Sant Yago, Southsea

As I get older I find that organising a night out with friends is becoming more and more difficult. We no longer have the time that we once had. Children, work and other commitments invariably get in the way. So I was lucky to spend an evening last weekend with some of my favourite people.

After a long and somewhat bizarre WhatsApp group chat we eventually settled on a date and a cuisine that we fancied. Our faithful group leader booked a table at Sant Yago in Southsea, which is on the south coast on Portsea Island. Sant Yago is a tapas restaurant and cocktail bar, located in one of the trendier areas of Southsea. I love tapas, and having spent several years visiting family in Spain, I am quite comfortable with Spanish food and generally know what to avoid. Regardless, I also like to forewarn an establishment that feeding me can be a challenge, so I decided to contact Sant Yago well in advance of our visit.

I sent a message explaining my many allergies and asked if they had an allergy menu that they could send me. And that was that. I heard nothing more and then forgot to chase up a reply.

On the day, my friends asked if I’d managed to speak to the restaurant about my allergies, and when I told them I’d not had a reply we all thought the restaurant had not seen my message.

When we got to the restaurant we were welcomed to our table and while we were ordering drinks, the server asked who in the party had the allergies. I was gobsmacked. They had seen my message after all. Not only that, they’d written me a list of everything on the menu that I could have. Double gobsmacked!

The list was extremely helpful, but I was surprised that dishes were missing that I would expect to be ok. Bread, for example. Also, there was no chorizo on the list, which in my view is a staple tapas ingredient and Mr Allergy and I virtually live on it at home. The slow cooked rib meat was also missing from my special menu, which was rather disappointing as it sounded amazing.

The other disappointing thing was that the menu advertised on the website was not the menu being offered in the restaurant. Some dishes were still offered, but others had been swapped for new dishes. This meant no chorizo in pear cider, braised pig cheeks or venison stew. I’d particularly been looking forward to the chorizo in pear cider as I’d eaten it here once before and it was divine.

I spoke to the server about my list and questioned why some things were missing. The rib meat and chorizo and chicken skewers apparently contained dairy. Now I know that some chorizo recipes do contain a bit of milk, but on the whole it’s such a small amount that it wouldn’t hurt. The bread was bought in, so they couldn’t guarantee it didn’t contain nuts. I said that as long as nuts aren’t part of the recipe, I’m happy to eat it (otherwise I’d have to avoid most foods made in a factory or environment where there might be nuts), but they were really nervous and not willing to let me try. I’m pleased that they took my allergies seriously, as many establishments don’t, and I understand that they have to manage their risks as they see fit. The last thing they would want is to serve someone potentially fatal food. But when an item on a menu may contain an allergen because of the environment where it is made, and not because it is in the recipe, I think the choice should rest with the diner.

I also wondered if one of the dishes ought to have been on my list. The steak skewer says it is served with pesto, which usually contains nuts and dairy. There was another steak dish that I wanted to try, so I didn’t ask about the skewers, but I can only imagine they wouldn’t have served the pesto.

I chose the pork crackling, sweet potato stack, potatoes in tomato sauce, bavette steak and pork belly from my list to share with Mr Allergy. He also ordered the slow cooked rib meat, chicken and chorizo skewers and mixed bread for himself. When my dishes came out, they had been specially prepared, which is very reassuring.

I have to admit that I was a bit naughty and tried a bit of Mr Allergy’s bread with balsamic vinegar dip. It was a risk I was happy to take, and I was armed with two epipens which my Navy medic friend was prepared to use.

The food was very good, in particular the pork belly and sweet potato stack. My only criticism about the food is that it wasn’t overly Spanish; it seems to take the idea of small dishes from tapas but then diverts into different cuisines. The service was excellent; attentive, professional and very friendly. I would definitely recommend this restaurant. If I was looking for traditional Spanish food I’d go to Nicholson’s on Albert Road in Southsea, but otherwise I would be very happy to go back to Sant Yago. J

No bananas here

Last week I wrote about how to cope when you have allergies and a subsequent medical issue requires you to restrict your diet even further. This go me thinking what about when you have allergies, but you just really don’t like something that you’re not allergic to?

Sprouts and Marmite are the really obvious foods here. Some people really hate them, and that’s fine, people are entitled to not like something. I personally love them. But if your diet is already massively restricted because you’re allergic to major food groups, is it ok to refuse to eat something just because you don’t like it?

