Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Cotswolds Eating Out With a Food Allergy

As usual, when travelling, we always take a supply of food in case we can’t find anything suitable – bottles of soya milk, as you’d be surprised how many cafes don’t serve it; Eat Natural bars; bananas and apples. I also packed some Genius gluten free bread as the owner of Holly House in Bourton on the Water where we were staying, said they didn’t have any.
Motorway services are always a hit and miss affair, so imagine our surprise when we chanced upon The Kings Hotel in Stokenchurch, off junction 5, on the M40 Here, we sat on the terrace in the sunshine where we enjoyed chips with garlic mayonnaise and vegetable spring rolls with chilli sauce, with cups of tea, using our own soya milk. We were impressed by the quick service and the ambience of the venue.
Once we’d picked up our friends Shane and Evie, we stopped off at Chipping Norton for lunch. Bravely, we walked into The Fox, Market Place, Chipping Norton OX7 5DD 01608 642658 and was greeted by the landlord. I explained I was gluten free and my husband was dairy free, so he made some suggestions from the menu – mine was a jacket potato with tuna mayonnaise (£5) while Ray opted for Gammon steak, pineapple, chips and peas with no egg (£7.50). He checked with them that no butter was used in cooking or on the vegetables. Feeling tired and footsore after exploring Chipping Norton, we felt like tea and cake, but usually go without cake as it’s generally made with wheat and dairy. We were delightfully surprised to find wheat and dairy free cakes at the independent Jaffe & Neale book shop on the main square What’s more, they even serve soya milk. My choice was chocolate torte caprese (delicious and chocolatey) while Ray savoured a generous slice of Nigella Clementine cake, both £2.95 each.
For dinner, we chose the scenic Old Manse hotel in Bourton on the Water The restaurant was completely full, so we took our chances with the bar menu. When we ordered our food at the bar, we explained our allergies and the member of staff kept checking with the kitchen and was willing to help, despite people waiting to order drinks.
To start with Ray chose the hand-made shredded duck and hoisin spring rolls (£4.59) while I had grilled field mushrooms with goat’s cheese and rocket (£3.39). For Ray, the main course was slow cooking New Zealand lamb shank (£10.99). Instead of mashed potatoes which had butter in them, he was offered chips instead. They checked that the gravy didn’t have dairy and the petit pois didn’t have butter on the top. My main course was sweet potato apricot chickpea and red pepper kebabs (£7.59) which tasted more like vegetarian sausages. Curiously, the tea tasted metallic, so they made us a fresh pot – we wonder is it something to do with the water? Shane’s Mocha was also dubious.
We stayed at Holly House, Station Road, Bourton on the Water This is under new management and we were given a friendly welcome. I had contacted them before to inform them about our allergies and it was a delightful surprise to discover they had kindly purchased soya milk and gluten free bread. Breakfast was easy as we could pick the elements from the Full English Breakfast that we wanted. For Ray it was an egg well done, a rasher of bacon and baked beans. I had two rashers, a fried egg and grilled tomato with toasted gluten free bread. A real treat!
The next morning we explored Kelmscott Manor, William Morris’ country retreat. Apparently when he saw the farmhouse in an estate agent’s, he immediately fell in love with it, describing it as “a heaven on earth”. I wouldn’t disagree with that; it is an idyllic residence beautifully presented with well informed volunteer guides, who will fill you in on every detail. There’s even Morris’ top coat on display and examples of Morris’ famous designs on fabrics. Pictures of his wife, Jane, are on display including the famous “The Blue Silk Dress” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
For lunch, Ray discovered that the mouth-watering pasties and quiches on display contained butter (and wheat so no good for me either) so they suggested bread, ham and pickle for him. I chose a salad bowl. With two cups of tea (using our own soya milk), this came to £7.20. We wondered what the tea would taste like, but it was fine.
For our last meal in The Cotswolds, we were looking forward to a traditional English meal, but wandering round Bourton-on-the-Water this was difficult. Evie is vegetarian, so we were looking for good veggie choices, as well as dishes which Ray and I could eat. This seemed enormously difficult as most of the menus were elaborate with sauces covering the meat and poultry. From our experience, sauces usually contain wheat, gluten and dairy.
