Dietary Requirements (or a lunch debacle)

Conferences and seminars are in abundance at the moment it seems. You don’t get many for the first eight months of the year, and then all of a sudden they all come along from September to December.  

I love a good conference, seminar or training session.  I like learning. Apparently when I was a child and Mum asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I didn’t want to grow up, I wanted to keep learning. I also like visiting new places, meeting new people and catching up with familiar faces. However I also dread these events for the reason that is lunch. 

When booking my place I dutifully add my long list of allergies in the small space dedicated to “Dietary Requirements.”  I then follow up with an email saying something along the lines of “Can I just double check you’ve got my requirements….if the caterers need to check anything I’m happy to have a chat….and by the way I’m not vegetarian or vegan, I do eat meat. And I’m not allergic to gluten…..” You get the picture. 

Lunchtime comes and I’m never sure if I can eat the main dishes laid out for “normal people” or if I’ve got my own special plate somewhere. I’m immediately looking like a weirdo with people thinking I’m pushing into the food queue, when in reality I’m just checking.  I’ve learned not to just get in the queue and hope for the best, as by the time I get to the front and realise I can’t eat anything, lunch break has almost ended and my tummy is still empty!

Some caterers get it right. I attended a session at the Hilton Bankside last year and there were loads of dishes to choose from, each with an allergen label next to it. This was great because I could blend in with the other delegates and not cause a scene. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum I attended an event recently where the caterers are usually very good. I always get my own plate of food which is very nice-often some kind of salad with grilled chicken or beef.  Unfortunately they got it very wrong this time. The plate was labelled with my name and the list of allergens exactly as I had stated in the booking and email follow up: dairy, egg, nuts, fish and avocado. They had provided a choice of sandwiches filled with chicken and guess what? Mayonnaise.  Now, the last time I checked, mayonnaise was made with egg. Which I’m allergic to. As it says on the label stuck on the mayonnaise sandwiches!!!!

What ensued next was total embarrassment for me and the person I was talking to, who worked for the host company.  They apologised a lot and I told them not to worry a lot. It was all very British! 

What I dislike the most about this sort of scenario (which wasn’t the first and most definitely won’t be the last) is that discussion all becomes about me and my stupid allergies and not about the topics of the event, which in my opinion is the very reason for being there. 

Next week I’m off to another seminar, so I wonder what culinary joys will await me?

If any of my readers have any tips or suggestions on how to deal with these sorts of issues I would welcome your comments!

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You’re having a Giraffe!

It has always been a tradition for my kickboxing class to go for a cheeky Nando’s after class on a Wednesday. I’m not sure where this originated, but it’s quick and easy, and packs the protein needed after a workout.

In true tradition we met at Nando’s in Gunwharf Quays yesterday evening only to find that our group of thirteen couldn’t be seated together and there would be a wait of 45 minutes to an hour.  Why so busy, we thought, then it dawned on us that it’s half term.

We split up and trudged around every food establishment in Gunwharf looking for an available table. Just as we were about to settle for a few plastic tables in Burger King, Giraffe said they could fit us in.  They moved tables around and made space for us to sit as a group, which was no mean feat at such short notice. 

I’ve never eaten at Giraffe, but I knew that their philosophy was to serve food from around the world, so thought there must be something on the menu that’s Allergy Girl friendly. 

Not wanting to cause a fuss, I went onto their website and found their interactive allergy menu, which at a first glance looked good. It allowed me to tick the different allergens and would show the dishes that don’t contain those allergens. In theory……..

In practice it was just wrong. One of the items it said I could have was the Bao Buns, so I looked at these on the main menu. In small letters underneath the description of the dish it said “please be aware the buns are topped with peanuts.”  Now we had a problem.

By this point everyone was ordering and I still didn’t have a clue if I could eat anything on the menu, so I asked the waiter the question they all hate to be asked.  He brought the allergy menu over, took the rest of the orders and said he’d give me a few minutes to look at it.

The allergy menu was fairly standard looking.  It had a grid with the main allergens, and there was a tick in the box if it contained the allergen or “M” for might contain.  The only problem was the grid clearly didn’t fit the A4 paper it had  been printed on and half of each dish name was missing, meaning I had to guess what it was I was actually looking at. This took forever and I was getting fed up. 

I wasn’t convinced by the allergen information on the allergy menu either. For example, it told me there was no milk present in the chicken curry with naan bread, but as naan is usually made with butter or ghee I thought this was incorrect.

I eventually settled on a steak with sweet potato fries and a side salad, as you can’t go wrong with meat and veg. The steak was a little rarer than I’d normally have it, but it was delicious and I’d definitely have it cooked that way again. The salad of spinach, rocket and cucumber was nice and made a welcome change from the watery iceberg lettuce that often accompanies steak in chain restaurants.

I spoke to the waiter about the allergy menu, pointing out that the website didn’t work and that you couldn’t read the paper menu properly.  He said they were aware of the problems with the website and the paper menu was only a temporary solution while the website was being sorted. 

I personally think it’s not good enough.  It’s hard enough when you have an allergy trying to work out what you can and can’t eat. The information you’re given needs to be clear and accurate.  Allergies are not be taken lightly and one small error in allergen information could kill someone with a serious allergy.

Although the food was nice, I won’t be going back as Giraffe simply do not take their responsibilities towards customers with allergies seriously, and probably won’t until they find themselves trying to defend a compensation claim or prosecution.