There are things I don’t particularly like: tomatoes, bananas, cucumber, ketchup/brown sauce, fatty bacon. I’m sure there are more. I don’t mind tomato based foods such as chilli or bolognese, but I won’t eat a raw tomato; the seeds are sloppy and the feeling when you bite through the skin makes my teeth feel funny. Likewise with bananas, I’ll eat banana flavoured things like banana cake or those squishy foam sweets you get in pick n mix, but an actual banana is horrid. The texture is just weird and claggy in your mouth. I’ll eat cucumber if it’s given to me, but I don’t like it, unless served in a duck wrap with hoisin sauce. I’ve never liked ketchups or the sauce you get in takeaway burgers, it’s just too sweet and covers up the flavour of the beef. And bacon fat should either be crispy and rendered down or cut off. Limp soggy bacon with stringy white fat is really unpleasant and it makes me gag just thinking about it.

When I go to a restaurant or cafe to eat I’m limited to maybe one or two things on a menu, but if those one or two things happen to include cherry tomatoes for example, is it right to ask for the dish without them? It makes for a very drawn-out conversation. First off I have to explain my allergies. Then I have to ask for the dish without the tomatoes. This confuses people, they ask if I’m allergic to them. I answer, no, I just don’t like them. Sometimes I’ve pretended I am allergic to them just to make things easier.

I think there is a perception that I’m a fussy eater, which I’m not. I love food, it’s just that certain foods don’t like me. The fact that there are a handful of foods that I don’t like doesn’t make me fussy. If I didn’t have the allergies I’d have many more options and would be able to make food choices like any other person.

While writing this blog it did make me wonder about people that choose a restricted diet such as a vegetarian or vegan diet, and restrict themselves further by not liking a particular food. Does this make them a fussy eater? No. They have a belief or health reason and are entitled to make those choices. What about someone who has a food phobia? I used to work with someone that only ate cheese and chips or cheese sandwiches. Some might say that’s fussy. I say it’s a psychological issue and out of their control.

My final thoughts on this are that, above all, people should have choice. We all need food to survive, but we spend our entire lives eating to survive and should be able to enjoy it, regardless of what allergies, beliefs or phobias we might have.

As always I’m interested to hear from readers that have experienced similar issues and how you deal with it. Please do leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Allergies and the restricted diet

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you’re allergic to several food groups, on an already limited diet, and for health reasons you’re told you have to cut even more food out? It happened to me in August 2018.

When I’m not working or writing about being allergic to everything, I’m singing. I sing in four choirs, with rehearsals up to four times a week. I also sing in pubs as part of a pop duo and as a solo act. So I need my voice. Around two years ago I started to experience problems with my voice. My voice was becoming strained and tired very easily and I would often lose it for no apparent reason. I then started to experience a sore throat. It would feel raw, like razor blades. When I lost my voice just before a big concert I decided enough was enough and I would see my doctor.

My doctor referred me to the ENT department at my local hospital, but when I hadn’t had an appointment for several weeks I called to find out there was an 8-1 week waiting list. With more concerts and cathedral visits coming up I couldn’t wait this long, so I booked an appointment with a private consultant. He talked through my symptoms and my eating habits then did a laryngoscopy, which is a camera that gets passed up your nostril and down the back of your throat. The camera showed that I had a very red larynx, which was a sign of silent acid reflux. It’s called ‘silent’ because there are no symptoms apart from a sore throat or strained voice. Thankfully there was nothing wrong with my vocal folds, but the acid reflux was causing my muscles in my throat to tense, which was causing a mid-glottal gap. When you use your voice, your vocal folds adduct and vibrate to produce sound. The thicker the folds on addiction, the lower the sound; the thinner the folds and the fast the vibration, the higher the sound. Because the tension was pulling at my vocal folds, they weren’t addicting correctly allowing air to get through and producing the strained voice. The gap also meant I was having to work harder to produce a sound, which was tiring in itself.

The consultant put me on a restricted diet for a month, in a bid to blitz the reflux problem and to get my throat back to a better condition. This meant no caffeine (or decaffeinated drinks), as caffeine is drying, no fizzy drinks and no wine (gulp). I also had to cut out/cut down on spicy foods, tomato based foods, peppers and raw red onion. Taking into account my allergies, this is pretty much everything I eat. I also had to cut down my portion size and eat small amounts of food more regularly. That part was easy; I switched to a side plate for my main meals, which means I can’t be tempted to over-eat as I can’t fit any more food on the plate.

