Sunday, 23 March 2014

I had my first Burger King in five years. Here's what happened...

Looking back, I never thought of myself as a fan of fast food.

Sure, there was the odd snatched drive-through McDonald's happy meal when I was a kid, a sneaky KFC during stressful weeks at university, or a Burger King to line my stomach before a heavy night out. Fast food by its nature is easy, accessible, and (for me at least) it had the whiff of wicked.

It wasn't something you should eat, but something you occasionally ate anyway. So I chomped through burgers from time to time, but swore off certain brands when I learned more about how they mass-produced their meat.

It changed forever when I discovered that I had to eat gluten-free. With a doctor staring you down and telling you your health is at risk if you keep eating gluten, omitting fast food was an obvious step. McDonald's, KFC, Burger King and their bread-heavy battered ilk were all off the menu for good.

Gluten-free Burger King in Norway. Note to coeliacs, some chains will advise against the
fries as they may be contaminated by the frying of other wheaty goods, so check first.
Image © Anita Isalska
Until I travelled to Scandinavia recently. For this part of the world, gluten-free comes as second nature. Plenty of bakeries had gluten-free goodies, brands like Fria keep supermarket aisles well stocked with everything from pizzas to cinnamony kanelbulle, and the predominance of naturally wheatless delicacies like fish and game make it coeliac heaven.

And interestingly enough, the gluten-free-friendliness also applies to fast food.

The Wheaty Eater looms over a gluten-free fast food feast in Trondheim, Norway.
Image © Anita Isalska
I had heard that McDonald's and Burger King had gluten-free options in Scandinavian countries, but couldn't quite believe it. I scoped out a McDonald's menu in Trondheim and saw nothing. There was no trace of gluten-free on the BK menu either, but I asked outright.

And I was surprised when the server said that yes, they could easily do a burger - gluten-free bun and all. How could I resist the novelty? It had been perhaps five years since I last sampled a meal from Burger King.

No sesame seeds on the bun, but otherwise a queasily familiar sight.
Image © Anita Isalska
When it arrived, the box was accented with a little 'glutenfri' sticker, and the bun was a little paler than the wheat ones, and free from sesame seeds (maybe they're avoiding another potential allergen there?)

But otherwise, it all looked and smelled very familiar. Springy bread surrounding a juicy meat patty, a square of luminous orange cheese congealing into the bun, wilted slivers of lettuce and an ooze of tangy sauce. Almost too big to fit into your mouth, necessitating seven or eight bleached napkins to mop the greasy run-off from my face. And of course, a mega-sized Sprite to wash it all down.

Never quite looks as good as the photo... half-way through a burger.
Image © Anita Isalska
The surprising part is how I felt afterwards. Yes, there was the familiar hit of yum-protein-salty-sugary-wowza-energy! I remembered the taste from years ago, and it was novel to be trying it again (in a northern Norwegian town on a winter's afternoon, no less).

But soon after that, I felt... ill. My heart was racing from the volume of sugary soft drink (I don't tend to drink them much). After the initial buzz, I started to feel overly full and very, very thirsty again (the salt, I'm guessing). Above all I felt thoroughly un-nourished by what I had eaten - not exactly headline news, but the startling part was how foreign these feelings were.

During years of eating greased-up carb-tastic salty fast food washed down with a gallon of syrupy fizz, I'd never felt so hyped up and strange. And that's because I had trained my body to cope with mammoth portions of salt and sugar and meat.

But after a break from fast food, the levels of salt and sugar hit my system like a freight train.

The aftermath...Madame Free-From clutches her stomach after a gluten-free BK meal
proves a little too much.
Image © Anita Isalska
I walked it off, and felt better in a couple of hours. A chapter had thoroughly closed. There was no reason to covet the ease of a fast food meal ever again.

Wheaty or gluten-free, junk food is still junk.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Attack of the glutevangelists

How can anyone be in love with a stretchy, tasteless protein composite? The more time I spend as a carefree coeliac, the more I encounter the strange phenomenon of glutevangelism. 

