Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Beijing to Moscow: gluten-free travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway

The Trans-Siberian Railway stretches between Moscow and Beijing. This epic journey spans 6,152 miles of track, crossing two very different countries. What they have in common is their hunger for dumplings: dim sum in China, and pirozhki in Russia.

Does the Trans-Siberian Railway rattle across fascinating cityscapes, expanses of birch forest and enchanting lakeshores? For sure. Is it a tough trek for gluten-free travellers? Most definitely.

St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, with domes rather reminiscent
of Mr Whippy ice cream. Image © Anita Isalska

Coeliac Trans-Siberian Railway: challenge accepted

I've written a few things about my trip already (shameless plugs here and here). But what I really want to chinwag about is travelling the Trans-Siberian as a coeliac. Throughout my travels, Russia and China are probably the hardest destinations to navigate gluten-free. Understanding of coeliac disease seemed to be pretty much nil.

Heck, even vegetarians wouldn't have an easy time of it in China and Russia. In China, dishes described as vegetable-based tended to be strewn with shellfish or studs of pork, while in Russia, "a little meat" didn't prevent something from being vegetarian in the eyes of waiting staff. Then there's the train carriage meals with their choice of fish or meat. (At least, I think it was meat...)

So in a culture where you eat what you're given, where meat, wheat and any other allergen is all just food, how do you survive when your health requires a particular diet?

Ah sorry, this view of Beijing isn't gluten-free... no wait, it is.
And I'll travel where I like. Image © Anita Isalska

Travel 1, tastebuds 0: getting my priorities straight 

First of all, my priorities: if I had to survive the entire trip on a rucksack supply of rice crackers and water, I would have done it. I was hyped up to journey from the teeming temples (and polluted smokestacks) of Beijing, all the way across Russia. It would subject me to cold temperatures the likes of which I'd never experienced. I would see charmingly colourful Siberian villages, I'd down vodka with local people, I'd point my camera at the gilded spires of Orthodox churches sprinkled in snow.

Hopefully you won't have to resort to chomping live prey, like Irkutsk's
mascot panther. Image © Anita Isalska

It grinds my gears to hear mollycoddling concerns about destinations that are (sadface) "difficult to visit" for coeliacs... or for anyone with any other health condition for that matter. Forewarned is one thing, but ultimately it's for the individual to decide if they want to take it on, not by-standers who probably don't know what gluten is anyway (let's face it, they're usually the quickest ones to nay-say).

Anyone telling me I should think twice about travelling somewhere because of frickin' dietary requirements gets filed under "quitter nonsense" (along with admonitions against travelling solo or trying to outdrink my Polish relatives). I'll show you all! Book that flight, seize that vodka bottle! Just maybe bring some of those rice crackers.

On which subject, back to the gluten-free adventures...

Gluten-free or not, I hope you like herring. Plates of pickled fish, raw onion and boiled potato
were a staple (this particular one was in Irkutsk). Image © Anita Isalska

Prepare those snacks, there's a long trip ahead...

Trans-Siberian Railway travellers usually go from Beijing to Moscow (though there are other routes to Mongolia or Vladivostok if you prefer - learn more on the excellent Seat 61 site). It is possible to tackle it all at once (if you simply want to watch the scenery rush by, and you're a little crazy). Most travellers book sections of the journey on different days, allowing you to stop in major Russian cities along the line, or take day or weekend trips (for example, skiing in Krasnoyarsk or a couple of nights by Lake Baikal).

The latter, slower method doesn't just allow you to check out stunning destinations like Ulan-Ude, an Eastern Siberian city with an enormous Lenin head and a stunning temple, and Irkutsk, the surprisingly colourful city near Lake Baikal. Just as importantly for the coeliac traveller, it allows you to restock your food supplies along the way.

Perhaps my favourite view of the trip, enormous Lake Baikal frozen over, with snowmobiles and
miniature cars zooming around its snow-kissed surface. Image by © Anita Isalska

On-train dining: friend and foe

Aboard the train, you're at the mercy of the dining cart, on-board catering (if you booked it with your ticket) or snack trolleys that rumble irregularly from carriage to carriage.

I don't recommend booking tickets that come with on-board catering if you're coeliac. I did this a couple of times out of curiosity and it was pot luck: Boo, a biscuit. Yay, an apple. Boo, rye bread slices on top of a horrible meat sauce. Yay, dried fish swimming in salty water... ugh. I take back the yay...

The dining cart on the other hand was sometimes surprisingly versatile. On a couple of trains there were extensive menus, including small snacks that had only one or two ingredients (like chopped up fruit, Greek-style yoghurt, a plate of plain buckwheat). Opening times were erratic enough that I still wouldn't suggest full reliance on the carts, though they were surprisingly handy from time to time.

It's big, it's frozen, and it's China - so skid on it. Beijing in mid-winter. Image © Anita Isalska

Despite travelling in the middle of winter (with outdoor temperatures in the minus 30Cs), train carriages are kept toasty warm. So if you had dreams of bringing yoghurts, cheeses, milk, cured meats or other fresh supplies aboard the train, I assure you they'll spoil in minutes.

Instead I recommend stocking up on hardier produce like fruit, bags of nuts, potato crisps, rice crackers, meat jerky, banana chips and other items that don't need a fridge. Yep, rice crackers are dull. But I didn't see a single gluten-free bread or cake in a supermarket on my entire trip. I started in Beijing, arguably the less gluten-free-friendly of the two cities; stocking up in cosmopolitan Moscow would be easier, if you start the trip there (run this through Google Translate for a head-start on gluten-free Moscow).