We were getting rather desperate so at one point, we went into the Chinese restaurant. It seemed ironic to be eating Chinese in the British Cotswolds, so we persevered and Shane alerted us to the Croft restaurant, part of the Chester House hotel As it was Saturday night, they were totally full, but offered us a table outside which we took with alacrity, zipping up our fleeces and jackets so we would remain warm. Evie suggested we ordered quickly so we didn’t freeze, as the temperature was falling. The service was impeccable and friendly, our waitress even offering to find a table inside if one became available. I asked whether the home-made tomato and basil soup (£4.50) had wheat in it. She checked and it didn’t – I have to say it was delicious and helped to keep me warm. My main course was Free Range Kelmscott Gammon Steak with fried egg, pineapple and chips (£8.75). The waitress had checked with the chef that there was no dairy in the dishes Ray ordered – to start with Goats Cheese and Sweet Cured Bacon served en croute with red onion marmalade, mixed leaves and balsamic reduction (£4.95) followed by Cotswolds 28 day aged sirloin steak served with chunky chips and salad (£13.50). He was assured that the vegetables would be served with no butter on them. We were too full for dessert and anyway it was getting colder by this time. This was one of the best meals we enjoyed in The Cotswolds and we would return here.
On the Sunday, we stopped off at Oxford on the way back and mooched around the crowded streets, admiring the buildings and looking inside the colleges where possible, although most of them were closed.
Again, eating lunch was problematic finding the magic combination of veggie choices and plain type dishes. We thought Ask would be possible, so I asked them whether they put dairy in the pizza dough and unfortunately they do – although they do serve gluten free pasta, which is good to know. Shane and Evie told us about this cool pizzeria chain Fire and Stone and we discovered one in Oxford. I couldn’t eat the pizzas because of the wheat in the pizza base and unfortunately, pizzerias in Britain don’t offer gluten free pizzas as yet (unlike pasta – thank you Carluccios and Ask for serving gluten free pasta!) but I adore salads and Fire and Stone offer a wide selection. Before we sat down, we asked the crucial question “Does your pizza dough contain dairy?” and to our relief, it didn’t! The menu is arranged under different countries, so you can choose a pizza according to the country, whether it’s Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia or The Americas or create your own. For example, under “Australia”, the pizzas are named after cities, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and so on.
After all that, Ray decided to order something completely different – Charcuterie board (£11.25) with parma ham, Napoli salami, garlic and fennel, smoked ham, hummus, kalamata olives, comichens (like gherkins) taramasalata and grilled pitta bread. I opted for the classic Nicoise salad, one of my favourites (£9.25).
So it was back to sunny Surrey after a restful weekend in The Cotswolds. Where to next I wonder?

Monday, 4 July 2011

Isle of Wight eating out with a food allergy

Travelling to the Isle of Wight, the best we could do was to stop off at McDonald’s outside Portsmouth for a bag of chips. Waiting to board the ferry at Portsmouth, I was able to nip out of the car and buy two teas with soya milk from Costa Coffee, but food-wise there was nothing wheat, gluten or dairy free.
Luckily as we were going to self catering accommodation, we had a supply of Eat Natural bars and rice cakes to keep us going.
We are staying at the West Bay Club, Yarmouth , an idyllic complex of self catering cottages with a Country Club, equipped with a swimming pool, beauty salon, restaurant, gym and exercise studios. For the more energetic, there are tennis courts and even somewhere to play football! Starving hungry on a Friday night, we checked out the restaurant to find the only items on the menu were rump steak and Bearnaise sauce and beef stroganoff. So not fancying a plain steak, we ventured forth to Newport where we tried Olivo, but they were fully booked, so we ended up in Pizza Express, Providence Corner, Pyle Street, Newport Ray checked there was no milk in the pizza dough and was assured there wasn’t. As he says, Pizza Express, is pretty consistent and we can both eat there. For gluten and wheat free customers, there is a good selection of salads such as Nicoise Salad (£9.15). Ray’s dairy free pizza was a Veneziana, but instead of mozzarella, he asked for prosciutto and had red onions, capers, sultanas and pine kernels on the top. What’s more, 25p goes to the Veneziana Fund. Ray asked for a small amount of passata. For him, passata is less likely to cause a reaction as fresh tomatoes, probably because there are no pips in it. We discovered the PizzaXpress iPhone app being advertised which you can use to find a restaurant, book your table and pay your bill with Paypal. Sounds a great scheme.
Ray asked for some olive oil: “A sprinkle of olive oil on the pizza makes all the difference because it replaces the fat you would’ve had from mozzarella,” he said.
I enjoyed my Nicoise salad; sadly Pizza Express don’t offer gluten free pizzas as yet. Why not, I wonder when Carluccio’s can serve gluten free pasta and sell it in their shop?
At Yarmouth, we stopped off at The Gossip’s Café at the end of the square – the only waterside café. Nothing dairy or gluten free here, but enjoyed a cup of tea (with our own soya milk) admiring the views of the Solent and watching the Yarmouth/Lymington ferry boats. It has an unusual wooden pier you can stroll down for more sea views.
Monday was the wrong day to visit Ventnor as many of the shops were shut. We had been recommended to visit as it’s an old fashioned place, like stepping back in time to the 1950s, with its independent, quirky shops dominating the high street. We found The Ventnorian, 5 Spring Hill, Ventnor, PO33 1PE, a traditional toy shop selling gluten free and dairy free products at the back of the shop – not many, but good to know about. Some highly individualistic teddies on sale as well.