Staap, staap, get me a bigger T-shirt
size because my sides are splitting.
You know them: the jokers who rib you with, "but I love gluten, gluten's my favourite". They've chanced on a hilariously ironic twist on the modern vogue for fad diets, and you can bet they will flog that gag to death. 

But leaving aside for a moment the vast potential for offence, isn't glutevangelism a little weird? Before I found out I needed to go gluten-free, I can't say I gave any thought to gluten. I don't think I even knew what it was. So I find it bizarre to hear pro-gluten jokes when I whip out my lunch in front of certain non-coeliac acquaintances ("looks tasty...but needs more gluten!").

Food protectionism is a confounding thing. It's as though the gluten-free movement has awakened an awareness of gluten in the world, and now a subset of people - despite no previous awareness of gluten - have latched on to the concept in a rabidly negative way. "Don't take my precious gluten away!" they seem to cry. "I don't know what it is, but if it's in cake then it must be good, right?"

Food that is free from anything - whether it's sugar, dairy or the big G - ignites suspicion. Most often in people who don't know much about food. Yes, gluten's properties make your bread springier and dough easier to roll - but gluten-free food is hardly an attack on your human dignity. 

Ehrmagerd you're so right, the advancement of modern
science and improved diagnosis of gastrointestinal
ailments means nothing. 
Paella, Thai green curry, galettes, Indian food, sushi... so many naturally non-gluten-containing delicacies are free from suspicion until someone describes them as gluten-free. For some reason, this label (with its associations of mystery illnesses, allergies and gasp, potential faddiness) provokes negativity in a subset of people. It differentiates these usually familiar food items from the norm. This is where the fearful response comes in: "Gluten-free?" they gasp, "eurrrgh, give me a plate with more gluten!" So much unnecessary social baggage for a term which should be a perfectly ordinary descriptor!

But sadly, many people seem afraid of food that veers away from the accepted. That peer pressure and conformity is an issue at the dinner table makes me sad. Food is meant to nourish people's bodies and tickle their tastebuds. Food is your own personal fuel, so mockery of a person's menu is cuttingly personal.

Any foodie knows that good food is good because it's nourishing and delicious to the person eating it. There's no objective scale of superiority between meat platters or vegan feasts, allergen-free menus or shellfish deep-fried in peanuts with a dairy-based sesame dipping sauce. The only measurable thing is the effect of a food on the person eating it: on their physical well-being, on their mental health, on their feeling of satisfaction. Judge it on its own merits, open your mind to different flavours, textures and techniques...and ease up on the glutevangelism.

Amen.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Flour power: gluten-free adventures in India

The frequent disappointment involved in eating out gluten-free means that when you do get a choice of food, you almost become speechless with joy. 'A salad, without croutons! Perfect, thank you so much,' coeliacs say - often without irony - in restaurants across the land.

Tower. Of. Food. Chicken, paneer (cheese) tikka, vegetable jalfrezi, pilau rice, and garlic naan
made with 100% gram flour. 
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Sometimes, just being able to have a meal out feels like an air-punching victory. So imagine being surrounded by naturally gluten-free choices, and restaurateurs who see substituting out wheat flour as a fairly reasonable request. This was the experience I had eating my way around India.

Peanuts, red onion, coriander and lime juice, perfect cocktail finger food.Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Gram (chickpea) flour is a standard thickener in a huge number of Indian recipes. Poppadums, dosas (pancakes) and batters are often made up of 100% gram flour. Rice flour and ground rice are also common bases for dumplings and pancakes. As long as you know what you're asking for, eating out in India can be a breeze. It would be easy to assume that a lot of the doughy delights in India are off-limits for coeliacs, but I chowed down on ground rice dumplings, savoury donuts, all manner of curries, pancakes stuffed with spiced potato, and desserts galore. All of them were naturally gluten-free.

Ground rice dumplings (idli) and gram flour donuts, served with coconut chutney and
spicy tomato relish. 
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
That's not to say it's a wheat-free zone. The dreaded gluten is still out there, semolina is used in some dishes, and some of the sweets are wheat pastry based. So while you'll still have to check with the staff what has gone into that steaming tureen of paneer masala, you can expect to dine extremely well. Grab a language card, go to India, and create some extra notches in your belt. I'm already planning my second trip.

