I recently read that the UK ‘free from’ foods market is now estimated to be worth close to £250 billion! It is claimed that much of it is driven by lifestyle choices – and not just by people who have to follow a restricted diet because of allergy or GI diseases and conditions. In the four years since Zac’s diet became dairy free and then gluten free, I have visited pretty much every supermarket I have ever passed just in the hope of finding some new foods that might be of interest and suitable. All of the major supermarkets have a range of free from foods, all of them seem to think it is justifiable to charge on average two to three times what you would pay for normal food, so it is little wonder that this market is so valuable. However, if you are forced to shop ‘free from’ out of necessity, then you do start to resent the lack of choice and the feeling of being ripped off. This remains one of my key motivations for writing this blog – finding ways around this.
I have regularly blogged my way through various recipes that I have either seen in specialist cook books, or adapted traditional family recipes that I have read or been given and worked out how to make them safe too. I have discovered that my children, and wider family, infinitely prefer my home made cakes and treats – even though I am far from skilled as a baker. The cost of the base ingredients is not particularly expensive, and it doesn’t take long. My home made ‘rocky road’ for instance has about six ingredients, yet if you read the side of the pack of a supermarket own brand of ‘rocky road’ slices, you would shudder at the huge list of ingredients that you have never heard of, not to mention the e numbers. According to the press a lot of ‘free from’ shop bought cakes, biscuits, bread etc are much higher in fat and calories than normal food – so in my opinion best avoided if you can, for the health of your family and your bank account!
My biggest joy since having to follow this lifestyle has been looking at other countries and cultures for foods that might be naturally gluten free and dairy free. There are many parts of the world where gluten is not eaten because wheat simply cannot be grown in the climate. Same goes for dairy, if you can’t graze the cows you cannot get dairy products, so the first place I found myself looking was East.
Until relatively recently dairy products, and gluten containing foods, were not eaten by people in Japan or China. Their diet has long been seen as healthy and very ‘clean’ and you can see why. Lots of fresh foods, very little that is processed, rice and rice noodles are of course gluten free and dairy was not used at all. However, since the arrival of the likes of Starbucks and McDonalds, there are now reports of a sharp rise in the number of cases of allergies/intolerance to wheat and dairy – lattes are not good for you! My last GP was from Hong Kong and I remember chatting to him about Zac’s dairy intolerance and he was quite dismissive. He said, ‘don’t worry about it, he is not a baby, he doesn’t need dairy in his diet, Chinese people don’t eat it and in fact most of us are totally intolerant to it but we survive!’ I saw his point even though I could have done with a bit less of a ‘get over it’ attitude.
So the first place I head to in supermarkets now, is not the ‘free from’ section, but the ‘World Foods’ section, because not only are there many safe treasures to be found, but often they are cheaper than in other parts of the store – in particular rice, rice noodles, coconut milk and pulses, which are all store cupboard essentials for us. You can get a sackful of rice for a fraction of the price of a tiny packet that may just be a few aisles away. So if you are lucky enough to live in an area that has a nice mix of ethnic diversity you may discover some fabulous new brands and ingredients. We had a new Morrisons open near us in Bedford recently and not only did I find Caribbean food, but I also found lots of African foods, e.g. plantain chips, cassava and gari which is a coarse flour made from cassava – it looks and ‘works’ like cous cous but is totally gluten free.
African cuisine is new to me, but I highly recommend it. I was more familiar with Afro-Caribbean type food and was always a fan so was intrigued when I recently met a fascinating lady named Patti Sloley whilst on my visit to the Novelli Academy. http://www.jeanchristophenovelli.com/the-academy/
Patti was the ‘meet and greet’ lady for the day and instantly made us all feel so warm and welcome. She has a wonderful smile and warmth that really beamed once she started telling us about her African heritage and love of food. Patti is originally from Ghana, and even runs a course at the Academy. http://www.jeanchristophenovelli.com/courses/resident-chef-courses/out-of-africa-and-the-tastes-of-ghana/ - I am currently saving up for that one.
She has also produced a book called A Plate in the Sun. During the first session of the day she talked us through some of the recipes and showed us some of her favourite ingredients. She had a copy of the book on the table and after just one flick through the pages, I could see that there was a lot to be learned from this book as a huge number of the recipes were completely suitable for gluten free, dairy free diets. We had a lovely chat and have stayed in touch since. We both share a real love of trying new foods and experimenting with ingredients. I bought a copy of her book and would urge any of you who are interested to take a look at her website at least and you will see what I mean. http://www.aplateinthesun.com/ The photography is beautiful, the range of ingredients is inspiring and the best thing is, the recipes are beautifully simple. Very much ‘home cooking’, which is what I am best at and love to eat the most.
My favourite recipe so far, has been Split Peas and Smoked Pork. I tried it out on my parents, my sister and her family and the kids one rainy Sunday before Christmas and it was a massive hit. A really comforting dish, one that could easily be used even as a weaning food for little ones, very economical, as you could make it last a couple of days too.
The ingredients were smoked bacon, yellow split peas, onions, carrot, garlic, and herbs (bay leaf, thyme) and salt and pepper to season. The method was simple too – just roast the bacon joint in the oven. Cook the split peas in water, add onions, carrot and garlic with the fresh thyme and bring to the boil. Once the pork/bacon is ready tear it into large chunks and add to the split peas and season. You don’t need much salt as the meat is quite salty to go easy! Then all you do is cover and simmer for about an hour. Stir from time to time to make sure you have enough liquid, and not to much. Just go by eye and taste of course! It needs to look like the consistency of mushy peas by the end.
It was so lovely and actually reminded me of when I was a student. I lived in Newcastle and ‘ham and pease pudding’ was and probably still is very popular up there. I guess their recipe must have been pretty similar to this. All I know is that this is simple home cooking at its best. Totally fulfilling, not expensive and completely and naturally gluten and dairy free.
So my mission for 2014 – continue to be bold and work/eat my way through those world food aisles and cookbooks and see what other naturally GF, DF treats are out there.
Coming next – my ‘visit’ to Vietnam….