Blue skies and elegant domes in Kazan, capital of Russian Tatarstan. Image © Anita Isalska

Samovar snacks: the saviours of hungry coeliac travellers

The one thing you can trust on board Trans-Siberian trains is a samovar filled with hot water, at the end of each carriage. Turn the tap and piping hot, drinkable water gushes forth.

It's essential to bring with you a thermos or heatproof cup (with a lid - just try getting it back to your train compartment without spillage otherwise). Gluten-free travellers should bring a supply of sachets that can be instantly made into filling, safe food, that don't take up too much luggage space. I crammed my rucksack with:

  • Instant rice or rice noodle snacks and soups (Thai Kitchen has a gluten-free range)
  • Gluten-free oatmeal, like Nairns. One bag of this is easily stuffable into a corner of a rucksack and it lasts a good long while if you use it with cunning, for example, in small quantities to bulk up yoghurt at hotel breakfasts or your train dining carriage, or as an instant oaty breakfast from the samovar.
  • Teas and coffees and gluten-free instant soup mixes, plus a heatproof spork to stir them up. 

It's a pain, but I do advise bringing at least a few sachets from home so you have trusted snackage at hand. I rather enjoyed waking up on a bunk bed, gently rattling from the movement of the train, stretching, and making my way to the samovar to make some oatmeal, gently stirring as I watched miles of snow-covered tundra zoom past the window.

Some tasty plov at a skyscraper restaurant in Ulan-Ude. Image © Anita Isalska

All hail Google Translate, for restaurants and supermarkets

Eventually you're going to need to replenish those supplies. While some brands list ingredients in English and other languages, you'll encounter plenty of produce that doesn't. I recommend using an offline translation app. Ahead of your trip, download the Google Translate offline language pack for Russian and Chinese and you'll be able to use your phone to scan and translate lists of ingredients right there in the supermarket, without using precious data or needing wifi. Nifty, eh? It was also very handy in restaurants for deciphering menus.

And of course, you'll want some gluten-free language cards (in Russian and Chinese) to make yourself understood (expect funny stares).

This canteen in Kazan made things fairly easy - observe and point. That's a chicken breast with a slice of melted cheese on top (believe it or not), with buckwheat and a Greek salad. Image © Anita Isalska

Gluten-free is a weird - nay, barely comprehensible - request in Siberia. So rather than giving restaurant staff the open question of "can I eat this?", it helps to start with some dishes on the menu that are less likely to contain gluten; "I can't eat XYZ; is [points to menu item] OK?" yields richer rewards. For somewhere to start, these meal items were common across Siberia and usually fine for gluten-free eats:

  • Plov, a dish of spiced rice with mutton and sometimes dried or fresh fruit like apricot or pomegranate seeds. It's a Central Asian staple, though you may need to check in on their spice mix, lest they've added anything peculiar (usually it's a mix of cumin, garlic, carrots and lots of oil making up the seasoning). 
  • Cold herring salads or herring with potato. As plain as it sounds, the freshness of the fish made this rather delicious. I never found this tampered with, or served with anything unexpected.
  • Russian salad, a mix of diced potato, diced beetroot, chopped hard-boiled egg, mayonnaise and occasionally peas.
  • Buckwheat (kasha) graced almost every menu and was always plain boiled with a little salt and no mystery additives. Top tip: find the dried stuff in supermarkets and where you have access to a kitchen (like in hostel accommodation), boil it up in milk for a nutty-tasting gluten-free porridge alternative - I became addicted to this.
  • Hot smoked omul fish was a favourite in markets near Lake Baikal, usually served with nothing other than tea. Grab a fish, whip out your own supply of carb and/or fruits and veggies, and you have a fine picnic to feast on by the lakeshore (or bring aboard the train if you want to share that fishy fragrance with your fellow passengers). 
  • Shashlik, skewered grilled meat. The trick is making sure they don't chuck it on top of a huge flatbread. If you're not already waving your gluten-free language card around, say "bez khleba" (without bread) to your Russian hosts.
  • Fancy fruit was probably the most fun at the Chinese end of the trip. I brought enormous purple dragonfruit aboard the train and scooped out the aromatic flesh with my spork, delicious.

Yep, literally a whole smoked fish and cup of tea. But if it's good enough for
Siberian locals... Image © Anita Isalska

Keeping a sense of perspective

Gluten-free aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway isn't easy. Surprise items will arrive on your plate. A day will pass in which you consume only instant oatmeal, banana chips and vodka.

These happened to me, and they'd occasionally make me clench my jaw. But then I'd look outside my window, drinking in views of a frozen lake. I'd see wooden houses with intricately carved eaves laden with snow, or a scarlet temple rising from a frosty plain. In the face of all that majesty, my grumbles faded instantly.

The journey won't be perfect, but that's what adventure means.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Back from hiatus: 5 harsh lessons from the gluten-free fringes

It's been a while since I've poured my thoughts onto this page. It's good to be back after a blogging hiatus of several months.

Before you picture Ferraris, affairs and Eat Pray Love, my blogging break was less midlife crisis, more lifestyle change. I wanted to shake things up - roam more widely, work on new projects - so I handed in notice at my editor job (a tough call). Then I roped Wheaty into travelling with me (we rode the Trans-Siberian Railway). Now I've found my feet in a new phase as a freelance travel writer and editor. I couldn't be happier with my hectic, varied footloose life.

Frozen Lake Baikal. Or a metaphor for me drifting off into the sunset.
Image © Anita Isalska

 Between rattling through Russia by train and establishing some brand-new work streams, until now there hasn't been much time to blog about all things gluten-free. I've missed it.