Oh yeah, and rose martinis, espresso martinis and miscellaneous cocktails are
also gluten-free. Hic. 
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Gluten-free, fuss-free: food adventures around Iceland

I enjoyed some incredible travels around Iceland over the summer, and gluten-free eating was a breeze. I had visited Iceland a few years previously (before going gluten-free) and my food memories weren't very promising: anything that wasn't hot dogs fell into a pricier bracket, so I was a little nervous about what gluten-free adventures awaited me on my trip.

Gluten-free smoked lamb and berries appetiser at Geysir Restaurant in Reykjavik. Image Anita Isalska
Iceland in general didn't overflow with gluten-free goodies like biscuits, breads and other snackables. Only the large supermarkets in Reykjavik and Akureyri seemed to have a good selection of gluten-free cereals, pastas and more. If you take a road-trip starting from either of these two cities, I'd recommend stocking up at the nearest Bónus.

Succulent grilled monkfish and pepper kebab at Naustið in Husavik. Image Anita Isalska
However, pride in fresh seasonal ingredients meant that gluten-free dining out was surprisingly easy. Knowledge of the concept of gluten-free seemed widespread, even though gf substitutes didn't abound. The emphasis on grilled lamb, fish and cured meats meant that naturally wheatless cuisine was everywhere.

The world's richest gluten-free chocolate brownie at Blaa Kannan Cafe in Akureyri, Iceland.
Image Anita Isalska
I seldom saw the words "gluten-free" on a menu (aside from a gluten-free chocolate brownie at Bláa kannan café in Akureyri). But when I asked restaurants about gluten-free options, I had zero drama. Each time, I received a very matter-of-fact response ("you can eat this, this, this... or without the sauce this, this and this"). No palpitations, no eyebrows raised, no scurrying wide-eyed to the head chef - it was gluten-free, fuss-free!

Fried trout with potatoes and butter galore at Skaftfell Bistro in Seyðisfjörður. Image Anita Isalska
Anyone who knows me will have heard my peeves about the UK not being on course for any gluten-free awards. Sometimes asking for gluten-free food at a UK restaurant produces suspicion, terror or condescension. So it was refreshing to see my enquiries about food in Iceland roll like water off an Arctic puffin's back. There was no fraught menu negotiation needed, leaving more time to enjoy Icelandic favourites like fresh seafood and melt-in-the-mouth lamb cutlets.

Let's just assume this contains gluten and leave it out of the shopping basket. Gag. Image Anita Isalska
Iceland also has some pretty challenging cuisine, to palates unused to it. Fermented shark meat, sheep's heads, tripe... Whenever we encountered those, I'd 'sorrowfully' tell Wheaty it just wasn't safe for me to try jellied calf's head, you know, in case it was laced with gluten.

Uh, so why do they call this restaurant the Cow Shed? A sign in Mývatn. Image Anita Isalska
Travellers to Iceland might not come up with a dazzling array of gluten-free options when they start researching for their trip. I was certainly prepared for a lot of in-car rice cracker picnics. But don't be daunted by the apparent lack of a prominent gluten-free food culture. Iceland's passion for organic produce, fresh enough to leap off your plate, brings with it a knowledge of food and a care in its preparation that makes it perfect for gluten-free diners. So if you get the chance to visit this geological wonderland, seize it with both hands and prepare to let your belt out by a couple of notches - verði þér að góðu (bon appetit)!

Ohhh, so that's why. Image Anita Isalska

My favourite gluten-free pit-stops in Iceland

Geysir, Reykjavik. Their staff knew their stuff, and all it took was a few tweaks of the menu and I was tucking into a delicious multi-course Icelandic feast including towers of fish, smoked lamb, buttery potatoes and lobster (geysirbistro.is).

