coping with the condition and at no point did he advocate it is a diet that others should try." (I'm still not convinced by that brush-off.) When Food Glorious Food judge, Stacie Stewart, described Coeliac Disease as a "lifestyle choice", at least ITV issued an apology. (Although, you might say that since it was pre-recorded the show's makers could have edited the comment out before it caused offense!) Even the usually lovely (tax evasion notwithstanding) Martha Stewart thinks that our dietary restrictions are due to us being fussy.

If that's not enough, we have to deal with poorly researched articles that only cause confusion. Then there's the free from food producers who perpetuate the myth that a gluten free diet somehow helps increase fitness and weight loss in the pursuit of better sales. Oh, and there's the constant need to remind all and sundry that spelt is NOT gluten free!

I think we should stand up for ourselves when the media attacks. We should pull journalists and editors up on nonsense reports and overly personal pieces on gluten free diets, and we should demand that bad advice be corrected. But (and it's a big but) we need to know when to fight and when to back off.

Recently, Paul Hollywood was asked (in a live radio interview) about gluten and wheat free baking. From his comments, some people got upset that he was suggesting that Coeliac Disease was often misdiagnosed. He suggested that people try sourdough and artisanal breads before cutting wheat from their diets completely. I listened to the broadcast and really felt for him, he was clearly "sceptical" about self-diagnosed wheat intolerant people (who, incidentally, really should speak to a GP or dietitian before cutting any food from their diet) and not about medically diagnosed Coeliacs.Angry blog posts, Facebook statuses and tweets ensued. He did take to Twitter that same day to defend himself and admitted that Coeliac Disease, NCGI and gluten free baking was something he needed to do more research on. All credit to him.

And, so, to my point...

I think the biggest reason why Coeliacs take offense to apparent slurs against the gluten free diet is because we're parcelled up with everyone on the GF bandwagon, diagnosed, self-diagnosed, not ever diagnosed and trying-it-because-Miley-Cyrus-does-it. We can't let an opportunity pass without reminding people that we have a MEDICAL CONDITION, it's not a choice (lifestyle or otherwise) and that eating gluten free is the only treatment for that condition.

The problem is, we end up coming across as over-sensitive, touchy and devoid of sense of humour.

When Marcus Brigstocke's 'The Brig Society' aired and episode on food, he was barraged with complaints from Coeliacs and NCGIs who missed the point, that he was mocking those half-hearted trend-driven wheat avoiders. Likewise, Sean Lock's jokes in the video at the top of the page. Where did our sense of humour go?

Should we be so quick to pick up on obvious jokes and genuine errors about Coeliac Disease and NCGI? Perhaps if we gave them a chance to retract, explain or generally apologise for misspeaking we'd be a little less stressed out? 

I roared with laughter at The Brig Society's portrayal of someone who can't eat gluten - unless it's really nice bread. We've all met someone like that, and agree that it degrades the seriousness of our own gluten free needs, so why can't we laugh when someone else points it out? The cartoons of Howard the Celeriac show us a funny side of our gluten intolerance that most of the GF community enjoy. So, can we only laugh at ourselves when 'one of us' cracks the joke?

Yes, sense of humour is a deeply personal thing and what's funny to one person isn't to another. I love that Sean Lock clip, but other Coeliacs said it was ignorant and that it shrinks a real issue into merely an inconvenience. Others thought it was a bit too close to the line between funny and offensive (but then, all of Lock's jokes are).

I read one comment about Sean Lock's jokes saying that, "making jokes about Coeliac Disease is as unfunny as making jokes about cancer or MS." Erm, no. I think that's offensive to people with diseases that require aggressive treatment. We're jolly lucky that we can treat our condition with diet! Having lived under various drug regimens (some with horrible side effects) for nearly 20 years thanks to Crohn's Disease, I found going gluten free empowering. We have the power to effect our own well-being with what we eat, it's great! Let's celebrate that instead of getting upset by harmless jokes.

