Warning: Contains Nuts

I had a very narrow escape yesterday. Following a training seminar near Fleet Street (where an Allergy Girl friendly lunch of ham salad with balsamic vinegar was provided), I decided to detour back to Waterloo via Le Pain Quotidien near the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank. Le Pain do a very nice Cocoa and Pear cake, and I thought I’d treat myself to a slice to indulge in during my commute home. On entering Le Pain, the conversation went like this:

Me: Do you have any of your vegan cocoa and pear cake?

Server: No, the only vegan cakes we have are the salted caramel and passion fruit cakes.

Me: Do they have nuts in them? I’m allergic to nuts.

Server: I don’t think so, let me just check.

She gets a typed piece of paper out of the folder, looks at it.

Server: There’s no nuts.

Me: Can I check?

I look at the typed list of ingredients in the salted caramel cake, and 2nd or 3rd on the list is cashews (not in bold type).

Me: There are cashews in it.

Server: Oh sorry, yes I didn’t see that. What about this one? (Pointing at the passion fruit and beetroot one)

At this point we both read through the list of ingredients, which seemed to be mostly coconut based. I purchased a slice of this for a whopping £5.95, and carefully carried it to the station for fear that a hurrying commuter might knock it out of my hand.

It got there in one piece.

On the train I opened the little box. The cake looked pretty and inviting and I was looking forward to trying something new.

I stuck my fork on the pointy end, and as soon as it reached my mouth my spidey senses were telling me that something was not right. I’m lucky that when I eat something I shouldn’t I get strange taste in my mouth, usually accompanied by a tingling feeling. My alarm bells were now ringing.

I quickly went onto Le Pain’s website to find their allergen information, but there wasn’t any. I then did an internet search for “Le Pain Quotidien Allergen Menu.” This came up with allergy menus from January and March 2017. I searched the menu and there were no passion fruit and beetroot cakes listed.

I then did a more general search for “Le Pain Quotidien passion fruit cake recipe.” This took me back to their website, and the menu, but no ingredients. The only passion fruit and beetroot cake I could see was a Passion fruit and Beetroot raw nut cake. Uh oh! The clue’s in the name. Interestingly the menu doesn’t say that this item contains nuts and there is no allergen information present at all. I thought by law they had to inform people if there are allergens present?

Anyway, just to be on the safe side I called them (from the Quiet Zone, I must add. I wouldn’t usually do this and I’m the first to tut and roll my eyes but at this point I was getting concerned that I might have a full blown allergic reaction on a train that was an hour away from home).

The lady I spoke to was very nice. She started reading the recipe; passion fruit, coconut cream, cashews…. Hang on!! Cashews?

You haven’t eaten any have you? Yes!

She offered a refund next time I’m in. I was less bothered about the refund than why both the server and I had missed the crucial piece of information that the recipe contains nuts. I’ll probably never know the answer, and can only assume it was missed off the recipe when it was typed up, or somehow we both missed it as it wasn’t in bold type. Had I known the name of the cake before purchasing it, I wouldn’t even have considered purchasing it, but unfortunately I didn’t see a menu and the full name of the item was never mentioned in the conversation I had with the server.

In a mild panic, I promptly swallowed three antihistamines and guzzled an entire bottle of water (the idea is to flush the allergen out). I then located the train guard and told him I was having an allergic reaction and where my epipen was kept just in case.

It turns it that apart from being extremely dozy from the antihistamines I was ok. It’s great that my body warns me that something isn’t right, and I’m able to catch it early. Had I eaten the whole thing it could have been a very different story. Le Pain Quotidien really need to sort out their allergen information. It needs to be clear and readily available, and I will be writing to them to this effect.

I think the moral of the story is check the ingredients. Then check again. Or just don’t buy the cake in the first place. It’s better for the wallet and the waistline!

Update

I saw the manager this morning. She was very apologetic and gave me a refund. She will raise the issues of training and allergen information with their food standards people.