Vogafjos, Mývatn. This farmhouse restaurant took enormous pride in its food. The waiting staff were only too happy to help a gluten-free diner fill her belly. I dined on homemade mozzarella salad and a main course of superbly grilled lamb. (www.vogafjos.net)

Lamb Inn, Ongulsstadir. This is a place to stay more than a restaurant. But the family feel of this guesthouse meant the staff were courteous, warm and more than happy to leave wheaty contaminants away from their mouthwatering all-you-can-eat roast dinners.

Rub23, Akureyri. This high-end restaurant served up criminally delicious fish dishes, massaged with a variety of oils, dressings and spice blends. There was no problem in weeding out the gluteny options - and to my delight, the vast majority of choices on their menu were a wheat-free zone. (www.rub23.is/en/akureyri)

Monday, 9 September 2013

Gluten-free afternoon cream tea at Brown's, London

I'm not usually found anywhere near silver teaspoons. In fact, anyone who knows me would assume that if I were to partake in a traditional English afternoon tea, there would have to be more to it. A hip flask of gin sloshing underneath the table, or Halloween-themed cupcakes.

Behold the gluten-free sarnies galore. Out of shot - eager hands reaching
for the last smoked salmon sandwich. Image by Anita Isalska
Nonetheless, special occasions and visiting family led me to book a table at Brown's in Mayfair, London for an afternoon cream tea. I had employed my best Sherlock Holmes instincts (ok, Google) to sniff out a few cream tea options in London that could cater for gluten-free and found Brown's referenced in a couple of blogs. Nothing on their website even gave a whiff of gluten-free so I emailed them sceptically and remained a little cynical when they confirmed that they could do it.

Fancy teapots. A temptation for smudgy fingers.
Image by Anita Isalska.

There's a big gulf in the world of gluten-free catering: there's paying lip-service (those restaurateurs who grudgingly hold the croutons from a salad and declare themselves winning at the special diets game). And then there's those who go above and beyond, providing delicious gluten-free food that doesn't feel like a limp-lettuced compromise. I was wondering where a gluten-free afternoon tea would lie on the scale.

But Brown's delivered. Boy, did they deliver. Dainty gluten-free sandwiches in flavours from coronation chicken to the Windsors' fave, cucumber. A healthy plateful of tarts and gateaux: chocolate brownies, blueberry cake, zesty orange and cream cheese cake, chocolate, cream and berry cup... Gently warmed gluten-free scones followed, served with the gloopiest clotted cream imaginable, and strawberry preserve so sticky you could lose your spoon in it.

Scones, cream, jam and tangy raspberry sorbet. Image by Anita Isalska.
And of course, there was tea. Every infusion from white tea to jasmine was lovingly inscribed on a menu that would make a French wine list look a little thin. The waiting staff zoomed around the period tearoom refilling teacups with their arsenal of pots, strainers and rattling tea trays.

Best of all, they kept it coming. Now I'm not advocating that you treat these rarefied surroundings like an all-you-can-eat-buffet, but we certainly nodded (mouths too full to actually say yes) each time a waiter asked if we needed our sandwiches replenishing.

Start from the top down. Or just grab madly at the scones. Image by Anita Isalska.
After such plenty, I had to ask: why weren't they shouting their gluten-free offering from the rooftops? "All part of the service," our waiter told me. Catering for gluten-free is nothing, he added, considering they can put on an afternoon tea for avoiders of multiple food types: gluten, dairy, sugar. "We rely on positive reviews to spread the word."

Looks like it's working.

What: Afternoon tea
Where: Brown's hotel in Mayfair, London
How much: a wallet-singeing £39.50 per person (but worth every penny). 

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

What's it like having a gluten-free girlfriend?


We haven't heard much on this blog lately from my fellow gourmet adventurer, Wheaty.

Gluten-free, gluten-containing... Wheaty is indifferent to
the components of pasta provided it's slathered in cheese.
Here he's enjoying a gf variety at Bruschetta in London.
Image (c) Anita Isalska
No prizes for guessing from his nickname that the Wheaty Eater is my non-gluten-avoiding partner in food. He and I live together, cook together and dine out together. His perspective on the gluten-free world is a little different to that of a coeliac - he's a reluctant expert on ingredients lists, a connoisseur of gf pasta and shares my whoops of glee when we spy a menu with gluten-less pizza.