This period of change has involved a lot of travel, much of it to some seriously gluten-free-unfriendly places. So I'm kicking off with five harsh truths I've learned from the fringes of the gluten-free world...

1. Sometimes, language cards won't save you

So you're an uber-prepared gluten-free globetrotter, poised to flash language cards explaining your needs? I've discovered that in some places, the understanding barrier about coeliac disease is so high that translation isn't enough.

I spent some time working in Malaysia this summer. From previous travels there, I knew it was a culture where rice and rice noodles were staples, so I was optimistic about eating well.

Jonker Walk Night Market in Melaka, Malaysia. A foodie lottery.
Image © Anita Isalska
Mostly, I did. But many Malaysians simply weren't accustomed to talking about food from a core ingredients perspective. Asking whether the noodles in a soup were wheat or rice-based, even with translation help, sometimes drew a blank. Many canteens defined the noodle type by colour first ("white" or "yellow" noodles; the former could be wheat or rice) and secondly by shape. Food sensitivity on the whole was an alien concept; insisting on knowing the ingredients to a dish produced bafflement, and often well-intended (though useless) assurances like, "Don't worry, it isn't spicy." In a country with few coeliac diagnoses and a different way of referencing food, it's a blameless scenario, though a challenging one.

2. There are places where hospitality conventions trump diets

Now some reflections from Greece, where I was on assignment for a few weeks. In small towns, refusal to accept food is about as polite as gobbing in a Grecian urn. With dietary requirements a hazy concept, this created a perfect storm.

Hefty servings of lamb and Greek feta salad. Just go paleo when in Greece.
Image © Anita Isalska
I had grown used to explaining myself with some accompanying gestures (a wince and grab of my stomach as I explained that wheat makes me unwell; what reasonable person could argue against that, even if they quietly thought I was just being neurotic?)

Unfortunately, this approach was often returned with insistent hospitality: "Well, just try a little bit then. You have to try! It is only a little flour. It's very light. This bread is very good for digestion."

Such exchanges could easily descend into a tense social battle, taut smiles all the way, trying (and failing) to talk someone out of pushing their kind (though sadly gut-damaging) gift of food. I learned that sadly, you might have to offend someone to stay healthy. Often I managed to deflect the gluten-bomb by accepting something else, like a coffee. But more than once I took the cake or piece of bread simply to end an increasingly awkward conversation and surreptitiously stuffed it into my pocket, tipping the food into a bin once I was out of sight. What a waste.

3. Some places don't consider flour an ingredient worth mentioning

In places where coeliac disease and gluten-free food aren't understood, I have sometimes resorted to asking for recipes. It's time-consuming, but where wheat and gluten are barely given a thought, I've often been able to unravel the safety of a dish by asking someone to talk through how it's made. (As a bonus, I've found some restaurants delight in explaining their culinary wizardry to an intrigued foreign visitor.)

This approach was fraught with difficulty in Malaysia. Wheat flour is often considered a default ingredient, not worth mentioning because of its tastelessness and ubiquity. I would think I had happened upon a tasty new treat, but discover too late that it was laced with flour: sticky rice, you say! With coconut milk and sugar, you say! And no wheat flour?

"Oh, no flour..."

I'd move in to take a big bite...

"Well, just a little flour for binding."


After that, I thought using the word for "allergy" might help my health issues be understood. I thought wrong.

A number of people I met were amazed that someone could be allergic to what they considered a healthy, nourishing food. I remember a conversation where I thought starting with a well-known and severe food reaction, like fatal peanut allergies, would be a good jumping-off point to explain my own (less life-threatening) health problem.

It didn't work. Instead a table of Malaysians looked at me in astonishment at the idea that there were people out there who could be killed by a peanut. "Just one peanut!" marvelled one chap, rolling a nut between his fingers. "I have never heard of such a thing!"

Needless to say, there seemed no point rolling into a conversation about auto-immune gluten intolerance.

If in doubt, take solace in a ball of ice. Seriously, it's a thing in Ipoh, Malaysia.
Image © Anita Isalska

4. Food frustration is a tough trap to escape

I have been travelling solo for research assignments, and not having Wheaty around to help take the heat truly made it harder to navigate dietary needs. When I felt frazzled, isolated and hungry, it was all too easy to fall into the trap of feeling put-upon. Sometimes I even felt a little harassed when for the third time in a morning, someone I met kept pushing a wheat-laden food at me, despite my mustering up fifty shades of nope. A gesture intended kindly became unwelcome and paranoia-inducing. It felt hugely alienating and people's confusion and borderline outrage was weighing on me.

I had to remind myself that when it came to small communities, I might literally be the only person they have ever met to refuse a slice of bread. I'm certain that some people I met thought I either had an eating disorder or that I was a timid traveller, terrified to try local food. I hate the idea of these assumptions, but I had to let it be.

When you travel, for pleasure or work, you have to stay true to your own path. Make concessions to other cultures as much as you can, but not at the expense of your own health. And certainly don't harm yourself out of embarrassment.

The importance of chilling with a cuppa in the Cameron Highlands.
Image © Anita Isalska

5. You can't be a heroic gluten-free advocate 100% of the time.

A lot of the time, I felt like I'd failed. Failed to be understood, and therefore failed my fellow coeliac travellers by not contributing to worldwide understanding of this disease.

Eventually I had to cut myself a break. I was travelling for work, not to browbeat food servers with an unsolicited speech on coeliac disease.

