We moved house in April 2015. Our new but old house is a big project and the kitchen is not fully functional. So since the move we’ve eaten out a lot more often than normal. As with many allergy families, we have our favourites and Zizzi, Pizza Express and a few other chains got a good bit of business from us.
We’ve always enjoyed eating out as a family, even in the days when there was very little choice and we had to take food for Zac. But in just a few years things have really changed. The introduction of the new EU Food Regs in December 2014 must have been the catalyst for the marked improvement in choice. But I guess the gluten free trend is also a factor.
Since the move we have eaten in chain restaurants and independents, pubs, cafes, shops and it’s definitely a lot better now in all of them. It’s (mostly) very easy to get hold of allergen information. Some places have good websites and you can check it out before you go. Others have huge folders with every bit of detail you could possibly need – in some places you need to ask for it and others have them on shelves, tables and by payment counters for your convenience. Many take great pride in their compliance with the law and the options they can now offer.
It’s great to see that so many restaurants are really embracing this opportunity and seem to ‘get’ that the allergy sufferer is often the decision maker for a group going out to dine, so if you can serve that person you get the whole group – and likely repeat business. Menus are clearer and easier to follow. Waiting staff are becoming more knowledgeable and you don’t feel quite so awkward or so much of a nuisance.
However, there’s still a long way to go. Orders still get muddled. It’s still not unusual for a pizza we have asked to be gluten free and dairy free to come out with cheese on top. There’s definitely been a few instances when ‘normal’ bread or pizza has been served instead of gluten free, but we are all vigilant. You can usually spot the difference and if and when we’re not sure we usually taste it first for him or ask the waiting staff to double check.
Desserts are still disappointing. Fruit salad and sorbet is all a dairy free person can expect and a gluten free brownie seems to be the standard offering for Coeliacs etc. So we still take our own puddings, just in case. No-one wants sorbet in January do they?
Allergy Aware Kitchen, Allergy UK and Can I Eat There have played their part in driving improvements and awareness. The Allergy Show and The Free From Food Awards are also important – for helping launch products to market and to keep raising awareness.
The national press has been as much of a hindrance as a help. Reporting stories of the Coeliac ‘prescriptions scandal’ and the chefs ‘revolt’ over the introduction of the new Food Regs – set us all back and did little to make us feel confident that things will improve. It’s always disappointing to hear well known chefs expressing their irritation over this serious issue but it is heartening to see others embracing it now. Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have done a lot recently to show how Free From cookery is now an additional skill they have mastered and they are going beyond the allergy issue and looking at health.
Clearly their new dairy free, gluten free books have been driven as much by the trend for clean eating as anything else, but that’s a positive thing. The more we all reflect on our own diets and make good choices to clean it up the happier and healthier we will all be.
Maybe it’s my age or demographic but I see on social media so many people giving up sugar, dairy and grains for health reasons, so it seems the trend will be the driver as much as the need and the law.
Just yesterday I saw a bit of ‘uproar’ in the allergy community as someone on This Morning declared that going dairy free is better for weight loss than going gluten free. Nothing irritates Coeliacs and allergy sufferers much more than when people assume they are asking for DF/GF as a lifestyle choice or for weight control.
January is always the time when the press is full of weight loss tips, miracle diets, fitness videos and celebrities launching books that will change your life. I have noticed there are as many columns and features on the new Free From food writers (Deliciously Ella, Hemsley + Hemsley) as there are mainstream cooks and chefs. I’ve even taken out subscriptions to a couple of magazines totally dedicated to Free From. I wonder how many more will launch this year?
So perhaps we shouldn’t complain after all. If Jamie Oliver is finally seeing the benefit of a dairy free diet on his waistline perhaps he will also look at the menus in his restaurant and finally bring in some of the dishes from his new book. Here’s hoping.
So my prediction is that 2016 will see a continued growth of Free From food products, books, magazines and specialist chefs. Free From eating may start to become as ‘normal’ as being a vegetarian and as ‘easy’ to do when eating out. Although as a lover of vegetarian food I can’t help but notice the lack of choice they still have in many places – so hopefully the trend for ‘courgetti’ and ‘cauliflower rice’ may have a positive impact on those menus too.
But for now here’s my top 5 chains (and locations) who did a good job for us last year.
- Ask – Amersham, Milton Keynes, Berkhamsted, Butlers Wharf
- Pizza Express – Bedford, Milton Keynes, Christchurch, Docklands, London Bridge
- Zizzi – St Albans, St Katharine’s Dock, Bournemouth, Bankside, The 02
- Beefeater – Bedford, Luton, Isle of Wight.
- TGI Friday – Covent Garden, Brent Cross, Milton Keynes
And here’s the links to some of my reviews on Can I Eat There. Just in case you fancy trying some yourself.