With the exception of wine, drinks were fairly easy to change. I switched to red bush (rooibos) tea, which can be drunk with or without milk. It is completely caffeine free, has a pleasant taste and is available in the big supermarkets and some cafes. I completely cut out fizzy drinks, but do find I get the odd craving for a cold bottle of Pepsi Max every now and then. I drink a lot more water. I try to have a glass when I wake up and I carry a folding bottle wherever I go. I did cut out alcohol for the best part of a month, only allowing myself some at a music festival. Whenever I have a big concert or solo coming up I’ll avoid alcohol in the week leading up to it. I drink water in between glasses of wine, and I’ve reduced the amount I drink in one day.

The question of what to eat is much harder. Most of our meals are tomato or chilli based as these contain no dairy or eggs. My salads always have sliced raw onion in them. And peppers feature in most of our recipes. Tricky.

The first thing I did was go back to the millions of recipe books in my cupboard and look for recipes that we’ve made before and forgotten about. And there were lots of them. My favourite at the moment is a chicken, ham and broad bean risotto made with ham stock that we made ourselves. I’d forgotten how tasty it could be.

The next thing was to look at the tomato/chill/pepper based recipes to see what could be amended to meet the new diet. It was relatively easy to reduce the spiciness of otherwise spicy dishes using dried chilli flakes. I would just use fewer on my plate and Mr Allergy could add more. Simple. Cutting out tomato is virtually impossible. Nearly everything has chopped tomatoes in it. So instead of cutting it out completely we reduced the number of times we eat tomato based foods in a week and tried not to have too many in a row. This meant having salads (without red onion) or tray bakes. If I’m cooking ratatouille, I’ll leave the tomatoes out of my portion and just have the veg. I’ve found we’re becoming much more creative with the use of herbs and spices now that tomatoes and chilli are mostly out of the equation. I’m also not completely avoiding peppers, but as with tomato I limit the quantity and regularity.

An added complication is that I have to take protein pump inhibitors (PPIs) 30 minutes to an hour before I eat, which is tricky. In the morning the alarm goes off at 5:20am. I usually roll out of bed around 5:45am when I realise that my train is not going to be cancelled and I do have to go to London. I make it downstairs by about 6am, take my PPI, make my breakfast, eat my breakfast and run out the door at 6:20am to get the 6:35am train. When I get home at about 6pm on a Monday I have to dive in the shower, wolf down my dinner and run out to choir practice. Most days have something similar. So I’m usually taking my PPI just before I eat, meaning it’s not particularly effective. I also have to take Gaviscon Advance after every meal, which is easy when I’m at home and in the office. But where you’re out with company for dinner or at a conference for work, it’s embarrassing and inconvenient. And the bottles are huge and heavy to carry, meaning I can’t take a nice handbag as it won’t fit. Sometimes I’ll slip off to the loo to take it. If I’m with people I know well I’ll make a joke of it and have a swig from the bottle. But it’s a pain, and one I could do without.

I still have the odd problem. Eating out is particularly difficult. For example I went to a meal with friends at Zizzi. Before I went I’d planned what I was going to have; spiedini pollo. When I got there, Zizzi had other ideas as the spiedini pollo I usually had was no longer on the menu and had been replaced with one that I was now allergic to. In a panic too order something that wouldn’t kill me, I went with the rustica piccante pizza with dairy free mozzarella, which unfortunately contains tomato and lots of chilli and is huge! It was delicious, but far too spicy and there was far too much of it, and I should have stopped there. But there was dessert on the menu that I wasn’t allergic to, and my mantra is that if there is something on the menu that I can eat, I’ll have it. So I did. And I regretted it. My throat was sore and my voice was terrible for over a week.

I spoke to my voice therapist about it and she said that if I wanted to heal my voice I would need to be disciplined about my food. Which would be fine if I had a choice of what I can and can’t eat. But when I’m in a situation like Zizzi where the only thing on the the menu is something that contains tomato, chilli and peppers, what do I do? Not eat? Or do I just not go out to eat, so I can always prepare my own food. How miserable and boring would life be? What I’ve taken away from this experience is that if something contains chilli, I should probably ask for no chilli or fewer chillis to limit the heat. If the dish contains tomatoes, don’t eat tomatoes the next day. If the dish served to me is enough to feed a small third world country – you know where I’m going with this. I just have to be sensible. Sometimes I’m going to slip up. Last Saturday we went to our local Italian restaurant for Mr Allergy’s birthday and I ate more in three courses than I’d eaten over the previous seven days. But I didn’t have the spaghetti bolognese, instead I had the daily special calves liver and bacon, which was delicious and is something I wouldn’t cook at home so it made a real change. I had melon and prosciutto for starter (nothing bad there). And I shared dessert with my friend.