As a western woman travelling alone in lesser-touristed parts of Malaysia, I had to accept that my food habits would simply be viewed as part of a parcel of general strangeness and foreign-ness: my tall, pale, solo self, picking at food.

Maybe, for all my regretful smiles and explanations, I would still be considered the brusque Westerner who refused to try a host's noodle dish. The toughest lesson is that you can't control how others interpret you; you just have to march on.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Gluten-free Austria: belly-busting good times and bewildering EU food labelling laws

I'm fresh from a week of steaming Alpine soups and giant sausages, all of them gluten-free.

But forgive me if I don't beat my strudel-swollen belly in glee. Austria is a fine place to dine if you have to lay off gluten. But in the wake of the new food labelling legislation, it's not all sugar-sprinkled, jam-crammed, chocolate-drizzled loveliness. (Though there was a bit of that.)

Austria's mighty fine free-from

Let's start with the good and the great. There is some fantastic catering for special diets in Austria.

The wintry playground of Obergurgl was a hell of a way to burn
off the donuts (that's right, donuts). Image © Anita Isalska 

This ski trip in high-altitude Obergurgl was booked as a package. It was a winter adventure in honour of Grande Madame Free-From, AKA my mother, who was celebrating a special birthday. (She's 21 again, would you believe.)

The Wheaty Eater and I usually stay away from package holidays that include meals. It's hard to judge at the point of booking whether a place can cater for gluten-free, plus you can't usually be assured you'll get value for what you pay. The prospect of paying the same price as Wheaty for evening meals, if the only gluten-free offering is salads? My thrifty heart declines.

But organising a trip for a big group ended up much simpler in package form, so we took the leap. It helped that we'd had some good experiences on previous travels in Austria: take a bow, Gasthof Torwirt in Radstadt, with your legendary gluten-free schnitzel.

Plenty of places in Obergurgl promoted their ability to cater for special diets. But the place we settled on, Hotel Olympia, blew expectations out of the water.
Let's see... Tyrolean apple soup with gfree roll, fish terrine, pork roast and
cream-topped plum sorbet at Hotel Olympia. Dribble. Image © Anita Isalska

Hotel Olympia had a triple dietary challenge. There was me, of course, eating free from gluten. But also present for the celebration of Grande Madame's birthday was a vegetarian brother (tricky, in pork-hungry Austria) and his girlfriend with the double-whammy of veggie and gluten-free requirements.

Yet Hotel Olympia juggled it all with aplomb. Fish terrines and trios of pork were whisked out sans gluten. Vegetarian and gluten-free options often looked just as good as the carnivorous counterparts, with potato croquettes crisped up with gfree crumbing, seared white asparagus, and Tyrolean apple soup among highlights of the double-requirement cuisine.

We were happy, and most importantly so was Grande Madame – being a proper matriarch, she likes to see everyone in the party well fed. Good times rolled, and after a week of multi-course meals, the whole family was rolling too.

New food labelling legislation: mixed results in Austria

Beyond the waist-widening wonders of our hotel, fortunes were mixed. I was occasionally delighted to see clear allergen labelling in Austria, thanks to the snappily named Food Information Regulations EU1169/2011.

Even casual piste-side cafes often marked up which allergens were in their dishes, leading me to an especially gut-busting currywurst and chips. Gluten-free, and instantly regrettable as I waddled back towards the ski lifts.

You're beautiful, but disgusting. Odi et amo, gluten-free currywurst.
Image © Anita Isalska
But in some places, allergen labelling was used to warn against everything on the menu. Everything. We gluten-freers often joke about baked potatoes being the only safe port of call in cafes, but I encountered eateries in Austria where they marked up their spuds with a gluten allergy warning.

What in carbo-heck were they doing to their potatoes? Or is the new legislation already being misinterpreted or misused?

Baked potatoes, now with added gluten?

Here's my take on the new allergy labelling legislation, entirely based on my EU travels since the rules kicked in: it's good news overall, but there is plenty of potential for new frustrations for gluten-free travellers.

Some cafes and restaurants are seizing the labelling challenge. They're rolling up their sleeves and committing to declaring a dish gluten-free on their menus, and maintaining it as such. Where this happens, coeliacs and gf-lifestylers rejoice and chow down.

But there's a flip side. Certain other restaurants and cafes I encountered in Austria were going so allergen-markup-crazy that they labelled everything from salads to baked potatoes with an "A" (on the allergen key placed around most Austrian eateries I saw, the "A" flagged gluten-containing cereals as ingredients in a dish). Luckily the one below, at a cafe in Sölden, was safe from such confusion.

My first instinct when I saw allegedly gluten-containing potatoes on a menu was that the cafe was covering itself legally, in case of cross-contamination risks. Maybe they just love to fondle a spud with floury hands before they serve it up. Or perhaps they're anxious about a stray breeze depositing a speck of wheat flour on a potato, and would rather not risk declaring it a gluten-free zone.

After all, who can blame them for feeling the fear. If you're an independent business owner, you're probably terrified of being held accountable for someone with an allergy or intolerance keeling over due to a misplaced crumb.

But that's not it. The legislation applies to intentional allergenic ingredients, not cross-contamination. This either means there's a slew of cafes in Austria that genuinely sprinkle flour on their potatoes (seriously, halt that behaviour already), or the legislation is being anxiously misinterpreted.

Food service industry and coeliacs: can't we just be friends?

For coeliacs like me, the idea of greater overall clarity in food labelling is worthy of ticker-tape waving, shirt-tearing jubilation. But it's irksome to see that in practise, it might cause some food providers to shy away altogether.