Hidden in plain sight: The Trading House, Gresham St

I walk along Gresham St in the City of London every day to get to the tube. I’ve probably noticed the unobtrusive sign or the menu moderately displayed on the wall.  But I’ve never really ‘noticed’ it.  In my quest for Allergy Girl friendly lunches I looked at several menus for bars and restaurants in the vicinity and my fellow eaters and I decided to give The Trading House a go.


Upon arrival my first impression is that the venue is quite dark. And there’s a step down almost immediately when you enter, so take care, especially if it’s a bright sunny day outside. The deco is interesting; probably what you would call Art Deco, with lots of tropical looking plants and the odd taxidermy zebra head on the wall. The feel is of a comfortable safari lodge from the 1920s/30s.  The building itself is magnificent, but really you’d expect nothing less nestled in between the Guildhall, St Lawrence Jewry and the London Central Courts. 

Following the usual question, the waitress swiftly arrived with the allergy menu. This was an A4 grid listing all of the menu items down one edge, the 14 major allergens listed along the top and a dot in each square of the grid signified that the allergen was present in the dish. Simples! 

The rest of the group were having starters (and I wouldn’t usually at lunchtime), so I chose one of the dishes from the ‘Nibbles’ section, pork crackling.  On arrival it was no ordinary dry bowl of pork fat. The portion was pretty big for a ‘nibble’, but I wouldn’t complain. The crackling was still slightly warm and topped with sliced green and red chillis. Alongside was a little dish of apple sauce, which was delicious. I pigged my way through the bowl of crackling, which left little room for my main. I could imagine this dish would be perfect for an after work snack with a beer or glass of wine, and would be perfect for sharing. You could order a few of the little nibbles and pick at them throughout the evening.

Sticking with the picky things theme I decided on the deli board for my main. This was approximately £11 and you could choose any four items from a choice of vegetables, cold meat, cheese and warm dishes.  This comes with an individual fougasse bread (which I had to Google, it’s a traditional French bread). I went for the hommous, roasted red and yellow peppers, lamb meatballs and honey roasted ham. 

The fougasse bread was delicious, particularly when dunked in the fresh, garlicky hommous.  The peppers were slightly blackened and drizzled in olive oil, which was the perfect pair for the hommous.  The lamb meatballs were almost cold when they arrived but the staff quickly swapped them and were extremely apologetic.  They came in a tomato and bean sauce which had a nice smoky, spicy kick to offset the garlic and oil from the other two dishes. With hindsight the ham didn’t work with the rest of it, and olives or prosciutto probably would have been a better combination. 

Unfortunately there were no dishes on the dessert menu that were Allergy Girl friendly, they all featured milk or eggs. Had I had room in my tummy for more food I might have been disappointed but I couldn’t have fit any more food in if I’d tried.  I ordered a chai tea instead to finish off my meal, and it was the perfect finish. 

I would highly recommend this restaurant for people with allergies and I’m certainly looking forward to finding another excuse to visit. Perhaps next time I’ll go for one of the speciality kebabs or half roasted chicken. My only criticism is that the allergy menu isn’t currently available online. 

Cheat’s chicken and chorizo paella 

Ok, so this isn’t technically paella. For one, it isn’t cooked in a paella pan. It also doesn’t have any fish in it as that would make my face swell up and I’d stop breathing. So it’s more like paella rice and things. But all the same, it uses Spanish ingredients and flavours and goes brilliantly with a nice glass of Rioja (or two).

Serves 2

Ingredients 

1 skinless chicken breast, diced

1 red (bell) pepper, chopped

1 large white onion, diced

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1/2 chorizo ring, sliced

Approx 250g paella rice

Pinch saffron

1/2 pint Chicken stock

1 small tin chopped tomatoes or one large fresh tomato, chopped

2 teaspoons sweet/smoked paprika or pimienton 

1 teaspoon hot paprika or pimienton (optional)

2 bay leaves 

Handful Frozen peas

Method

  1. Heat oven to approx 200c (190c if fan assisted).
  2. In a wok or sauté pan, fry the chorizo on a medium-high heat until the fat starts to come out. You shouldn’t need to add any additional fat or oil but if you do, use a drizzle of olive oil.
  3. Next add your chicken and brown. 
  4. Add the pepper, onions and garlic and cook until softened. 
  5. While the veg is softening, add the bay leaves to the pan.  Make up your chicken stock and add the saffron strands into the stock. The saffron will release its flavour into the stock. 
  6. Now add the paella rice, and the paprika/pimienton and stir together, making sure the paprika coats all of the rice.
  7. Add the chopped tomatoes and the chicken stock and stir together. 
  8. Add the frozen peas. I’ve suggested a handful but you can add as many as you like. If you don’t like peas you could substitute these with chickpeas. 
  9. Reduce the heat and cook for approx 5 mins, stirring occasionally to stop it sticking. Once the liquid has begun to reduce, tip your paella into an ovenproof dish with a lid. 
  10. Cook for approx 20 mins in the oven with the lid on, until the rice is soft and the edges of your paella are going a little bit crispy. You may want to stir it halfway through to make sure all the rice is fully cooked.
  11. Remove the bay leaves (and don’t be tempted to lick them, I did this once and it wasn’t good!)
  12. Enjoy! 

This recipe is very versatile and you can change the quantities of the ingredients quite easily.  I sometimes like to mix up different chorizos in my paella to give different flavours. Our local Sainsbury’s sells sweet (dolce) and hot (picante) chorizo so I’ll often add a bit of each. My recipe only uses one chicken breast but you can add two if you want more protein. If I fancy a spicy paella (which isn’t the traditional flavour) I add more hot pimienton. You could also add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice before serving.