She also pointed out that it’s called a “Nut Cake” for a reason!! Lesson learnt, I will always look at the menu in the future!

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Afternoon tea, it’s a piece of cake? 

Afternoon tea, that great British tradition. Decadent and glorious for a normal person, but a nightmare for Allergy Girl.

Let’s start with layer one; the sandwich. Easy, right? Two pieces of bread, some kind of spread and a filling, delicately cut into bite sized fingers. Wrong! The humble sandwich is one of Allergy Girl’s biggest nemeses.  The first hurdle is the bread itself. I don’t have a gluten allergy.  Bread makes me fat, but I like it. But many catering establishments look at my list of allergies and think, “She’s allergic to stuff, therefore she can’t eat gluten.” So I end up with this weird crumbly dry stuff that vaguely resembles bread but tastes like it’s made of plywood. Which leads me on to the next hurdle – spread. There are loads of good dairy free spreads available nowadays, so I struggle to understand why caterers find this one tricky.  Nineteen Fourteas tearoom in Havant, Hampshire, rose to the challenge and popped to the local Tesco before my recent visit. Problem solved.  So onto the final sandwich hurdle, the filling.  Sometimes it will be soggy slices of cucumber and nothing else (yuk). Usually ham or chicken. Sometimes chicken and bacon if I’m really lucky.  But not awe inspiring. 

The next layer of the afternoon tea stand is the scone.  Or as I sometimes call it the ‘none’ because there are none.   I once attended a slightly posh upmarket establishment in Chichester, West Sussex, which should have been a joy. I phoned in advance to discuss my allergies, and followed this up by email. They assured me that they would cater for me no problem, and that my afternoon tea experience would be as good as the other members of my party. When the ubiquitous cake stand came out, imagine my disappointment to see these lovely fluffy warm scones all around me, and an empty space where mine should be. I had foreseen that this might be the case and ran back to my car to collect the ‘back-up’ scones I’d dug out of my freezer. I then had to pay £25 for the pleasure of having catered for myself.  

The top (and most important) layer is the cake. What is afternoon tea without a massive slab of cake? Disappointing. Back to the upmarket establishment in Chichester, they obviously didn’t have the skill or inclination to attempt baking a cake, so cheated and bought a selection of sawdust and sugar otherwise known as a supermarket “Free From” range (back to thinking I’m coeliac).  That was the icing on the cake! 

I have sampled several afternoon teas in the quest to find an Allergy Girl friendly solution. My favourite was just last weekend. Lilly’s in Wickham Square did an outstanding job. Yes, there was the unspread ham sandwich, but the ham was beautiful (freshly sliced gammon ham with honey and mustard), the granary bread was hearty and delicious and a little pot of dairy free spread was provided so I spread my own sandwich.  The scone was heavenly. Still warm from the oven and a decent size. Topped with the dairy free spread and strawberry jam (from a twee little jar) it was delightful. Amazingly I still had room for the cake, which was a huge dairy and egg free chocolate cupcake topped with rich chocolate frosting. I was a very happy Allergy Girl.  

Nineteen Fourteas comes a very close second.  The tea room is quirky with its 1940s theme, and the owner Betty is simply fabulous.  The high tea comes with an added layer of crackers and cheese, and Betty bought in some dairy free cheese just for me! The vanilla cupcake was beautiful, and I enjoyed it the following day (as I was too stuffed to manage it). 

The Pavilion Tearoom at Stansted Park is a pretty good alternative, but you get a flapjack and fruit salad in place of the cake, which is better for my waistline but doesn’t really hit the spot.  I would also recommend Rhinefield House Hotel in the New Forest, for a beautiful location and refined menu. 

From my experience it helps to book afternoon tea well in advance and to follow up with an email. I always offer my basic sponge cake recipe, which only Betty has taken my up on so far. My basic sponge is easy and quick to make, doesn’t require many special ingredients and can be jazzed up with different flavours. See my recipes page for the recipe.