What I want is honest dialogue about the ingredients and preparation of my food, not to be held at arm's length by a petrified food service. I'm not preparing for a nuclear legal assault, I'm looking for a bite to eat.

Like other gluten-free gourmands, I'm watching with interest to see how the new legislation shapes up Europe-wide. But having seen mixed interpretations of the rules during my trip to Austria, this seasoned coeliac isn't surrendering her emergency food stash any time soon.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

What's new in Paris for gluten-free travellers?

Ah, Paris. Show me a traveller who rapturously praises the baguettes, croissants and pain au chocolat of this global gastronomic capital, and I'll show you a traveller I'd gladly poke in the eye.

Why? Because for gluten-free travellers like me, France isn't the easiest destination to navigate. Much as I adore the scenery, the culture and the cheese, coeliac-friendly food doesn't always come easy. Which is why these three notable newbies on the Parisian gluten-free scene filled my heart with glee (and filled my belly with goodness).

1. Noglu

What is it: new all-gfree restaurant tucked away in Paris' Promenade des Panoramas.

Perfectly cooked cod on a bed of Le Puy lentils and courgettes, plus a silk-smooth parsnip velouté,
But plenty of room for cream-topped date pudding. Noglu, j'adore. Image © Anita Isalska
Noglu is not a hard sell for coeliacs. This tiny restaurant is all gluten-free. All of it. Go there for brunch or lunch and you can expect homemade preserves and the house's own delightfully bouncy gluten-free bread as a starter. A postage stamp-sized menu gives you the choice between two beautifully cooked dishes of the day (Wheaty and I tried the fish and the chicken, both atop a creamy parsnip velouté, and we couldn't decide our favourite). The desserts shone, with date pudding dense enough to block out the sun, topped with a vulgar amount of cream.

The downside? The service was haphazard when we visited, and it felt like this busy little restaurant was just hitting its stride. I'd recommend you give it a shot: if you have to wait for a table (as we did), you'll have plenty of curio and antique shops to peruse in the surrounding century-old shopping mall.

2. Helmut Newcake's second branch 

What is it: this all-gluten-free patisserie must be doing well as they have a new branch.

What, I need to describe these to sell them to you? Go to Helmut
Newcake! Go now! Image © Anita Isalska

Well, bonjour once more, Helmut Newcake! Last time I visited, there was only one of you. But now this high-end zero-gluten patisserie has added a second location (rue Vignon) to twin with their original bakery (rue Bichat). So whichever side of Gare du Nord you find yourself killing time, there's be a ganache-filled pastry or rum-soaked sponge to distract you.

It was hard not to gorge at Helmut Newcake. The second store (takeaway only) is spiffingly glamorous: we chowed down on soft baguette-style sandwiches overflowing with ham and artichoke, followed by springy custard-filled cinnamon brioches (cannelés). We also took some zingily moist lemon-polenta cake (Wheaty's favourite) away with us, plus a grapefruit and white chocolate tarte. Mon dieu. Worth blowing your entire day's food budget, you'll regret nothing.

3. Marché Raspail

What is it: an organic-only market with green shoots of gluten-free goodness.

Eez zees gluten-free brioche I see before me? Mais oui! Ambling around
Paris' Marché Raspail. Image © Anita Isalska

I expected nothing from Marché Raspail. This farmer's market goes 100% organic on Sundays, so Wheaty and I were there to burn off our hangovers with some coffee, vegetable ogling, and maybe buy a fancy bottle of olive oil to take home. But in France, where gluten-free goes hand in hand with organic eating, gfree eating tends to appear first in healthfood contexts. Hence Marché Raspail with a surprising abundance of quinoa-based breads, flour-free cakes, and take-home goodies like gluten-free crackers and pasta.

Word of warning: plenty of producers approach gluten-free from the perspective of a healthy-eating preference, rather than an intolerance (or allergy) that requires care. You'll occasionally be aghast to see zero-gluten loaves crammed in next to wheat-laced breads, so best to steer clear of those unless you fancy a spot of intestinal roulette. But certain sellers 'got it:' orange flower water and raisin brioches were kept separately from the wheaty stuff at one stall, and there's plenty of wrapped branded gluten-free produce to browse among the fancy olives and fit-to-burst tomatoes. This market could be one to watch.

Any more great gluten-free finds in Paris? Tell me on Twitter or in the comments!

Monday, 6 October 2014

Foolproof baking? Putting instant gluten-free cake mix to the ultimate test...

Fellow gourmands, I know you can bake gluten-free delights in your sleep. You think nothing of having an arsenal of flours, your stocks of ground almonds would see you through a nuclear winter, and you can wield a whisk at deadly speed.

But not everyone is au fait with baking. So when the folks at Udi's sent me some of this easy chocolate cake mix, whipping it up myself felt like cheating. No, my friends, the real test of foolproof baking is putting it in the hands of someone who has never made a cake before.

Enter my lovely assistant, Wheaty...

Wheaty checks the cake instructions, with a look of incredulity that would endure
throughout the baking process. Image © Anita Isalska

Wheaty has never baked a cake. He's not dessert disinclined, but with the ready availability of wheat-filled cakes, he never had much of an incentive to make his own. And when he moved in with me and gluten-free home-baked cakes became the norm, there was no reason to rock the boat. This made him the perfect subject to road test an 'easy' instant cake, and see just how accessible the mix and its instructions are to novice chefs.

The first challenge was finding the right equipment.

"A nine-inch cake tin," Wheaty murmured, clattering through our cupboards. "This looks like nine inches to me..."