But is it hard work being on my gluten-free team? Let's find out.

Madame Free-From asks: What did you think when I first broke the news that I was gluten-free? 

Wheaty replies: I'd heard of gluten before as it was pretty common to see it mentioned on Australian menus [Wheaty's an Aussie]. I originally thought it was one of those 'hippie' lifestyle-choice type things, like being a vegetarian. But I didn't think of gluten-free eating as abnormal. 

Q. What's the most annoying thing about dating someone who eats gluten-free? 

A. It's generally not very annoying at all. It can sometimes be a bit difficult to find something to eat in a hurry if we're out and about, especially as London seems to struggle with gf food unless you know where you're going. Also, the lack of gf Chinese food!

Q. Are there any advantages to being part of the gluten-free world? 

A. There are some great restaurants that really care about everything that goes into their food that I don't think I'd have found without this connection to the gluten-free world. I think I'm more aware of what goes into my food and probably eat better because of it.

Q. How do you manage sharing a kitchen with a gluten-free girlfriend? 

A. The kitchen is gluten-free – though a croissant might sneak through to the lounge on a weekend. The 'substitutes' are usually just as good as anything they're replacing, and it's much easier than trying to remember whether I've used a particular surface for anything non-gf recently.

Wheaty's natural habitat, the snow.
Image (c) Anita Isalska
Q. What's your best gluten-free recipe? 

A. I find gluten-free pasta a pretty good option, and have a favourite smoked salmon, yoghurt, tiny tomatoes and dill pasta combo that I like to whip up every now and again.

Q. Do you eat more gluten-filled food outside of the house, to make up for not having it at home?

A. When I'm outside the house I don't really think about finding gluten-free stuff on my own, but I don't think that I try to make up for it all. What would be the point? :) I sometimes buy the gluten-free sandwiches from M&S just to make sure they don't stop selling them, but then feel guilty about potentially depriving an actual coeliac of their sandwich!

Q. From a wheat-eater's perspective - in that you can still compare gf and non-gf food directly - what would you say is the best gluten-free food out there? 

A. If we're talking about substitutes, I think that there are some amazing gluten-free pizzas from places like Bruschetta in Kingston and Bake at Home in Fulham. Otherwise, brownies, which are frequently gluten-free anyway! [Madame Free-From notes that certain gluten-free brownie wrappers mysteriously appear at home]

Berry and chocolate cake in Wheaty's home state,
Tasmania. Gluten-free of course.
Image (c) Anita Isalska
Q. And the worst? 

A. Pizzas again... some of the frozen-base options are just really awful.

Q. Which type of cuisine or item of food do you wish would up its game in the gluten-free stakes? 

A. Chinese food is particularly disappointing, when I don't think that there'd need to be many changes to support gluten-free eaters. Change the soy and maybe the thickening agent and that would be it?


Q. Which country that you've travelled to has the best to offer gluten-free travellers? 

A gluten-free frozen aisle in Australia,
putting the UK to shame.
Image (c) Anita Isalska
A. Without wanting to sound like some raving nationalist I think Australia is the best place for gluten-free eaters.

Practically every restaurant will list the items which are gluten-free and they are almost guaranteed to have at least one and usually many more dishes. Staff are usually educated in and aware of gluten-free issues.

Q. Any final thoughts or words of wisdom for anyone reading this who is wondering how to be supportive towards a newly diagnosed coeliac friend or family member? 

A. Can I say, 'toughen up, princess'? :) In seriousness, there are great replacement options out there, and part of the fun of being the partner of a coeliac is trying to find new places to eat that cater for gluten-free. It takes you places you might not ordinarily go. Go out and explore!

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Five phrases that changed their meaning when I went gluten-free

What a difference a few years and a whole load of gluten-free pizza makes. Your perspective is bound to change when you go gluten-free - these are just a few phrases that have acquired a completely different meaning.