Acid reflux symptoms can ease over time, and I think I’m getting to that stage. However I do still need to manage my diet to stop it getting back to how it was, which is hard and upsetting at times. Singing means so much to me, so I know I need to look after my voice, but the added complication of my allergies does compound the situation. But at least I now have the tools in my toolbox to manage the problem to the best of my ability.

I’d be interested to hear from anyone else that has allergies and a restricted diet for health reasons, and how you manage it, so please leave me a comment.

Image attribution: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en

Allergy testing in 2019; what to expect and what not to do

I must start my post by apologising. I know I haven’t posted for quite a while as I’ve been busy studying for an exam and writing assignments. I’m still mid-study, but something happened to me yesterday that I want to write about, so I’m typing this while sat on the train home from an all day seminar.

Over the summer of 2018 I had two allergic reactions to unknown foods. They were pretty bad reactions, one of which left me with a swollen, puffy face and eyes for approximately 24 hours. It wasn’t a good look:

I’d not had a reaction like that for more than 10 years, so I decided it was time to see my GP about being re-tested.

My appointment day finally arrived yesterday. Mr Allergy battled his way through the rush hour traffic to get us to Southampton General Hospital for 9am. The traffic tried its best to thwart us, but at 8:58am he chucked me out of the car towards the West Wing entrance while he disappeared to find the elusive hospital parking space.

The night before the test I thought I’d better check the appointment letter to see where I had to go and find out how long it would take to get there. I also thought I ought to find out whether or not I needed to avoid any particular foods in advance of the test. What I hadn’t realised (and if I’d actually read the letter when it arrived, I would have known) is that you’re supposed to stop taking antihistamines 3-5 days before a skin test. I didn’t do this, so upon arrival at my appointment I had to own up and say I’d taken a tablet the day before.

I’ve had skin testing done before, over 10 years ago. I also would have been tested as a child, but I don’t remember this as I was too young. The test I remember was where the specialist tested different allergens on my skin. The results showed a very severe peanut allergy as well as allergies to dairy, egg, other types of nuts, fish, pollens and animal fur.

I couldn’t have a skin test this time because of the presence of antihistamine in my system. However, my specialist told me this wasn’t actually a problem. Apparently skin tests on people who had bad eczema as a child can give a false positive result, as the skin is naturally more sensitive. For results to be accurate they need to be read in conjunction with blood tests. Thus, I lost around 7-8 ampules of the red stuff to a friendly looking vampire in the phlebotomy department.

It was a fascinating appointment. Things have moved on considerably in the space of only a few years. I’m due to go back for some skin testing once my blood test results are in. I’ve also been referred to a nutritionist who can make sure I’m not missing anything vital in my diet. Once all of the tests are complete I may be put on a programme of introducing different foods, which both excites and scares the bejeezus out of me.

I also learnt that it is possible for a person to have an allergy to locusts (for the record I don’t think I’m allergic to them). Apparently it’s similar to a shellfish allergy and brings on hay fever-type symptoms. This came up in conversation as, in my bid to be allergen free, I have pet geckos; little did I know my pets’ food could cause allergic reactions. For clarification, it’s an airborne allergen, the allergy isn’t from eating the locusts, although I’m sure if you did feel a bit partial to a ‘hopper’ it might give your mouth a tingle. It does make me wonder what happens if/when insects become a main part of the human diet; will new food allergies appear?

The key thing I learnt is that the method of treating allergies now is very different from the methods in the early eighties when I was first diagnosed. The medical opinion back then was to avoid the allergens altogether with the hope you would grow out of it. Unfortunately for me, this means that I have never had the opportunity to desensitise from these allergens and I’ve grown into more allergies as I’ve got older. If I was diagnosed as a child now, they would expose me to the allergens to help build up an immunity. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, so I’ve got to work with how things are now, in the hope it might get a little bit better.