Dear reader, I didn't go there.

Nor did I balk when his 'lightly greasing the tin' involved a libation of olive oil so generous it could have loosened the axles of a heavy-duty truck.

A lack of differentiation between spoon sizes threatened to throw the butter measurements off course, but this cake mix is surprisingly forgiving to loose-elbowed chefs. And to chefs who lose a third of their butter to the kitchen counter and floor.

Pinteresters, look away now. This ineffectual whisking and batter-streaked
kitchen might be a bit too real for you. Image © Anita Isalska

"How do you make it fluffy, that barely makes sense," grumbled Wheaty, tipping the cake mix into some brutally flagellated butter. "What texture would you say this was?" he asked, indicating the half-mixed cake dough.

"Grainy? Variegated? A bit Jackson Pollock?" I offered.

"Shit. The box says it should be crumbly. I don't think I'm doing this right."

And yet, whatever the textural nuances of the batter, somehow it was starting to blend together smoothly. Generous dollops of yoghurt, per the instructions, seemed to make up for the missing butter. Although what the cake regained in mass, it quickly lost again at the raw batter tasting stage of the process. ("It's basically chocolate mousse!")

Finally, Wheaty tipped the batter into the oiled tin with an unceremonious slap. "I could smooth this out, but the oven will probably do most of the work," he opined. Once the cake was consigned to the oven, Wheaty refused to check on it until the full 40 minutes of cooking time on the packet had elapsed.

"You told me to just follow the instructions," he shrugged, now on the couch pouring himself a glass of red wine.

Not even a bit of rough handling at the final stages could ruin this
mighty tasty chocolate cake. Image © Anita Isalska

Finally roused by the beeping of our oven's timer, Wheaty retrieved the cake and looked at it with suspicion. It looked like... a cake. All the butter sacrificed to our kitchen floor, unorthodox choices of baking tools and total disinterest in the cooking process hadn't managed to ruin the final result. It was light, fragrant and (as our thorough taste test showed) very chocolatey.

The ease of making this cake might have lulled Wheaty into a false sense of security. I can foretell Wheaty's casual approach to dessert-making wreaking destruction on our ice cream maker and consigning legions of gingerbread men to a fiery death.

"I might try an orange cake next," mulled Wheaty. "With real lemons."

What could go wrong?

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Where is London's greatest gluten-free pizza?

When you find out you have to go gluten-free, the image that immediately swims into your head is a crispy, cheese-laden pizza, spinning off into the vortex, never to be nibbled again.

Pizza is without a doubt the most adored (traditionally) gluten-packed food. When I was first diagnosed and told to cut the wheat, my tears were 80% related to pizza. And were it not for the following culinary heroes, my relationship with pizza would have been cut off way too soon (though maybe I'd fit into those old jeans).

If there was an award for innovation in flour blends, or expert pie rolling – a Dough-bel Prize if you will – the pizzerias that follow would all deserve a nomination. But where is London's absolute best gluten-free pizza? I popped a few buttons – and enlisted the help my wheat-eating taste tester – to find out.

1. Pizza Da Vinci

  • Vibe: so you miss calling up for takeaway greasy enough to soak into the box? These guys deliver. Literally.
  • Location: Battersea and around
  • Gluten-free credentials: loses points for spelling it 'gulten' in the online booking system. Come on guys, how hard is it?

So tomatoes, fresh herbs, seems nutritious right? Um, why is there mozzarella grease pooling in my lap? Image © Anita Isalska
So tomatoes, fresh herbs, seems nutritious right? Um, why is there mozzarella
grease pooling in my lap? Image © Anita Isalska
In those (drunken) moments of weakness, gluten-free folk miss the spontaneity of dialling up for a grease-laden pizza, so heavy with mozzarella that it's sinking in the middle. For south Londoners, Pizza Da Vinci to the rescue. Their gluten-free pizza has generous toppings but way overdoes the salt (or wait, is that just what junk food tastes like? Hard to know when you're a coeliac.) The base has a distinctive corn flavour and is incredible chewy. If your jaw can take the workout, this is a guilty pleasure, and a waistband-stretching one at that. No, you don't need dessert.

Wheaty says... "Very close to the standard greasy takeaway pizza. The main difference is the corny base, which can become chewy as the pizza cools down."

Final score: 5/10 – not winning on flavour or trust with this one.

2. Stingray Cafe

  • Vibe: unfussy interior, friendly staff and a huge pizza oven. Feels like home.
  • Location: oof norf London, in Tufnell Park
  • Gluten-free credentials: these guys get gluten-free, serve Celia beer and they have cake. All the points.

Look into my eggs. You are feeling sleeeeepy. No wait, that's  just the Celia taking effect. Image © Anita Isalska
Look into my eggs. You are feeling sleeeeepy. No wait, that's
just the beer taking effect. Image © Anita Isalska 

Well hello, what's this? An expertly kneaded Italian-style thin crust pizza? Stone-baked for smoky flavour, served with as many salads, gluten-free pasta options, side dishes and gluten-free drink choices as you can cram into your greedy belly? Walking into Stingray, a homey little hideaway in north London, it's hard not to feel a little bit spoiled.

Wheaty says... "Their GF pizzas are huge. I do recall them being a bit salty but that might have been from ordering the anchovy, olive and caper special..."

Final score: 8/10 – I love Stingray so much I keep trying to think of excuses to come to NW5.

