I have spent much of the last week working on the entry forms for the FreeFrom Eating Out Awards which open at the end of this month – and it has really focused my mind on exactly what is involved for an eating-out establishment in going ‘freefrom’. But while, at first glance, the task seems somwhat daunting, it is amazing how simple much of it actually is.
Of course, it does, initially, involve a learning process, both for the owner or manager of the establishment and for the staff. There are a number of training programmes on offer from do-it-yourself online to full days (or weeks) of intensive in-house training. (See the Resources page on the FreeFrom Eating Out website for some suggestions.) But the ‘learning process’ seems to me to break down into four areas.
The first is for everyone concerned to learn something about what it is like to live with a food allergy or coeliac disease. If your staff do not understand the dangers, and how difficult life can be for those living on restricted diets, why would they bother going to the effort of feeding them safely and interestingly?
But if you can engage your kitchen and your waiting staff’s sympathy they will be far more likely to want to learn how to cater safely for those with allergies or coeliac disease. Just ask them to imagine being made to feel really ill for three days by eating a crumb of wheaten bread by mistake – or, even worse, suffering an anaphylactic shock because someone substituted peanut butter for almond butter in a recipe. (To get some idea of what it is like living with an allergy or coeliac disease, check in to some of the allergy blogs such as Ruth’s What Allergy? or Alexa’s YesNoBananas or, for a quicker snapshot read any of the entries in Sue’s diary on Coeliacs Matter or the ‘Cheese’ entry in Ruth’s diary on the FoodsMatter site.)
The next thing is some rote learning. Sorry, can’t really escape it.
What are the 14 major allergens that you need to know about (although only about half of them are going to be relevant 90% of the time) and where do you find them? For your convenience, here they all are – on a useful infographic from the Food Standards Agency that can be printed out for reference
However, while learning what they are is obviously essential, learning where they may crop up is even more important as it is not always clear from the name and it is all too easy to forget that couscous is a wheat product, that peanuts can also be called groundnuts, that salad dressings can contain gluten, that potato crisps can contain both gluten and dairy products, that low fat spreads are not necessarily dairy free, that soya sauce often contains wheat etc etc. There are all kinds of tables available all over the web but these are the ones that we listed in our original Allergy Catering Manual.
But no matter how good the learning, it is essential to have printed lists of these foods available all over your kitchen and serving area – preferably stuck up on the wall where staff can refer to them very easily and are constantly reminded of the need to do so!
Knowing all this stuff is one thing, putting into practice is quite another. And the putting it into practice falls into two areas: actually coming up with interesting ‘freefrom’, gluten and/or allergen free food and ensuring that it is not contaminated by any allergens that you are using in the kitchen.
This is the one that strikes terror into the hearts of newcomers to freefrom. Horror stories of guests suffering anaphylactic shocks and dying in their lobbies reduce perfectly competent restaurateurs and waiters to gibbering wrecks who turn away allergic guests for fear of killing them. Yet avoiding allergen contamination is no more than an extension of good kitchen hygiene.
As one experienced ‘freefrom’ chef said to me:
‘No well-run kitchen would even think of using the same cutting board or knife for cutting up a raw chicken and a loaf of bread for fear of salmonella poisoning (which can also kill you). So what is the difference between that and not using the same cutting board and knife to cut up your standard baguette and your gluten-free loaf?’
Applying normal hygiene procedures to allergens will cover most bases. So, just as you would never store raw meat above salads lest the blood should drip down and contaminate the salad, you would never store an ingredient which contained an allergen (wheat flour) above an ingredient free of that allergen (gluten-free flour) lest the wheat flour drop down and contaminate the wheat-free one below. Similarly, in any kitchen, you have different utensils for different jobs; it is very easy to mark or colour them so that it is clear what they are intended for. In terms of storage, you can easily store allergenic versions of an ingredient (butter, for example) in a different coloured/shaped container from the allergen-free one (dairy-free spread) so they are easily recognisable. And, if you want to make an allergen free version of a dish, make it immediately after the kitchen has been cleaned and before you make the allergen-containing version so that you can be sure that there will be none of the allergen left lying around to contaminate the allergen free version.
This is really not rocket science – just common sense and good kitchen practice.
b. Coming up with the ‘freefrom’ goods
And, to be honest, this is not rocket science either.
1. Once you have got your head around the 14 major allergens and the unlikely places that they are to be found, review your regular menus and recipes. You will be surprised how many of them are already ‘free of’ gluten or dairy or eggs or nuts – or could very easily be made so. For example, if the only wheat/gluten in the recipe is the flour thickening the sauce, use cornflour; if the only dairy in the recipe is the butter used to fry the onions, use olive or coconut oil.
2. Do not get hung up on the thought that those on gluten/dairy-free diets only want exact replicas of the gluten or dairy-filled originals. Yes, I am sure that most coeliacs would love to be offered a really excellent gluten-free Steak and kidney pudding but they will actually be very happy with a choice of delicious gluten-free dishes which do not replicate non-gluten-free ones – as long as they are tasty and safe. Indeed, they would much rather have a good dish which does not ape a non-gf dish than a bad gluten-free version of a standard gluten-filled dish!
3. Think outside the conventional recipe box – both in terms of ingredients and in terms of recipes – but also think simple. Remember that the three least allergenic foods in the worlds are thought to be lamb, rice and pears and there are very few allergic or coeliac people who cannot work their way very happily through a plate of meat and two veg! (Just make sure the sauce is thickened with cornflour and the veg dressed with olive oil!)
4. Think ‘world cuisine’… Many cuisines, especially those of South East Asia and South America, are naturally gluten, wheat and dairy free. Use ’em!
5. Think ‘raw’ and think vegan. By definition, raw foods do not use wheat (unless it be sprouted) as they are not cooked. (However, be aware that raw food recipes often use nuts for ‘pastry’ bases or crumbles.) And raw foodies are very imaginative. You may not want to buy into their philosophy but they do have some fun ideas – such as ‘alternative’ sandwiches… The image is of Apple sandwiches with date caramel and almond butter from This Rawsome Vegan Life blog.
And think vegan. Vegan cooking uses neither dairy products nor eggs and has long since shed its’ brown rice and sandals’ image. Vegan cookbooks can offer some really excellent and imaginative ideas for freefrom cooking.
Well, having got all that off my chest – all we need to do now is to locate all of those great freefrom restaurants and eateries out there who are already doing all of those great freefrom things – and get them entered into our great FreeFrom Eating out Awards!!
We already have queues of freefrom experts wanting to judge the Freefrom Food Awards – and I suspect the queues are just going to get longer once we start recruiting judges for the FreeFrom Eating Out Awards!!
If you want to know more about the awards, which open on May 27th, just check in to the site at www.freefromeatingoutawards.co.uk.