Twelve things I now know about gluten

It’s been two and a half years since I found out I had coeliac disease, the treatment for which is never to eat gluten again. (The things I do for my villi.) Here is what I now know.

1. I am sick of the word ‘gluten’ It’s possible that before July 2011 I had never even said ‘gluten’ out loud. Now, it feels like it’s roughly 50% of every sentence I utter. I’m tempted to learn the word in other languages just for variety. Except I’ve just checked and in most other languages it’s also called ‘gluten’. So much for that.

2. Expensive bread-makers with a gluten-free setting (and a partner who likes using them) make life wonderful. Since Christmas, my house has regularly contained fresh bread: white, brown, sundried tomato and Parmesan, cinnamon and pecan. And I no longer spend my free time frantically scouring London for fresh gluten-free bread like some kind of, er, bread junkie.

3. It was almost worth becoming coeliac to have discovered Nature’s Path Maple Sunrise cereal and Amy’s Kitchen rice and bean soup. Ilumi is also worth buying from – their ready meals come in a pouch and last for ages, which means you can carry one with you for emergency dinner situations. (There will be emergency dinner situations.)

4. It’s great when restaurants list which of their dishes have gluten in. Very much appreciated and saves those awful, awkward conversations with staff that leave me feeling like the fussiest customer in the world. But two tips:
- If you’re going to list which choices have gluten in, the important next step is to make sure that some options don’t contain it. I mean, knowing that you have literally nothing I can eat is useful information, but it’s kind of depressing that you care enough to label your menu but not enough to make anything I can eat. If you don’t have a coeliac-friendly kitchen – and I totally understand and appreciate that most places don’t – that’s fine, but don’t lead me on.
- If your menu has small print stating that I can ask your staff for help if I have any allergies, please follow this up by training said staff, or at least letting them know the small print is there and might occasionally be read by someone. It’s a dispiriting experience when you read something at the bottom of the menu implying that you cater for special diets, then ask the staff about it and realise they have no idea what to tell you. I have seen enough glazed, terrified looks in the eyes of waitresses when I say ‘What do you have that’s gluten free?’ I do not want to spend my life scaring restaurant staff.

5. Like someone who’s slightly too good at hide and seek, gluten conceals itself in unexpected places and is sometimes not discovered until it’s too late. My most surprising discovery was that Marks and Spencer put it in their diet cola. Why? What does wheat add to the cola-making process?

6. It’s quite hard to explain to a three-year-old why she shouldn’t have put that slice of bread on your plate when she was just trying to be helpful.

7. Some of my friends have taught themselves to make gluten-free brownies, muffins, cupcakes, cheese straws etc., and will regularly turn up to events I’m at holding Tupperware boxes full of me-friendly deliciousness. I would like to express my eternal, enthusiastic gratitude to them. If you’re coeliac, I recommend my friends, or – more practically – training your own friends up.

Sometime my foods comes in technicolour.

Sometime my food comes in technicolour.

8. Join the National Trust. All of their cafes (that I’ve visited so far) have labelled gluten-free options, which can include fresh rolls, cakes, scones and main meals. Plus, you know, they have nature and stuff.

9. Some central London recommendations:
- Mestizo. Mexican restaurant near Euston. Delicious and very friendly to special diets. Slightly pricey by my standards but worth it as a treat.
- Da Mario in Endell Street, near Covent Garden, is a lovely coeliac-friendly Italian ()
- Selfridges Food Hall. They stock produce from Vozars/WAG Cafe – fresh bread and cakes – and if you’re feeling particularly solvent they also have a gluten-free deli section with tortellini. It looks amazing. I haven’t tried it because it works out at roughly £1 per piece of pasta, but maybe for a (very) special occasion.
- The best chains for gluten-free food are Zizzi, Pizza Express, La Tasca, Las Iguanas and Carluccios. EAT usually has options too. And I had a really good gluten-free curry at Pod near Liverpool Street.
- This Chinese restaurant behind Paddington station is a bit expensive but coped admirably with me, and I had crispy seaweed, crispy fried pork and egg fried rice with no ill effects.

10. Gluten-free bread, pastries, scones etc will almost always taste best after thirty seconds in a microwave. Gluten-free cakes and biscuits, which tend to be crumbly and a bit dry, will almost always taste best when served with yoghurt, cream, ice cream etc. I swear this is not just an excuse to eat more ice cream (although it is also that).

11. The texture of gluten-free things also means that if you eat at your desk, your keyboard will become mostly make up of crumbs. So will your clothes, hair and general vicinity. You might as well just live with it.

12. Vozars in Brixton Village is a magical fairytale of a place where I can eat everything. They are starting to recognise me by sight. Everyone go and eat there to make sure they stay open: try the slow-roasted pork belly, or the pile of roasted vegetables with goat’s cheese. Or everything. It’s all good. Stop reading this and leave now.

3 comments

  1. Mary Hoffman says:

    This is very helpful. I have been vegetarian for many decades but only GF since November and I am stumbling with this double-whammy. (Not coeliac just gluten averse apparently.) I don’t suppose you have any experience of eating out/hotels in Italy? I have to be in Bologna late March and Florence a week or so later and am thinking of packing loaves and cereal but dinners out could be a test. Good luck with your new lifestyle.

  2. April says:

    Yes! Everything you said here! Except substitute Edinburgh recommendations. Vittorias and La Favorita, obviously, David Banns has a separate GF menu, very handy, and Union of Genius has soup, salad and CAKE that are amazing.

  3. helen-louise says:

    I totally empathise with point 4! The most annoying thing for me is when a restaurant has an allergy book but doesn’t bother to split apart the individual items that make up a meal. For example, with my dairy and egg intolerances, I can often eat falafel or veggie burgers if the yogurt or mayonnaise is removed. But a lot of places list the falafel as a complete entity as sold, rather than each component of it. SO ANNOYING!

    With regard to gluten-free cakes, Cookies and Scream in Camden Lock Market is a magical place where the entire kitchen is kept vegan and gluten-free. I go there most Fridays, and quite honestly every time I’m there, someone turns up and asks what is gluten-free, is told “everything”, and has a minor emotional breakdown. “OMG I can eat EVERYTHING, I have no idea what to choose!”

    I recommend the brownies. SOOOOO chocolatey. I take along a plastic box, collect three, put one in the freezer, and eat the others with vanilla yogurt. They’re so big that I couldn’t eat a whole one at once anyway. They last for a week, and then I go back the next Friday and get some more. The best thing is, they don’t TASTE vegan or gluten-free. You can feed them to normal people and they’ll love them too.

    That’s the hardest part of being on a special diet. Not only finding food you can eat, but finding GOOD food. Food that just happens to be vegan or gluten-free or whatever your issue is, and that is tasty enough that omnivores with no issues at all would want to eat it. I’ve seen (and eaten) terrifying vegan cheeses, and I’ve definitely seen a lot of terrifying gluten-free cakes and breads. Thankfully, there are increasing numbers of good ones.

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