3. Pizza Express

  • Vibe: the coeliac's greatest enemy turned gluten-free best friend. This chain did a total 180 after branching out into the gluten-free market last year.
  • Location: throw a ball of dough in London and you'll hit one. Really, there are that many.
  • Gluten-free credentials: these guys walk the walk, with Coeliac UK accreditation in their menus, gluten-free flour used to dust surfaces across their kitchens to prevent cross-contamination, and reassuringly competent staff. Bravo.
Images © Anita Isalska
Wheaty, nomming through Pizza Express' menu - a common sight for
Madame Free-From. So common, these pictures could be in any one
of about six branches. Images © Anita Isalska 

With so many independent restaurants moving and shaking London's gluten-free scene I'm reluctant to include chains in this round-up. But Pizza Express offering gluten-free choices is a total game-changer in the UK. Pizza Express are loud, proud and accountable when it comes to producing delicious gluten-free pizzas. The menu is clear, the staff know their stuff, the choice has stomach-stretching breadth. That said, the bases aren't the best around: they're a little dry and noticeably smaller than the wheat-based versions they serve. Which is just as well because Pizza Express have the ubiquity, the familiar brand, and now the gluten-free market; if they nail the pizza dough recipe, they pretty much own our souls.

Wheaty says... "Their GF base is quite different from their regular base, but it's also very good (although a bit small). From this line-up, it's probably the base which is the most different from standard [wheaty] pizza. But Pizza Express have embraced the whole gluten-free thing, great when you're out and need a no-fuss meal."

Final rating: 6/10 – love the choice, love the ease, don't love the pizza base.

4. Rossopomodoro 


  • Vibe: classic Neapolitan pizzas served to a backdrop of murals with sexy Italian quotes. Oh dio!
  • Location: this chain has outlets in Camden, Covent Garden, Wandsworth, Notting Hill...
  • Gluten-free credentials: this place is an Italian export, Italians are great at gluten-free, yet only few of the pizzas have toppings they trust to be fully senza glutine. Does not compute.

Gluten-free pizza at Rossopomodoro in Wandsworth, Greater London. Mozzarella, tomato, basil...sometimes, simple is best. Pooling saliva: not pictured.  Image © Anita Isalska
Mozzarella, tomato, basil...sometimes, simple is best. Pooling saliva: not pictured.
Image © Anita Isalska
When I gazed on those little islands of buffalo mozzarella, bobbing stickily on a fresh tomato passata, my mouth watered. The first bite tasted so authentic, it was like Italy had wandered up to my table, naked but for a red white and green flag, warbling O Sole Mio. The pizza bases are as delicious as you'd expect (you can taste the musky zing of virgin olive oil in the base) and the only gluten-free clue is that the inside of the base looks a brighter white than their wheaty offerings. That said, the range of pizzas offered to gluten-free diners is very  limited, only a handful from their extensive menu. Seriously Rossopomodoro, what are you putting on that Quattro Formaggio to make it glutenous?

Wheaty says... "I had high hopes but I was slightly disappointed. I can't remember why. The base was good, with only a very slight corn flavour, to the point where I wasn't sure whether it was GF or not!"

Final score: 7/10 – great base, but a real missed opportunity with the limited menu.

5. Pappa Ciccia

  • Vibe: romantic Italian eatery that just so happens to do all its pizzas gluten-free. Sorry, I just drooled.
  • Location: Fulham, south London
  • Gluten-free credentials: GF pastas and pizzas, cautious staff but no desserts? Pappa, you're breaking my heart.
Not just because of the Campari, this has to be the best.
Image © Anita Isalska

Where did you come from, Pappa Ciccia? All bedecked with flowers, quaint Italian touches and cosy restaurant fittings, this place is quite the charmer. But on to the pizzas: the staff seem accustomed to reassuring their customers that yep, there's no mistake, this is genuinely gluten-free. Everything from the tomato sauce to the just-crunchy-enough artichokes is beautifully prepared, and the stone-baked pizza bases have all the volcanic charring and yielding chewiness you'd hope for from an authentic Italian pizza.

Wheaty says... "I really did wonder if the base was gluten free! Lovely and very authentic feel."

Final rating: 9/10 – judging purely by the pizza, this is head and shoulders above the rest.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Gluten-free in Greenland: tips for coeliac travellers at the edge of the world

Of all the titles I thought I'd be writing on this blog, I never thought 'gluten-free' and 'Greenland' would go together - but here we are.

I am back from a trip to Greenland's west coast where I sailed among icebergs, gawped at glaciers and swatted a lot of mosquitoes. I also ate plenty, so I have gluten-free tips galore for fellow coeliac travellers.

Colourful houses in Ilulissat, western Greenland - gluten-free travellers should make their way here for icebergs, sailing and delicious seafood
Colourful houses in Ilulissat, one of the must-sees on any Greenland trip.
Image by Anita Isalska

Travelling in Greenland gluten-free: come prepared

Whether you're gluten-free or not, Greenland is the kind of place where you need to have a rucksack stuffed with emergency snacks. Supermarkets and food shops aren't as plentiful as back home, especially in smaller towns, and depending on your arrival time in a new place you might find your food options really limited.

For example, in Kangerlussuaq, gateway to some of Greenland's best hiking, the town is dispersed over a big area and places to eat are spread out. I stayed in the Polar Lodge, which doesn't have an attached restaurant. After the only supermarket in walking distance was shut, my options were the airport cafe or an expensive taxi ride to an equally expensive restaurant 5km away. In situations like that, it really pays to have a couple of tins of tuna, crackers or granola stashed in your bag (the airport cafe was predictably all sandwiches, by the way).