Mmm, let me at that gluten-free breakfast buffet!
Image by Kai Hendry, CC BY 2.0

1. "Breakfast is included."

Sounds delicious. Or indigestible.

Being offered a free breakfast with a hotel reservation is always accompanied by a cynical whisper in my head. 'It's a trap, don't raise your hopes for their toast!' If it's a budget hotel, it'll be baskets of bread rolls flanked by one of those torture-chamber-like toasting machines. The only way to quell the demon doubt is by sending the hotel their least-favourite kind of guest query: nitpicking the free breakfast. Begging for yoghurt is so undignified.

2. "All-you-can-eat buffet."

All-I-can't-eat, more like.

My former student self whooped with glee at a glimpse of a banquet table loaded with (usually Chinese) food. I remember riding high on MSG as I gorged on lunch specials, and knowing I probably wouldn't need to eat again for another 24 hours. But today, those neon lunch buffet signs leave me cold. Wheaty won-tons, gluten-packed sesame toast and deadly noodles. I'd have to eat an awful lot of (tapioca-based) prawn crackers to get my money's worth. Nope.

3. "Birthday cake."

I'll just come for the singing...

It's not about the actual cake (goodness knows I eat my fair share of the gf stuff on my own time). But when the cry rings out across the office, to wish someone a happy birthday and share a slice of gateau, I know there's an awkward cake-avoidance dance on the cards. Like Cinderella at midnight, I flee back to my desk as soon as the singing is over.
This is what I think of your crappy cake. Uh, I mean, many happy returns.
Image by Daniel Oldfield, CC BY 2.0

4. "Dinner party."

Sounds delightful, I'll bring a bottle of red and some inconvenience.

This is a painful one for a food-lover like me. It's a fine art, politely pitching dietary restrictions with your RSVP, while giving your host a wide enough berth to back out of inviting you if they feel too daunted to cook without wheat. I personally am happy to cook for friends with diets from vegan to kosher and everything in between, but not everyone wants to do that. If someone's intention was a hands-off chuck-a-lasagne-in-the-oven dinner party, it's probably a bummer to find out you have a special dieter on your hands. Awkward all round.

5. "Lunch will be provided."

Crystal ball tells me it's a Pret sandwich platter.

It's a shame when a nice gesture from an employer, client or event generates an extra layer of admin, and it's worse still to feel like an inconvenience. There are two warring sides in my brain: I don't want to apologise for a health problem I can't control, or undermine my issue by joking that I am 'fussy' or 'causing trouble'. But I do understand that my requirements might mean extra work for someone, even if it's just a couple of emails to a caterer.

Stay with me, there's an upside...

Dodging cakes, missing out on free sandwiches and creating extra work for that nice chap in HR... there'd better be a silver lining.

Well, I believe there is. Being aware of the difficulties of navigating life with your own limitations makes you an awful lot nicer about other people's. My diagnosis as coeliac came utterly out of the blue, and ever since I had to change my own lifestyle, the penny dropped and I thought a lot more about the variety of human stories and individual struggles happening all around me (if I cared to notice).

It's all too easy to make glib assumptions, and we all do it. That person pushed in front of you to get the last seat on the train? Rude. The guy who never comes for a drink after work? Antisocial. Someone refusing to share your offer of birthday cake? Probably following one of those carb-free diet fads.

All of people blocking your way are unique and wonderful individuals with
problems of their own... Ah nuts, did I just miss the 159? F%$&ers!
Image by C. G. P. Grey (www.cgpgrey.com), CC BY 2.0
But you learn to question your own snap judgements when you have to tread a tightrope in your own life. Coeliacs and other navigators of special diets work hard at being true to their own health, while still being as sociable as possible and trying to cause minimal inconvenience to those around them. So maybe, just maybe that woman pushed in front of me to get the last seat because she's pregnant, or sick, or has vertigo. Maybe that guy never comes for drinks because he has money worries, or is teetotal, or gets nervous in crowds. Maybe that cake-refuser is a coeliac.

When life deals you an awkward hand, you tend to give other people the benefit of the doubt too.