Reflections on my gluten free experience so far

I had been vaguely aware of coeliac disease for some time but had no real understanding of it or any appreciation of the difficulties that sufferers have in coping with managing their diets particularly when eating out. My attention and interest in it was linked with the launch of afternoon teas at Chez Shamwari. To promote my new little venture I was talking to everyone I could when the moment was appropriate. This resulted in a number of conversations about the disease as people informed me that they would love to come to tea but would only be able to do so if the food on offer was gluten free. I took to heart the plight of these poor people who were being denied the opportunity to indulge in a sumptuous afternoon tea! I always relish a challenge and this was one I just had to attempt.

The first place I went to for information was Coeliac UK (http://www.coeliac.org.uk/) and immediately purchased their little digest containing lists of foods that are gluten free. It’s been my ‘bible’ – if it’s not listed in there as gluten free, I don’t touch it! Their website has a host of useful information too.

I started to think I might have taken on a challenge too far when I learnt about the cross contamination issue. Some sufferers are so sensitive to gluten that even a few normal breadcrumbs can result in a reaction. I was concerned about how ‘clean’ my kitchen needed to be to prevent any cross contamination. Take my Kenwood Chef for example which I use for all my ‘normal’ baking and is often covered in flour dust at the end of a session. How ‘sterile’ does that need to be? A coeliac friend assured me that as long as I wipe things down extremely well and wash utensils, cutting boards, etc that might have come in contact with gluten products, there should be no problem.

So I decided to persevere and set about practising to gain some confidence and to ensure I was happy with the quality of the end product before giving it to my guests. There was a flurry of online cook book ordering to get some recipe ideas. The three books I’ve bought are Phil Vickery’s “Seriously Good! Gluten-Free Cooking” and “Seriously Good! Gluten-Free Baking” and Hannah Miles’ “The Gluten Free Baker”.

To me the ‘pièce de resistance’ for afternoon tea would be shortcrust pastry and scones – could I reproduce something that was equally light and ‘short’ as it’s gluten counterpart? I decided to use Phil Vickery’s pastry recipe (see the recipe I’ve posted here) and his scones. I was very encouraged by the pastry results and made it into an onion tart.

I was equally pleased with the scones. The only change I made to the recipe was to use buttermilk rather than just plain milk. I think buttermilk gives scones that extra lightness and flavour.

Having satisfied myself that I could produce some comparatively delicious food, the only thing remaining was to decide on the date for my inaugural gluten free afternoon tea. And Sunday January 15 it was to be.

Having set up a gluten free waiting list on my website I emailed this group as priority. The level of response was disappointing I have to admit. I guess the date just wasn’t convenient for folks. Undeterred I also promoted the event via Twitter giving priority booking to any coeliacs. Again the response was disappointing and about 2 weeks before the event I decided to open it up to anyone in order to fill my table of 6 people which I managed to do. So in the end, I only had 2 coeliacs at the table but I served the same food and menu to all my guests as it would have been too difficult to do half and half due to the cross contamination issue. I was confident in the quality of my menu items that most people wouldn’t have even known that the food was gluten free. You can see that menu here.

So the big day arrived and I have to admit I was a little worried as to how things would go and whether I had been careful enough with my preparation to not make anyone ill!

The final bit of preparation before my guests arrived was making up the finger sandwiches. This was a challenge as the bread is more brittle than the normal stuff. I had been keeping the white & brown loaves in the freezer and defrosted them as instructed from the supplier, Foodamentalists (http://www.foodamentalists.co.uk/). As this was my first time of handling gluten free bed, I found it very tricky to handle and I couldn’t cut the sandwiches into too smaller slices otherwise, they would just fall apart!

My earlier fears were soon dismissed as my guests tucked into the feast and the ‘mmm yum’ and ‘oooh this is lovely’ complements starting coming. The laughter and conversation flowed with as much ease as the tea and coffee. I was assured that the sandwiches were absolutely fine and this was validated by the fact that there were only a few crumbs and shreds of lettuce left on the platter. Everyone seemed to depart as very happy customers much to my delight.

With hardly time to draw breath, I had yet another gluten free tea to prepare the following Sunday which was a private booking for a group of my friends. Beside the challenge of another gluten free menu there were eight in the group; I normally only seat six!

It was a long day on the Saturday preparing the food (Click here to see that menu). I was able to find some small stools to squeeze round the table and managed to just fit 8 place settings. It certainly was more cosy than usual and just as well they all knew each other extremely well and were happy to ‘go with the flow’!

This time for the sandwiches I used Genius and Sainsbury’s ‘Free From’ bread from fresh, i.e. without freezing, and found this to be much better and easier to handle. Note to self for next time!

My guests on this occasion were equally effusive with their praise of the food. As with the previous tea, the coeliac sufferers all deeply appreciated partaking of pastry and scones which they seem to seldom get to enjoy.

So how has the gluten free journey been so far? I’ve really enjoyed learning about the disease and researching recipes. And to top it all, it has been made all the more worthwhile when one of my guests told me “since being diagnosed [as coeliac] in 1992, this is the first cream tea I’ve ever had”. It was a special moment and so satisfying to know the enjoyment I’d had been able to provide.

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