So yes, pre-diagnosis Coeliac Disease is no joke. It's painful, exhausting and filled with many other health risks. Once we start our gluten free diets, though, life gets better. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it's an inconvenience at most. Eating out is tricky, but not impossible. Some people make insensitive comments, but they're usually insensitive people. It's nothing personal. The gluten free community is a wonderfully supportive bunch of people who are always willing to offer encouragement. Things just aren't that bad.

Isn't it time we learned to laugh at ourselves?

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Constant Cravings

I should warn you, this is a post about pregnancy. I tell you now so that you can move on to a different site, should this kind of thing not interest you. I promise that normal, gluten free food-y, service will be resumed very soon. In fact, scroll to the end of the post for a rather lovely stuffed onion recipe!

You might have noticed that I've not been blogging much over the past four months. June and July passed in a haze of long naps, spicy pickled onions, and Nutella, and before I knew it, it was August! September was unfortunately dominated by a Crohn's related infection that resulted in a trip to hospital, but all is well now. Our family and friends know our news and I thought I'd share it with you, too. After all, many of you have been on the journey to good health with me.

I'm 22 weeks pregnant. After three major surgeries, the removal of my large intestine and a decent chunk of small intestine, and nearly two decades of inflammation and ulceration in my abdomen, I wasn't even sure that was a possibility. Before I was diagnosed Coeliac, I lost so much weight that my periods stopped and didn't return for four years. One surgeon told me that Crohn's would have reduced my chances of conceiving, I saw gynaecologists who said, "maybe, maybe not" while all around me friend after friend popped out babies of their own. Advice ranged from, "just relax and it'll happen" to "I can give you the details of a good fertility clinic," but nothing helped.

I was starting to feel an affinity with Tian Tian, the panda at Edinburgh Zoo as certain family members became increasingly impatient over when (and if) a baby would ever arrive.

The funny thing is, that in spite of really quite wanting a baby, I was more concerned about being healthy enough to cope with a pregnancy and to look after myself and the resulting sprog afterwards. Fortunately, my Crohn's is in remission and, apart from various vitamin supplements and injections, I'm medication free. In fact, the timing couldn't be better, I've been off Humira for a year (it takes six months to clear your system and isn't recommended for pregnancy), my colectomy scars have had eighteen months to heal and I have the most energy I've had in a decade. Of course, that's not to say that I believe pregnancy will be easy, there are always risks. As scar tissue stretches and internal adhesions tear with this growing wee one, I've had all kinds of pain. I know that bowel obstructions and problems with the stoma are common for women like me, plus, there's the issue of not necessarily absorbing as many nutrients and water as people with entire, and fully functioning, digestive systems. 

I used to feel deep disappointment when pregnant friends confessed to not really having any interesting cravings, often demanding, "go home and eat a box of crayons for me!" One friend had cravings for tomato juice, while another confessed to eating bucketloads of daal. I've had rather unexpected cravings for onions. It doesn't matter what kind of onion, be it raw, pickled, roasted, fried or in soup, I'll eat it in vast quantities! This explains why, when the waitress at a restaurant told me that their soup of the day - French onion soup - wasn't gluten free, I got a bit tearful at the thought of missing out on onions. It turns out that onions are high in vitamin C, Folate, and Potassium so perhaps cravings aren't as strange as I first imagined.

Stuffed Onions
The memory of onion-soup-gate has me craving onions once again so here's an inside-out sage and onion stuffing recipe that's a brilliant side dish for your roast.

2 tsp rapeseed oil
50g stale gluten free bread (a slightly past-it Udi's bagel is particularly good here)
25g pancetta, cut into lardons
a few sage leaves, chopped
4 large-ish onions

  • Peel the onions and slice off the top and the root end off, leaving enough to hold the onion layers together. Drizzle with oil, season and pop into the oven at 180°C for 30 minutes.
  • Cut the stale bread into ½ cm cubes and put in a bowl.
  • Add the pancetta into lardons to the bowl with the chopped sage, salt and pepper. Stir together.
  • When the onions are soft, but still holding their shape, remove from the oven and scoop the middles out, leaving just the outer 2-3 layers.
  • Chop half of the inner parts of the onion and stir into the rest of the stuffing mix.
  • Fill the onion shells with stuffing, pack it quite tightly, and return to the oven for a further 30-40 minutes.