Our visit to Osborne House, East Cowes wouldn’t have been complete without a cup of tea. Fortunately we’d brought our own soya milk, but I was able to enjoy a gluten free macaroon – delicious. As there was a cream filling, Ray was unable to eat any, so nothing available for dairy free folk. This grand residence was once the seaside retreat of Queen Victoria. Well worth a visit to see how they used to live back then. Very opulent and well maintained. Queen Victoria’s bedroom has been kept exactly as it was following her death. Take a stroll in the beautiful walled garden.
Wandering through Cowes, we chanced upon the British Legion Club, which welcomes visitors. Despite the 1950s décor, it boasts fabulous views of the Solent and boats. We had a cup of tea (90p each) using our own soya milk. The food looked good value – gammon, ham, eggs, chips and peas £5.25 or a jacket potato with tuna mayonnaise £4.95.
Cowes’ best kept secret is The Octopus Garden, which is a shrine to The Beatles. All the walls are decorated with Beatles posters, photographs and LP covers. There’s a cabinet with incredible lookalike puppets of The Beatles dressed as Sgt Pepper and of course, Beatles’ music plays all the time. The café has a 1960s feel about it to be sure. Most importantly we could both eat there and chose Chris’ breakfast (named after the owner) with a couple of adjustments, at £4.25 each. Ray ordered Isle of Wight sausage, bacon, egg, slices of toast, but no tomato. He asked whether the sausage had milk in it and the owner said he couldn’t be 100% certain, so Ray took a chance. I had the same but with no sausage or toast.
Fortunately they told us that the toast was spread with “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” so he asked for strawberry jam instead.
The menu gives details under the heading “our guarantee” of where ingredients come from. For example, the sausages, gammon ham and bacon comes from Hamilton’s Butchers, Cowes, while Hovis or Kingsmill bread is used for toast. It said Heinz Baked Beans were served, important for Ray to know as they don’t contain milk (like some other makes).
We had deliberately chosen self catering accommodation, so mostly we prepared our own meals, which was a relief because we knew what the contents were. Staples we’d brought with us included soya milk, rice cakes, Eat Natural bars and Marigold’s bouillon, which can be used in so many ways. We discovered the large Sainsbury’s superstore near Newport which has an extensive “free from” section so was able to buy Genius gluten free bread, as well as gluten free pasta (heaven). One tip I’ve been told is to cook gluten free pasta for at least 20 minutes rather than the ten minutes suggested on some packs – it works! There’s also Morrisons in Newport, but it has a tiny ‘free from’ section.
Walking into Yarmouth for lunch, we chose Jireh House Yarmouth, where the owner Jan was very welcoming and accommodating. Sitting in the back garden, after having explained his allergies, Ray asked for a smoked salmon sandwich (£3.90) without butter (crucially), lemon, tomatoes or cucumber. When he asked her about milk in the bread, she brought the Hovis packaging for him to look at, so we were able to verify there was no milk in it. I opted for a smoked salmon salad (£10.95). We noticed there was a sign warning people about “Falling Apples” from the impressively large apple tree.
She asked me to send her recipes, as she likes to serve gluten free cakes, so I will do so.
At the Deli in Yarmouth (just along the road from Jireh House), we saw several gluten free products on sale such as Hale & Hearty gluten free porridge and Mrs Crimbles’ gluten free cakes, but they don’t sell soya milk. We found that in nearby Cost Cutters.
For a treat on our last night, we visited Olivo Bar & Caffeteria in Newport, 15 St Thomas Square, PO30 1SL, tel: 01983 530001. This restaurant is always busy, so it’s important to book. Even on a Thursday night, two large parties arrived and they had to turn away a party of 14. When I made the reservation, I mentioned the food allergies Ray and I had and was impressed that they had made a note of this.
To start with, we ordered Pincho (£4.50) – hummus, chorizo, olives and flat bread. They checked to see if there was no milk in the flatbread, but couldn’t be 100% certain, so Ray took a chance. Being gluten free, I didn’t have any bread. At their own volition, they checked the chorizo sausage ingredients, discovered there was milk powder and came and told us. This is the first time that any restaurant has gone to such trouble to check the ingredients of a sausage. They put the chorizo sausage in a separate bowl and gave it to me, so Ray wouldn’t be tempted.
For the main course, Ray asked if he could have Spalla di Maiale (£14.50) – pan fried pork spare rib steak with shallots and chestnut mushrooms and new potatoes. The staff checked with the kitchen and they said they would give him a different garnish, with no butter. I enjoyed sea bass with sauté potatoes and tsikali. (£14.95). Both were delicious and well presented. Top marks Olivo!