Greenlandic food: meat, fish and more meat

The good news is that the Greenlandic food I experienced was heavily meaty, fishy, and didn't tend to be crumbed or battered. Drying, preserving in salt and grilling are the preparation methods of preference and muskox, fish, shrimp and fish roe were the norm. Aside from Danish open sandwiches, a lot of the cuisine seemed to be made of naturally gluten-free ingredients. Halibut, seaweed, potatoes and berries were all staples.

Halibut with parsnip puree, spring onions and angelica salt, at Restaurant Ulo in Ilulissat.
Image by Anita Isalska

And all kinds of meats were on offer, usually grilled (some of which you might feel squeamish about trying: seal, whale and narwhal for starters). Often they're prepared simply so briefing in your gluten-free request doesn't require more than cross-contamination measures on their part - a language card can help here, especially for sensitive coeliacs.

In some countries, knowing the word for 'gluten-free' is the key to good, safe eating. But in Greenland I found it more useful to have a conversation about how a dish was put together, working in my requirements along the way. I spelled out what I could eat, what I couldn't eat, and asked questions about the dish - where I kept the tone interested and excited to try the food but concerned for my own limitations, people were very happy to help.

Pescetarian paradise: this plateful aboard the boat from Ilulissat to Eqi has shrimp, cod,
pearly pink fish roe, pickled cucumbers, lashings of mayo and some dried
muskox salami. Image by Anita Isalska

The bad news is that vegetarian gluten-free travellers will have a trickier time, and probably become immensely tired of imported Danish cheeses. Extra rucksack-stuffing for you lot.

Breakfast buffets were really variable. When they were good, they were piled high with naturally gluten-free fuel (yoghurt, cheeses, smoked fish, fruit). When they were bad, they were a few slices of bread and a jar of Nutella (which made me glad to have made room for a pack of Udi's granola in my bag).

Enemy biscuits

When travelling in Greenland you'll find coffee served at almost every opportunity. If you're waiting for a boat, eyeing up souvenirs or chatting to a tour operator, it's likely that a small stimulating cup will find its way into your hands. Cookies and cakes are often brought out in these situations, to be met with shrugs by us coeliacs, but there didn't seem to be an cultural awkwardness about turning them down. The important social cement seemed to be drinking the java, so if you're a caffeine-head you'll have no trouble enjoying this Greenlandic custom while saying no to the wheaty stuff.

Dried muskox with slivers of radish and cucumber, with basil oil and hazelnuts.
Image by Anita Isalska

The Danish connection: a boost for gluten-free travellers to Greenland

In a country of low population density, the power of numbers means it takes far longer for understanding of gluten-free diets to gain traction. So it follows that in as remote a country as Greenland, the word 'gluten-free' isn't exactly on the tips of tongues.

Is there any point, then, in dropping the 'gluten-free diet' bomb explicitly, in a place like Greenland where many people won't have the faintest idea what you mean? Actually, yes.

Plenty of hotels and tours in Greenland are run by visiting Danes or half-Danish half-Greenlandic people, who tend to have absorbed a fair bit of understanding about the gluten-free diet back in Denmark where it's much, much better known.

I did an internal dance of glee when I found great gluten-free provision at Glacier Camp Eqi (a five-hour boat ride from Ilulissat, one of Greenland's top destinations for travellers). The immensely friendly staff knew what gluten-free was, and having been forewarned they were able to pre-order some gluten-free bread for my breakfasts. I hadn't expected this at all, but they told me that they could cater provided they had plenty of advance warning. All of the food to Camp Eqi arrives on a once-daily boat, so a few days' warning is essential. Given the slow rhythms by which places in Greenland stock and re-stock their food, I'd advise all gluten-free travellers to Greenland to give a few days' notice.

Nice one, Camp Eqi! Gluten-free bread, eggs, caraway-studded cheese,
yoghurt and berry compote plus the obligatory coffee. Image by Anita Isalska

Air Greenland does a pretty good gluten-free meal

And what about the transport? It was the first time I'd flown with Air Greenland and I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the gluten-free meal. I had feared a frosty fruit salad but my meal travelling from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq included gluten-free bread, a pretty hearty breakfast, fruit, all clearly labelled as gluten-free. And it was distinctively different to all the other meals (which is always reassuring to my paranoid brain).

Actual cheese! Air Greenland gluten-free meal without the 'free from everything' vibe. This breakfast
had gluten-free sausage, egg, gfree bread and all the trimmings. Image by Anita Isalska

Flying back from Greenland my meal lacked the gluten-free bread, but I put this down to the relative availability of gluten-free produce in Greenland vs Denmark. It was still good noshin'.

In conclusion... your gluten-free Greenlandic adventure will be a breeze

Well, maybe not a breeze. You'll need a bit of prep, you'll say no to biscuits, rustle up your stash of crackers at breakfasts, and do a fair few supermarket runs during your travels to Greenland. But in such a meat-protein-fixated place, veggies might actually have a tougher time than coeliacs. In the land of whale blubber snacks and fish at every meal, eating paleo style (and hence gluten-free) was more than manageable.

And overall, arming myself with a few Eat Natural bars is a small price to stare out at the Ilulissat icefjord, spot wild muskoxen and hear the grumble of glaciers. If you get the chance to visit Greenland, don't be daunted by dietary requirements and jump on that plane.

Blue skies at the Eqi glacier. Mosquitoes not pictured - they're probably eating
my hand as I take the photo. Image by Anita Isalska

If I've tweaked your interest and you want to read more about my adventures in Greenland, check out my feature on Lonely Planet and take a look at my journey to Greenland on Storify.