Wednesday, 16 September 2015

The Great British Bake-Off (2) - Going Gluten Free

Another year of Great British Bake-Off. It comes around too early, like the start of the football season. I think of it as autumn viewing, yet it started in August. Right now, mid-September, with the conkers ripening and the leaves developing an orange tint, I am still waiting for summer.

As is the Bake-Off tent. No melting baked Alaskas this year, just Paul Hollywood staring menacingly at rain.

This year, they had a "Free From" week. Which caught my attention, as I gave up eating gluten mid-June. (Which generally cancels the point of watching Bake-Off.) If you look at any online support group for Hashimoto's thyroiditis, one of the first things they usually tell you to do is give up gluten. (Something to do with gluten triggering a particular immune response in the thyroid.) Obviously no doctor tells you to do this, but I learned long ago that GPs know pretty much shit about thyroids, and are happy to let people go around feeling like crap for years so long as a score on a blood test comes back somewhere within a very large range of numbers. Given that I was diagnosed with this disease 11 years ago and have possibly had it for up to 30, I maybe should have tried stopping gluten a very long time ago, before I became dependent on medication for the rest of my life. I only finally cracked and tried it because I had developed an acid reflux problem on top of everything else (also common in Hashimoto's). A useless GP made the acid reflux a million times worse by making me take a ghastly PPI drug when really she should have left well alone. And I got desperate.

I can't say giving up gluten has had a wholly positive effect. I instantly felt clearer headed and more energetic, but this quickly shot into mania as my thyroxine dose became too high. This had a knock-on effect on other hormones as the summer progressed, and now I think my thyroxine has been cut too much and I will be battling fatigue, bone pain, hair loss and neck swelling until I can get a blood test score out of range enough for a GP to allow me to make a small increase. But it's interesting that my digestive system became so much better at absorbing my medication by stopping gluten. The sudden hyperthyroidism may have also had something to do with me rapidly losing weight - weight loss I partly attribute to no longer being able to eat nice bread and cakes. Shop-bought gluten-free versions are at best textually weird or packed with salt and sugar, and at worst downright revolting. Rather than making do with substitutes, I have learned to make my own or stick to things that are naturally gluten-free, like chick pea crackers or ground almond brownies.

So I was keen to see what Bake-Off could show me on the gluten-free front. The only part involving no gluten was the technical challenge - a Paul Hollywood gluten-free pitta bread recipe. The dough looked sticky and unappetising and the finished product not much nicer in comparison to the "real" thing served up in your average Greek taverna. Shame. I haven't managed to make anything better myself, which has a lot to do with having to put eggs and vinegar in gluten-free bread recipes, the taste of which I find cannot be masked.

It's been interesting eating out on a gluten-free diet. I haven't obsessed too much about cross-contamination, which I would have to do if I were a Coeliac. What a nightmare that must be, when a single grain of gluten can make you seriously ill. Cupboards and surfaces and utensils must be scrupulously clean of any trace of traditional flour, and restaurants need to be stringent about storage and preparation. Which of course many won't be. It's really made me understand how difficult life (and it is for life) must be for a Coeliac.

I can't speak for restaurant kitchens of places I have visited, only the menus. I have really only been to chain restaurants to eat out since I changed my diet, as they are good about publishing information about allergens, so I can check things in advance. They are also the sort of place that my daughter is happy in, because of the whole colouring and ice cream thing. Otherwise I have eaten a lot of baked potatoes in cafes, and a lot of quinoa salad. I would highly commend Jamie's Italian, who handed me a gluten-free menu as soon as I walked in, having made a reservation online which informed them of my dietary requirements. The menu had lots of yummy things to choose from, as opposed to the token one or two dishes you might find elsewhere. Pizza Express also has a couple of nice gluten-free dishes which aren't just their pizza toppings on a bought-in gluten-free base - things like risotto or baked aubergines. I have sampled gluten-free fish and chips in Filey, which tasted all the better for being freshly prepared to order, rather than sitting on the counter like the regular ones. I have yet to try gluten-only cafes like El Piano in York or the Walrus and Carpenter in Whitby. But the best place I have been to so far is a small bistro in Grasmere, Green's, which gave me the best shepherd's pie of my life and brought me a special cookie to have with my cup of tea without even being asked. Small touches make big impressions.

As for the less good experiences, I would have to include Wagamama's. which surprised me, as you think of rice-based Oriental food as being quite gluten light. However, nearly all their sauces contain soy sauce, which means you can't have them. Wagamama's will leave the dish unsauced and bring you a bottle of gluten-free soy to sprinkle on instead, but that doesn't taste nearly as good. Frankie and Benny's was also fairly shocking. I have never been under the illusion that Frankie and Benny's is a high quality place to eat. I only go there after I have taken my daughter to the cinema, as the "singing cafe" (as she calls it) is next door. Impressed to see they even had a gluten free menu, I was quickly disappointed to realise that this mostly consisted of salads of meagre portion size for an inflated £12 price tag. They were literally a lump of goat's cheese or the most revolting looking stewed pastrami on a few lettuce leaves and shreds of carrot, with just one small slice of new potato thrown in to be the carbohydrate filler. Gluten-eaters could have a gigantic lunch deal of wraps, fries etc for £6. I left hungry and poor, and therefore angry. Gluten free products are expensive, but there wasn't anything expensive in the dish I ordered for what they charged me. My decision to cut gluten was a personal choice rather than an absolutely necessary medical requirement, but it's very unfair of Frankie & Benny's to rip off people with a condition like Coeliac disease in this way.

The other dishes on the "Free From" Bake-Off were a sugar-free cake and a dairy-free Arctic roll. The contestants found humour in the fact that all the good stuff had been taken out of these dishes, but really the skill of a good baker in these circumstances lies in enabling people who have to miss out on some of the finer things in life to still find pleasure in food.
Gluten-free birthday cake for our girl so Mummy could eat it too

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