That’s all from me for now. Hopefully I’ll have some good news over the next 6-12 months, but I’ll keep you posted on how things go.

Quick and easy lunch idea

For a quick and easy, tasty lunch, try grilling a block of Violife Mediterranean Style Block (a dairy free Vegan halloumi substitute).

Cut the block in half, season with salt and pepper and serve in a toasted pitta with hummus, falafel and a handful of mixed salad leaves. Yummers!

A sundae on Saturday

I’ve. Just. Had. The. Best. Ice cream. EVER!

I’m staying in Cardiff at the moment, singing with a visiting choir at Llandaff Cathedral. In between services we have a bit of time to ourselves to see the sights and hit the shops. This weekend Mr Allergy joined me, so I Googled top things to do in Cardiff.

We started out with a walk to Cardiff Bay, which was blustery and a bit drizzly. We had hoped to look around Cardiff Castle, but it was really busy with groups of tourists. So instead of touring the castle I took us into Castle Arcade, which is opposite the castle.

The arcade is filled with quirky eateries and shops such as Magic and Mayhem, a shop dedicated to all things Harry Potter. Opposite Magic and Mayhem is something called Science Cream. This is an ice cream parlour, but not as you know it. The ice creams are all made using liquid nitrogen and are made to order.

The flavours are quirky and fun, and change from day to day. Best of all, they have a vegan ice cream which is made using coconut milk.

Today’s vegan ice cream was Parma Violet flavour, served with edible viola flowers, honeycomb and a purple berry sauce. After only a short wait, the ice cream sundae arrived and it looked amazing. I ordered a small, and it was huge! It was so pretty with the violas, I almost didn’t want to eat it.

Sometimes things that look good let you down on flavour but boy, that was not the case with this ice cream. It tasted just like the Parma Violet sweets I had as a child. The ice cream was silky and smooth, which is different to many coconut milk ice creams that tend to be a bit grainy. The berry sauce was slightly tart, which perfectly complemented the sweetness of the ice cream. The honeycomb pieces were an added stroke of genius, and added a lovely crunchy texture to the sundae.

Mr Allergy had the Chocolate and Peanut Butter Swirl sundae, which looked equally amazing, but was not very Allergy Girl-friendly!

Science Cream is a fantastic gem and I would highly recommend a visit for allergy sufferers and normals alike, as it produces top quality products with a touch of panache and theatre that you won’t find elsewhere. Next time I’m in Cardiff I look forward to trying a different flavour, or maybe I’ll try a Masterclass. In the meantime it has inspired me to get the ice cream maker out at home and have a crack at making my own. I wonder what a weird and wonderful flavours I’ll come up with?

Tried and tested: Livia’s Kitchen Raw Cookie Dough Nugglets

Shopping in my local Tesco I found this new treat from Livia’s Kitchen in the Free From section. Not one to pass new things by, I thought I’d give it a try. I really like the Salted Caramel Raw Millionaire Bites, so I had high hopes for these cookie dough Nugglets.

The serving is a good size for a not-too-naughty perk me up on the commute home, but there is quite a lot of sugar in the recipe (although from good sources including dates, maple syrup and coconut sugar). At £1.50 for 35g it’s quite expensive, but most Free From foods generally are.

The recipe is dairy, egg, nut and gluten free, however it is produced in a factory that handles nuts and eggs.

The packet was a little tricky to enter, as once I’d ripped at the indicated area, I was l left with only a small gap to get into.

Not wanting to let that deter me, I wiggled a finger in and expanded the opening. Having freed the Nugglets from their trapping it was time to taste. They’re a good bite-sized, chocolate-coated morsel, probably about Malteser size. The chocolate coating wasn’t entirely even and didn’t look quite as perfect as on the packaging, but it looked ok. I took a bite.

The filling is very sweet from the dates, with a hint of saltiness from the Himalayan Pink Salt. Although tasty, unfortunately the filling is rather dry and not as squishy as I was expecting from cookie dough – instead it was quite crumbly. On the packaging the chocolate is described as ‘velvety.’ I’ve had more velvety chocolate (Ombar, for example), but it wasn’t bad chocolate.

My verdict is that they’re ok. They’re not terrible, but neither are they my favourite. Will I buy them again? Probably not, especially if given the choice between these and the Millionaire’s Bites. I have a Chocolate Brownie flavour to try next, so watch this space for my next review!